The 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.
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. 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.
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.