Love and forgiveness

(I pressed the wrong button on the audio recorder, so there is no mp3 file of this homily.)
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: June 16, 2013
2 Sam 12:7-10, 13; Ps 32; Gal 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36–8:3

In the middle of Luke chapter 7, our Lord Jesus was speaking to a crowd about John the Baptist—a crowd that included some Pharisees. And he said that, whereas they reacted differently to John, they accused Jesus of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (7:34)  And what then follows immediately in Luke is this story about Jesus being at a dinner, and this contrast as he interacts with a Pharisee and a sinner.

The Pharisee is named Simon, and he had invited Jesus to dine with him. Since Simon was a Pharisee, we can be sure that he wanted to know God’s law and to follow it carefully, and that he exerted a lot of energy toward that. And it seems that he had been impressed by Jesus and had wondered if he was a prophet—and he decided to try to get a closer look. But we notice that everything about him is distant, cold, and critical. From his thoughts about Jesus, it is clear that Simon thought that anyone who did not follow God’s law and was sinful needed to be kept at a distance; and Jesus himself he was judging and evaluating, and finding him lacking. Indeed, strangely, although he had invited Jesus to dinner, he had treated him very rudely. Whereas the social customs of the time called for him to have a servant wash the dust of the road off of Jesus’ feet, and to anoint his head with oil, and to give him a kiss of greeting, he had done none of these things. Everything about Simon seems to be standoffish and rude.

In contrast, we have this other figure, a woman of the city. Now, we should note that this incident is different from another story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet that is told in the other three Gospels. That incident took place just days before Jesus would suffer and die on the cross; whereas this story in Luke happens much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. In that other story, the Gospel of John (12:1-8) identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and it takes place in Bethany, near Jerusalem. This story probably takes place in Galilee, and we don’t know anything about this woman except that she was a sinner—that is, that she was publicly known to be someone who did not keep God’s commandments. And while it could be that it was the commandments about sexual morality that she didn’t keep, it could instead have been other commandments—such as keeping the Sabbath and religious festivals, or following the laws of ritual purity.

Why was she there? The commentators tell us that the houses of the time were constructed in such a way that someone else in the town could have easily entered and been present in the room where the dinner was held. But why had she come? It is easy to assume that she had come because she was filled with sorrow for her sins and was seeking forgiveness. But it could have been otherwise. Her weeping seems like it could have been a spontaneous act that she had not anticipated. And even the anointing could have been spontaneous, not planned, since a reference in one of the Talmud documents suggests that it may have been very common for Jewish women of the time to always wear on a chain around their necks a small sealed alabaster vial of ointment. It may be that she, like so many others, had heard of Jesus, of his teachings and actions and miracles; maybe she had even seen him or met him before; and, hearing that he was in town, she wanted to see and hear him again.

And so what did she see? Perhaps she witnessed Simon’s rude treatment of him when he arrived. Certainly she could see his dirty, unwashed feet as he reclined at table during dinner. And surely she knew, as we do, what it is like to suffer social snubbing and lack of love, and she felt for him; and yet she saw that there he was in the midst of it, still loving those around him. What she saw then was an early version of the crucifixion: she saw his suffering, his voluntary suffering for her and others; she saw his love and forgiveness in the midst of it; and she responded with love.

Love and forgiveness go together, we hear our Lord Jesus explain. Hearing of his love had drawn this woman to him; then seeing his love and suffering in person had moved her to love. It had melted something within her, so that she responded in sorrow for her sins—and for Simon’s. It poured out of her in her tears, her wiping with her hair, her kisses, her anointing; it opened her in faith; it opened her to his forgiveness; and we can be sure that that forgiveness only increased her love, to overflowing.

And so let me pose four quick questions to you:

  1. Do you love Jesus? I don’t mean, do you “love” him in some vague religious sense of the word, because you know those commandments about loving God. Really, do you love him?
  2. Does Jesus love you? Does he really love you? Do you know it; are you sure of it?
  3. Have you committed serious sins that you know that you needed to be forgiven for? Again, not just something you know goes against some commandment but you think is small and really doesn’t matter. Have you done things that you know were seriously wrong?
  4. Has Jesus forgiven you? Do you know that he has forgiven you?

To those four questions, Simon the Pharisee would have said “no”: in him there was no love given, no love received, no sense of any need for forgiveness. Everything was at a distance, separated, cold, checking off requirements. Whereas the woman who was a sinner would have said, yes, absolutely yes, to all four questions. And I think that is the way it goes: either we give four no’s or four yeses; either we are disconnected and cold like Simon the Pharisee, or we are alive and in love like the forgiven sinful woman.

But we can change. Our Lord wanted to draw Simon the Pharisee into receiving and giving his love; and who knows what may have happened in his life after this little Gospel story ends. We do know that another Pharisee, St. Paul, changed profoundly after he met Christ on the road to Damascus; and we hear his passionate words in the second reading:

the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me… it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me

And our Lord has drawn near to you in so many ways, including in this Mass, seeking always to open you more to love. Even though he may have suffered snubs and rejections from you, and certainly from those around you, still he has done so willingly, loving you, giving himself up for you. Gaze upon his love; let it melt you, let it open you, let it enkindle in you love for love.

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