Fr. Charles Irvin
Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16,19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
When we read bible passages, or hear them read to us, we glean more if we pay attention to who wrote them, why they were written, and what their authors are trying to convey to us.
Today’s gospel passage comes to us from St. Luke’s gospel. St. Luke was a physician. He had a special concern for those who were hurting and needed healing. Therefore it was by no accident that St. Luke in his gospel included today’s episode about the sinful woman. In other parts of his gospel we learn of outcasts, people who had been shunned and hurt by others, and people who were ill treated. In his writing, St. Luke pays special attention to women and the role they played in the life of Jesus. In St. Luke we find Jesus giving women the attention, the respect, and the honor they would not otherwise have received in the culture in which they lived back then.
In reading Sacred Scripture we need to see ourselves in the various characters that are presented to us. For instance, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son we need to see ourselves as the younger son, see ourselves as his elder brother, and see ourselves as the prodigal son’s father. We need to picture ourselves in their attitudes and in their behaviors. Looking at St. Peter, can we see elements of his character and attitudes in our own? The same for St. Joseph, as another example. Perhaps above all other saints, can we find our Blessed Mother’s characteristics, her attitudes, and her relationship with her Son in our own personalities? How are we similar to them? How are we not at all like them? The images of the humanity of the saints are given to us so that we might find our humanity in theirs.
With that in mind we turn now to today’s Gospel and give our attention to two important human characters that come into focus, one is the Pharisee, the other the sinful woman. Early Christian writers viewed them as allegorical characters, the Pharisee representing the Jewish religious establishment and the woman representing us, the Church, the followers of Jesus. Theologians and preachers in the Early Church (the Church Fathers as we call them) saw her as a type, an icon, of the Church. That being so we, the members that constitute the body of the Church, should likewise recognize ourselves in this woman.
As we begin to glean things from today’s passage, I want to point out to you that it was the custom in those days to offer water to invited guests who entered homes for a meal, water to wash the dust and dirt off their feet, and water to wash their faces and hands. This was a normal and expected courtesy. Here in this episode the Pharisee offered no water to Jesus even though He was an invited guest. It was a snub, a snub that in effect said, “You are dirt as far as I’m concerned.”
Normally a warm greeting with a kiss on the cheek was tendered. You see that even today in the Middle East when people first meet and greet each other. Upon Jesus’ arrival in the Pharisee’s home He was given no kiss, no sign of closeness or friendship. In other words He was told He was an outsider. The message was: “You’ll get no respect here!”
Anointing with oil was another gesture of hospitality. Actually the ointment was a kind of perfume. In those hot, dusty regions of the world you can imagine the smells that must have accumulated in the clothes of travelers. Perfumed oil was a way of making the guests more comfortable, especially those sitting nearby! Anointing with oil also had a healing quality to take care of muscle aches, pains, and weaknesses.
What about the woman who appeared at the dinner? Was she invited? Probably not. After all she had a bad reputation and had most likely been sexually promiscuous. We don’t know how she got into the party but that doesn’t matter. What we do know is that she was conscious of her sins, very conscious of them. She knew she needed forgiveness and acceptance. Quite obviously she knew who Jesus was and that He was an extraordinarily holy man of God.
Boldly she approached Jesus, washed His feet with her tears, wiped them clean with her hair, and then covered His feet with her kisses. These actions were very intimate… but then she knew a lot about intimacies. The guests at that dinner must have been shocked.
Apparently she also knew a lot about Jesus and the forgiveness that overflowed from His heart. She could recognize love when she saw it, and she fully recognized all of the love in Jesus’ heart. In her faith she humbly laid claim to His love and forgiveness. Her many sins were forgiven. She loved a lot; she was forgiven a lot.
Love motivated this woman. Love did not motivate the Pharisee. She knew what was in the heart of Jesus and, acting in faith, she placed her hope in Him and gave Him her love.
The Pharisee, being distant from Jesus, cold in his aloofness, didn’t receive any forgiveness — he didn’t even want it.
This raises a question for you and me. Just how close are you and I to Jesus? Can you see yourself on intimate terms with Him, just as this woman saw herself? Do you approach Him as humbly and boldly as she did?
This leads to another question: How do you approach not only touching but actually receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus? Many around us are indifferent. Many regard receiving Holy Communion as if it is just another religious gesture. Do they think Holy Communion is only a piece of bread and a bit of wine?
It is important for us to ask ourselves if we can capture some of the woman’s fervor, some of her love. If we think of the Pharisee’s house as representing the world around us as we find it in our day, can we see ourselves and see our Church as this woman – sinful and in need of healing and forgiveness? Can we have hearts as warm as hers and boldly anoint His feet with our own devotions? Certainly we are all only too aware of the sinfulness that is found in our Church, even in her priests and bishops. A lot of penance is called for and much forgiveness is needed. What Jesus declared is our only hope: So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.
May you and I be a part of the great love that is needed both for our Church and in our Church today, the wounded Mystical Body of Christ now so deeply in need of healing.