11th Sunday Year C – Introduction to Lectio divina on Lk 7,36-8,3
Today the Word of God obliges us to face up to an uncomfortable aspect of Christian life. The first reading speaks clearly, without pulling any punches, about the sin of David, adultery compounded with murder. The gospel recalls the meeting of Jesus with a woman known for her sinful way of life. It is worth pointing out that the Bible speaks quite naturally about the sin of man. It seems that God is not shocked at sin, just as Jesus was not shocked by the grave sins of the woman. God does not display any signs of shock at people’s sins. His only concern is to forgive them, and this he does with divine forgiveness.
We live as if we had no sin, but, like the Pharisee, we are greatly shocked at the sins of others. This keeps us from having to admit our own sins. We are getting better at forgetting personal sin in our lives. The result of our silence about personal sin is that we think we have overcome it. We exonerate ourselves easily and we begin to think we are free of sin. We think we are not too bad. We see others around us who are worse than we are. Today’s word of God calls us to remember that our sin does exist and, it is a warning to us especially to think of what we are losing when we lose the awareness of our sinfulness.
At that time: One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 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 sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Jo-anna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focusing on how it says.
The episode of the anointing of Jesus in the Pharisee’s house is typical of Luke’s gospel, although there are similar accounts in other gospels (Mk 14,3-9; Mt 26,6-13; Jn 12,1-8). The evangelist does not connect this episode with his account of the passion, nor does he see it as a fore-shadowing of the passion. It comes immediately after Jesus was criticized for being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Lk 7,34). It confirms Jesus’ love for sinners and, at the same time, gives the reason for it – he eats with sinners because he wants them to return to God. He does not drive them away because he wants to forgive them.
The passage opens with an invitation from a Pharisee for Jesus to have a meal with him. This was an unusual event in the life of Jesus, not that it was unusual for him to share a meal, but what made it unusual this time was that the meal was prepared by a Pharisee. The passage ends with another unusual detail which makes it clear that the company of Jesus, as he went around preaching the Kingdom and healing the sick, included some women who financed travels from city to city. It is also surprising that Jesus accepted an invitation to a meal where he would be the centre of attention.
The account is, basically, a record of the conversation that took place. Jesus always held the initiative. Simon does not understand the unusual action of the woman and he finds it even harder to understand why Jesus allowed it. His objection was unspoken – he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet …” – but Jesus read his mind and replied directly with a parable and a question. Simon offers an answer – the one who has been forgiven more will love more. Jesus does not waste any time but applies what Simon said to his own situation. He was not capable of loving as much as the woman, because he thought he did not need to be forgiven. Jesus interprets the unexpected and exaggerated hospitality he had received from the woman who, after all, had not invited him, as an act of great love. The more love is shown, the greater forgiveness is granted. What matters for Jesus is, therefore, not whether one has sinned. The gospel account leaves no doubt that the woman was a public sinner. What matters is how much she loved. Jesus assures her twice that she is forgiven.
The people who thought they did not need to be forgiven, because they thought they were without sin, were shocked. And they had good reason – only God could forgive sin. This time, Jesus does not discuss the views of his opponents. He regards the loving act of the sinful woman as an act of faith. Anyone who loves Jesus with no particular reason and without limit, is deserving of forgiveness and peace. It is not enough, then, for us to share the table with Jesus. We should do whatever we can to keep him with us. Far from being an obstacle, our sin can be a reason for meeting our loving Saviour.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The whole episode is about the forgiveness offered to a public sinner, even though she had not asked for it openly. The meeting was merely by chance, but it had important results. Anyone who needs forgiveness, receives it. Jesus did not go to meet the sinner. She came in search of him, carrying perfume. Jesus is always at the centre of the episode. The Pharisee and the woman are identified by their very different attitudes towards Jesus. Simon invites Jesus to his house. The woman, even though she had not been invited, takes on the role of host. The episode reveals two ways of meeting Jesus. One is to ask him to come to visit us. The other is to go to meet him where he wants to be met.
As is usual in Luke’s gospel, the main theme is intertwined with others. To have Jesus as invited guest does not guarantee salvation. It is not enough to offer him hospitality – we need to give him total trust. To obtain his forgiveness, we need to do more than just share a meal with him. To feel forgiven, we must acknowledge that we are sinners. Most of all, we must know how to show love in a practical way, with imagination and with courage, willing to offer what others deny him, what is his due.
The more we know we are forgiven, the more we will be capable of loving. Love that comes from being forgiven is the love that saves. Jesus does not engage in discussion of his power to forgive with people who have doubts about him. He offers forgiveness to those who show their love for him.
‘Good people’ continue lost in their theological doubts and they lose the opportunity of knowing God’s forgiveness and consequently of knowing that they are loved by Jesus. Those who know they have lost God can find him if they allow themselves to be loved by Jesus. The invitation Jesus received to eat at the house of the Pharisee gave him a chance to meet two very different people. One of them thought he was good and the other one knew she was a sinner. Jesus allowed each of them to act as they thought best. The man who thought he was good condemned the public sinner and had his doubts about Jesus. The woman acknowledges her sin, which was known to everybody in the city. She feels that she owes Jesus something and she does all she can to serve him, without worrying about what others might think. The man distances himself from Jesus because if he were good enough, he would avoid contact with sinners. She approaches Jesus because she knows she is not good enough. Their way of approaching him identifies them, as much as their desire to have him as guest. Simon did not want him, because he had nothing to gain from Jesus. The woman, who was aware of her sin, does not hesitate to give him what she had most and she gives it freely, asking for nothing in return.
Jesus responds to the two situations by telling a parable, the moral of which is easy to understand: the one who loves most is the one who feels most forgiven. The debtor is most grateful to the one who overlooks the biggest debt. The more we are forgiven, the more we love. The more we feel we have sinned, the more we feel forgiven.
It might be good for us to consider which of the two we identify most with. It would be a mistake to think that what Jesus said was just a clever way of silencing the man who thought he was good, and defending the publicly known sinner. The parable Jesus told draws attention to our insensitivity to his love and how mistaken we are when we say we have no sin to confess. We are a bit more like the Pharisee than the sinful woman. May God grant that today’s gospel reawaken our sense of sin, without adding to our shame at being sinners.
We should not forget that to recognise our debt of love for Jesus, we need to have sins in order to be forgiven. We will feel loved when we feel forgiven, and he will forgive us when we acknowledge that we have sinned.
The Pharisee stands for all the people who think they are doing God’s will. Traditionally, the believer is one who behaves as a good person, and thinks that means he is serving God. To that way of thinking, it is easy to believe that one is good. It is enough to do no harm to anyone, without worrying too much about doing good. The Pharisee represents the believer who thinks he is good and so has a right to judge others whose lives differ from ours. Anyone who does not serve God in the same way, is thought to be bad. The one who thinks he is good, condemns others who behave in a way he does not understand.
This is the most frequent sin of good Christians. The woman, on the other hand, is the personification of all those who are condemned for what they do and how they live, because they are different from others. Previously, she was not upset that people knew she was leading a sinful life. Now she was not embarrassed to display her affection for Jesus. She felt indebted to Jesus for forgiving her sin, and this is all that matters to her. She is not afraid to challenge the righteous people, because Jesus has forgiven her and made her good.
It is worth noting that Jesus defends the woman without denying that she was indeed a sinner, as the Pharisee thought. God does not demand that we live without sin. Who can live without ever committing sin? What is important is that we acknowledge our sin, in order to be forgiven. How can we be forgiven, if we do not ask for forgiveness? Only if we acknowledge our debt will we know the joy of being forgiven. Jesus teaches us that believing we are good does not make us happy. If we forget that we have sinned, that we have often offended God and neighbour, beginning with those nearest us, we cannot say that we know God’s love for us. It is symptomatic that an age that has lost the sense of sin, is also losing its capacity to love and to feel loved. It is not hard to believe that we are loved by God because we serve him, but we feel free, so much so that we do not feel that we have to answer to God for our actions. Knowing that we are sinners is a sine qua non for knowing that we are forgiven. The debtor who recognizes his debt and knows he has been forgiven will experience greater joy than one who is not aware of his debt. If we deceive ourselves into thinking we have no need for forgiveness, we are depriving ourselves of the joy of knowing we are loved by God. And if we have no joy, then we cannot share our joy with others. If we are like the Pharisee and think we are better than others, we will not understand that God loves them and we begin to doubt God.
The believer who doubts that he is a sinner, will also doubt God, because he will not feel loved by God. We forget that only those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness will be forgiven. It may seem something of a paradox, but we cannot be happy and feel loved by God, unless we acknowledge our sin and do not hide it from God. If we are weak in virtue, we need to count all the more on our weakness to win God’s attention. If we want proof of God’s existence, and want to feel that he is close to us, then we should confess our sins and our weakness, without feeling ashamed. Nobody knows how to forgive as much as God does. Nobody else is as willing to overlook our faults. His love and care will never be found wanting. It is for this that Jesus comes to meet us, and so it is for this that our God lives.