June 16, 2013 Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13 Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11 Galatians 2:16, 19-21 Luke 7:36-8:3
This Sunday's gospel reading is one of the most beautiful and provocative stories found in Luke's Gospel. Luke's story of the anointing of Jesus has echoes of the anointing stories in Matthew, Mark and John which take place in Bethany on the eve of Jesus' death, but this story in Luke has a very different setting and carries its own special impact.
As Jesus is dining in the house of Simon the Pharisee, a "sinful woman in the city" learns that Jesus is present and comes to offer him extraordinary signs of affection and love. She bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She kisses Jesus' feet and anoints them from an alabaster flask of ointment. Even in our culture such a display of bold tenderness would draw attention-think of the impact in a traditional culture of the first century!
The reaction comes swiftly. Jesus' Pharisee host is shocked and questions Jesus' judgment: "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner."
Jesus' response reveals what is truly at stake here in this gospel account. The woman is a sinner-something she readily confesses through her tears. And Jesus is a prophet and more than a prophet. He can read hearts-seeing the authentic repentance and love of the woman as well as the close-minded and bitter judgment of Simon the Pharisee. And he can forgive sins, as he does for the woman at the end of the story--"Your sins are forgiven"-provoking from the dinner guests the question that must be asked by all who hear this story: "Who is this who even forgives sins?"
There is something further here-Jesus links forgiveness and love. The woman's lavish display of affection for Jesus is a sign that she has received abundant forgiveness. The failure of Simon to offer hospitality to Jesus, on the other hand, is a sign that he fails to recognize his own need for forgiveness and is someone whose capacity for love is impoverished.
Here is the gospel truth we are asked to absorb, not only from this exquisite story but likewise from the Old Testament selection from 2 Samuel about David's repentance and forgiveness in the wake of his terrible crime of disposing of Uriah in order to satisfy his lust for Bathsheba. "The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die." Similarly, in the second reading from Galatians, Paul affirms his constant refrain that ultimately we are not saved by the merits of our own good works, but by the lavish love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, "who has loved me and given himself up for me."
The readings this Sunday drive us to the heart of Christian faith and the ultimate basis for our hope. The God we adore, the God revealed to us by Jesus, is a good of unconditional compassion and love. A God who forgives without limit. A God who loves us in spite of ourselves. As Paul proclaimed: "God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).
The longer we live perhaps the more we appreciate "forgiving love." Over time, we accumulate a ledger of mistakes and failings; we even hurt or let down those we love the most. Our need for forgiveness becomes more and more acute. Forgiveness, the gospel assures us on this Sunday, is God's last word to us, the expression of an abiding love that does not fail.
Worshipping a God who is forgiving also sets up a responsibility for us. As we pray in the Lord's Prayer, let us forgive as we are forgiven. Simon the Pharisee was oblivious to his own need for repentance and forgiveness, even as he observed the tenderness of Jesus toward this "woman of the city." It is reminiscent of the parable of Jesus told in Matthew's Gospel, where in response to Peter's question about the limits of forgiveness ("How often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?), Jesus tells the tragic tale of the servant who is forgiven an enormous debt by his master only to turn around and treat mercilessly a fellow servant who owes him only a small debt. The master punishes the errant servant and Jesus warns his disciples they too will face a similar fate "unless they forgive their brother or sister from the heart" (Matthew 18:21-35). The capacity for generous forgiveness is to be a hallmark of authentic Christian life.
Donald Senior, C.P.
President, Professor of New Testament Studies
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