Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 13, 2010 – St. John’s. Goshen
Today’s Gospel directs our attention to important dimensions of our Christian lives and reminds us of why we gather for a rite of thanksgiving, for eucharist. I’ve always been puzzled by it, because the words of Jesus to Simon the Pharisee seem to contradict the little parable he has just told him. Recall the parable: a creditor forgives a debt to two people, one of these debts ten times greater than the other. Then Jesus asks Simon which of these two would love the man more. Simon gives the right answer: the one to whom the greater debt was given. But then Jesus says of the woman, in the translation we have just heard, that “her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown such great love.” On the one hand, his parable says that the debtor will love because his great debt is forgiven; on the other, the woman is said to be have been forgiven because she has loved greatly, and then he praises her: “Your faith,” Jesus says, not your love; “your faith has saved you.” I wasn’t able to solve the apparent contradiction.
Until I looked at some of the scholarly works on St. Luke’s Gospel. Two things help to clarify matters. The first is that the word “love” in this story would be better translated as “be thankful”; Hebrew, it seems does not have a single verb for “to thank,” and that meaning is supplied by other verbs such as, in our context, the verb “to love.” Thus, Jesus’ question to Simon would read: “Which of the debtors would be more thankful, more grateful?” And then when he turns to the woman, he says of her that “she is very grateful.”
The second clarification comes from the clause “because much has been forgiven her.” The scholars propose that the whole sentence would be better translated as: “That she is so grateful, so thankful, is the indication, or proof, that great things have been forgiven her.” In other words, the woman comes to Jesus and performs all those acts–washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, anointing him with oil–because she knows and believes, perhaps because of one of Jesus’ sermons or parables–this is where her faith comes in–, that her sins can be, have been, forgiven by God, and out of love and gratitude she comes and expresses her love in those actions.
Now, when we go back to the parable, we understand that the two debtors stand for the woman and the Pharisee, and that she shows more loving gratitude because she knew the magnitude of the debt of her sins, whereas Simon, looking down on her, is not really aware that he too has a debt to be forgiven. In his own mind he criticizes Christ for allowing this sinful woman to touch him; it is clear that he would never have permitted it himself, for fear that he would be polluted by her sinfulness. St. Gregory put it well: Christ, “the Physician, stood between two sick people, but the woman despite her fever kept her mind, while the Pharisee lost his. She wept at what she had done; but he was so puffed up by his self-righteousness that he exaggerated the state of his own health.”
It is a familiar contrast in the Gospels. Whenever Jesus offers God’s forgiveness to people that others look down upon–prostitutes, tax-collectors, and others despised at the time–there are always people who are scandalized by what he is saying and doing. Remember the people who criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners. Remember the older son in the parable, who resents his father’s welcome of his prodigal son. Remember the Pharisee in the temple who compares himself, very favorably, of course, to the publican who won’t even lift his eyes to God but asks for his mercy. It seems that the people that Jesus had most difficulty reaching were the people who didn’t think they needed much of God’s mercy, because, clearly, they were not as sinful as others. Remember his saying: “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance.”
I don’t think that we can comfort ourselves that things are any different today. St. Gregory, in his homily on this Gospel, complained that there were members of the clergy who were like the Pharisee, who because they’ve done some little external thing look down on ordinary sinners. “When we look at sinners,” he reminded them, “we ought to weep ourselves for their calamity, because we have ourselves either fallen in the same way or, if we haven’t, could very well fall in the same way.” The woman in today’s story knew that she needed God’s mercy and was overwhelmingly thankful for having been assured of it; the Pharisee didn’t recognize his need for the same mercy, and so there was no gratitude, but only silent criticism, when he was faced with the generosity of God’s forgiveness in the person of Jesus.
From this Gospel, then, let us take again the assurance that there is no sin, and no quantity of sins, that cannot be forgiven if we turn to God and ask for it. There is no one of us who is so sinful that God does not love him or her. There is no one of us who is not in need of God’s forgiveness, and so we have no basis for adopting a self-righteous stand toward others. There is no one of us who is not being invited by God to share in the joy that he himself experiences when a sinner turns to him in repentance and gratitude. Repentance and gratitude, gratitude and repentance: that is in many ways the whole story of our Christian lives.