Jesus experienced God as unconditional love. This profound personal experience of God as love, probably occurred during his baptism, in contrast to the prevalent Jewish understanding of God as lawgiver, led him to proclaim a ‘scandalous gospel’ that was manifested in his liberative ministry of healing and exorcism; the provocative events of dining with tax-collectors, outcasts and sinners; touching lepers; declaring the ritual purity obsolete; allowing women to be his followers and affirming the poor as the beneficiaries of God’s blessings.
The Gospels are witnesses, in particular to table fellowship, during which Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners, and manifested God’s tender mercy that showed the gratuitous and unconditional love of the Father to his children, irrespective of their social standing. He did not let the social status, obsolete and rigid laws and cultural norms dictate his relationship with people. Consequently, dining with people was certainly an occasion for him to befriend people from many walks of life, whom his opponents, especially the religious leaders of his time, resented to. One can hear such discontented voices in the Gospels: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man, who is a sinner” (Lk 19:7) or “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mk 2:16). In particular, Luke’s Gospel narrates several episodes that show how Jesus manifested God’s mercy to the sinners and the outcasts at the table. For example, the episodes of Zacchaeus, the call of Levi, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with tears, the breaking of bread with the dejected and disillusioned disciples at Emmaus, etc. In addition, one can never forget that even the Last Supper of Jesus was a meal, shared with the sinners—Judas, who betrayed him; Peter, who denied him, and the other disciples, who abandoned him. In short, for Jesus, such occasions of table fellowship were indeed encounters of mercy or to say it better, ‘banquets of mercy’.
Lavish and Extravagant – Law or Love?
The short parable of mercy told by Jesus in Lk 7:41-43 is placed in the context of a meal at Simon’s house. Jesus was invited by Simon the Pharisee, who considered him as a prophet (v.39) and a teacher (v.40). In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were members of one of the Jewish groups, who were hyper concerned with strict observance of the Law and the ritual purity. They separated themselves from the gentiles, half-Jews and from all that was impure. In contrast to the rigid conservatism of Pharisees, who were at the forefront to note the sins of others for not adhering to the Law and its observances, the Gospels provide ample examples of how Jesus’ ministry was one of compassion and repentance, including the ‘excluded’. He sought the sinners out, met them where they were and extended God’s forgiveness and mercy in their circumstances. On several occasions, in the conflict between Pharisees and the so-called ‘sinners’, Jesus outrightly denounced the Pharisees and the other religious leaders for their hypocrisy, but he forgave the sinners and blessed the poor. In the present story, Simon exemplifies such pharisaic behavior.
When Jesus was at table in Simon’s house, surprisingly a nameless woman, who was known as a sinner in that area approached him and anointed him—bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed his feet and poured perfume over them. Perhaps, she might have known that she would be ridiculed, insulted and abused yet she dared to display her love and affection towards Jesus. In contrast to the self-righteousness of Simon, her many actions were motivated by one thing—her love for Jesus and the gratitude for his forgiveness of her sins. This anonymous woman did something a Jewish woman strictly could not do in public to a man, and that too, to a rabbi. She bathed his feet with her tears, loosed her hair and dried them with it. She continued to kiss his feet and anointed them with the ointment—the most precious thing that she could ever spend it on someone. Evidently, her love towards Jesus was not calculated, but perceived to be abundant, lavish and extravagant.
Dynamics of Forgiveness and Love
The entire story is a powerful dynamics on the relation between forgiveness and love—whoever is forgiven more, loves more. In order to clarify what is going on in Simon’s house, Jesus narrates a short and incisive parable of two debtors and their creditor. As usual, the characters are anonymous in this story too. A creditor is owed five hundred denarii by the first debtor and fifty by the second one. Fifty denarii would approximately represent about two months’ of work, while five hundred would be the equivalent of the earned income of two years’ work. Further, there is no dialogue between the characters; they do not speak, rather one finds merely a narration of the parable (by Jesus). Since there are no dialogues, the focus shifts to the most significant verb in the story ‘forgive’. This is expressed through charizomai (v.42, v.43), which means to cancel a debt (in the present text) and aphi?mi (v.47x2; v.48; v.49) to forgive or remit (one’s sins or debts).
The woman is not forgiven because of her lavish and extravagant display of love; rather, her loving actions follow from her experience of having been forgiven by Jesus. The crucial verse in this story is v.47: “her sins are forgiven, and therefore, she has loved much.” Unfortunately, some translations render the sentence as, “her sins are forgiven because she has loved much”, thus making forgiveness as consequence of her loving actions. Syntactically, ‘because’ makes poor sense in the context where her great love shows great forgiveness, but does not cause it. This view is clarified in the following sentence: “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Whoever is forgiven more, loves more. This is at the heart of this parable of mercy that affirms the primacy of the grace of God, that is, only grace can make up for the debt each one owes to God. The Pharisee’s self-righteousness leads to little forgiveness by God and consequently, he shows little love towards Jesus. By judging the sinfulness of the woman and the corresponding behavior of Jesus, Simon becomes judgmental and disapproves the revelation of divine mercy that stands in stark contrast to the rigid practice of the Law. Notwithstanding the unwelcoming nature of Simon, the sinful woman manifests her profound, intimate and personal love for Jesus that leads her to seek forgiveness for her sins, and because so much is forgiven, she overwhelms Jesus with her display of love outwardly. In this way, the parable of the two debtors and their creditor unmasks the attitude of Simon and incriminates him in his own answer, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt” (v.43). However, Jesus’ appreciation of the woman (in vv.44-46) is not a condemnation of Simon, for mercy does not condemn others. It is rather to persuade Simon to see differently; in fact, to see through God’s eyes, full of forgiveness and mercy.
Mercy and Misery!
St. Augustine in the fourth century showed us that misericordia (mercy) and miseria (misery) are two sides of the same coin. The one who acknowledges and accepts his or her misery before God becomes the recipient of divine mercy. What better example can we have than St. Augustine himself! In the story, the sinful woman’s acceptance of her misery and the subsequent extravagant expression of her love, filled with gratitude is a clear indication that she found favour with God, “your sins are forgiven” (v.48) and “you faith has saved you, go in peace” (v.50). But Simon, who considered himself as an upright person turns out to be self-sufficient that keeps him from acknowledging his need for God’s grace.
Msgr. Antonio Pitta summarizes beautifully this parable of mercy in the following words, “With Jesus, God’s mercy allows itself to be contaminated by human misery, but he redeems that misery by transforming it through gratuitous unconditional love. There is no episode in the Gospels that is more intimate than this one in Simon’s house… According to the Gospels, Jesus never conceded this intimacy to anyone, not even his mother. Jesus’ mercy redeems human misery not by merely brushing up against it or barely touching it but by letting himself be contaminated by it.”
To conclude, the parable of the two debtors and their creditor is a ‘story within a story’. The sinful woman teaches us that what matters is not our past, but our present. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the woman knew certainly that ‘every saint has a past and every sinner has a future’. By narrating a short yet powerful parable, Jesus persuades Simon to change his perception, his vision and understanding about God’s mercy, extended to the sinners, which is unmerited and gratuitous. He persuades us too.
… he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman ?” (v.44) Are we seeing through Jesus’ eyes or Simon’s eyes?
P. Naveen Rebello, SVD