11th. Sunday of Year (C)
(2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-50)
While Jesus was at table as the chief guest in the house of Simon the Pharisee, you heard how a woman, unnamed but locally well-known, or rather, notorious, came to the feet of Jesus as He was reclining at table and first of all kissed, then washed and anointed His feet in front of all the other guests, and of the embarrassed and disgusted host, Simon.
Although Simon almost certainly did not appreciate that he was one of those sinners whom Jesus earlier– at a function given in His honour by Levi the former tax-collector – had declared that He had come to call to repentance, nevertheless, Simon, welcoming Jesus to his house and table as Levi had done, was not only showing the attraction that Jesus held for him, but perhaps also, testifying to a certain subconscious awareness of his own spiritual needs. Under the guidance of God he had invited Jesus into his house, desiring both to honour Him as a teacher and also to learn from Him by speaking with Him more freely and observing Him more closely at table.
The meal had begun well and Simon was looking forward eagerly to hear Jesus speak when, quite unexpectedly, this publicly disreputable woman came into the room where his guests were at table, and:
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind (Jesus), 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.
That woman, let us call her Mary Magdalene, was indeed a notorious sinner; nevertheless, guided by God, she had courageously entered Simon's house where she found herself -- not surprisingly -- about as welcome as a leper would have been.
That is the situation before us: two sinners of different types and perhaps of different degree, both of them drawn by God's grace to Jesus because they -- either consciously or subconsciously – had been made aware of their need after having listened to Jesus' preaching. Let us now watch how they both respond to Jesus' presence.
As soon as Mary comes into the room she throws herself down at Jesus' feet, apparently totally oblivious of the revulsion of the others at table. Simon's attention, on the other hand, is less on Jesus than on the woman and the reputation of his house which is being compromised by her uninvited and unwanted presence. At first, he had gladly subjected himself to the influence of Jesus, but now – quickly prejudging Mary and totally committing himself to anxious concern about himself and the public standing of his house -- he even began to criticise in his heart the Rabbi he had originally invited in order that he might learn from Him.
There Simon was failing to make the most of the opportunity that God's grace was offering him: for at the very moment when he could have learned most from Jesus, he has stopped listening, because his pride and self-solicitude have reasserted themselves under the guise of righteous indignation. Mary, however, seems to have learned to hate herself to such an extent that even in this most hostile company, she is totally centred on Jesus: she knows her need of Him Whom she appreciates above all else, and is quite unmoved either by her own feelings of fear at people’s scorn and opposition or embarrassment at their obvious contempt and revulsion in her regard.
The Law and the Scriptures were clear about these things; Hannah, the mother of Samuel, though she was not learned, nevertheless, she was a true daughter of Israel, and in her prayer she said:
Talk no more so very proudly; let no arrogance come from your mouth, for the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed. (1 Samuel 2:3)
Likewise, David, an uneducated soldier on the run from King Saul, cried out to the pursuing King:
Let the Lord judge between you and me, and let the Lord avenge me on you. But my hand shall not be against you. (1 Sam 24:12)
There is no doubt that Simon, a Pharisee, knew what the Law taught, and while it was both natural and legitimate for him to form an opinion on the basis of what he saw or knew, here Simon was manifestly going far beyond that: he was judging, where Jesus his ‘teacher’ was accepting; judging not simply the outward actions but the inner dispositions of the woman before them, and, indeed, even going so far as to begin to criticise in his mind and heart both the personal holiness and public appreciation of Jesus:
If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, and that she is a sinner.
Simon was no longer looking with respect to the holy Rabbi for an example of the right attitude to be adopted in what was a difficult and delicate situation; the imaginary threat to his own dignity and reputation as host far outweighed in his eyes the respect and reverence due to his invited Guest.
Under these circumstances, Jesus turned to Simon and said:
“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.”
Jesus shows here His divine wisdom and human sympathy. He knows what has been going on in Simon’s mind and heart and so He says: ‘You have judged’; but, because Simon did not directly answer, ‘the one whose larger debt was forgiven’, but, more tentatively:
The one I suppose whose larger debt was forgiven;
Jesus added the word ‘rightly’. Now, He was not being so condescending as to congratulate an educated Pharisee for knowing the difference between 500 and 50; rather Jesus was saying ‘In this hypothetical case which I have just put before you, you have rightly judged by saying “I suppose the one whom he forgave more”, because questions about forgiveness and love cannot be judged on the basis of numbers’. Now Simon’s attitude was both wrong and reprehensible; nevertheless, Jesus chose to make things as easy as possible for him by congratulating his choice of words which, indeed, could be regarded as more praiseworthy than his personal attitude.
For Simon’s answer could easily have been considered somewhat off-hand, rather like: ‘the one whose larger debt was forgiven, but what’s it matter?’ Jesus, however, was trying to lead Simon to recognize his mistake and correct his fault, so He interpreted his words most charitably: ‘You are right to say ‘I suppose’ because in such a personal matter as the love to be found in a human heart none but God can judge rightly.’ Having thus very gently led Simon to recognize that he was in no position to make a judgement about the present sinful state of this woman before them, He then went on to make the correction He wanted to administer to him:
Do you see this woman? When I entered your house; you did not give Me water for My feet (He might have added: ‘as you should have done’), but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give Me a kiss (again He could have added: ‘as you should have done'), but she has not ceased kissing My feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint My head with oil (again, ‘as you could have done’), but she has anointed My feet with ointment.
The implication was: Simon, you should not presume in your heart to judge the sincerity of this woman’s actions, because the inner workings of your own mind and heart in my regard are not truly expressed by the words of your mouth; nor, indeed, was the reception you gave Me a truly appropriate reflection of the Law you profess to follow and claim to teach.
Nevertheless, Jesus is trying to be very gentle with Simon, He is not trying to ‘publicly put him down’, so to speak; He is speaking to Simon’s heart and that is why He preferred to emphasise the woman’s public and dramatic actions rather than make any mention of Simon’s subtle and unnoticed omissions. Jesus was trying to show Simon how He, Jesus, was viewing the situation in which they found themselves, where a woman, in repudiation of her past life, had bravely manifested great humility and true love whilst a legal expert had failed to live up to the Law he sought wrongly to uphold. He was also recommending to Simon a lesson in humility since He, Jesus, though a guide and teacher, as Simon himself had earlier recognized, was judging no one, rather He was waiting on and watching for the One Who alone could judge.
For, just as Jesus once recognized His Father at work in Peter, revealing to him the truth which he confessed in the words, ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God’; and, just as He had also recognized the wisdom given by His Father to the Syro-Phoenecian woman who said, ‘even the dogs can eat of the scraps that fall from the children's table’; so, here also, seeing the great sorrow, love, and self-repudiation, being shown by Mary, He immediately recognized it to be the result of His Father’s grace at work in her, and therefore Jesus said:
I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, because she has shown great love.
Jesus, the Lord and Master, Simon’s Rabbi and Teacher, was humbly looking to God His Father in this situation; Simon, on the other hand, had been too hasty, too proud and judgemental, to wait for, or learn from, Jesus.
Jesus wanted both to encourage the woman to ‘go and sin no more’ and also to give Simon cause to remember what had happened. Therefore, He turned again to the woman and said to her: ‘Your sins are forgiven’. For those present who were learned in the Law, those words were of striking significance, and we are told:
(They) said to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"
Simon, above all, however, would ponder what lay behind those words of Jesus. Jesus had not wanted either to condemn him or humiliate him, yet He had wanted Simon to learn a lesson, which is why He added those final words:
The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.
Notice, Jesus does not say ‘to you little is forgiven since you love little’; no, He rather invites Simon to be his own accuser, to humble himself, to repent in his heart, before God.
He (then) said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."
With those final words, Jesus would leave Simon’s house bidding the woman to take up her life anew, whilst discretely inviting Simon himself to seek his peace of heart through greater faith and greater humility. For it was not the woman’s love that had saved her, Jesus was careful to point out, it was her attitude to God -- her faith in Jesus and her humble obedience to the Spirit’s guidance -- that had brought her to Jesus’ feet and thereby won her forgiveness and peace. Simon had started along that same path when he originally invited Jesus to his home, but pride, his own personal and ‘professional’ pride, had got in the way. Jesus’ final words would help both of them: the woman would, indeed, experience deep peace and renewed hope; Simon, on the other hand, realizing perhaps for the first time that he did not know true peace, would, thanks to Jesus, know better how to seek it: not so much through rigid adherence to the letter of the Law, but through greater humility and deeper faith in the God of Israel Whose Spirit had originally led him to invite that remarkable Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, to his home and table.