May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I speak to you today in the name of God . . . Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . . Amen.
Jesus says: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That’s the bottom line of today’s gospel message. This scripture reading is about forgiveness – it’s about love – and it’s about the relationship between forgiveness and love.
The story is about two serious seeker, two people who are seeking Jesus out. One seeker, the woman is described as a great sinner. Some say she was a prostitute, although there is no indication of that in the story.
The other seeker, Simon the Pharisee, is genuinely righteous – meticulous in his observance of God’s law. The contrast between sinner and Pharisee – between sin and righteousness – lays the groundwork for Jesus’ teaching.
The setting is a formal banquet, a dinner party hosted by Simon the Pharisee. His primary guest is Jesus whom he has invited so that he can find out what Jesus is all about. Unlike many other Pharisees Simon does not summarily dismiss Jesus – he wants to hear him out.
As we imagine what it might have been like to be at this banquet, there are a couple of background notes that may help us understand what is happening. Formal banquets were “men-only” affairs. But in this cultural setting, banquets were open door affairs – people off the street, men and women, were welcome to come in, wander around and listen to the conversation.
At a dinner party in Jesus’ day, remember that no one’s feet were under the table. The diners reclined at the table, leaning on one elbow, head at the table and legs and feet stretched out behind.
In the gospel story, during the course of the dinner, a woman appears with an alabaster jar of perfume. She’s obviously come with the intention of anointing Jesus. But when she arrives on the scene, her emotions take over: As she approaches Jesus from behind, she starts to cry, her tears triggered by whatever her previous encounter with Jesus had left in her heart.
The woman probably isn’t noticed at first – not until her tears begin to fall softly on Jesus feet. She kneels down – then lets down her hair (something no upright, honorable woman does in public) – and then starts drying Jesus’ feet with her hair. By this time she has probably attracted the attention of everyone at the table. She kisses Jesus feet and then breaks open the alabaster jar she’s wearing around her neck – she pours out the fragrant perfume on Jesus’ feet and massages them.
Bequiling and intriguing as this part of the story is about the woman who comes seeking Jesus to anoint him, to honor him, to show her love for him, this is only half the story.
Simon has sought Jesus out. He has invited Jesus to dinner for his own purposes. He wants to engage Jesus in conversation – he wants to have an intellectual discussion. And the outrageous actions of this impertinent woman, this notorious sinner, have crashed his party.
We get an insiders look at what Simon is thinking. He immediately comes to the conclusion that Jesus cannot be the prophet he is purported to be, because if he were truly a prophet he would be able to look at the woman and know what kind of woman she is . . . But in an ironic turn-around, Jesus, the prophet looks into Simon’s own thought process. Jesus takes this opportunity for a teaching moment and tells a parable to illustrate:
A creditor lends two men money. To one he lends 500 denarii and to the other, fifty. Neither man can repay his debt, so the creditor forgives them both what they owe. Both are probably grateful, but which one loves his creditor most? It’s the one who owes the most. The greater the debt that is forgiven the greater the love. “The one to whom much is forgiven loves greatly – the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”
We can assume that the woman has encountered Jesus earlier and has experienced the grace and power of his forgiveness. It’s important to observe that it is not the woman’s love or her display of love that brings her forgiveness. Quite the opposite! Iis the forgiveness she has already received that creates her love. By her love she shows that much has been forgiven her.
On the other hand, the lack of love shown by Simon shows that little has been forgiven him. His attitude, typical of a Pharisee, is that he actually has very little to be forgiven for! . . . Further Simon believes that he can save himself by obeying the law, living a righteous life and doing good works. But that’s not the way it works . . . and this assumption of self-righteousness is what closes off God’s forgiveness. It shuts the door on the possibility of right relationship with God.
When it comes to forgiveness – it seems to be human nature to try to contribute something to the process. In a positive sense, we try to contribute our good works and our righteous acts to try to earn forgiveness.
When that doesn’t work we try to contribute something else, something negative – namely the pain of self-accusation. We try to produce for ourselves a feeling of unworthiness . . . self-rejection . . and the anxiety and despair of guilt. We try to show God and ourselves that we deserve acceptance through our self-punishment. But this emotional work doesn’t help either.
God’s forgiveness is unconditional, independent of anything we can do or create ourselves. And in this sense it’s actually forgiveness that creates repentance – not the other way around. . . . God forgives us first . . . In reality God forgives us before we even ask. But it is in the asking and in the receiving that we come to know ourselves as forgiven.
As the story in the gospel today teaches, we cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness. The woman in the story seeks out Jesus because she is already forgiven. Jesus says “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven – hence she has shown great love.” In this saying we learn that the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our ability to love.
Our ability to love people, to love life, to love God — depends on how deeply we see ourselves as sinners . . . how truly we know ourselves as forgiven. Knowing ourselves as sinners and knowing ourselves as forgiven requires a kind of letting go – and in that letting go we discover an important spiritual lesson: Giving up power, giving up control in our lives, results in receiving a different kind of power: the power of freedom – the power of Christ’s redemption.
Jesus says to the woman in the gospel story, as he says to us all: “Your sins are forgiven . . . your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Let us pray:
“Take my life and let it be
consecrated, Lord to thee. . .
Take my love; My Lord, I pour
at Thy feet its treasure store. . .
Take myself, and I will be
ever only, all for Thee.”