Forgiveness Means Telling the Truth in Love
Among all the people whom Jesus calls, there is one group who truly embody what it might mean to be friends of Jesus: the family in Bethany – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus clearly and compassionately naming for Martha the fix she has gotten herself into one day, when the duties of hosting Jesus’ followers become too much for her:
Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
When I read this passage, I always imagine Jesus speaking with great tenderness to Martha when he says her name twice over. Perhaps he even embraces her as he says aloud what he sees happening: “you are worried and distracted by many things.”
• Jesus doesn’t berate Martha. He simply describes what he sees happening, and says that Mary – far from shirking her duties – has actually made a better decision about how to spend her time.
• Jesus is offering Martha the freedom to sit and listen, rather than anxiously continue her service to the group who have descended upon her house.
• Truth-telling, in love, has this kind of freedom and community well-being as its goal.
• By repeating Martha’s name, Jesus’ sets his truth-telling within a framework of gentleness, mutual friendship, and love.
In the second passage for today, we see Mary and Martha pointedly telling Jesus the truth as they see it, trusting in the enduring power of their friendship even when their words are sharp.
• Their brother, Lazarus, has grown deathly ill, and they have sent to Jesus to come quickly to care for him.
• Jesus lingers where he is, and doesn’t come immediately.
• In the mean time, Lazarus dies, and is buried in the family’s rock tomb in
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11:17-22).
Martha and Jesus converse; Martha returns to the house; and Mary goes
out to speak with Jesus. I have highlighted in the two passages, above and
below, the sharp and identical statements spoken, first by Martha, and
then by Mary, to Jesus.
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved (John 11:28-33).
Martha and Mary speak the truth of their convictions: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
• Their statement expresses both the sisters’ faith in Jesus as healer and
their disappointment that he did not come to them before Lazarus’
• You may want to read all of John 11, as it is one of the most important
and memorable stories of the Gospels (though recounted only in John).
But today, our focus is only on the trusting friendship between Jesus and
this family in Bethany.
• As friends, the sisters trust that they can tell Jesus the truth, without
sugar-coating it. To hide what they are feeling would be to create a
separation between them and the Teacher they love (11:28).
• Their trust and plain-spoken words set a high standard for Christian
community as a place where people do not need to couch every
statement in sweetness in order to be listened to, loved, and respected.
As reconcilers, disciples of Jesus aim to tell the truth straightforwardly and
lovingly, with the goals of setting others free and creating authentic
community in which people can be known, respected, and loved as they truly are. Where the world would often counsel us to “be nice,” the Gospel
encourages us to tell the truth in love, and to abide with one another all the
way through forgiveness and reconciliation.
Questions for Reflection
• Is it possible to have authentic community without truth-telling?
• What habits and customs make it difficult for people to tell the truth?
• How would we need to cultivate our communities and churches in order for people to feel safe in telling the truth as they see it?
• Is there a time in your life when you very much wanted to tell the truth
about something, but ultimately shied away from it? What have you
thought of that incident in the time since then?
Loving God, you have taught us that the truth will set us free, and yet truthtelling can be risky in our world. Teach me how to tell the truth in love, to temper my words with your graciousness, and to have as my goal only the well-being of all. This I pray in the Name of Jesus, who both taught and lived the truth. Amen.