ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR


Commentaries on the Readings: 2 Samuel 12:7-10,13; Galatians 2:16,19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

TODAY’S PASSAGE IS ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING scenes in the whole of the Gospel. It is not thought to be the same incident, described in Matthew and Mark, where a woman pours ointment over the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (although the host in both scenes is called Simon). In John, the incident is described as taking place in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus where Mary is the one pouring the ointment.

It is a story only found in Luke and, in a way, it is strange that it is not otherwise recorded. Perhaps to some, especially Jewish readers, it was a little too daring and close to the edge. Because it is a highly sexual story and Jesus is deeply involved in its unfolding.

We are told that a Pharisee – his name is Simon – was keen to have Jesus eat at his house. The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’. In Jesus’ time they numbered about 6,000 and were spread over the whole of Palestine. They taught in synagogues and saw themselves as religious models. They were the self-appointed guardians of the law and its observance. They considered the interpretations and regulations handed down by tradition as having the same authority as Scripture (cf. Mark 7:8-13). In our own day and in our own Church we find similar people who tend to assume the same mantle of judgmentalism and intolerance.

Real motives

Whether Simon’s intentions in inviting Jesus were upright or otherwise is not clear. Did he regard it as a privilege to have Jesus in his house or did he simply want an opportunity to challenge Jesus about some of his teachings and behaviour? In any case, Jesus accepted the invitation and he joined Simon and others at the table. As we know, Jesus was not selective about the company he kept: he accepted invitations from rich and poor, from both Pharisees and tax collectors.

The guests were reclining on couches – not sitting – as was the fashion of the day. Again it is not clear whether what happened next was totally spontaneous or whether it was part of a conspiracy to put Jesus in a compromising position where he could be denounced. In one sense it was strange that a woman such as this could burst into a Pharisee’s house unchallenged (there must have been servants), although houses would not be bolted and barred as they are in our more civilised(?) times. On the other hand, the more sinister and nasty possibility is that, as happened on other occasions, the whole scenario was planned to embarrass and compromise Jesus. This is a more likely explanation of how such a woman could gain accesses to a Pharisee’s house. Here was a real test of his orthodoxy. How would he deal with an obviously immoral woman? It was a similar test to the one with women taken in adultery.

What is clear is that the woman’s own intentions were sincere. We are told she was a sinner. “Sinner” here can only refer to some public immorality and very likely she was a “woman of the street”, a prostitute or at least a woman known for her promiscuous behaviour. She was eager to meet with Jesus and heard that he was dining at Simon’s house. So she burst in, bringing an alabaster box of very expensive ointment (worth a year and half of a labourer’s wages) and came up to Jesus from behind.

She immediately began crying and her abundant tears bathed Jesus’ feet. She then began to dry his feet with her long hair. The fact that she wore her hair down or let it down in public itself indicates that she was a “loose” woman. She kissed the feet of Jesus and poured the ointment over them.

Deeply shocked

Simon, whether he had planned it or not, was deeply shocked at the extraordinary scene what was playing out before his eyes and in his house. If Jesus was really a prophet, he thought to himself, he would know what kind of a woman this was who was touching him. She was a sinner and no good person, least of all a rabbi like Jesus, should allow anything remotely like that to take place, least of all in the house of a Pharisee. Even for the most virtuous of women it would have been outrageous behaviour.

Jesus, fully aware of what was going on in Simon’s mind, tells him a story about two debtors. One owed a large amount and other a smaller amount. However, the creditor wrote off both debts. Which of the two, Jesus asked, would be more grateful and appreciative? Obviously the one who had been remitted the larger debt, said Simon. “Well said,” replied Jesus and then went on to apply the parable to the present situation. In the process he indicates something that Simon had probably not thought of – that he, too, was a sinner, even though to a lesser degree. In addition Simon had been guilty of not extending even the most ordinary courtesies of hospitality to his guest, a serious matter in that part of the world.

Simon had not had Jesus’ feet washed when he came into the house but the woman had washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon had not given a kiss of greeting but the woman had not stopped kissing his feet since she came into the house. Simon had not put oil on his guest’s head but the woman had poured an expensive box of ointment over his feet. And therefore – now comes the point of the story: “Her many sins are forgiven, hence she is showing so much love.” The one who loves less clearly has not yet been fully forgiven. Do these words apply to the very legalistic but unloving Simon? And, turning to the woman at his feet, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” It is more a statement of something already a reality than words of absolution. The guests at table begin to ask each other: “Who is this that he forgives sin?” Again Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has made you whole again. Go in peace.”

Extraordinary story

This, as I have said, is a really extraordinary story. To appreciate this one has to enter into it and be really present with all one’s senses active. What comes across is the amazing composure and inner security and freedom of Jesus during the whole episode. He shows absolutely no signs of being uncomfortable or embarrassed. He does not pull away or tell the woman to stop what she is doing. His focus is entirely on her intentions and not on how it looks to the other people in the room.

Here is this woman, known to be a public sinner, who comes in and weeps over him, wipes his feet with her hair and keeps kissing them with a high degree of emotion. The guests (as perhaps most of us would be) are highly disturbed, shocked and probably embarrassed but Jesus remains perfectly at ease. The reason is that he knows what the woman is doing and is not worried about how others might interpret it.

Let us admire Jesus’ ability to focus totally on the woman and not be self-conscious about the other people around. Can one imagine what a tabloid publication would have made of this scene?! What if something like that were to happen today with a bishop or a priest? How would most clergy – or other public people for that matter — react in such a situation? Jesus can see that the woman is expressing both sincere repentance and this results in her being filled with love. She is expressing that love in the only way that she knows – physically and with a great deal of passionate feeling. She is a highly tactile person; it is part of her way of life. To the sexually immature, what she is doing and Jesus’ acceptance of it seems at the very least unbecoming and at the worst bordering on the obscene.

Far from being angry or embarrassed, Jesus tells the woman that her sins are now forgiven. This was not so much because of Jesus exercising his power. It was really her faith and clear repentance which won her forgiveness. The forgiveness is manifested in the outpouring of love that follows. Love and sin are incompatible; they cannot co-exist in the same person. She was loving Jesus so much at that moment that she could not be a sinner.

At this point her immoral past was totally irrelevant. In our society wrongdoers can be stuck with labels often for the rest of their lives irrespective of how they have changed. God does not work that way. He deals with persons as they are here and now. What I did yesterday does not matter very much. All that matters is what I am doing now, how I am relating to God and those around me right now. We remember the man who died beside Jesus on the cross. He had led a terrible life and was now being executed for his crimes. Yet he appeals to Jesus and is promised that he will go to God hand in hand with Jesus that very day. Unfair? Fortunately God’s ideas of fairness are not ours. Otherwise we might be in trouble because of our past.

David’s sin

Today’s Mass links this story with the sin of David. Although he had been made king over Israel and had been showered with God’s blessings (including a regular harem of his predecessor’s wives), yet that was not enough for him. He lusted after the wife of one of his generals, Uriah, and committed adultery with her. Worse still, he tried to cover over his wrongdoing and when his stratagems failed, he had Uriah posted in the most dangerous part of the battlefield where he was killed. When his sin was pointed out to him by Nathan the prophet, David bitterly repented of what he had done, “I have sinned against the Lord.” His repentance won the Lord’s forgiveness although there were punishments, including the untimely death of his beloved but rebellious son, Absalom.

Once again, we see how God always tries to rehabilitate and not to punish. Punishment destroys. God’s desire is that we be all made whole and experience inner peace and harmony.

Faith not the Law

The Second Reading, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, touches on the heart of today’s Mass. “What makes a person right with God is not obedience to the Law but faith in Jesus Christ.” That was the difference between the Pharisee and the prostitute woman. Simon based his goodness on the mechanical observance of laws and regulations. He judged others by the same standards. In his book, there was no place for someone like the woman in the story.

The woman, however, in the presence of Jesus throws herself at his feet and surrenders entirely to him. He accepts her totally even when she behaves in a way which “respectable” society would regard as outrageous. Far from being scolded, she is rewarded for her “faith”.

Faith is not, as some people seem to think, just an intellectual act. It is primarily an act of love and total trust. There are those who speak of “the faith” as a list of doctrines to be held; often their thinking is very little different from that of the Pharisees and they can be equally judgemental and intolerant. And, significantly, they seldom speak of love. If agape (’, pron. a-ga-pay, love) is the word for God’s way of loving us, then pistis (, faith, trust) is the way we respond to that love. We cannot see our God, we can never know him except in a “glass darkly” but, based on stories like this in the Gospel where God comes to us in the human person of Jesus, we take that leap of trust and surrender ourselves totally to his care and his love. Just as the sinful woman did on that day.

As Paul tells us today, it is that trust in God through Jesus Christ that transforms our lives. For such people law has no real meaning; there is no need for law when our lives are totally directed by love. A truly loving person cannot do an evil thing, although they may violate the letter of a law. As long as there is love, the real intentions of the law will be observed. On the other hand, just to keep the law without love will end in very undesirable results. So, Paul, who left the Law and gave himself entirely to Christ his Lord says today, “I live. No, it is not I but Christ lives in me.” He has become so totally identified with his Lord that he can hardly say what belongs to him and what belongs to Jesus. Like the woman in the Gospel, Paul, too, was passionately in love with Jesus. May we follow in their footsteps.

________________________

Postscript:

“For once I would like to hear a homily on the haemorrhaging woman, the nagging woman and the woman at the well from a woman’s viewpoint [and today’s Gospel woman too!]. As a woman with much experience of men [five plus husbands], what did the latter hear Jesus saying? Not what a man guesses she felt but how a woman really feels when she meets a courageous, respectful and caring man in a patriarchal culture. That alone touches the soul; but to be offered forgiveness and life when she has abandoned all self-respect and hope penetrates the core of feminine spiritual experience.

Dorothy Sayers said it better: “Perhaps is it no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this Man – a prophet and teacher who never nagged them, who praised without condescension; who never mapped out their sphere [ordination out!], never urged them to be feminine; who had no axe to grind, no uneasy male dignity to defend. Nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about a woman’s nature.”

– from Treading the Famine Road by Dolores Curran in The Furrow, July-August 1996, p. 402

 

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