11th Sunday 2013 C
The prophet Nathan went to David, firstly, not with a verbal condemnation, but with a story. Since it was a parable, David was not on his guard as he listened to the tale. This passage precedes the one we hear today.
There were two men. One was rich and the other poor. The rich man, despite the great number of his abundant flock, gave to a traveling visitor, not one of his own sheep, but the prized single lamb of his poor neighbor.
David was outraged at the story. He demanded that the offender give restitution or even be put to death. Only then did the prophet tell him that the story was about himself. And only then was David able to see his crime against his friend Uriah, whom he had murdered, and his wife Bathsheba, whom he had taken as his own.
King David in the first reading and the woman who anointed Jesus in the Gospel have much in common. During their search for love, they committed many sins, hurting themselves and others; they also broke relationship with their God. One sin often begets another. King David took Bathsheba for himself, and then, in a vain effort to cover up that sin, committed murder. The woman in the Gospel was well-known as a “sinful woman.” Such notoriety usually follows someone who has publicly flaunted God’s laws numerous times.
The gospel story is too strange not to have happened! A very embarrassing encounter. Jesus was at a private dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Simon had dishonored Jesus by showing none of the usual courtesies due a guest in that culture. It was an insulting welcome.
As dinner proceeded, an unknown woman walked right in without asking and took up a place right behind Jesus. Still worse, she began weeping. She “began to bathe his feet with her tears.” Then she actually dried them with her hair. Then she took out a lovely ornamented flask of perfume which shows that this was a pre-mediated act, not just a spontaneous gesture. She spread ointment upon his feet, with repeated kisses. She was out of control!
It is worth noticing that, while she is anointing his feet, Jesus is doing nothing; he is simply a passive recipient of her action. Doing nothing in these circumstances at Simon’s dinner party must take a considerable effort of will on Jesus’ part. She is, after all, making Jesus the centerpiece in a spectacle that causes the onlookers at the party to cringe. It is a very intimate public expression of love. An embrace and a kiss on the cheek would pale in comparison.
It is easy to see, however, that Jesus protects her precisely by being passive. In fact, by being willing to receive care from her, especially care of this socially unacceptable sort, Jesus honors her.
Simon the Pharisee said under his breath, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman is touching him. She is an offender.”
Jesus’ speech to Simon about her honors her even more. Jesus compares her actions with those of Simon, and the comparison makes her look much better than Simon.
Jesus has recognized that her actions came directly from a loving heart. Here is the important line: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Did the woman love Jesus because he had loved her first and had forgiven her sins? Or do you think she loved him first and in response he forgave her sins? To say it another way, does love follow forgiveness? Or does forgiveness follow love?
Notice what Jesus names as first. Not the woman’s love for Jesus, which many people think would then result in the forgiveness of her sins. Just the opposite. God had already forgiven her sins, and her love flowed from knowing that. Godly love is always first.
The parable of the two debtors, which precedes our saying, makes love the outcome of forgiveness. To the question “Now which of the two debtors will love him more?” the answer comes, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.”
Usually you and I have it backwards. We think we have to get rid of all our sins and turn into very loving people in order for God to care about us. It is like a woman who has called in the cleaners to do a spring cleaning of the whole house. She feels embarrassed by the dirt so spends two days herself cleaning before she has the courage to phone. This is not far fetched. Recently I was trying to encourage someone who has been away from the sacraments to receive God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament and come back to Eucharist. The response: “I have to work on some things first!” In reality we are already loved to perfection by the Lord, and as we slowly let that love in, we begin to change. We begin to recognize who we really are. We soften our hearts toward the mess we have made of our lives because we see that somehow we are loved “as is.”
Simon and his guests not only judge the sinful woman, but they also judge Jesus. They fail to see who Jesus is: the One who came to bring the “good news of the kingdomof God.” In this kingdom sinners touch God, receive forgiveness, and are granted peace. In this kingdom it is not tension and judgment that triumph, but love.
In his reactions to her at the dinner party, Jesus gives the remedy to her shame. Jesus receives in public her socially unacceptable show of affection and unconstrained care for him. In receiving it, he honors her. Her extravagant act of devotion is a sign that her sins, “which are many,” have already been forgiven. That ultimate measure is love; and it trumps everything else, shame included.