Extravagant Display of Love and the Grace of Forgiveness

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An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eleventh Sunday of Year C

Luke 7:36-50, June 16, 2013

By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD

IN THE FAST-PACED movie of adventure and fantasy, shown in theaters two years ago, entitled “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” set in an imagined kingdom of Persia in the fifth century, one of the characters that caught the attention of the audience was Dastan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Dastan was an orphaned scamp who went about the market place.  But the King of Persia, Sharaman in the person of Ronald Pickup, caught sight of him; and shown by Dastan’s valor in fighting those who pursued him, he adopted him as his son.  Grateful to the King’s benevolence, he distinguished himself as an able commander of the Persian Army.  Accused of murdering the King, he never turned against his step brothers who sought him; rather, he tried to prove his innocence to them at his own great peril.  Indeed, he sacrificed so much in order to save them from the evil machination of their uncle, Nizam, played by Ben Kingsley, who, salivating after the royal throne, was the culprit of the plot to eliminate the king.

             Dastan’s behavior recalls how the sinful woman in today’s Gospel (Luke 7:36-50) conducted herself before Jesus.  How explain her extravagant demeanor?  There’s certainly no doubt about it, what the woman did was an expression of hospitality and great love—her kissing of Jesus’ feet, her bathing them with her tears, her drying them with her hair, and her anointing them with perfume from an alabaster flask.  The problem lies in the correct interpretation of v 47a, which is ambiguous. The new Vulgate renders it thus: “Remissa sunt peccata eius multa, quoniam delixet multum.” “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (RSV).  “Her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much” (NIV).  By itself, the verse could mean that her multitude of sins was forgiven on account of the love she had demonstrated to Jesus.  But the preceding parable of two debtors, in addition to the second segment of v 47 (“He who was been forgiven little loves little”), excludes this interpretation.

             This brief parable allegorizes the divergent behaviors of Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman toward Jesus.  The Pharisee was quite stingy with his hospitality, in contrast with that of the woman which was lavish.  While Simon never gave attention to the details of hospitality, even though he was the host who invited Jesus to dinner, the prostitute, who was uninvited, was hospitable to Jesus to the highest degree.  This only shows that although Simon knew Jesus, he remained blind to him and his significance to his life; he remained in his self-righteous attitude.  In reality, he did not even recognize Jesus as a prophet.  On the other hand, the loose woman certainly recognized Jesus as more than a prophet, for she accepted his word of forgiveness.   (Luke hints that Jesus is more than just a human being, since the guests wondered why he was able to forgive sins.)  Having received divine grace, she became a changed woman, and it was in the house of Simon that she was able to give thanks and demonstrate her love on account of the forgiveness she received.  In effect, the story assumes that she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness prior to her meeting with him at the house of Simon.  Because she realized her need for forgiveness, and received that gift from Jesus, it was natural that she would be generous in her response.  On the other hand, if Simon violated the rules of Palestinian hospitality, it was because the logion, “the one to whom little was forgiven, loves little (v 47b),” applies to him.

             The attitude of the sinful woman is therefore somewhat similar to the attitude of Dastan in the film.  Just as the King’s benevolence resulted in a warrior who remained faithful to the King’s family despite the dangers that he encountered, the Lord’s forgiveness lavished on the woman brought about a generous love for him, in spite of the fact that her action would have left the guests in consternation.  St Paul is the best illustration of this episode in concrete life.  As he himself declared in his letter to the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name.   But by God’s favor, I am what I am.  This favor of his to me has not proved fruitless.  Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others not only my own but through the favor of God” (1 Cor 15:9-10).  Paul was conscious of his sinfulness, but he recognized the grace of God’s forgiving love that came from Jesus.  That is why he knew that if he was chosen as an apostle, it was not because of any good thing he did, or any merit on his part, but it was because of God’s loving and forgiving grace for him.  This grace produced a humongous result—Paul devoted himself to the preaching of the Gospel to the pagan world until the end of his life, and became a living Word of Jesus’ life.  This grace was the energy that propelled him in his missionary labors.

             The sinful woman, therefore, is a model for us on what it means to receive grace from God despite our unworthiness.  Unlike the Pharisee who paraded himself as righteous, she was never ashamed to accept herself and to be known by others as a sinner.  But this recognition worked all the better for her, because she came to admit her need to be forgiven, to encounter Jesus as the bringer of forgiveness and salvation, and on account of that encounter, she became a new person in Christ.  This pericope is a good reminder for some who want to parade as holy men and women, even though they know they are not, and use their power to silence, demote, and punish those who they surmise might turn out to be a threat to the cover-up of their corruption, and invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the use of that power.  They are the present-day Simons in our midst.  Holiness begins with the recognition that we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness. That recognition not only makes us free; it makes us human and enables us to really walk in real love and gratitude to God.

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