Every now and then it will be said by some that the Church should speak less of sin and emphasize more positive things. It is said that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. And indeed, we in the Church have been collectively de-emphasizing sin to a large degree for more than forty years. But, despite predictions, our churches have been getting emptier and emptier. Maybe this is because people are a little more complicated than the “flies” in the old saying.
Jesus also gives the reason in today’s Gospel as to why our churches are getting emptier. Simply put there is less love. He says, But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. (Luke 7:47)
Why is there less love? As Jesus says, there is less love because there is less appreciation of what the Lord has done for us and the debt He paid for us. Because debt of sin is no longer preached as it should be, we are less aware of just how grave our condition is. Thus we under-appreciate what the Lord has done for us. This in turn diminishes love, and a lack of love leads to absence and neglect.
Understanding sin is essential for us to understand what the Lord has done for us. Remembering what the Lord has done for us brings gratitude and love. To those who want the Church to de-emphasize sin Jesus warns, But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. (Luke 7:47)
Here then is the gospel in summary form, and the short, TV Mass version of my sermon. If you wish to ponder more, here follows a further commentary:
I. Rich Love – The Gospel opens with a sign of extravagant love. The text says, A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
One may argue as to the value of the ointment in this passage. Some have wished to opine that she was a wealthy on account of prostitution, and could thus afford an expensive ointment. Fine. But her tears were far more costly than any ointment. Yes, her tears are the most costly thing in her life, born on great pain and costly sorrow.
It is true, many of her sorrows are likely the result of her own foolishness. But that does not decrease her pain, it increases it. Yes, the most costly thing with which she anoints the Lord’s feet is her tears. There is nothing more precious to the Lord than the love of his faithful, than their sorrow for sins, and their turning to him in love and repentance; no greater gift.
In Jesus day people ate a formal dinner reclining on the floor, on a mat, on their left side. Their feet were behind them and they ate with their right hand. This explains the ability of the woman to approach Jesus’ feet from behind.
In this sense she is able to “surprise” Jesus by her love. Perhaps she was not ready to look upon his face and behold his holy countenance. Just his feet, the lowliest aspect of his sacred humanity, that is where she begins. She humbles herself to serve that part of him that most engages our lowly earth. There, even the Son of God had callouses, perhaps even a wound or two. Yes, there she saw reflected her own humility, saw her own callouses and wounds. There she would discover the first wounds the Savior endured for us; wounds that reflected that He knew what this world can do to a person.
She loves, sharing the incalculable gift of her own sorrows, sorrow for sin and sorrow on account of others who sinned against her. And there she found a friend in Jesus who, though sinless himself, had suffered mightily on account of the sins of others and would suffer more.
Such love, such relief. And, as we shall see, her love is rooted in an experience of mercy. And her experience of mercy is rooted in a deep knowledge of her sinfulness. That experience led her to deep gratitude for the love the Lord had shown her. As we shall also see, her experience of the depths of God’s mercy is something we must all some how experience.
And we too are called to go to the Lord in sorrow and love. And there at the foot of the cross we look up. And what is the first thing we see? His feet. And there, like the woman, we are called to love, to weeping for our sins, and to the remembrance of His mercy for us.
II. Rebuke - When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Here is a dangerous comparison. The Pharisee accounts himself and others to be better or more holy than she. He seems to have no idea that he is also in need of grace and mercy as well.
There is a great danger in thinking that we can attain to heaven merely by being better than someone else. But that is NOT the standard. The Standard, to obtain heaven is to be like Jesus. And if we will lay hold of that, we will see that we are ALL going a lot of grace and mercy to even stand a chance! Yes, to this Pharisee and to some of us the cry must go out: “Danger (Will Robinson)!”
The danger for us is a danger that prevents us from experiencing God’s grace mercy and love. The danger is our prideful presumption that we are less needy that others who are more sinful.
While it is true that, a purely human level, some many have sins more serious than others, at the divine level we are ALL poor and blind beggars who don’t stand a chance in comparison with the perfection and holiness of God. Even if I were to have $500 in comparison to your $50, the true value necessary to be able to endure God’s holiness is $50 Trillion. Thus, whatever differences may exist between you and I are nothing in comparison to the boatloads of grace mercy we will both need to ever hope to see God.
The Pharisee’s exasperation is borne on a blindness to his own sin. And, being blind in this way, his heart is ill-equipped to love or even experience love. He has no sense he needs it all! His sense is that he is has earned God’s love and that God somehow owes him. But God does not owe him. His only hope is grace, love and mercy from God.
Having no sense of his sin, he smugly dismisses this woman’s action as reprehensible. And he even considers Jesus naïve and of no account for accepting her love. Yet, Jesus is not naïve and the Pharisee had ought to be rather more careful since the measure that he measures will be measured back to him. His lack of mercy for her, brings a standard of strict justice on him. But he cannot endure this sort of justice. He is badly misled.
III. Rejoinder – Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher, ” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
And here comes the central point of this gospel, a point we have too widely set aside today. And the point is simply that, to appreciate the glory of the good news, we must first lay hold of the of the bad news. We must grasp the depths of our sin to appreciate the heights of God’s love and mercy.
But in this modern age which minimizes sins and has said, in effect, “I’m OK you’re OK,” little penetration of the depths of sin is made. And thus, there is little appreciation for the glory for God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Jesus could not be clearer, until we know the bill of our sins and grasp that we cannot even come close to paying it, we will make light of mercy and consider the gift of salvation wrought for us as of little or no account.
How tragic it is then, that many preachers in Church have stopped preaching sin. The effect of course, as was mentioned above, has been to minimize love and empty our churches. Knowing our sin, if such knowledge is of the Holy Spirit, leads to love. Jesus now points to the woman as a picture of what is necessary.
IV. Remembrance - Jesus points to the Woman and says, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Yes, behold her love, a love which is the fruit of a remembrance of what the Lord has done for her. She knows and remembers that she has been forgiven much. It is fixed in her mind what the Lord has done for her and she is grateful and different.
And here is the heart of what it means to remember. Has not the Lord told us all to remember what he has done for us? Indeed, he says it at every Mass: Do this in remembrance of me.
What does it mean to remember? It means to have so present in my mind and heart what the Lord has done for you that you’re grateful, and you’re different.
This woman cannot forget what Jesus has done for her. She remembers, she is grateful and she is different.
We too must be willing to go to the foot of the cross and let it dawn on us what the Lord has done for us, to let it dawn so that we are grateful and different, so that we are moved to love for the Lord and for others.
Go with me to the foot of the cross and pray (in the words of psalm 38):
Foul and festering are my sores,
at the face of my own foolishness.
I am stooped and turned deeply inward
And I walk about, all the day in sorrow.
I am afflicted and deeply humiliated
I groan in the weeping of my heart.
Before you O Lord are all my desires,
And my weeping is not hid from you.
My hearts shudders, my strength forsakes me,
And the very light itself has gone from my eyes.
But it is there, at the foot of the cross, that his mercy dawns on us, there in the shadow of our own sins does the power of his mercy break through our broken and humbled hearts:
I Love the Lord for he has heard
The voice of my lamentation.
For he turned his ear to me
On the day I called to him!
The lines of death had surrounded me,
And the anguish of Hell had found me.
In my tribulation and sorrow I called on the Lord,
“O Lord save my soul!”
Ah, The Lord is merciful and just,
Our God has had mercy!
The Lord guards his little ones.
I was humbled and he saved me!
Be turned back my soul to your rest,
My eyes, from tears, and my feet from slipping!
For I will walk in the presence of the Lord,
In the land of the living. (Psalm 116)
Always remember what the Lord has done for you. Go to the foot of the Cross. Let the Lord show you what he has done for you. Always remember and never forget. If you do, you will be grateful and different.
Some time ago the world cast off sorrow for sin as “unhealthy.” And, sadly, the larger part of the Church bought into the self esteem craze of the 1970s and 80s. It is true, there such a thing as morbid and unhealthy guilt. But there is also a godly sorrow of which St. Paul writes:
If I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)
It is time for us all to rediscover godly sorrow, a sorrow for sins that comes from the Holy Spirit and which is the root of love and gratitude for the salvation of God. Without it we are too easily like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel: arrogant, harsh, dismissive, and self satisfied. As the Lord says, The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. But with it we are like the woman: grateful, loving, serving, and extravagant.
Remember what the Lord has done for you. That is, let what the Lord has done for you be so present in your mind and heart that you are grateful and you are different.