Psalm 51 shows up twice in this year’s cycle of lectionary readings, beginning with Ash Wednesday and now for the fifth Sunday in Lent Year B. This psalm is the cry of one full of pathos over actions that have damaged his relationship with God. Traditionally attributed to David in the aftermath of his adultery with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her soldier husband, this prayer reveals how painful and how promising the voyage of confession and forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is a costly and difficult matter, a “shattering experience,” in the words of H. R. Mackintosh, both for the one who offers it and the one who receives it. In this season, I believe it is helpful to view the cross as a creative act of forgiveness. It is no mere legal pardon, as an analysis of the New Testament concept of “justification” indicates; rather it is a “healing of relationship” that requires movement on the part of God and estranged humans.
The incarnation is the story of God’s nearness to humanity, made after our likeness. By experiencing all the extremities of alienation and suffering, Jesus immerses God fully in the human fabric, drawing forth compassion and willingness to forgive. The practice of forgiveness is the very heart of God, and we see it in the cross as God participates in the utter abandonment of death. The death of Christ is not the necessary condition for forgiveness, however. Human sin does not have to be “made up for” before God can forgive, as much popular thinking about the death of Christ asserts. The biblical narrative of redemption—which is the whole of Holy Scripture—discloses God as Forgiver to be on a “pilgrimage of love” (Daniel Day Williams), searching for those who deny their relationship with God and thereby relinquish their human dignity. Jesus loved to tell stories of the searching God; the shepherd with the lost sheep, the woman with the lost coin, or the father with the lost son.
The great challenge is to believe we are forgiven. “Free of charge,” the title of a book by Miroslav Volf, is not language we understand. We live in a transactional world with debts and loans and payments. Thus we need the courage “to accept that we are accepted,” in the memorable words of Paul Tillich. God has taken the consequences of our actions upon God’s own self, and this self-giving love invites, indeed moves us toward repentance. Repentance is not payment, but an expression of trust in the One who can restore joy and “sustain . . . a willing spirit” (v. 12).
Receiving forgiveness may be the hardest spiritual practice of all. Yet it alone displaces brokenness with wholeness. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.
Molly T. Marshall
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