Sunday, June 16, 2013

Putting Ourselves in the Picture (11.C)

I started my first high-tech diet last week. It’s like nothing I’ve tried before—I weigh-in with a wireless scales, a gizmo on my belt tracks my exercise, and I record everything I eat on my iPhone. I’m enjoying this new weight loss program—it’s working and it’s kind of fun. My only problem is that when I type in what I’m having for dinner I look like a teenager texting at the table.

Of course any diet has its drawbacks.  When I started to meditate on the dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, my first question was “I wonder what they’re having for dinner?”

You know, that’s not as silly as it sounds. One of the best ways of praying is to put ourselves in the scene when reading the Bible, especially the Gospels. We picture ourselves walking or talking—or eating—with Jesus. We can put ourselves in the place of one of the participants, one of those to whom our Lord is talking. We can see and hear him speaking to us, and we can speak with him.

This method of prayer is often called lectio divina—sacred reading—and there are helpful guides to it in the internet.* But it’s not much different from the approach St. Ignatius teaches in his Spiritual Exercises, where he speaks of a “visible contemplation or meditation.” He invites the retreatant to see a place with the mind’s eye and to use the imagination to experience what’s happening there as a starting point for prayer. Ignatius even suggests we use our five senses to enter more fully into the scene we’re contemplating.

So perhaps my reaction to the Gospel today isn’t as funny as it sounds. Perhaps it would be good to wonder what’s on the menu at Simon’s house, to listen to the buzz of conversation, and to sit down at the table with Jesus.

Through whose eyes should we view the scene—Simon’s?  The woman with the alabaster jar? A servant standing at the kitchen door?

Any of those perspectives could open our hearts and minds to the message of today’s Gospel. I could picture myself at the feet of Jesus, expressing my sorrow and receiving his love in return. Or I could hear the stinging rebuke Jesus gave to Simon as if he were speaking directly to me.

But as I thought about how to put myself in the picture, I went in an entirely different direction. Instead of joining Jesus at the table, I put myself in the parable—I decided to be one of the debtors. Prayer, of course, is always flexible, and we can use the method of lectio divina or St. Ignatius just as easily with a parable as we can with an actual event.

So I left the house of Simon the Pharisee, and travelled in prayer into the presence of a certain creditor, a money-lender who was dealing with two overdue loans. One borrower owed big money: a year and a half’s wages for a labourer. The other had a more manageable debt, ten per cent of the other debtor’s loan.
Which deadbeat am I? Was I forgiven a huge debt, or a modest one?

I’m not going to tell you! But just asking the question is a powerful prayer.  Some of us may have done something terribly wrong in our lives; we may have caused grave harm to ourselves or someone we love. God’s forgiveness of our sin puts us right in the shoes of the man who owed five hundred days wages.

Some of us may have lived pretty good lives; we haven’t betrayed anyone, committed crimes, or turned away from God.  We’re pretty sure that only a small debt has been cancelled for us. But is that something to brag about? In the first place, Jesus tells us that those who have been forgiven more find it easier to love more.

As we stand in front of the generous money-lender (and “generous money lender” is pretty much an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms to speak of a generous money-lender at the time of Jesus: better we should imagine a loan shark) we might ask whether it really matters which debtor we imagine ourselves to be.
There’s not much difference whether you owe 500 denarii or 50 if you can’t pay. The result’s not much different. Bankruptcy is bankruptcy, and debtor’s prison is debtor’s prison.

To know our debt has been cancelled—to experience the mercy that this parable is all about—leads us to love the Lord like that weeping woman. The amount is a detail, but it’s not the whole story.

The fact is, “We all need five hundred days’ wages worth of forgiveness, but we may be blind to our sinfulness” or to proud to admit we cannot pay our debt. “And then we are chained by our guilt, which keeps us from the freedom of love.” [Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 952]

Breaking that chain can be as simple as taking today’s Gospel reading to prayer, and letting our prayer lead us to the feet of Jesus in his sacrament of reconciliation. For it’s not only in our mind’s eye that we can hear him speaking to us, and that we can speak with him.
 * The American Bible Society has a weekly lectio on the Sunday readings prepared by a priest from Spain. The Carmelites offer a daily lection on their website.  I am sure there are others.

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