Praying for a Broken and Humble Heart: A Meditation on Love of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7)

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!”

On Fascinosum et Tremendum

You may say, “This title is Greek to me.”  Actually it is a Latin and it refers to an important balance in our spiritual life. It is phrase that speaks of  trembling  before the Holy that draws me close.

Fascinosum is where we get the word fascinating. It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, peaks my interest, something that strongly attracts.

Tremendum is where we get the word tremendous. It refers to something awesome. Something too big to comprehend or grasp. Hence we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with a kind of bewilderment. And we feel small before the tremendous.

Many ancient authors used these words to describe the human person before God: drawn by God’s inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:

  1. I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
  2. And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,  then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”   When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matt 17:1-6)
  3. I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man,  wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow,  and his eyes were like a fiery flame.  His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace,  and his voice was like the sound of rushing water.  In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. (Rev 1:15-17)

Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold his beauty (fascinosum), they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by God (tremendum). It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God! (Heb 10:31). The most interesting passage to me is the third one involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, was perfectly capable of leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder to ask him a question. Yet now, as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, he falls to his face. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us is ultimately compelled to fall down.

We have come through an era that has trivialized God in many ways. Perhaps it was an over correction to a more severe time of the 1950s when any misstep of ours could result in a quick trip to hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Mortal sin was understood only objectively by many in those days and by God, even if there were two feet of snow on the ground and you missed Church, your were in sin and had to get to confession asap. Fear was a strong motivator for many in those days.

But we over corrected and by the 1970s the usual notion was that God didn’t seem to care what we did. He was rendered quite harmless actually and it seemed that his main purpose was to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to replaced by a kind of “Mr Rogers,” or  “Buddy Jesus” version who just went about blessing the poor, healing the sick and asking us to love each other. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded first place in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgement and hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest him came back empty handed saying “no one has ever spoken like that man”, this Jesus was no where to be found by the 1970s

And thus we have needed a return to the balance that fascinosum et tremendum offers. Surely we sense a deep desire for God, we are drawn to him in all his beauty and glory. But we are encountering God here and we are but creatures. A reverential fear is appropriate for the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The Biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.

This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber,  for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. But in the end, it is God whom we worship and falling to our knees is wholly appropriate. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate. I wish you plenty of fascinosum and equal doses of tremendum!

Joy is from God

There is something deeply mysterious about joy. It is deeper than mere laughter, it is more than an emotion. Joy seems to combine both serenity and excitement along with a touch of humor or laughter. It seems to come as pure gift, emerging sometimes in an instant, sometimes as a gentle tide welling up. Perhaps its context is good news, or a humorous moment, Perhaps it exists with the satisfaction of a completed task or a reunion after an absence. It does not seem to be a learned response at all. It just is, it’s just there! Even the youngest infants show joy. It comes with the soul and is there from the start.

What is joy? It is the gift of God. We can only receive it, not cause it. It is gift.

I know that, in places, the Scriptures seem to command joy as though we could cause it. But notice those same Scriptures put that command in a context. For example, we are to not to “joy” but  to “rejoice.” That is, we are to recall and revisit the joy the Lord has given us. Elsewhere the Scriptures say “Be joyful” but then add “in the Lord.” For joy is of God and comes from him.

Joy is an unmistakable foretaste of heaven. It leaps down from heaven and draws us up there for a time. For the Christian, joy should grow as we journey ever closer to that place where “joys will never end.”

Joy to you as you watch this remarkable video and glimpse the joy of God on infant faces:

  • Ex ore infantium, Deus, perfecisti laudem
  • (From the mouths of infants you have perfected praise O God)
  • Psalm 8:3