Commentary on the Readings
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Perfect but incapable of loving
Sin for Jesus is not a spot to wash, or a plague to hide. It is the condition of inability to respond to the love of the Father. It is the debt of infinite love, unbridgeable, that we have towards God.
The faults, miseries, weaknesses we verify in our lives and humiliate us are a small thing. It is just a small sign of the immense distance that separates us from the perfection of the Father.
When we ask the Lord: “forgive us our debts” we do not ask him to forget the mistakes we have made, to give a clean slate to our past, but to bridge the debt of love that we have accumulated against him. We ask him to teach us how to respond to his love. Our prayer, rather than directed to the past, is therefore focused on the future.
In this perspective, people are all equally debtors before God. The foolishness (we do not want to talk about nastiness) of the Pharisee—who believes himself righteous, perfect and authorized to judge others—consists in cultivating the conviction of being able to bridge the debt of love that separates him from God through the observance of a precept or of some religious practice.
Now perhaps it is easier to understand Jesus’ statement: only the one who has been forgiven much becomes capable of loving much.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Blessed is the one whose fault is remitted and whose sins forgiven.”
David was violent and vengeful. Among his many sins, the adultery with Bathsheba and, to hide the wrongdoing, the killing of her husband, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11), is certainly the best known. Upon learning of the crime committed by the king, the prophet Nathan, a family friend, goes to see him and, pretending to know nothing of the incident, begins to tell the famous story of the little ewe (2 Sam 12:1-6). David closely follows the story and in the end, angry with the man who kidnapped and killed the neighbor’s sheep, declares: “This man deserves to die!”
Our reading begins at this point. Nathan raises his finger, pointing it against David and exclaims: “You are the man!” (v. 7). Then he itemizes the benefits that God has given him and confronts the ingratitude with which he responded (vv. 7-8). Finally he announces the terrible punishment that will hit his family: “The sword shall never be far from your family” (v. 10). The prophet predicts that hatred, strife, violence, bloodshed will never end in the family of David.
These last words of the prophet should be clarified. God cannot arouse family hatred to punish sin. In the Old Testament the idea is clear that the same sin, not God, punishes man: “If you do evil, evil will befall you”—says Sirach (27:27)—and Jeremiah: “Your own wickedness chastises you, and your own unfaithfulness punishes you!” (Jer 2:19).
The prophecy of Nathan on the misfortunes that would fall upon the house of David came from a theological reflection made later by the sacred author. He, many years after the case, has verified that the family of David was hit by countless misfortunes (three of his sons: Amnon, Absalom and Adonijah died in a violent way) and has interpreted these dramatic events as a punishment of God. In fact he knew very well that they had been caused by the educational inability, pride, and the violent spirit of David.
Let me clarify with an example. After a marital infidelity it is difficult to reconstruct familiar peace and serenity, to restore unity and trust between husband and wife, to convince them not to tease each other, not to continually reproach the mistake committed. The burdensome situation that has arisen: depression, tension, would be presented in an archaic theological language, as punishments of God. In fact—it is obviously about the consequences of sin.
It is not easy to get out from these consequences. But God never abandons a person. That is why, after speaking of misfortune, Nathan concludes his prophecy with a message of hope. He says to David: “The Lord has forgiven your sin, you shall not die!” (v. 13). This is always the last word of God: forgiveness, not threat.
One of the most entrenched ideas even today in the minds of many Christians is that those who earn it with good works will go to heaven.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time thought so. They were convinced that salvation would depend on merits, scrupulous observance of all provisions, even the minimum, of the law. Many of them converted to Christianity (Acts 15:5), but did not abandon this way of understanding religion and also introduced it in the early church and spread their convictions everywhere.
In today’s passage, Paul reminds the Galatians—who had listened to the chatter of the Pharisees who became Christian—that God freely gives salvation to people. We are not the ones, with our good works, to conquer heaven; it is He who gives the grace that allows us to do good.
The effectiveness of this grace—continues Paul—can be verified by observing what happened to him. When he placed his trust in the law he continued to be a sinner. The law did not save him; he was a stern judge who denounced his failures. Then he met Christ and his grace. His Spirit, has gradually transformed him. He can now affirm that it is no longer him but Christ who lives in him.
The quarrels, the brawls are never nice, but the most unpleasant are the ones that break out during a party, while everybody’s eating. We gather to socialize, not to witness violent arguments, to hear gross insults flying.
To avoid these situations of tension in Israel invitations were made with great caution. The rule that is strictly followed was this: the “right”, the “rich people”, the “pure” should not mix with sinners, publicans, shepherds, and with the “people of the world.” These were considered troublemakers, the louts who did not know the rules of the law and then lived in constant impurities.
Luke often presents Jesus sitting at table. He enters the homes of all, accepts the invitations of the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick without regard to the norms of purity established by the spiritual leaders of his people. To him all people are pure. Today we find him in the house of a Pharisee, therefore, in a morally elevated ambient. There came only people of proven honesty and angelic costumes. There certainly no obscene words are heard and no inconvenient talks are done.
Why is he invited? Probably because the Pharisees consider him a just and wise teacher. They wish to converse with him on topics of high theology.
Everyone tried to have as guest for the Sabbath lunch the one who gave the homily. They wanted to have an opportunity to ask him questions and to explore the theme of the readings. The Pharisees held on to these very elevated conversations and Jesus seemed to be the best person.
They are then seated at table in the Pharisee’s house. The conversation has already taken the right way when, suddenly, a woman of loose morals enters the room. What is she going to do? Is she coming to spoil the feast? She is holding a jar, and turning around, with her eyes seeking Jesus among the guests. Seeing him, she decisively walks towards him. She does not say a word. She crouches at his feet weeping. She wets his feet with tears and dries them with her hair, kisses them and poured the perfume on them (vv. 36-39).
Why does she behave this way? The simplest explanation would seem this: the woman has committed many sins, but one day she was seized with remorse, repented and went to ask for forgiveness from Jesus. She began to love a lot and, with this love has managed to have her sins forgiven.
But the issue does not seem to be put in these terms. The parable that Jesus tells (vv. 40-43) and its explanation (vv. 44-47) gear towards a very different interpretation. What is at stake is not how much love it takes to obtain the forgiveness of one’s sins. That is, if the sins are many: first it is necessary to manifest much love and then forgiveness comes. If the sins are few less is sufficient. The problem lies elsewhere. It is about knowing who is willing to love: the one who has been forgiven much or the one who has been forgiven little?
The facts must be turned somewhat like this: the woman certainly already knew Jesus. How? We know that he often accepted invitations to dinner given to him by sinners (Lk 7:34; 15:2). These surely had no scruples to bring along some friends of no exemplary morals. It is therefore possible that Jesus and the woman have met in one of these occasions.
The candid look of the young Galilean Master must have struck her. She realizes of having met an extraordinary man: sympathetic, respectful, free. He has not the haughty, aloof and contemptuous demeanor of the Pharisees. He dresses like all the rest and is ironic on the scribes who prance in their “long robes” (Lk 20:46). He is religious but not bigoted and places love of people before compliance with any law. He always speaks of love, peace, reconciliation, defends the poor, the weak, those who did wrong like herself. He often comes to say that they are closer to God than those who consider themselves “righteous” (Lk 18:9-14).
How different he is from other men! All sought her as an object of pleasure. They have abused her body, bought her beauty. He was the first who has contemplated her with pure eyes, without lusting for her; the only one who, with a look, has made her intuit the respect and esteem he had for her. Since that day she regained her self-confidence, rediscovered her dignity, felt her heart open to joy and hope. She took courage and decided to rebuild her life. God was with her, offering her peace. She understood: she was forgiven.
Why did she go to Jesus? To express her gratitude. Since she met him everything about her has changed. His words have worked in her the miracle. How to express the joy she feels? With gestures that her affection, heart, feminine sensitivity suggest: the perfume, the kisses, loosened hair, the tears. Gestures that rattle and scandalize those present.
Her crying is not dictated—as someone may think—by remorse, but by the joy of being finally understood and loved. From the moment of experiencing forgiveness, she began to build a life based on love: She loved much—Jesus says—because her many sins have been forgiven. But one who is forgiven little, has less love.
Simon, the host, is good, but is conditioned by the education he received and the self-righteous mentality that he has assimilated. A prophet—he thinks—should realize that contact with a sinner makes him unclean and the woman’s behavior is unmistakable. Jesus should know that loosening the hair in front of a man is reason enough to justify the repudiation.
Simon is “righteous”, one who cannot be accused of any breach of the law, one who lives in contemplation of his good works. In Jesus’ long list of actions done by the sinful woman and ignored by the Pharisee, there is no mention of non-compliance, no misconduct done by Simon transpired. Simon did not overlook anything that is required, but he limited himself to that. And the woman, guided by love, has gone further.
Simon is locked in his thoughts, clinging to his Pharisaical convictions. He cannot give up the idea that the saints are to be separated from sinners. According to him this division is willed by God and Jesus, if he is a prophet, would have to agree. Then he cannot get away from the idea that justice is measured by strict observance of the precepts. How to make him understand that he is all wrong?
To change the heart of David, to make him aware of his state of sin, Nathan tells a parable that ends with a loaded question. David is unaware of it and pronounces judgment against himself. Nathan uses the same words of the king to give him a lesson. Even Jesus tells a parable and asks the Pharisee a question: “Two people were in debt to the same creditor. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. As they were unable to pay him back, he graciously cancelled the debts of both. Now, which of them will love him more?” (vv. 41-43).
Simon hesitates; he is almost lost. Reluctantly he replied: “I suppose…”. He does not seem completely convinced, he is indecisive, afraid to get involved in a new, mysterious logic, that dismays him, takes away all his religious certainties, and demands the total abandonment in the arms of God’s generosity.
He does not let himself be converted. Has Simon sinned little? If one takes as a yardstick the observance of the precepts, he certainly has sinned much less than the woman. But he did not understand anything of God: he is stubborn to consider him a judge of who does wrong, an employer who pays in proportion to the merits.
Jesus announces a sanctity different from what he and his fellow Pharisees preach. He shows him that those who did wrong, who cannot boast of his own “justice”, are, paradoxically, in a privileged position: they can understand before the “perfect” ones that “justice” is not a human achievement, but God’s free gift.
To be able to open oneself to love without boundaries one must let oneself be free from anxiety, tension of having to merit at all cost, making performance, fulfilling precepts. If one is not converted from this sin, he or she will remain unable to love and to rejoice. Recounting this episode, Luke has in mind the situation of his community. In them there are also some public sinners who were converted to Christ. Despite leading an exemplary life and devoting themselves with greater generosity than others to serve the brethren, they are marginalized and regarded as “pariah”. The evangelist counters this self-righteous and discriminating behavior with the welcome and appreciation of Jesus to these people.
The last part of the passage (Lk 8:1-3) reminds that the group of Jesus’ disciples was not composed only of men. There were also many women following him. Some of these, well-known in the early church, are remembered by name. What pushed them to generously dedicate their entire life to the service of proclaiming the Gospel?
Even when he writes these verses, Luke has in mind the situation of his community. In them there are many women, especially widows, who devote all their time to the brothers. Today’s Gospel says that this generosity is explained by the fact that they know of having received much from the Lord “they were healed of evil spirits and diseases”.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos