I’m Right, You’re Wrong
A husband and wife were arguing. Finally the husband asks, “Why do you keep bringing up all my past mistakes? I thought you had forgiven and forgotten them a long time ago.” The wife responds, “I have forgiven and forgotten,” she says, “I just want to make sure that you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.” Forgiveness is a tough thing to grasp, especially when it is so easy to find faults in one another, when it is so easy to bring up mistakes of the past that we have all committed at some time or another.
It is an inescapable fact of life that we will find faults in others before we find fault in ourselves. Whenever we do something wrong we know why we have done it. We attribute our behaviors to our situations; if we are rude to someone we can claim that it is because we are overtired or are in pain, if we are late to someplace we can say it was because of this reason or that reason. When we see faults in others however we are more likely to attribute it to some problem with their personality or some personal fault of their own. We attribute our problems to our situations and other peoples problems to their personalities.
Psychologists have a term for this, they call it a self affirming bias. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt but are unwilling to pass that on to others. The more casual the relationship, the less you really know the other person, the worse it gets. Friends may get the benefit of the doubt at times, but how willing are we to extend that benefit to the cashier at the store who taken two minutes to do what should have only taken thirty seconds, or the commuter who pulls right in front of us as we are driving home. How often are we willing to judge their behaviors as fairly as we judge our own?
The reason for this is because we know ourselves. We know all the little things that influence us each day. We know when we have been up for too long, or when we have a splitting headache, or when we are just so overwhelmed that we cannot think about our own problems let alone the problems of others. We know ourselves, but how well are we willing to know another.
The reading from 2 Samuel today perfectly illustrates this point. David can recognize the error in the way of another but cannot recognize it in himself. David, who has more wives and concubines than he probably knew what to do with, sends a man into battle and takes his wife for himself when that man is killed. I’m sure David could have justified this action to just about anyone if they had asked. David knows his motivations, therefore no matter how horrible his actions may seem he is able to justify them because he had a good reason.
For those who do not know, this little escapade of David’s may be one of the more scandalous things that happens in the kings life. Essentially while the leader of David’s military, Uriah, is away fighting a war, David gets romantically involved with his wife Bathsheba. Bathsheba gets pregnant in the course of their relationship leaving them with a problem because at some point Uriah will come back from the war and find out what has been going on.
David cooks up a little scheme to solve his problem. He orders Uriah’s men to get Uriah onto the front line of the battle and then withdraw from him so that he will be killed. Simply put, David gets Uriah killed so that he can continue on his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. There is just one thing David doesn’t take into account, God is watching him. God, who gave the kingship to David, watches as the king plots Uriah’s death just so that he can have Bathsheba.
God doesn’t come down and tell David that he was wrong however, God finds a way to make David realize that he was wrong. This is where the whole thing with the self affirming bias comes in. David is told a story that makes the king upset, David defends the poor man over the rich man, clearly seeing who was at fault. David fell into the trap, he clearly sees the error in another, but failed to see it in himself. David surely had his reasons for doing what he did, but he does not extend that same benefit of the doubt to others.
God’s punishment in this case is swift, if seemingly harsh, but in the end David and Bathsheba live on together. The entire affair even comes to a close when Bathsheba again gets pregnant by David and bears another child. This second child of David and Bathsheba’s union is named Solomon, a name that would spread throughout the lands and down through time as a wise and effective ruler. God’s justice may have been taken on David, but in the end God’s forgiveness gives David an heir that he can be proud of.
The forgiveness of sins is the theme of the reading from Luke, but it is also about the same self affirming bias. The woman with the alabaster jar is a very common image, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee however doesn’t get much attention, even as the story moves away from him and to the other guests around the table. But the Pharisee has fallen into the same trap that David fell into, he has recognized the sins of another without acknowledging his own.
Can any person truly claim that they have lived a perfect life? Can any person make the claim that they are better than another based on their actions? We often know so little about all the people we meet, yet we are ready to judge them based on nothing more than the actions we have observed them taking. Can the Pharisee claim that the woman is sinful because of what he has seen, may not the same actions be justified if their positions were reversed?
The woman with the alabaster jar has seen her faults and she knows that they are many. She has done something truly amazing, she has seen fault not in others but in herself. She is not going around making claims that other people who follow Jesus are sinners. How easy it would be to go around and point out all the sins of Jesus’ followers. The woman could have entered the house after watching the Pharisee and the disciples for a day and begin to rattle off all the things they had done wrong, all the little sins they had committed along the way, instead though she sees her own faults and is thankful for the forgiveness.
It would be wonderful to be like this woman. I have a book at home and the title is perfect here, Yes Lord I have Sinned, But I have Several Excellent Excuses. The book is about how we have become a culture so ready to excuse our wrongdoings, rather than taking any blame for our actions. This is not what we are called to do, we are not called to excuse our blame only to find it in others, we are called to accept our faults, the great many faults that we have, and seek forgiveness for them.
When we look too closely at the faults of another we cannot see the faults in ourselves. David could not see the fault in himself, but he could easily see it in the other. Jesus taught that the woman’s faith had saved her, she who had sinned greatly but was willing to accept that burden was forgiven while the others who had sinned little were not ready to accept their burden. The sin of the other is obvious, but not as obvious as our own sins. It isn’t until we can recognize the sins in ourselves that we can truly forgive the sins of the other.
Forgiveness is a kind of love. I am reminded of words penned by Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of a friend or a foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is truly the final form of love. God’s forgiveness is the final form of love we have from the divine. When we err, divine love takes the form of forgiveness, even if we don’t at first recognize our errors. For each other too, to truly show love is to truly forgive. We must forgive if we are to love one another with our whole hearts.
Whenever the next time comes that we are ready to judge another’s faults, let us first question what faults they would see in us. Would they see the same person we see when we look in the mirror, would they give us the same benefit of the doubt we would give ourselves? Would we want to be judge by others without even having the chance to defend ourselves, or are we ready to break out and give others the benefit of the doubt. Are we ready to show that we are Christians by our love, are we ready to show it by our forgiveness.
May the love of God surround us. May every fault we have, every sin we have committed, be brought into the light not as a mark against us but as a reminder that we are not perfect, that we have faults that need to be forgiven just as our neighbors have faults that need to be forgiven. Lord, forgive us always and everywhere so that we may learn not about the error of our ways, but of the love of your ways, Amen.