Today's post is from Scott Whisler, friend and sojourner.
A meditation on Luke 7:36-50
In our passage from Luke Chapter 7, Jesus employs the passive voice to great effect:
“…her many sins have been forgiven.”
“Your sins are forgiven.”
This might have been acceptable in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and it seems to be thrown about with impunity in New Testament Greek, but just in case you haven’t heard, in English speaking circles, there is and has been an ongoing war against the passive voice for some time. The commanding voices of Field Marshalls Strunk and White have long led the charge: “Use the active voice.”[i] Likely any who have dared submit their writing to editorial review by experts in linguistic nitpicking (e.g., junior high English teachers, college composition professors, any fellow student with a red pencil) will carry scars from this conflict.
Like most wars, this is a silly war. It would seem that the origins of the conflict over the passive voice have been lost to the ages, although some blame George Orwell who, even while he militated against it, was blithely firing it from his own cannons.[ii]
Me, I love me some passive voice for its proper uses. For the speaker or writer, the beauty of the passive voice is that a happening to a person or thing may be described when either (1) we don't care to identify the instigator (the person or thing making the thing happen) or (2) when we don't have that information. Of course, for the hearer or reader, this is also the problem: we are informed of a happening and to what or to whom it has occurred, but we are left then always with the questions, "Yes but who did it?" or "What caused this to occur?"
The classic objection to the passive voice is that it sounds evasive and, in truth, it often is, e.g., “Mistakes were made.” Both politicians and fifth-graders seem to prefer this formulation even though it tends to drive the professional journalists and parents a little nutty. Strunk and White warred against the passive voice for this very reason. To their way of thinking, an expression in active voice was “usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” In this view, “direct and vigorous” is equated with “truth” whereas “passive” is equated with, “She’s hiding something. Why is she lying?”
Yea, verily, “direction” and “vigor” are nice when you can get them. Sometimes, though, “things happen” and that’s all that you can really say about it. You simply don’t have all of the information that might be desired. You are short on specifics, on evidence, on hard facts, sometimes because you haven’t looked hard enough, but also sometimes because the specifics just aren’t available. Or maybe don’t exist?
As a rule, we tend not to like this lack of specifics. We prefer “effects” to have their “causes” available for review and I mean right now, Mister, much like the officers of the law who expect us to produce licenses and registrations when we are called upon to do so.
In Luke Chapter 7, Jesus comments on something as weighty as “the forgiveness of sin” with this breezy failure to specify how such a thing happens. “Sins have been forgiven,” he says.
In effect, grace happens.
Wait…what? How? Who did it? When did that happen? Was it just now? Or, like, a long time ago?
Here’s the story:
While Jesus and his Pharisee host named Simon and other invited guests were sitting around Simon’s table in discussion, an unwelcome woman entered the scene with an alabaster bottle. As the men folk attempted to carry on their conversation, the woman stood behind Jesus and began to weep. Then she bent to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying his feet with her hair, finally soothing his feet with the expensive ointment from her bottle.
Simon wondered to himself why Jesus would allow an unclean woman—a “sinner”—to touch him so.
And, you know, sometimes guys just want some space for a little “man talk” without all the blabbering and hair wringing, for crying out loud.
To Simon’s wonderment, Jesus seemed not the least bothered by the display. So Jesus engaged Simon’s thoughts.
“Simon, I have a word for you.”
“I’m listening, Teacher.”
“Imagine a man who had two debtors, one who owed him a little bit, and one who owed him a heck of a lot. Neither debtor could pay their debts, so the man cancelled both debts. Now: which of the debtors would you think will love the man more?”
“I would guess that the debtor with the greater debt would be more thankful for the cancellation,” Simon answered.
“You are correct, Sir,” Jesus replied. “Now look at this woman here, Simon.”
“I am sitting here under your roof, at your table as your guest, and you did not give me water to wash my feet. And then here she comes, bathing my feet with her tears and drying my feet with her hair.”
“In fact, when I came to your door, you offered me no kiss in greeting, and ever since she showed up she has not stopped kissing my feet.”
“Right, I can see that.”
“Did you anoint my head with oil?”
“Answer: no. She, on the other hand, brought her own soothing ointment for my feet. Can you see that?”
“Look, Simon, point is this: Yes, she had the much larger debt, which has been cancelled, and thus you see here this immense expression of love.”
“On the other hand,” Jesus said, “from the guy with little to be thankful for, it seems you get only a little love.”
And then, while perhaps the steam issued from Simon’s ears, Jesus turned to the woman and said: “Your signs have been forgiven.”
Of course, Simon and his buddies really had something to talk about after that. “Who does this guy think he is? Now he is forgiving sins?”
And then, in a remarkable turn, in a brilliant turn, in perhaps the greatest coup de grace, Jesus turns the passive expression into an active one, saying to the woman:
“Your faith has saved you. Now go live in peace.”
WHAT?!! Her faith?! What faith is that?
Wait!! What about the rules, the law of sin and death? What about confession? What about repenting, feeling bad, a little guilt, would that kill you? What about keeping the commandments, the wages of sin, the lust of the flesh, falling short, evil thoughts, selfishness, that thing with my neighbor’s wife? What about baptism, confirmation, membership?
Are you telling me faith, just faith, naked plain old faith, can just fix all of that?
It’s like nobody sees it coming.
Perhaps some of us wish we could unsee it.
Most of the time we want the answers to the big questions in a direct, vigorous declaratory statement. For the big stuff, an indirect expression of the state of affairs just does not satisfy our need to know. So we whine a little about the passive voice. It’s evasive. Why not just say what you mean?
And then we get the news: direct, active, clear, simple.
We have been forgiven.
Our faith has already saved us.
The people with the big debts seem to get it and, great balls of fire, if they sometimes don’t get all kissy and crying and stuff.
Sure, the people with little debts might get a little happy, but mostly they don’t get it. For them, the big demonstration of exuberance might not make much sense. They want to argue with it, deny it, put it on the table and cut it open and kill it so they can study it and argue about it some more.
How can her faith have saved her?
Whatever happened to sin?
Was she saved before she had faith or because she had faith?
When precisely did this happen?
How can she know it happened?
Good questions, all of them. For whatever reason, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time drawing these lines and boxes for us. His message was both pretty murky and pretty fabulous.
Your sins have been forgiven. Passive voice.
Forgiveness happens. Or it has happened.
To the intellectually inclined, this passive construction and its lack of precision is possibly a little unsatisfying.
To those with big debts, though, there isn’t anything passive about it.
[i] Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (4th Ed. 2000, p. 18) One admits that S&W’s discussion thereafter is slightly more nuanced on the issue, but nevertheless it is this declaration that leads the section that is remembered and employed by those who would flog others for their sins.
[ii] See G. Pullum’s Language Log, July 18, 2006: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003366.html