As is sadly so often the case, today’s reading about King David [2 Samuel 12:7-13] is such a small excerpt from a larger episode that someone unfamiliar with the whole story might have some trouble figuring out exactly what’s going on. Even so, it is clear that David has committed a serious sin, but that God forgives him. David does actually get punished for his sin, but God’s commitment to the royal family of David is decisive. So he was forgiven and kept his special place in God’s plan.
The situation is completely different in the Gospel, however, where we meet another sinner, but a non-royal, not at all important, anonymous one [Luke 7:36 – 8:3]. I stress her anonymity, because this story has historically been the basis for a famous case of mistaken identity – identifying the sinful woman in this story with Mary Magdalene. The confusion may have been caused originally by the fact that Mary Magdalene does get mentioned at the end of the story – not, however, as the sinful woman but rather as one of the wealthy women, whom Jesus had healed and who accompanied Jesus, and helped pay the bills. (Mary Magdalene and her friends remind us that, from the start, the Church’s mission has always depended on collaborators able and willing to provide material support; but Mary Magdalene herself has nothing to do with the sinful woman earlier in the story).
Another common misunderstanding, which this story can help correct, concerns Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were pious laymen, committed to living as religiously as possible, devoted to observing faithfully all the commandments of the law, but living in the world (not going off to the desert as some other groups did, for example). The Pharisees also had certain distinctive beliefs that separated them from the more conservative, priestly aristocracy, known as the Sadducees. Jesus shared many of the Pharisees’ beliefs – for example, belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead. After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees would emerge as the leaders in post-Temple Judaism, setting the stage for the next 2000 years of Jewish life. Their only real rivals would be the one other group to emerge from 1st-century Judaism – the Christians.
Reflecting the later 1st-century quarrel between Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah and those who did not, the New Testament highlights the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. Still, stories such as this, in which a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, remind us that the actual relationship was not always hostile in every respect.
Needless to say, this was not coffee at Starbucks. It was a real meal in a home, the kind of social and religious fellowship one did not normally share with just anyone.
Shortly before, Jesus had been acclaimed (as we heard last week) as a great prophet. Prophecy had by then officially ceased in Israel and was not expected to reappear until the coming of God’s kingdom. Hence the excitement generated first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus himself. Was Jesus really a prophet? Was he the prophet they were expecting? And how would one know for sure?
This accounts for the Pharisee’s reaction. If Jesus were really a prophet, the Pharisee figured, he would know who and what sort of woman was touching him! He probably wasn’t alone in wondering. Formal dinners were public events. The woman’s presence in the crowd watching the festivities was no big thing, but weeping and bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing and anointing them, that was not normally accepted behavior. If she didn’t have a reputation already, such behavior certainly assured her one!
Simon the Pharisee kept his reaction to himself. But we know his thoughts. And we know who Jesus really is! And Jesus does know who and what sort of woman is touching him even better than the Pharisee does. Hence his little parable about the two debtors – suggesting that if only Simon understood his own need for forgiveness, then he too might respond to Jesus just as the woman did.
The point, of course, is that we all need forgiveness. The anonymous woman appreciated what Jesus had to offer – nothing less than the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. The Pharisee had taken an important first step in inviting Jesus to dinner, but that was as far as he was ready to go. Like David before him, he could recognize others’ sinfulness but seemed clueless about his own.
When we hear this story, knowing already who Jesus is, we recognize the insufficiency of the Pharisee’s hospitality – because, from God’s perspective, everyone is like the debtors in the parable. Everyone is totally unable to repay. Everyone needs to be forgiven by God, who is willing to write off our debts, reconciling us to himself through Jesus his Son. So everyone should really respond to Jesus as exuberantly and lavishly as the sinful woman in the story.
The story ends with Jesus on the move again, journeying from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. What was that already but the Church in miniature? What was that but what the Church was then and what it must likewise be now – a community of forgiven sinners, reconciled to God and to one another, recognizing what Jesus had to offer and embracing him in a life lived in love, caring for one another and the world in a life lived in love!
Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 15, 2013.