THOSE FORGIVEN MUCH LOVE MUCH
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6)
Analysis by Carolyn Schneider
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him - that she is a sinner." 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." 41"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will lo ve him more?" 43Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." 48Then he said to her, "your sins are forgiven." 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." 8:1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
DIAGNOSIS: Living According to the Law
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) : According to the Law, We Judge Rightly
As Jesus travels in the first part of Luke's gospel, he creates a sensation and word spreads that a "great prophet has risen among us!" (Luke 7:16). So Simon, a member of the Pharisee party, invites him to dinner. As the action proceeds, Simon's intentions become clear. A woman known locally as one who does not live according to the law appears at the dinner party, too. Apparently rich enough to buy expensive alabaster and myrrh, she makes a scene by lavishing the ointment on Jesus' feet, holding onto them, kissing them, crying on, and then wiping his feet with her hair. For Simon, it is a moment of testing. Will the prophet see the truth about this woman and rebuke her, as the prophets always did when the nation turned from God's law? If not, then the people are wrong, he assumes, and Jesus is no prophet. But suddenly Simon finds himself the one being tested by Jesus. Jesus asks him who loves more: the one forgiven more, or the one fo rgiven less? Luke intends for us, his readers, to respond along with Simon. Of course, we "judge rightly" (Luke 7:43) that the one who is forgiven more loves more. For we, like Simon, always judge rightly. And, at least in our minds, a prophet is one who demonstrates that God supports our judgments.
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) : According to the Law, We Act Lovelessly
Ah, there's the rub. If we are always right, especially about who is above the law, then we are forgiven little and do not love much. Simon's words pass the test as we nod along with him but his actions fail as Jesus lists all the acts of hospitality that Simon has failed to perform. In contrast, Jesus notes how the despised woman has performed them beautifully. She obviously has been forgiven much. Now she is the prophet in the story. She sees the truth about herself, her society, and God. She has recognized in Jesus' words and actions "the one who is to come" (Luke 7:20), and she has anointed him priest and king in the reign of God. Jesus takes that priestly prerogative and announces to the woman in front of all of us that her sins have been forgiven. Simon's guests balk, for this, too, is outside the law. The woman should go to the temple and let the real priests make the sacrifices for her. Jesus does not follow the rules any more than she does. They are two of a kind, both sinners.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) : According to the Law, We Are Guilty
But what if this unnamed prophet, who anoints Jesus, is right about him? What if God is not bound to the law, neither our law nor even God's own? If God wants to forgive us in Jesus and we are already sure that it does not work that way but that we and everyone else must abide by the law, then how can we be forgiven? If we are not forgiven, then how can we love? Yet love is the first and greatest commandment. Jesus "outs" Simon and all of us as sinners, not just sinners against him but against God.
PROGNOSIS: Living by Faith
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) : Living by Faith, We Are Forgiven
"Why on earth this preference for sinners?" asked Celsus, an early critic of Christianity, (p. 479, Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity), for such a preference God certainly shows in Jesus. Jesus gives away his energy and his reputation to draw sinners into God's reign, eventually letting the law execute him as a sinner. But, as Jesus demonstrated to Simon, the law does not have the last word in God's reign. Jesus was raised from death, carrying all of us sinners with him. Now more than ever, the woman who was forgiven can sing with Paul, "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live to God. ... And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:19-20).
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) : Living by Faith, We Love
So Jesus corners Simon and us sinners, too, so that we might be forgiven much and so love much. As we look around for other sinners to love, our loyalties shift, as the forgiven woman's did. Although tradition suggests that her sin had been prostitution, there is nothing in the text that says so and much in the context to suggest that (especially in the eyes of the Pharisees) her sin, like that of the tax collectors, was collaboration with the occupying Roman gentiles. But her allegiance now is to Jesus in God's country, not to the Romans or to the puppet-king Herod. Joanna has made the same shift, traveling with Jesus in spite of her husband's job as Herod's steward. Instead of undermining their own people they now served those simultaneously saints and sinners in the company of Jesus. They put their money and resources to use in supporting the needs and mission of the community.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) : Living by Faith, We Hold on to Jesus
"Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (Psalm 32:1). The forgiven woman focuses on Jesus. She sees and hears only him when he says to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7:50). She ignores what others are saying about her. She is like Edmund in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund has betrayed the lion-king Aslan and his community, but has been rescued from the evil queen and brought back to Aslan's camp. "As soon as they had breakfasted they all went out, and there they saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass... . 'Here is your brother,' [Aslan] said, 'and--there is no need to talk to him about what is past.' ... 'You have a traitor there, Aslan,' said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he'd been through and after the talk he'd had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan" (pp. 135-138, New York: Collier Books, 1950).