ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 2 Sam 12:7-10, 13 Gal 2:16, 19-21 Lk 7:36-8:3 – Mercy and Love over Correctness and Smugness
Woman in the Life of Christ; Faith vs. Legal Observance; Mercy vs. Smugness; Putting Yourself Right with God.
Today’s portion of St Luke’s Gospel contains a story that is one of the world’s most touching and infinitely tender. It is the story of Jesus’ forgiveness of a “bad” woman. A Pharisee named Simon had invited Jesus to dinner (v. 36). Why, we don’t know. Likely as not, it was simply because Simon had heard of Jesus, thought it might be interesting to have a celebrity in his house, and asked him to come; this would explain Simon’s combination of respect and discourtesy. Jesus accepted the invitation.
A sinful woman in the city (v. 37) heard of the dinner and invited herself. Her crashing the party was easy, in view of the custom that when a rabbi was at a meal as a guest anyone was free to come and listen to him. What could she have looked like? Well, they say that an artist can look at a pretty girl and see the woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is and force the viewer to see the pretty girl used to be. More than that, that lovely young girl is still alive, imprisoned inside the old woman’s ruined body. Jesus was, at the least, a great artist.
The woman was attracted to come either because she had had some contact with Jesus in his wanderings, or simply because she liked what she had heard of him. In writing of her, Luke is very delicate. He mentions neither her name nor what her sins were. She was probably either a prostitute or married to an outcast like a tax-collector. It is obvious that most people don’t like tax collectors even today.
What may be less obvious is that most people still don’t like prostitutes. In the United States, the highest arrest figures aren’t for murder, robbery, or rape, but for prostitution. A third of all female prisoners are incarcerated for prostitution. In many cases, prostitutes were seriously abused as Children sexually and in other ways by their fathers. Rape of prostitutes is rarely reported, investigated, prosecuted, or taken seriously. In one study, female prostitutes reported being raped an average of 16 times annually by their pimps and 33 times a year by their clients. Many times street prostitutes are robbed, harassed, beaten, and murdered – in ancient times as now, living at all times on dangerous ground. The system largely ignores the role of men who hire prostitutes.
Most people suspect that this woman’s sins were of the sort that we are embarrassed to admit in confession, but love to read in the “tell all” autobiographies of media stars. She had going against her not only the prohibition against close female contact with men outside the home; she had the added handicap of being known as a sinner. So, although she had been brave enough to come, she stood behind Jesus at his feet as he reclined at table (v.38), where he couldn’t see her right away.
Like other Jewish woman, she wore around her neck an expensive vital of perfume. She intended to anoint his feet with it. As she stooped to do so, she was so overcome with emotion that she unexpectedly burst into tears. She hadn’t foreseen this outburst, and she spontaneously loosened her hair and wipe and kissed his feet repeatedly before anointing them.
Though it all, the host Simon was silently condemning Jesus for not being prophet enough to perceive the known character of the woman (v. 39). Jesus proved himself to be a prophet by reading Simon’s secret thoughts. In answer to Simon’s thoughts (v. 40), Jesus presented a rabbi-like case study about two men who owed money, one a great deal and the other less (v. 41). The creditor wrote off both debts (v. 42). When Jesus asked Simon which of them will love the creditor more, one can almost feel the insolent coldness in Simon’s answer: “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven” (v.43).
Then Jesus showed Simon for what he was. Jesus’ phrases about expected courtesy (vv. 44-46) beautifully portrayed the Oriental etiquette of the time. When a guest entered a house, he could expect the host to show certain marks of respect. The host was to place his hands on his guest’s shoulder and wish him shalom, the most-prized gift of peace. Another duty of hospitality was to cleanse and comfort the guest’s feet with cool water after the dust of the dirt roads had penetrated his sandals. And the host could be expected to place a few drops of attar of roses on the guest’s head. Simon, probably thinking Jesus a country bumpkin, and being unmindful that courtesy, like bravery, is saved through being spent, had fulfilled none of these duties.
The woman made up for it. And, as in Jesus’ case study, her many sins were forgiven, whereupon she showed great love (v. 47). The tables had turned. It was now Jesus who was inviting Simon. We aren’t told Simon’s response. The friend of sinners then said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50).
Through the contrasts between the woman and Simon, Jesus enables us to see her superiority over the Pharisee. She expressed the love that stems from repentance, whereas Simon’s pride prevented him from even acknowledging his sinfulness. Her self-giving attitude was in stark contrast to the devout Simon’s calculated reserved. But the major contrast between them was that Simon wasn’t conscious of any personal need, therefore felt no love, and so couldn’t receive forgiveness; the woman was conscious of nothing but her need, therefore was overwhelmed with love, especially for one who understood, and so was forgiven. The one thing that shuts us off from God is self-sufficiency; a sense of need will open us to God, who is love.
After this incident, the synagogues were no longer as open to Jesus as they had once been, so he preached as he wandered. And, as he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news (8:1), he accepted the help not only of the Twelve Apostles, but of many women. And, as with the Apostles, the women were startlingly different from one another (v. 2f.). Luke’s Gospel is noted for his attention to the underprivileged, outcasts, sinners, and women. Jewish society of the time had little regard for any of them, non-Jewish society even less. When we consider that women couldn’t be disciples of a rabbi, and were thought incapable of understanding the Mosaic Law, the dignity that Jesus assigned them is amazing.
From the lowly sinful woman today’s liturgy takes us to a sinful king – David who, though mighty in earthly power, received no special treatment from God. The first Testament painted this great as well as his faithfulness to God. David, softened by success and affluence, was captivated by the beauty of Bathsheba and committed adultery with her. Learning that he had gotten her pregnant, David sent for her husband Uriah, hoping Uriah would sleep with her and thus eliminate suspicion from David. David’s plan failed. David, from whom violence was never far, had Uriah killed, and he married Bathsheba, who bore him a son. David’s intoxication by prosperity had led him to forget the God Who gave him prosperity, and to adultery and murder.
It is only natural that one who is wronged should ask, “How could you do this me, after all I have done for you?” and that is what God said, through His prophet Nathan, to David (v.7f). God had chosen and anointed David as king, reserved him from being killed by Saul, given him Saul’s house and wives in accord with custom, presented him with a united kingdom, and done still more (v. 8). Counterbalancing God’s goodness to David was David’s terrible sin (v. 10). Nathan, like Jesus, told a story to illustrate how important taking responsibility for sin is as a first step on the road to repentance. David would up sincerely sorry (v. 13). And so he was forgiven.
St Paul, to put himself right with God in the same way that David and the sinful woman had, had been trying with all the intensity of his dynamic personality to be correct in his observance of the Mosaic Law. His attempt failed, which left an ever deeper sense of frustration and helplessness. It isn’t through mere correct legal observance (v. 16) that a person is put right with God, “but through faith in Jesus Christ’ – that attitude by which a person accepts the divine revelation made known through Jesus and responds to I with complete dedication (v. 19).
Therefore, Paul valued only the new condition received from Jesus, who is the source of holiness (v. 20). Faith in Jesus reshapes one internally, supplying not just a new psychological make-up, but a new principle of life in the very core of one’s being. So in Paul Jesus proved to be more powerful than the Mosaic Law. The Law is an external set of rules; Jesus is a living presence, doing what the Law could do – changing a person from within. Jesus’ indwelling reshapes one’s life, and must eventually penetrate one’s psychological awareness as well. Our being right with God, therefore, doesn’t come from any law, but from the sacrifice of Christ. To say otherwise is to nullify the grace of God (v. 21).
What is the key to forgiveness? Like King David and the woman in the Gospel, it’s taking responsibility for our evil and being sorry for it. We need to see and understand our situation before we can change. If we’ve observed the law to an extent that we’ve become smug like Simon the Pharisee, we need to recognize that when the Pharisee inside us suppresses the sinner who also lurks there, we need to throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus, wash them with the tears of our responsibility, and beg forgiveness.