The Lord links our love for him in terms of our awareness of our sin and our experiencing of having been forgiven: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)
I. The Pharisaical Problem – He said this in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. Now the Pharisees had reduced holiness to the observance of a rather precise and technical code of 613 precepts. Many of these were minor observances such at the purifying of jugs and cups, following a “Kosher” diet, and observing a myriad of Sabbath rules. Others were more weighty, involving fasts and prayer observances, paying tithes etc. But I hope you can see the absurdity of reducing holiness to a code of a mere 613 precepts. Jesus often excoriated the Pharisees for their intricate observances of the minute details while they neglected weightier matters of justice and failed to love others, see them as brethren or lift a finger to help them find God. Instead they were famous for simply writing off others with scorn and regarding them with contempt. Their arrogance troubled Jesus greatly.
At the heart of their self deception was the notion that they could be righteous on their own, that sin was something that did not touch them. They were “self-righteous.” That is, they considered themselves to be righteous on their own and that by simple human effort they had eradicated sin and were free of it. Again, it is hoped that you can see the absurdity of this. But notice that the delusion first involved a severely dumbed-down notion of holiness, reducing the matter to 613 rules. Then, if you try and put a little effort, presto – you’re “holy,” righteous, and without sin.
The Sadducees, the scribes and other Temple leaders also had similar minimalist notions. A rather memorable interaction took place between Jesus and one of the Scribes in Luke 10. They were discussing the Commandment to Love God and your neighbor as yourself. In effect the Scribe, like a true lawyer, wants to minimize the whole thing and keep the commandment manageable so as Luke reports: But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”(Lk 10:29). Notice, he wanted to justify himself. This is want is meant by the notion of self-righteousness, to be righteous by my own power. But in order to pull off the self justification he first needs to make the loving of one’s neighbor more minimal and manageable. So he enters into a negotiation of sorts with Jesus to dumb down the whole thing. Jesus does not take the bait but goes on to tell his famous Parable of the Good Samaritan which teaches that my neighbor whom I must love is an expansive category that leaps beyond, family, local community, even nation. But here was the Pharisaical, tendency also shared by the Sadducees, Scribes and Temple Leaders: I can be holy on my own, I can be without sin if I just follow a set of rules. If that is the case, who needs a savior? Who needs Jesus? Who needs God to save him? It is the law which saves and all I have to do is follow it in the narrowest and most restricted sense and I am sinless. Or so they thought.
II. Our Personal Participation in the Problem – Now, before you rush to scoff at the Pharisees be careful on two counts.
1. The Pharisees were a large religious group in Israel and like any large religious group there were varying interpretations and experiences of the Pharisee philosophy. Not every one was as cartoonishly absurd in their thinking as I have described. Some were however (e.g. in Luke above, and Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel) and all the members of the Pharisee movement had the tendencies described due to their minimalistic notions of holiness.
2. But more importantly don’t rush to scoff because we have ourselves have become very Pharisaical in modern times. There is a widespread tendency today to exonerate ourselves from sin or at least to diminish any notion that we are a sinner. We have done this in several ways.
First, we have been through a long period in the Church where clergy and catechists have soft-pedaled sin. Talking about sin sin was “negative” and we should be more “positive.” After all if we talk about sin too much “people might get angry or hurt and we want our parish to be a warm and welcoming community.” Or so the thinking goes.
Second, there is the tendency to evade responsibility. “I’m not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two…..I need therapy, I went to public school etc. .” This may be true but it does not mean we have no sin.
Third, and perhaps the most Pharisaical thing we have done is to reduce holiness to “being nice.” All that matters in the end is that we’re “nice.” Go ahead and shack up, fornicate, skip Mass, dissent from any number of Biblical and Church teachings, have numerous divorces, and be unforgiving of your family members (after all that’s a “private” matter). But as long as you’re “generally a nice person” everything is OK. At least the Pharisees had 613 rules. We have only one: “be nice.” Now here too I do not say this of everyone. But in a very widespread way we are like the Pharisees, completely out of touch with our sinfulness and desperate need for God’s mercy. “What me a sinner? – How dare you! I am basically a good (i.e. nice) person” as though that were all that mattered. Or so the thinking goes. And let a priest or deacon get in a pulpit and talk tough about sin to some congregations and watch the letters go off to the Bishop or the priest be called negative.
III. Our Prescribed Perspective – In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a Parable about two people who had a debt which neither could repay. Note carefully, neither could repay. That is to say, both were sinners and neither one can save them self of be righteous on their own. The debt is beyond their ability. One had a large debt, the other a smaller one. It is a true fact that some on this planet are greater sinners than others. Moral equivalency is wrong. Mother Teresa was surely more holy than Joseph Stalin. (Nevertheless, even Mother Teresa had a debt she couldn’t pay and would be the first to affirm that she was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy). Now since neither of the people in the parable could repay they both sought mercy. Who is more grateful? Obviously the one who was forgiven the larger amount.
The paradoxical font of love – But pay attention to the way Jesus words it: “Which of them loves him [the creditor] more?” (Lk 7:42). The one who love more is the one who is forgiven more. This is why today’s dismissal of sin is so serious. In effect we deny or minimize our debt and the result is that we love God less. Notice that, while many sectors of the Church have soft-pedaled any preaching about sin and emphasized a self-esteem message, our Churches have emptied. Only 27% of Catholics go to Mass in this country. It is worse in Europe. Obviously love for God has grown cold. As we have lost touch with our debt, we have less love for the one who alone can forgive it. We no longer seek him and we love him only tepidly and in a distant manner. Jesus says it plainly (and it would seem with sadness): But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)
Pray for a broken and humble heart, a heart to know the astonishing debt of our own sin. It is a paradox but it is true: we have to grasp the bad news of sin before we can rejoice in the good news of forgiveness and redemption. Before we can really love the One who alone can save us, we have to know how difficult we are to love. You and I must pray for the grace to finally have it dawn on us that “The Son of God died for me….not because I was good or nice, but because I was bad and in desperate shape.” Only when we really experience this mercy is our heart broken and humble enough to really love the Lord. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)
I am mindful of an old Gospel song that says, “I really Love the Lord! You don’t know what he’s done for me! Gave me the victory. I really love the Lord!”