Every now and then some will suggest that the Church should speak less of sin and instead emphasize positive things. After all, it is said that one can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. In that vein, we in the Church have been collectively de-emphasizing sin to a large degree for more than forty years. And in spite of the saying, our churches have been getting emptier and emptier. Maybe this is because people are just a little more complicated than the flies in the old saying.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus provides the reason 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 this? As Jesus says, we love little because we have little appreciation for what the Lord has done for us and for the debt He paid on our behalf. And why is that? Because debt for sin is no longer preached the way it should be and thus we are less aware of just how grave our condition is. This in turn diminishes love, and a lack of love leads to absence and neglect.
Understanding sin is essential for us to be able to fully comprehend what the Lord has done for us. Remembering what the Lord has done for us brings gratitude and love. Again, to those who want the Church to de-emphasize sin, Jesus provides this warning: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47).
That was the short version of my sermon, the “TV Mass” version, if you will. If you wish to ponder more, here is further commentary:
I. Rich Love – The Gospel today 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.
There is disagreement as to the value of the ointment referred to in this passage. Some opine that the woman is wealthy on account of prostitution, and could thus afford an expensive ointment. That could be, but her tears were far more costly than any ointment. Her tears are the costliest thing in her life, born out of great pain and sorrow.
While many of her sorrows are likely the result of her own foolishness, that does not decrease her pain; rather, it increases it. Yes, the costliest 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, turning to Him in sorrow and repentance for their sins—no greater gift.
In Jesus’ day people ate a formal dinner while 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 the woman is able to “surprise” Jesus with her love. Perhaps she is not ready to look upon His face and behold His holy countenance. She begins with His feet, the lowliest aspect of His sacred humanity. She humbles herself to serve the part of Him that most engages with our lowly earth. On his feet, even the Son of God has calluses, perhaps even a wound or two. Yes, there she sees reflected her own humility, sees her own calluses and wounds. There she discovers the first wounds that Our Savior endured for us, wounds that reflect that He knows what this world can do to a person.
She loves, sharing the incalculable gift of her sorrows: sorrow for her own sin and sorrow on account of others who have sinned against her. She finds a friend in Jesus, who, though sinless Himself, has 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 has led her to deep gratitude for the love that the Lord had shown her. As we shall also see, her experience of the depths of God’s mercy is something we must all experience.
We, too, are called to go to the Lord in sorrow and love. What is the first thing we see when we look up from the foot of the cross? His feet. There, like the woman, we are called to love, to weep for our sins, and to remember 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.”
This 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.
There is a great risk in thinking that we can get to Heaven merely by being better than someone else. That is not the standard. The standard to reach Heaven is to be like Jesus. If we truly internalize that, it’s obvious that we are all going to need 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 one that prevents us from experiencing God’s grace, mercy, and love. The danger is our prideful presumption that we are less needy than others who are more sinful.
While it is true that on a strictly human level some have sins that are more serious than those of others, from the divine standpoint we are all poor beggars who don’t stand a chance in comparison to God, who is perfection and pure holiness. Even if I were to have $500 while you had only $50, the true value necessary to be able to endure God’s holiness would be closer to $500 trillion! Any differences that may exist between you and me are nothing in comparison to the boatloads of grace and mercy we will each need to ever hope to see God.
The Pharisee’s exasperation is born out of blindness to his own sin. Being blind in this way, his heart is ill-equipped to love or even to experience love. He has no sense at all that he even needs it! His sense is that he has earned God’s love and that God somehow owes him. But God does not owe him. The Pharisee’s only hope is grace, love, and mercy from God.
Having no sense of his sin, the Pharisee smugly dismisses the woman’s action as reprehensible. He even considers Jesus naïve and of no account for accepting her love. Jesus is not naïve; the Pharisee ought to be rather more careful, since the measure with which he measures will be measured back to him. The Pharisee’s lack of mercy for the woman brings a standard of strict justice on him. He is badly misled, because he cannot endure this sort of justice.
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.”
This is the central point of this Gospel, a point we have too widely set aside today: to appreciate the glory of the good news we must first lay hold of the bad news. We must grasp the depths of our sinfulness in order to appreciate the height of God’s love and mercy.
In this modern age, which minimizes sins and says, in effect, “I’m OK; you’re OK,” there is little understanding of the enormity of sin. And thus there is little appreciation for the glory of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Jesus could not be clearer. Until we recognize the “bill” for 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 that was earned for us with His blood as of little or no account.
How tragic it is, then, that many in the Church have stopped preaching about sin. The effect, as was mentioned above, has been to minimize love and to empty our churches. Knowledge of our sin, if such knowledge is of the Holy Spirit, leads to love. In this Gospel, Jesus 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 that is the fruit of a recognition of what the Lord has done for her. She knows and remembers that she has been forgiven much. What the Lord has done for her is fixed in her mind, and she is grateful and different because of it.
This is the heart of what it means to remember. Has not the Lord told us 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 your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you that you are grateful and different because of it.
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 to let it dawn on us what the Lord has done for us, to let it dawn on us 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:
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 (Psalm 38).
It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we can begin to comprehend His mercy. It is there in the shadow of our own sins that the power of His mercy breaks 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; never forget. If you do, you will be grateful and different.
Yes, 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.