Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for June, 2013

Forgiveness is Everything

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

payitforwardThe movie Pay it Forward is about a young boy named Trevor McKinney [played by Haley Joel Osment]. Trevor is troubled by his mother’s alcoholism and is afraid of his abusive and absent father. But something happens in school that changes his life and the lives of many others. One of his teachers, Mr. Simonet [played by Kevin Spacey], gives his social studies class an intriguing assignment. The homework: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor takes it seriously. He comes up with the idea of paying it forward—in other words, he will do a good deed for 3 people in need. Each person who is the recipient of his good deed must pay it forward three times to three new people. Trevor’s idea and his own attempts to pay it forward cause a revolution in his mother’s life [played by Helen Hunt] and the lives of many others.

In the clip you are about to see, Trevor’s mom Arlene seeks out her homeless, alcoholic mother, Grace [played by Angie Dickinson]. Arlene actually struggles with alcoholism herself and of course has experienced the abuse of Trevor’s estranged father. She blames her mom, though, for all that has happened to her. The two of them have been separated for years. Trevor does not even know his grandmother. But Arlene is inspired by her son’s idea to pay it forward and she decides to follow his example. She must help someone who cannot help herself. Here is Helen Hunt and Angie Dickinson, mother and daughter.

We are walking through Luke’s Gospel again, and yet another healing story, but this time, a healing that we often overlook. A forgiveness story, but a healing nonetheless. We are in the house of Simon. This story is found in the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, too, but those two Gospels place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right before he was killed. But here in Luke, it is at the beginning of his ministry. In Mark and Matthew we know the place—it is Bethany. Luke is not so concerned with that fact, but Luke’s version of the story is double the length of the other two Gospels. Let’s take a look at Mark’s version of the story [which is almost identical to Matthew’s]:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.[1]

I have mentioned before that each Gospel, when they present the same story, presents a different view of that story. This does not mean that the story become less valid or ambiguous. We do this all the time. Ask long-time friends or life partners about experiences they have had together. Each friend or partner will tell the same story, but from their perspective. Is their perspective of the story less valid? No. The Gospels are like this. They each tell the same story, but with different perspectives.

Luke tends to focus on reaching a larger audience—namely those who do not identify as Jewish. He also focuses a lot on those who are often overlooked and not heard from. In this case, he focuses on women. The story begins with a meal in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. Luke uses the word “Pharisee” three times, just in case we miss it. Why? Because Luke’s Gospel tends to downplay the role of Pharisees in Jesus’ death.

Who were the Pharisees? Great question.
In the scope of Jewish history, the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought within Judaism. There are even some scholars who believe that Jesus was a Pharisee. Paul, an author many letters in the New Testament, was indeed a Pharisee. Look, it is all about perspective, so I will say this. Today in 2013 as we look at Gospel passages with added historical and cultural insights, we are starting to see that the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” they are often portrayed as in our interpretations of Gospel stories.

From my point of view, I see that Jesus tried to include the Pharisees in much of his teaching and ministry. And I think this is part of the healing forgiveness offered to many sides in this story.

The setting is a dinner at the house of Simon. Now people of this time and of the Greco-Roman culture were used to dinners that included discussion of issues and sometimes even a lively debate.[2] Contrary to how we prefer for politics or religion to stay out of our Thanksgiving or other holiday meals—people in Jesus’ time embraced it. But the dinner is interrupted by an unexpected character—a woman from the city, called a sinner. She crashes the dinner party, an alabaster box full of perfume in hand. To Simon and the Pharisees, she is unclean. Her mere presence has ruined everything in a lovely evening.

But this woman, called sinner, stands behind Jesus, crying her eyes out. Thanks for the details, Luke.

The woman stand behind Jesus–as if she were following him.

She cries so much in fact that her tears drip on Jesus’ feet. So as she wipes her tears, she anoints Jesus with perfume. In the Greek language, the verb used here for crying, kissing, and anointing is ongoing—meaning that this woman repeatedly cried, wiped Jesus’ feet, and anointed him.

So beautiful, isn’t it? We cannot imagine anyone actually disapproving of such a thing, right?

But the Pharisee speaks up and even criticizes Jesus. How could this so-called prophet not know that this woman was a sinner? In classic Jesus fashion, he tells Simon a story—a parable.

A man lends money to two other guys. One guy owes 500 and the other only 50. Eventually, they are both down on their luck. But the lender forgives the loan, surprisingly. So, Jesus asks Simon: which guy is more grateful to be out of debt? Simon answers with the obvious response: the guy who owed the most. Jesus then addresses Simon by his name, showing respect. And Simon seems open to a new teaching.

Teacher, speak.

No longer fitting nicely into the category of Pharisee, Simon is listening.

But just then, when everything seems to be just right, Jesus shocks everyone with a question.

Do you see this woman?

Do you see this woman?

Remember, Jesus was in Simon’s house. Simon was the host. Did Simon put water on Jesus’ feet? Did he give him a kiss? Did he anoint him with oil? No. But the woman, the one Simon called a sinner, most certainly did.

For this reason, I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, because she loved much.

Jesus turned to the woman. Not only was she not a sinner now, she had already been forgiven. Her loving actions, performed in front of Pharisees and Jesus, were an expression of forgiveness received.


In life, we tend to believe that forgiveness is granted only to those who do something amazing to deserve it. We tend to think that we are forgiven if we are somehow better people or if we have more faith. But Jesus contradicts this. People are forgiven before they blink—before they have a chance to pray or before they show their faith. They only have to recognize forgiveness–accept it, and live it. And then their gratitude shines through.

In this story, and in our story, forgiveness is healing. It is restoration. Someone who feels that he/she owes something in life is released from that debt. Debts of any kind in relationships can be forgiven. Forgiveness is about releasing another person from the guilt of some past injury or harm that he/she has caused.

Forgiveness also restores your own self. When you feel guilty, like you owe people things—maybe you start to feel that you owe society, or your family, or the church, or even God things. This becomes your life. You are in debt. Guilt fills you. It traps you. You cannot move forward.

Simon teaches us this. He cannot admit that he himself needs forgiveness. That is why he does not accept the woman’s gratitude. That is why he cannot see her. She is an instrument of God’s grace and Simon calls her sinner.

Friends, forgiveness is not earned.

Any debt that we feel we owe God is already forgiven.

Mercy is mercy for a reason—so we don’t elevate ourselves above others.

And we are called to apply this to our relationships. Forgiveness is everything.

Admittedly, there are people in our lives who are hard to forgive. There are some we do not see, because we do not want for them to be forgiven. The hurt is real and the debt hovers over us. But I wonder, what if we chose to forgive? What if we forgave debts? How would that transform our relationships? Our communities? Our churches? For when we forgive, we not only forgive the person, we claim forgiveness for ourselves.

We should not take this lightly. We should not underestimate the worth of forgiveness.

It is powerful.

It is healing.

And friends–it is possible. Amen.

[1] MARK 14:3-8, RSV.

[2] Reader’s Guide to Meals, Food and Table Fellowship in the New Testament, Jerome H. Neyrey, University of Notre Dame.


Remembering to Heal

Luke 7:11-17

fisherKingIn 1991 Terry Gilliam wrote and directed a movie called The Fisher King. I actually did not see it until later on when I was older, but when I did, I was mesmerized by it. The Fisher King tells the story of Jack Lucas (played by actor Jeff Bridges), a cynical, arrogant talk radio host, who becomes depressed after his insensitive comments on-air during his show inspire a depressed caller to commit multiple murders at a popular Manhattan bar. Three years later, Jack is at the end of his rope. He decides he does not want to live any more. But just as he tries to end it all, he is mistaken for a homeless person and is attacked by thugs in the street. But, he is rescued by a homeless man named Parry (played by Robin Williams). Parry is a man on a mission to find the Holy Grail, and tries to convince Jack to help him.

Of course, Jack thinks that Parry is crazy. The Holy Grail? But the more Jack talks with Parry and gets to know him, he realizes that Parry acts the way he does for a reason. Parry saw his wife die in front of him. As a result, he lives almost as if he’s asleep–in a catatonic state. He is continually haunted by an imaginary Red Knight, who appears whenever Parry starts to regain confidence in who he really is. Parry seeks after the Holy Grail, because he believes that this legendary cup of Jesus actually exists in the Upper East Side of New York City. He convinces himself that if he finds it, he will be healed, forgiven, and freed.

Eventually, Jack, the former star of radio, decides to help Parry. So he looks for this imaginary “Holy Grail.” Jack goes to great lengths to scale and break into a “castle” of a rich man to retrieve the Grail, which is actually just a monogrammed cup. In the scene you are about to see, Jack brings the Grail to Parry who is in the hospital after going into a coma from a catatonic episode.

Parry woke up when he held the cup [the Holy Grail] in his hands. Because of Jack’s willingness to bring that cup to him, Parry was able to face his past. He missed his wife.

 I really miss her, Jack. Is that okay? Can I miss her now? Thank you.

In that moment, Parry was healed; and so was Jack.

Two individuals, so different from each other, met on the journey of life, and both were healed in the process.

We are in Luke’s Gospel once again, and we are talking about healing once again. As I have mentioned before, Luke is a great storyteller and was a storyteller for those who did not identify as being Jewish. Luke’s Gospel seeks to include a variety of people in the story and message. Right before this healing story is the tale of a centurion [a Roman soldier] asking Jesus to heal his own servant. Now, we have Jesus encountering a woman who is a widow, and her son is sick. Notice I said that Jesus encountered her. She did not come to him.

The widow was from a town. Nain was the name of the place. It was a Galilean town, not too far from Nazareth.

NainKeep in mind that widows like her, along with orphans and strangers, were a particularly vulnerable group of people in this time and place. The widow of Nain, without a son, had no economic support and lived on the outskirts of society. And yet, even though she was marginalized [which means she was often overlooked], Jesus saw her. This is an important point in the story.

Jesus saw her.

Then, after seeing her, Jesus has compassion for her. He shows empathy for her situation. Finally, he engages her in conversation. And what he speaks are the same words used for Jesus’ own resurrection—raise up. The widow’s son was healed. She was healed. And I would argue also that the community was healed.

But none of this actually happens unless Jesus goes to Nain, not unless he sees her, not unless he empathizes with her situation, not unless he speaks a healing word to her and her son. Jesus only met the widow of Nain because he left his own town; he also left the comfort of the synagogue and went out.

He went to her, discovered her need, didn’t judge that need, and brought healing into her life.

This is typical Jesus, is it not? He was a GO-TO person.

I would venture a guess that most people in the world do not want to be preached to, but certainly want to be ministered to. One huge mistake we often make in our churches is that we think we have to preach to people—telling them how they ought to believe or what they should believe. But how often do we go to people, out into the community to find out what people need?

I see a lot of come-to churches. We put up a steeple, a cross, a building, create flashy programs, and then expect the people to come to us. I want you to imagine something, if you can. What if Jesus and his early followers would have acted in this way? What if they never went to Capernaum, Rome, Samaria, or Greece and they just stayed in their fishing villages and towns? What if they just waited for people to come to them? How different would the stories of the Gospels be? How different would Jesus’ ministry have been?  They never would have encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman who reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak, or the Roman soldier [centurion] whose servant was sick, or the widow with the son in need of healing. They would have been come-to people.

Jesus called his followers out of this come-to world and into a go-to existence.

For us, in the workplace it means that you don’t try to proselytize people or convert them, but instead you listen to people with holy ears. And you see them, you empathize with them, and you speak a healing word to them. Maybe you offer a prayer, but with no strings attached. A prayer for whatever they need.

At school…you see those other students without friends who are bullied or considering hurting themselves… you see them, empathize with them, and speak a healing word to them by standing with them when they need you and helping them feel that they are not alone.

In our families, we don’t wait for the estranged person to come to us because of our pride or past hurts. Instead, we go to them and see them, and show compassion, and then we speak a healing word to them.

Maybe it’s just:  I’m sorry.

Maybe it’s just: I love you.

Maybe it’s just:  The past is the past.

Maybe:  It’s not your fault.

Friends, let us not forget what we are really supposed to be about. We need to remember. We cannot forget to go to our communities as agents of healing. Communities of faith, churches, don’t exist just so that people have another place to visit or so we can gather with people of like mind. Churches exist to minister to the community—to address the needs of people. We exist to forgive, to love, to show compassion, to see those who are ignored and left out. We exist to help and to heal. We are not come-to communities of faith.

We are go-to communities. That is who we are.

Jesus the great healer meets people on their journey and walks with them. The Spirit of this Jesus walks with us. We are met and offered healing as we need it. But it’s hard to recognize that if we are not out in the community as agents of healing ourselves. You see, friends, if you are out there seeing people, empathizing with them, and then speaking a healing word—you will be so focused on that good work that you will start to heal yourself. This is the mysterious and wonderful truth of it. This is the only reason to have churches. We are both healing agents and recipients of healing.

Healing can happen, friends. It can. But we will need to commit to walking with others in our community long-term, being with them as they are, seeing and accepting them for who they are. We’ll need to ask questions: what does our community need? How can we speak healing to them? And in that walking, seeing, and empathizing, we remember to heal ourselves.

And this healing is good news! Amen.


Healing from Every Angle

Luke 7:1-10

Two weeks ago I was asked to be a part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Disparities in Health Care Symposium. My role was to find members of particular religious traditions who had medical experience to participate in a panel. The symposium’s purpose was to educate medical students about minority health disparities in cancer treatment and also Spirituality and Health matters for religious minorities. In other words, what is the role of spirituality in health care, especially for minority groups? How can doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners partner with faith-based organizations to improve health outcomes for people? I worked on the questions for the panelists with members of Jefferson Health faculty. I spoke with the panelists. I sat with the nurses, students, and doctors. I heard the presentation of the main speaker, Mr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. I learned about the various cancer statistics and how certain communities have less access to quality care.

But the morning didn’t get really interesting until the panelists started to talk about faith and healing. One of the panelists, Dr. Rehana Jan, a Muslim woman, shared how in her faith community’s tradition, a chaplain or a priest/pastor is not part of the equation. When someone is sick or in the hospital, the Muslim community goes to that person. She shared a story about being in the hospital on her shift and hearing a question from one of her doctor colleagues. “There must be someone really, really important in that particular room. There are crowds of people spilling out of the room over there.” Dr. Jan laughed. “Well, that person is not a celebrity. He is a Muslim, though. And his community is there to be with him, to pray with him. That is what we do.”

Another panelist, Dr. Gity Etemad, who is of the Baha’i faith, shared that in her tradition, when a person is sick or hospitalized, the Bahai’s get to work praying. One calls another. Then another calls someone else. And so on. It is not all that formal, but it just happens. She shared a story of a Baha’i man who knew that he was at the end of his earthly life. He called his friends in the faith community and asked them to stay with him during his last days. Each day, and most of the hours of each day, a different person went to sit with him. And they prayed. That is what he wanted. He passed away with members of his faith community at his side.

Those present at the symposium were energized. The medical students asked surprising questions related to faith, prayer, healing, and partnerships between doctors, nurses, and people of faith. By the end of the morning, it was obvious to me that people were truly wondering: what role does faith play in medical care and healing?

Today’s story in Luke’s gospel—a tale about a Roman soldier, a sick servant, and Jesus’ absentee healing power—is a treasure-filled narrative full of surprises. It comes right after Jesus gives his famous sermon on the mount. This story has characters we need to examine more closely.

First, the Centurion. What’s a centurion? Well, a centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman Empire’s army. A centurion could command up to 100 soldiers. In the first century, centurions were part of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee. They were the oppressors. And yet, this centurion shares the spotlight with Jesus of Nazareth.

Look, it gets even stranger…

This centurion, who is used to ordering people around, tells some Judean elders to find Jesus. Apparently, one of the centurion’s slaves is very sick and needs healing. Shockingly, the elders go to Jesus without hesitation and actually beg Jesus to help the centurion’s slave.

He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.

This centurion seems to be somewhat smart. First of all, he knows that he himself cannot approach Jesus to ask for the healing. That would be too dangerous. A Roman soldier begging a Jewish rabbi to heal a servant? But the centurion also was familiar with Jewish faith practices in the home. He understood that inviting Jesus, a Jew, into his Gentile home would be considered unclean.

But it keeps getting stranger. The centurion stops Jesus before he gets to the house. He says:

Do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.

Humility from a centurion?

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

But only speak the word.

The centurion then goes on to compare himself to Jesus. He as a Roman officer has authority over other soldiers. They jump when he says jump, they come and go as he tells them to. Jesus, to the centurion, had the same authority, though not as it pertained to orders.

The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal.

And the surprising finish to the story is Jesus’ reaction to this Roman.

Jesus was amazed.

He turned to the crowd following him and said:

Not even in Israel have I found such faith.

And oh, by the way, just in case we have forgotten, the slave did heal.

There is so much to explore in this story. First, the Gospel of Luke’s audience. We must keep in mind that Luke is aimed at Gentiles, or in other words, those who were not Jewish. The authors of Luke seek to show that the message Jesus taught was a message also meant for Gentiles. This Gospel wishes to illustrate, via the stories, that the Gentiles [and Jews] who followed Jesus were actually now Roman citizens trying to make their way in the world without more violence. Luke is a collection of Greco-Roman stories for Greco-Roman people. They received Jesus’ message in a way that would have made sense to them. They would have understood the connection between Jesus having authority from God and the centurion having authority from Rome.

Luke is exposing this society to us. A centurion, clearly someone of high social status, an oppressor in an oppressive empire, is an unexpected character. After all, this guy has slaves. Yes, that’s right–slaves. We don’t like to say that word, but the silent [very important] character in the story is indeed a slave. Though we are reading about the Greco-Roman world of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel, Palestine, and Greece—it is impossible to ignore our own context. In the United States, slavery is part of our horrific past. Today, though we don’t use the word slave to describe individuals, this horrible kind of oppression still exists.

There are still many people in this country who are treated as inferior to others—they are manipulated, underpaid or never paid for hard work; they are bought and sold; they are often abused. Sadly, in our society, some still believe that certain human beings are superior to others. Some believe that God favors people over others. Some are oppressors and some are slaves.

This is a sickness of society.

Luke’s story takes us to that difficult place and pushes us. The Jesus we follow is the one who transcended such manipulative and oppressive social norms. He was the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors; he hung out with the outcasts; he touched unclean people who were sick or even dead; he said that the last would be first. Jesus served the God who loosens the chains of those in bondage and rains down justice on those who are downtrodden. The God of great mercy and compassion, working through this Jesus of Nazareth, set free the minds and hearts of those who were enslaved by many things: disease, addiction, depression, mental illness, religious oppression, and brokenness. In fact, this same Gospel of Luke has Jesus say that he comes “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed.”[1]

So why does this centurion, someone who is an oppressor, amaze Jesus with his faith?

Maybe because the centurion also acted beyond social norms. He considered himself unworthy before Jesus, even when others called him worthy. In short, Luke challenges us all to not judge a book by its cover.

Maybe this miracle healing is about more than just a sick person getting better. Maybe this is about healing sickness in society, restoring healthy relationships, and embracing the full humanity of every person.

If you ask me, Jesus’ reaction to the centurion is much like his reaction to a sick, bleeding woman in another story—the one who reaches out to touch his cloak and is healed. You see, if we consider the Greek language in Luke, the text literally says that Jesus marveled at the centurion. Actually, this type of emotional response is very similar to the emotions expressed by other people when Jesus heals someone. This time, though, the tables are turned. Jesus himself marvels at the work of God in another. And that other happens to be a Roman soldier.

This story speaks to me and says:

Healing comes from all angles.

You see, we all have our ideas about how we heal. It’s not an easy thing to define, is it? Some people die of an illness at a young age. My sister-in-law died of cancer in her early thirties. Was there no centurion of great faith to heal her? Did Jesus choose not to pass by her house? There are others who suffer from addictions and need just as much healing. Their struggle is day to day. It never ends. Who believes in their ability to heal? Is it a lack of faith that keeps them from overcoming it?

I certainly don’t have the answers. But I do think that healing is bigger than how we define it. I think that there are people who are healed every day—mentally, physically, spiritually—because someone believed that they could heal and surrounded them with love and care. Because of those kind and patient people, they started to believe that they could heal, too. I’ve stood at deathbeds and watched people pass from this earth. No, their illness didn’t go away. But some of them were healed from other sicknesses. Sometimes they reunited with estranged family members or long-lost friends. Sometimes grownup children forgave past hurts and restored their relationship. Their bodies were overcome by disease, but they were still healed.

In every case, healing comes from all angles. God shows up when and where we don’t expect God at all. And then we are amazed. God shows up in the people who stand by us when we’re sick and in need of healing. God shows up on the day we choose to be sober and all the days we count after that. God shows up in the forgiveness in our families; God heals us from a tattered past and reminds us that every day when we open our eyes we have yet another chance to heal ourselves and to heal others.

God points us to this centurion and says:

You know all those times when you want to give up because you start to believe that lie that you are not capable of change, of love, of compassion, of breaking the cycle, of rising above social status?

Well, it is possible for you, too.

You can heal.

You can help others to heal.

You can marvel at a merciful God who doesn’t ever play favorites.

Healing from all angles—no matter where you are on your journey.


[1] (Luke 4:18;cp. Isaiah 61:1).

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