Thursday, September 16, 2010

Her Many Sins Have Been Forgiven; Hence, She Has Shown Great Love.

Memorial of Saint Cornelius, pope and martyr,
and Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr
Reading I
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
I am reminding you, brothers and sisters,
of the Gospel I preached to you,
which you indeed received
and in which you also stand.
Through it you are also being saved,
if you hold fast to the word I preached to you,
unless you believed in vain.
For I handed on to you
as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he was buried;
that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared
to more than five hundred brothers at once,
most of whom are still living,
though some have fallen asleep.
After that he appeared to James,
then to all the Apostles.
Last of all, as to one born abnormally,
he appeared to me.
For I am the least of the Apostles,
not fit to be called an Apostle,
because I persecuted the Church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.
Therefore, whether it be I or they,
so we preach and so you believed.
In these three final readings from the first letter to the Corinthians, we begin today the 15th chapter which discusses resurrection from the dead and its relationship to the resurrection of Christ as a core belief of our Christian faith.

In today’s reading Paul introduces the subject by reminding the Corinthians of the Gospel tradition which had been given to them and their need to be faithful to it.

The Gospel will be an instrument of their salvation only if they hold closely to what they had been taught by Paul, the one who first brought the Christian faith to them. To believe anything else would be to go down a road that leads to nowhere, it would mean they were “believing in vain”. This fidelity will be manifested in the way they lead their lives and, as we have seen, the behaviour of some of them had left much to be desired.

Paul summarises under two headings the core of Christian teaching he taught them. He emphasises that what he taught them was exactly the tradition which he had himself received and nothing else. Paul links himself directly with early Christian tradition. He was not its originator, nor did he receive it directly from the Lord. His source was other Christians. The verbs he uses are technical terms for receiving and transmitting tradition.

He first describes the core of that tradition in the following words:

» Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scripture
(cf. the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24)

» He was buried (proof that he had really died)

» He was raised on the third day, also in accordance with the Scripture.

Secondly, he lists six times when the Risen Christ was seen by people, too many people for deception to be involved:

1.First to be mentioned is Cephas or Peter, an appearance mentioned by Luke (24:34) as happening on Easter Sunday itself.

2.Then there is an appearance to the “Twelve” recorded by Luke (24:36-53) and John (20:19-29) in their gospels. They are still called the “Twelve” even though Judas is no longer with them; however, Judas would be replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).

3.Paul next mentions a simultaneous appearance to more than 500 disciples, most of whom are still alive as he writes and so can witness to the truth of what he is saying. We are not sure when this apparition took place although it could possibly be that mentioned by Matthew just before his description of the Ascension (Matthew 28:10,16-20). The appearance to this large group may be mentioned to help bolster the faith of those Corinthians who evidently had some doubts about the resurrection of Christ (cf. v.12).

4.Then he appeared to James. As this James is listed in addition to “all the apostles”, it would seem to exclude James, the son of Zebedee, or James, son of Alphaeus, and indicate James, a “brother” of Jesus mentioned by Matthew (13:55). This James, like the other “brothers” of Jesus, does not seem to have believed in Jesus before the resurrection (John 7:5) but afterwards is numbered among those disciples in the Upper Room after the resurrection (Acts 1:14). He later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13). There is no mention of this appearance in the New Testament.

5.The appearance to “all the apostles” could be that mentioned at the beginning of the Acts and before the Ascension and includes more than the Twelve already mentioned.

6.Last of all, the Risen Jesus appeared to Paul. The event is recorded no less than three times in the Acts when Paul (then Saul) was on his way to get rid of the Christians in Damascus. Paul describes this experience, maybe three years after the resurrection, in terms of an abnormal and totally unexpected birth.

Paul was not part of the original group of apostles. He had not lived with Christ as the others had. His entry into the apostolic office was not “normal”. Furthermore, at his conversion he was abruptly snatched from his former way of life (Acts 9:3-6).

He makes no distinction between the sort of apparition that took place on the Damascus road and the sort of apparitions of Jesus that took place between the resurrection and the ascension.

He is almost embarrassed to carry the title of ‘apostle’ and feels he is the least among them. After all, he had at one time used all his efforts to wipe the disciples of Christ from the face of the earth. In doing so he was persecuting Christ himself (cf. Acts 9:5).I hardly deserve the name apostle,” he says. “But, by God’s grace, that is what I am” and he can say with truth that “the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless”. That ‘grace’ is the unmerited love of God offered and accepted by him.

The outcome is that Paul can say, without any boasting or exaggeration, that, with God’s grace working through him, he has worked harder than any other evangeliser. The record of his achievements in the Acts as well as in his Letters gives ample testimony to that claim. In spite of that, he again emphasises that what he preaches is totally in harmony with what he had received from his own teachers, the other apostles and that is also what the Corinthians believe.

Paul thus puts the resurrection of Jesus as the central fact on which our whole faith in Jesus is based. Without that, all the rest falls apart. This he will show in tomorrow’s reading.

Let us today renew our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. He who died on the cross is now our living Lord who, through his Spirit, is really present in every baptised member of our communities and remains a powerful factor in our lives.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 118
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
"His mercy endures forever."
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
"The right hand of the LORD is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord has struck with power."
I shall not die, but live,
and declare the works of the LORD.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
You are my God, and I give thanks to you;
O my God, I extol you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 7:36-50
A certain Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee's house
and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table
in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him
saw this he said to himself,
"If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman
this is who is touching him,
that she is a sinner."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"Simon, I have something to say to you."
"Tell me, teacher," he said.
"Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred days' wages
and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt,
he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?"
Simon said in reply,
"The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven."
He said to him, "You have judged rightly."
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
"Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house,
you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet
since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."
He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
The others at table said to themselves,
"Who is this who even forgives sins?"
But he said to the woman,
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Today’s passage is one of the most striking scenes in the whole of the Gospel. It is a story only found in Luke and, in a way it is strange that it is not otherwise recorded. It is not the same as the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, described by Matthew (26:6-13). Perhaps to some, especially Jewish readers, it was a little too daring and close to the edge. Because it is a highly sexual story in which Jesus is deeply involved. 

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’ and they numbered about 6,000 throughout Palestine. They taught in synagogues and, as their name implies, they saw themselves on a higher level of religious observance. They believed that interpretations and rules handed down by tradition had virtually the same authority as Scripture (cf. Mark 7:8-13). As a result, they were constantly bothered by Jesus’ behaviour.

Jesus accepted the invitation and he joined Simon and others at the table. We should notice that Jesus accepted invitations from both Pharisees and tax collectors. Both were equally deserving of his love and service. The diners would be reclining on couches, rather than sitting, as was the fashion of the day. This helps to explain what is going to happen.

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 (not unlike his being presented with an adulterous woman - John 8:1ff). 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); on the other hand, houses were not bolted and barred as they are in our more civilised(?) times.

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 ointment (probably quite expensive - the gift of an appreciative client?) 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.

Simon, whether he had planned the intrusion or not, was deeply shocked at the extraordinary scene that 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, should allow anything remotely like that to take place.

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. Because Simon had been guilty of not extending even the ordinary courtesies of hospitality to his guest.

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 flask of ointment over his feet.

And therefore - now comes the point of the story: “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” The one who has less forgiven loves less. And, turning to the woman at his feet, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” And 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.”

This is a really extraordinary story. To appreciate this one has to enter into it visually 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.

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 passionately. The guests 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 what others might think she is doing.

Let us admire his ability to focus totally on the woman and not be self-conscious about the other people around. Can one imagine what a tabloid publication might have made of this scene?! What if something like that were to happen today with a bishop or a priest? Or some other prominent person? How would most clergy - or other public people react in such a situation?

Jesus can see that the woman is expressing both sincere repentance and a great affection for Jesus. She is expressing her repentance in the only way that she knows. 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.

But Jesus says her sins are now forgiven. It was really the passionate love she was showing which indicated that had won forgiveness. 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. Simon could not see this. His concept of sin was purely legalistic. For Jesus it is relational.

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. 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. Unfair? Fortunately God’s ideas of fairness are not ours. Otherwise we might be in trouble because of our past.

Once again we see how God, in Jesus, 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.*

The Irish Jesuits


Anonymous said...

An immoral past, a deathbed confession...the gospel constantly reminds us, it's never too late to give, to receive, Love.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Saint Peter Chrysologus (+ 450), Doctor of the Church, wrote a wonderful meditation on this gospel, which I will summarize:

The reader might be surprised that Christ came to a dinner at a Pharisee's house. But He went there not to enjoy the meal, but to dispense Divine Mercy.

Why does this woman run through the doors, past the servants, into the banquet hall, and turn the house of joy to a place of lamentation?

She did not come uninvited; she was under command. He who ordered her to be absolved is the One who called her to be brought to himself. She mixed the drink with tears, and to the full delight of God, she struck music from her heart.

The moral of the story: the gospel constantly reminds us, it's never too late to give, to receive, Love.

Sarah in the tent said...

In the past, I have always read this incident as showing how the sinful woman repents in tears and is subsequently forgiven. But now, reading Jesus' own explanation, it seems the tears are an expression of love in response to forgiveness already received. Perhaps both the Pharisee and the sinful woman have already been forgiven, but they do not know it. The Jews often seemed to worry about how they could know whether their sins were forgiven or not, and even we do not receive a voice from heaven after absolution. But I think we do respond with an upwelling of love, and that gives us confidence. The Pharisee's sins had been forgiven, perhaps just by the act of inviting Our Lord in, but he hardly noticed any upwelling of love for Jesus in himself - certainly not enough to welcome Him properly. Maybe if the Pharisee had been more focused on love he could have received Jesus properly - as we should do at Mass when we move from confessing our sins to receiving Christ in the Eucharist.

Perhaps too the woman was not just expressing her love in her tears - but penance for the Pharisee. The tables have been turned on him!