Who is this who forgives sins?
Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Denis Geraghty asks us to reflect on the forgiven woman who anoints Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee.
The accounts found in Mark and Matthew of the anointing of Jesus by a woman are both connected with his passion, as his anointing for burial. In Luke’s account, which is today’s gospel, the passion is not referred to at all. This is scarcely accidental.
Luke’s story is intended to face us with the sheer unsolicited love of God through Jesus. The occasion is a meal to which Jesus has been invited by one of the Pharisees, probably a major occasion, because we are told that he reclined at table whilst they were eating.
A woman, a despised sinner, comes in and stands before Jesus, her tears running down and bathing his feet; taking a jar of precious ointment she anoints his feet, kisses them and dries them with her hair. The shocked Pharisee, who had not even shown the normal marks of hospitality to Jesus when he arrived, thought that Jesus should have rejected her if he knew the manner of woman she was.
It is often thought that the sinful woman comes to Jesus and seeks forgiveness of him and, as a reward, receives it because of her act of kindness. In other words, this act of kindness to Jesus is the condition of her forgiveness.
But suppose her coming to Jesus is the act of a sinner already forgiven by God, who, realising that Jesus is in the house of the Pharisee, comes to him and pours out her love, her joy and her gratitude?
The scene is then transformed into an expression of celebration. Her tears of joy – the perfume, the fragrance of the presence of Jesus – this too makes perfect sense of the story that Jesus then tells about the two debtors.
We are surely expected to remember and contrast with this the discourteous behaviour of Simon the Pharisee – his refusal of normal courtesies to Jesus, his arrogance, his judgmental attitude towards the sinner. With the sinful woman’s open and total expression of self-giving love, the story calls on us to examine our basic orientation towards God and our capacity to be open to reconciliation and forgiveness. The sinful woman was open, transformed and filled with joy. How open was Simon, niggardly, cold and formal?
This means, surely, that Jesus is not just concerned with defending the woman against Simon’s criticism, but also with the relationship between forgiveness and human love, freely given in one case and begrudged in the other. In Luke’s Gospel, when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, in what has come down to us as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to forgive the ‘debts’ of others as we hope to be forgiven ours by God.
The story of his encounter with the sinful woman is the exemplar of this petition – anger, hatred and lack of forgiveness, especially when they are deeply rooted, are a form of imprisonment. They bind us, make it impossible for us to reach out to others.
But the capacity to forgive changes us; makes us more open to seeing others in a different light. Those we forgive are also changed and are able to offer forgiveness themselves. Both the one who forgives and the forgiven are liberated, unbound.
The beautiful story, then, of the encounter between Jesus and the sinful woman shows us Jesus as the fount and source of God’s love for sinful humanity. The other guests at the feast asked the question, ‘Who is this who forgives sins?’