Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our second reading from St. Paul and our Gospel reading from St. Luke today are surprisingly inter-related and most intimately instructive in that relationship; to loosen the binding knot and taste the hidden fruit, let us begin by considering some difficult words from St. Paul in our second reading:
We know that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ; through the Law I died to the Law that I might live for God.
What does Paul mean when he says, through the Law I died to the Law? How did he through the Law die to the Law?
Much has been written over many years by scholars of varying persuasions and abilities, and so I cannot pretend to offer a solution to the many difficulties they find in those words; but for all that, I will offer a suggestion that is both relative to the passage and, I trust, helpful for our understanding and appreciation of our Gospel today.
St. Paul was a great lover and proponent of the Law as understood by the Pharisees before he encountered the Risen Lord Jesus in a vision on his way to Damascus to persecute the Church of God out of zeal for the traditions of his ancestors in Judaism (cf. Galatians 1: 13s.). Paul never lost his love for the Law, but after that encounter with the risen Lord Jesus he came to understand it much better as God’s means of preparing His People for the gift of salvation He intended to offer them in and through His very own Son and their Redeemer, God-made-Man in Jesus born of Mary of Nazareth, and Israel’s long promised and ardently expected Messiah:
If it had not been for the Law, I would not have known sin. We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh ... I do the very thing I hate. ... I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, with my mind I am a slave to the Law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
We asked how did Paul through the Law die to the Law? It is clear now that Paul’s knowledge of the Law taught him what was required of him as a convinced Israelite, but Paul’s deep self-awareness and great insight into our human condition also made it most abundantly clear to him that he himself -- despite his most ardent endeavours -- could not keep the Law in all its fullness and integrity, nor could any of his fellow Pharisees:
All who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the Law.’ (Galatians 3:10)
All, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written, there is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
(Romans 7: 7, 14- 15, 22, 24-25; and Romans 3: 9-12, 23.)
Why then the Law? That was the question that forced itself upon his religious mind, and this was the answer he learnt from his experience of and love for the Risen Jesus:
It was added because of transgressions, until the Offspring (Jesus) would come to whom the promise had been made. The Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came so that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:19, 24)
As we now turn our minds to the Gospel reading we will see that Simon, the Pharisee, had but a limited measure of Paul’s self-knowledge or commitment to the Law: for example, the proprieties expected when receiving guests had been either ignored or forgotten by Simon when welcoming Jesus; and how easily his solicitude for the reputation of his house caused him to start criticising, in his heart, the young Rabbi whom he had admiringly and respectfully invited to share his table:
If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him!
Of course, it was extremely embarrassing for Simon reclining at table with Jesus, as indeed it must have been for the others sharing his hospitality, when a woman, publicly known for her sins, entered his house – not only uninvited but also most certainly unwelcome – and, standing behind Jesus weeping profusely, began to:
Bathe His feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair, kiss them, and anoint them with ointment.
Nevertheless, how quickly his professed reverence for the one he called ‘Teacher’ evaporated in the face of this threat to his own public standing and self-esteem: If this man were a prophet!! Jesus, however, loved Simon and came to his help, forestalling him before he could actually say anything at all:
He said to him in reply, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you ....’
Simon, as we have said, had little in common with Paul his guest, but the sinful woman resembled Paul so very much in her profound appreciation of, and total self-abandonment to, Jesus. Paul gave himself to Jesus -- in response to a personal vision and ‘mystical’ encounter with Him as the Risen Lord -- most humbly, lovingly, and unreservedly, on the basis of his profound understanding and appreciation of God’s revelation in the Scriptures entrusted to Israel’s custody for fulfilment: how penetratingly he recognized his need of the redeeming grace of Jesus, his Lord and Saviour! The woman, most certainly, had encountered and heard Jesus previously, perhaps only once, but possibly a few times, because she came to Him as one loathing herself for love of His Goodness and Truth.
Paul learned his self-distrust from the Scriptures and from his vision of the Risen Lord; the woman embraced her self-loathing, it would seem, simply from encountering and learning from the man, Jesus of Nazareth, as He walked and talked in the course of His public ministry. In her respect we can fruitfully recall some teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas who used to say that an unlettered peasant could know God better than he himself, know Him intuitively, that is, by the heart; because knowledge of God does not end in, is not fulfilled in, concepts but reality. A theologian weighed down with concepts, though they be correct, can remain far from the Reality, while an ‘ignorant’ person can reach that Reality better, thanks to the transparency of more humble concepts.
Does not the Psalmist express himself in very similar words?
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being, and You teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Psalm 51:5-6)
The woman loved the Lord and suffered deeply from the open scorn and contempt she received when she tried to draw near to Him; and Paul’s very vocation as a Christian was to suffer more than any other apostle for his love of the Lord:
The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring My name before Gentiles and kings and before the People of Israel; I Myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name. (Acts 9: 15s.)
For both of them Faith was the crown of their relationship with Jesus, as St. Paul said:
Insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, Who has loved me and given Himself up for me.
Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love; the one to whom little is forgiven loves little. He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you, go in peace.’
There are religious groups today, however, who gain followers or recruit supporters by offering them not peace but someone, something, to hate and/or violently oppose: offering the exaltation and satisfaction of humanly disordered emotions as the fulfilment of a pseudo-religious involvement and as the earthly foretaste of a promised and equally pseudo heavenly reward. Society around us also proclaims earthly emotional experience and satisfaction – never openly hateful indeed, but not without deep-rooted intolerance -- as the only worthwhile and publicly acceptable ideal and reward: love – however disgusting -- is all, and homophobia is the supreme sin!! Love, that is, which is to be felt and enjoyed as supremely pleasurable, not to be evaluated and most certainly not to be constrained, by any other considerations other than the human, earthly pleasure and satisfaction it affords the individuals concerned.
Catholicism, Christianity, on the other hand, offers -- supremely and solely -- the Truth of Jesus which, when whole-heartedly embraced, evokes a response of unique Love that can only be truly expressed through, and fulfilled in, unequivocal faith and commitment.
Jesus once used most solemn words that bring out in total clarity the deepest and most extensive problem and need in the Church today: lack of Faith in the face of the emotional attractions of extremism and the self-approval and self-satisfaction of comfortable worldly conformity:
When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?
Dear Brothers and Sisters, we should treasure and try to develop our personal Faith in Jesus and commitment to His Church with heartfelt gratitude and serious endeavour, and pray devoutly for the growth of Faith in Mother Church and for God’s special blessing on all called to proclaim and propagate that Faith throughout the world. Towards that end let us cast a final glance at King David in our first reading today, for he makes clear to us another most beautiful characteristic of faith:
Nathan said to David: ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel: “Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in His sight? ... Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house because you have despised Me and taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.”’ David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’
There we can see the beauty of David’s faith! He had an ‘intuitive’ relationship with God like that of the sinful woman with regard to Jesus in our Gospel reading; he was weak at times indeed, but he did not seek to justify his behaviour before God’s judgement: I have sinned against the Lord! The extremists of today would say to any such words of judgement against them or their actions, ‘We were forced to, we had no choice but to, behave, respond, as we did’; whilst the world of human righteousness and political conformity would most probably not even be able to understand any such words against their works or policies: ‘This world’s love guided us in all that we did or sought to do.’ Before God and the truth David was totally simple, with no complications of pride, seeking no refuge in self-justification. His example is also most worthy of our admiration and imitation along with that of Saint Paul and of the ‘sinful woman’.