The reading of the Gospel on last Sunday’s Mass was Luke 7:38-50. It deals with forgiveness. The teaching is obvious but there are details of that story that can be easily missed or misunderstood.
Luke 7: 38-50 — One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
St Peter tells us: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow carefully.” That is why when we read about Christ’s life we should pay careful attention to his words but also to the image presented to us, and also to all the details such as names, proportions, hours, numbers, counterpoints, etc. because all of them have a meaning. It is good to be a miser when reading Scripture, pressing it to obtain the last drop of juice.
We can imagine the scene. Jesus is sitting at the table with the other guests. Notice that the Gospel does not say he is not a guest of honor, immediately to the right of the host. The fact that no one had received him and washed his feet — as it was the custom in well to do homes — reveals that Jesus was invited perhaps with some reservations. There was no welcoming kiss and embrace; Jesus simply takes a place at the table. Knowing him, we can guess that he reclined far from the host, following his own advice: “do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.” Luke 14:8. Later on Simon the Pharisee showed he had doubts about Jesus, perhaps he invited Jesus to see if would perform a sign but he did not want to be overtly welcoming to this new strange prophet, for fear of what the other Pharisees would say: “But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders.” John 7:13.
Notice also the name of the Pharisee: Simon. The head of the banquet shares his name with Simon Peter, one of the disciples closest to Jesus. Then the woman appears, someone known to the whole community as a sinner. Is this the woman that the community wanted to lapidate? No one knows but I want to think she was the former adulterer because she felt that Jesus was not going to reproach her. She seems to feel that she can enter the house and kneel before Christ because she knows he will protect her from public rejection. She did not sit at the table; she did not even expect to be fed. She took the humblest position and started perfuming Christ’s feet. The contact with the Holiest thing in the universe begins to cleanse her, sin burst forth in the form of tears. In the mind of the people of that time, merely touching something defiled would render a person unclean, much more so if that clean person became in contact with bodily fluids from the unclean! But here the process is reverted: it is Jesus’ holiness that cleans the woman’s heart. Even today, Jesus waits for sinners at the edge of the banquet and allows us to touch him with our tears. Because that banquet somehow resembles the Church, with Simon Peter at the throne, that man that Jesus called “you of little faith,” before giving him the work of confirming the faith of all Christ’s family. What a great mystery!
Simon looks and silently thinks: “If this man were a prophet, he would know…” That part of the story reminded me of a poem by Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet:
|En todas partes he visto…
… pedantones al paño
que miran, callan, y piensan
que saben, porque no beben
el vino de las tabernas.
Mala gente que camina
y va apestando la tierra…
|Everywhere I have seen …
… pedantic hypocrites
that look, and silently think
they’re better for they don’t drink
the tavern’s wine
Wicked people that
defile the land as they walk…
Simon not only imagines himself without sin, he starts doubting if Jesus is a prophet at all. Simon is centered on himself, he is the owner of doctrine. In his own mind, Simon is the judge of the world. While he entertains those silent thoughts Truth and Judgment are sitting at the end of the table, at the end of time: meeting, touching, forgiving, and regenerating the repentant. What is to be repentant? To descend to the lowest possible state of our humanity, assume our position there and touch the feet of Jesus. When Christ is hanging from the Cross his feet are the closest to us and to our tears.
Jesus’ parable of the two debtors gently reveals to Simon that Jesus is reading his thoughts. “You have judged rightly” says the Lord, omitting the word “now.” Notice that those who question Christ’s forgiving of sins do not include Simon. Why? Because Jesus, entering Simon’s mind, made him aware of his own sins.
“You gave me no kiss”
Simon did not kiss Jesus or touched him when Jesus entered his home. May be the banquet was already in progress, or perhaps he was busy preparing something. There is also the possibility that Jesus was not clean enough for Simon. Christ was a Galilean, born in the proximity of the gentiles; he was known to touch women, lepers, and the dead. Simon may have been a little apprehensive; he had but “little faith” in his divine guest.
“You did not anoint my head with oil”
Simon did not recognize the King of Israel in Jesus; he received the Teacher without honors. What a contrast with that poor woman sobbing at her feet, asking from Jesus something that only God can give: total forgiveness! For the other guests were right: “only God can forgive sins” and there before them was God, right in the act of forgiving, surrounded by people that should have known him. Totally blind to Christ’s divinity, those at the table can only see the woman’s sinful reputation. The resurrected young man at Nain, the ten lepers, the blind man of Jericho, and all the other miracles did not equal in glory what was happening there before the very eyes of the self-righteous Pharisees. It always happens that way.
Fifty and five hundred
“One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.” The people of Israel received the Torah fifty days after the first Passover. The Church received the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Crucifixion. Fifty is the lot of the righteous. In the words of the father of the prodigal son to his loyal son: “What is mine has been always yours also,” that is fifty-fifty. But what about the “five hundred”? I thought of the five hundred years that have passed since 1517 when Luther rejected the Pope’s paternity and left the Church in righteous indignation for the perceived excesses of the doctrine of indulgence. Today many are a bit bothered by the indulgences offered in this Iubilaeum Extraordinarium Misericordiae, the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016. The terms of the indulgence decree sound too easy for some, but they are centered on confession and mercy. It would be quite amazing if the Lord could pull the greatest miracle and call all Christians, even the Jewish people into the Church at this time of global crisis. If that happens or not, I want to be with you at Christ’s feet, bathing him with tears, anointing his head with praise, begging for his mercy.
 See Haggai 2:10-13.
 See Matthew 4:15.
I very much enjoyed your post regarding repentance. However, there are a few items worth consideration that might deepen one’s appreciation for that scene in this the year of mercy. In today’s Crisis Magazine, there is a piece about the hookup culture on campus. I read that first and then your offering. The author, Anne Maloney a teacher, describes the unhappiness she sees on campus among women. Many of the women involved in casual sex are deeply unhappy, but do not know where to place the source of their unhappiness. As a failed novelist who has struggled with plot and with illuminating character with the fewest possible words, let me suggest some possible hints in the scenes described. The woman caught in adultery was most likely a victim of her own passion. She, at the very least, did not follow the niceties of adultery, such as they are. There is nothing forward about her. When the lapidators drift away each to his own thoughts, she waits meekly next to the Master. She doesn’t run and she doesn’t speak. She also does not thank Him. One can easily imagine her trembling and in shock.
The woman with the alabaster jar pushes her way into the home of some local A-list personages. “Hey! You can’t go in there!” cries the servant. He is held in position by a steely gaze. She is carrying a jar of expensive perfume. It represents (most likely) an important gift from an important man, or it was purchased using money provided by an important man. In the gospels there are four elements: corn, water, blood and oil. She is carrying one of the four elements, so this is important. She anoints the Master while “standing at his feet”. This is possible because he is reclining to eat in the fashion of the times. Her tears are copious and in her urgency, not finding a towel handy, she uses her hair to dry his feet. This is the self-abasement of a proud woman, a woman well known to the A-List. She has tasted deeply of the chalice of sin. She has a pretty clear assessment of her debt. She has a pretty clear assessment of the value of having the debt wiped away. The perfumed oil stands not only for the anointing of the dead, as well as the anointing of the One, but also for the riches of the world – luxury in a word. She is throwing worldly pleasure, luxury, self-love (the perfume was meant for her own body – possibly to make herself more alluring and thus powerful) at the feet of the Master. She is turning her back on all of that. It is noteworthy that she has immunity in the community for her well-publicized sins. It would be as if a contemporary brazen, powerful (a couple of names suggest themselves) cynical and rich creature suddenly came to her senses about the debt she owes morality and provided a fully public scene of abject repentance. It’s a novelist’s dream scene.
Mercy without repentance denies sin its proper gravitas.
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Very apt for the times we are in. May confession and mercy save us all.
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