How Gospel forgiveness challenges our social order

Forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation are arguably at the very heart of our faith and what make us uniquely Christian. We are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus. Yet there has been little effort to reflect on what forgiveness and mercy would look like as political values.

- William O'Brien, America

Church people seem content to relegate forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation to spiritual or, at best, interpersonal matters, not to use them as raw materials for public policy.

Yet I can hardly imagine a riper domain or a better fit for faith-based social policy than the criminal justice system. Why, I wonder, would the church not raise its voice to advocate a system that is founded more on mercy and forgiveness than on punishment?

But in fact, many Americans who most fervently identify as Christians and promote Christian values in society are also among the most ardent “law and order” advocates, extremely tough on crime and opposed to any emphasis on rehabilitation. Perhaps at some level, we all intuit an unsettling truth: Radical forgiveness, as articulated and practiced by Jesus, might in fact be deeply threatening to the social order.

This notion has grown in me in part because of the famous story in the Gospel of Luke of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus (7:36<\a>50). This story has long had a deep emotional hold on me for reasons I do not fully understand. Each time I read it the story reveals new textures of meaning to me. It is a richly provocative story, but one often ignored in the pulpit and the pews.

The story appears to be linked to texts in other Gospels, but Luke’s telling offers very different details. It is a uniquely Lukan story, and it shares some powerful themes and motifs with other Gospel tales found only in Luke, like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

We are told, simply, that Jesus was at supper at the home of a Pharisee whose name, we eventually learn, is Simon. The sparse details are enough for us to know that this is not a simple church potluck. Simon appears to be a person of some social status and privilege, certainly recognized as a person of religious importance. He is hosting a formal dinner party.

Luke reports that Jesus “took his place,” a loaded detail signifying what the New Testament scholars tell us are the cultural and social dynamics inherent in such a gathering: proper protocols, seating arrangements, rituals and sundry assumptions that undergird proprietary roles and relations. It is the very kind of “party” that Jesus—who must have attended several of them—will later address with a scathingly deconstructive agenda (Lk 14:1<\a>24), precisely because he understands the potency of socially defined and regulated table fellowship.

FULL STORY Revolutionary mercy

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