Thursday, June 14, 2007

That the Left Hand Might Know What the Right Hand is Doing: Reflections on Propers 6

I’ve been looking at Propers 6, the collect and lessons for this Third Sunday after Pentecost. Two sentences caught my attention.

From the Collect for Proper 6: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion;…”

Throughout the Episcopal Church this Sunday we will be asserting that there is an integral relationship between bold proclamation of the truth and compassionate justice, and that both are linked expressions of the steadfast faith and love of God. In these days, this is an important reflection. So much of the rhetoric around us for the past few years has assumed that the two are not so integrally linked. On the one hand are those who assert a commitment to truth and its bold proclamation, with that truth as the standard for determining justice. On the other hand are those who assert a commitment to justice that reflects compassion, with that justice as the measure of truth.

And yet this Sunday we will be making a claim that is subtly but significantly different. We will be claiming that the steadfast faith and love from God, reflected by grace in steadfast faith and love for God, are expressed in true justice, defined by compassion, boldly proclaimed. We will be praying to be kept by God in that sort of steadfast faith and love, to be empowered to express them in word (bold proclamation) and deed (ministering justice).

Jesus said not to let the left hand know what the right hand was doing as an image of humility in charity. He did not intend it as an image for our entire Christian practice. And yet we sometimes argue as if these two hands of one body, of our one Christian practice, were separable not only in behavior but also in authority. We can all too easily slip into emphasizing one to the detriment, if not the outright exclusion, of the other; but this Sunday we will claim and proclaim that they are as linked to one another as two hands.

From the Gospel: Luke 7:47: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Perhaps we could remember more clearly that bold proclamation of the truth of compassionate justice is one ministry if we more powerfully appreciated this Gospel passage. We know we need to identify with the woman; and yet we aren’t so ready to identify our sins with hers.

When I was in seminary I had a classmate who was a priest from Nigeria (goodness, how things have changed!). One day after class, he observed to the New Testament professor, “The problem with Americans is that they are not sufficiently conscious of their sins.” My response was, “No, that’s not true. We’re quite conscious of our sins. We have favorites!”

We do indeed have favorite sins, identified as those in our own lives that we are most ready to accept as forgiven. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the sins we are most likely to forgive in others, although that’s common. They are the sins that we think we and God have dealt with, and we’re sure they’re forgiven. Perhaps we think they’re behind us, so that we won’t fail again. Perhaps we think they’ve been forgiven before, and we trust they’ll be forgiven again. In any case, they are sins that we think are less important, more forgivable, than sins – even the same sins – in someone else.

I can’t imagine the Pharisee in the story was ignorant of his sins as he saw them. He was, after all, committed to following the Law in all its detail. We can also presume that he dealt with his sins as the Law required, making as best he could all the appointed sacrifices. His problem was not that he was not conscious of his own sins. It was just that he was more concerned about someone else’s; in this case, the sinful woman. He almost certainly had his favorite sins, and had procedures in place for dealing with them. That, I think, was why he felt the latitude to worry about the woman’s sins.

In confronting him, Jesus doesn’t challenge at first glance the Pharisee’s self-assessment. He doesn’t even challenge the Pharisee’s assessment of the sinful woman. Rather, he proclaims that God’s justice reflects God’s compassion. Her sins are forgiven, and she, who is also conscious of her sins, is grateful in proportion to just how much she knows she has to forgive. She has no assumption that her sins are “dealt with;” she needs the forgiveness she receives. The Pharisee, having dealt with his sins, having obtained through sacrifice the forgiveness promised and filed away those sins in process for the next opportunity to repent, does perhaps have little to be forgiven. But he moves from that position to discount those sins he does have, and to respond to the woman’s sins with more concern for a juridical than a compassionate sense of justice. He has his favorite sins, and his favorite ways for dealing with them. He has only contempt for hers. She is so concerned with her own sins that she thinks only of the forgiveness Jesus offers. She has no concern for the Pharisee’s sins at all.

The medieval spiritual tradition has shaped my own spiritual path. I continue to feel the effects of reading Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection. I continue to read regularly Benedict’s Rule, and Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that I am never far from the Kyrie Pantokrator, the canticle “A Song of Penitence” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I cannot go too far from the verse, “I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my wickedness only too well.” I have discovered over the years that reflecting on my own sins leaves me little time to reflect on those of others. I’m not claiming nobility here. I, too, continue to have my favorite sins, and my favorite ways of dealing with them. I do know my sins, and sometimes weep over them. Thinking of my own sins leaves me little time to worry about anyone else’s. Giving thanks for my own forgiveness leaves me little room to begrudge forgiveness to anyone else.

It seems to me quite important that steadfast faith in and love of God will lead us to proclaim boldly the truth of God’s compassionate justice. It seems to me sad, if all too human, when out of our own favorite sins we seem to divorce lives of compassionate justice from bold proclamation. It seems to me that if we concentrate on our own sins and our need for them to be forgiven – even those favorite sins closest to us – we will not have time to worry about others’ sins or to begrudge them forgiveness; but we will have a more powerful sense of God’s compassionate justice and greater authority out of which to proclaim that truth.

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