Monday, May 23, 2011

Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And he went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it." "There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged." Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." Then He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Then He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."

- Luke 7:36-50

On Saturday we read about the disciples of John the Baptist -- they came to ask if Jesus was the Coming One, or if they should look for another. Jesus performed His healing work in their presence, and instructed them to tell John that "the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed..." -- all events related to the prophecy about the Coming One, the Messiah. John the Baptist is in prison, and Jesus goes on to proclaim to the crowds after his disciples leave, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see?" Jesus teaches that John is the greatest of the prophets -- but that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. He disparagingly refers to those who have criticized both John and Himself; they are like children playing a game, with spite. They criticize John for his austerity and Jesus and His followers for drinking and eating. "But," Jesus adds, "wisdom is justified by all her children."

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And he went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. My study bible points out that some Pharisees were open to Jesus' mission, as we can see from this gesture of hospitality. At least this Pharisee was interested -- but we will see from the story what limitations perspective may make to full acceptance. My study bible says about the Pharisees, "They could not entirely free themselves from their suspicions and prejudices."

And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. This gesture of love is similar to that of other stories in the Gospels, most notably about Mary of Bethany. But it is not in isolation -- however, the lesson taught here is similar.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it." "There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged." Simon, the Pharisee, exposes his own prejudices and beliefs here: Jesus should know about the woman, and what kind of sinner she is. But Jesus tells His own story that lets us know the following: He's quite aware not only of what the woman is, but also what Simon is thinking. So He tells a parable to open up Simon's understanding. Simon is clearly capable of the discernment to understand the parable, and therefore perhaps to grasp what Jesus has to teach and to reveal through the interaction with the woman. It is Simon who needs to open up his eyes and his understanding.

Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." Jesus rightly points out the great love expressed by this woman -- and it is a championing of love, ultimately, that characterizes Jesus' teaching here. This is not about the lavishness with which one greets a guest or treats a person of honor; it is about the strength of love (and eventually, we read, of faith) that is in a person. It is about relationship. And the link between forgiveness and love is indelible, treated here as indistinguishable one from the other. Love is the currency of the kingdom, we see once again in this Gospel. Love leads to forgiveness and forgiveness leads to love.

Then He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Then He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." While others at the table are questioning Jesus' authority to forgive sins, He responds by dismissing the matter entirely with His statement to the woman: "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." A great and tremendous reconciling, all in the love between Himself and the woman, Creator and creature, forgiveness through faith and love. My study bible says, "In the mercy of God, a sinful past is not a hopeless liability. Forgiveness comes to those who truly love Christ." And personal faith is inextricable from love as well: this is the relationship He seeks, and rewards. Love sets the captives free.

I am always astounded at this story, because we can just imagine similar circumstances today. I have seen at churches incidents of tremendous snobbery: who will sit with whom (for example, at a social hour after church), who is acceptable and who is not. We're all familiar with the social context of the company we keep. Jesus' story comes to us therefore not as a prosaic one we've heard many times before, but as one we need to view with fresh eyes to an understanding of what happens in a social context all too often. Not only does He allow this woman to approach Him, but she lavishes a tremendous act of love and care upon Him, perhaps beyond anything that we have seen at a social gathering. A woman touches Him -- and so much more. All of this is out of bounds socially, this tremendous expression of affection. But worse, she is a great sinner, a scandal. Let us think about the acts of love God welcomes, and sees for what they are. They trump everything else, and must be valued for their true meaning and power. How often can we say we do that?