Mercy is the path to love. The story of the woman’s encounter with Jesus in today’s Gospel is a powerful witness to the power of mercy as the path to love.
The story begins with Jesus as the invited guest in the home of a Pharisee. The host has invited Jesus to be his guest. It should be noted that the cultural norms of the day would demand that Jesus be treated with the utmost hospitality. Being a guest, he indeed should have been treated “like a king.”
As the story unfolds, we soon come to know that the Pharisee neither treated Jesus with the welcome due to a guest nor that due a king. So, right from the beginning, a contrast is being arranged between the “sinful woman” and the Pharisee host.
The “sinful woman” comes into the home having heard that Jesus was present. What we do not know from the passage, but can safely presume from the story, is that she has had some contact with, or knowledge of, Jesus. Of the many things she could have experienced or heard, one certainly would have been the call for repentance and the proclamation of mercy.
The woman is carrying an “alabaster flask of ointment.” This alabaster container would have been costly, an object of some worth. As the woman carries the flask of ointment, she comes in response; she comes with repentance; she comes with love. As the encounter with Jesus begins, we see the depth of her love.
First, she stands behind Jesus weeping. The weeping signifies repentance and the desire for forgiveness. Second, she baths Jesus’ feet with her tears. It is hard not to think of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus’ humble act of service, a service that a slave was not even required to do, was an act of love that Jesus gave as an example to follow. Third, the woman wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Recall that in those days feet would pick up all the filth of the streets as people were walking. None of this is an obstacle to the woman. Her actions demonstrate a profound love.
Finally, she anoints the feet of Jesus with the ointment she carries. The story is a moving account of repentance and love.
The contrast, mentioned above, quickly becomes apparent when the Pharisee offers his reaction to the woman’s actions. He immediately criticizes Jesus: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him.” Rather than appreciate the power of repentance and love that is present in front of him, he dismisses Jesus in his thoughts.
Jesus can see what he is thinking and responds by telling him the parable of the forgiven debt. Two people owed a debt: one for 500 days’ wages and the other for 50. Both are forgiven. Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which of them will love him (the creditor) more?” The obvious answer is given: “The one whose larger debt was forgiven.”
Jesus tells him that he judged correctly. He then rebukes the man through a comparison to the “sinful woman.” The rebuke is emphasized as Jesus thrice repeats “you did not” in comparison to the loving actions of the woman.
Jesus concludes his conversation with the Pharisee with an explanation of the woman’s actions, saying, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.” The woman’s act of repentant love is greeted with loving mercy. Jesus then speaks to the woman, saying: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Repentance, forgiveness, love and mercy are the themes that run through this Gospel passage. The same themes run through the first reading. This passage is the encounter between David and Nathan after the king’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. There is no question of David’s guilt. He was guilty. It seems to simplistic to say his sins were great. Perhaps enormous would be a more apt description.
Nathan calls David to task. He first reminds David of all that has been given to him from the Lord. Speaking in the name of the Lord he recalls God’s goodness to David: “I anointed you …” “I rescued you …” “I gave you …” then again “I gave you….” Nathan continues by drawing a contrast between God’s loving actions and David’s sinful ones. “You have cut down …” “You took …” and “you killed….”
The confrontation is a call to repentance. Nathan has called to David, “Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?” David responds by acknowledging his sin and says: “I have sinned against the Lord.” The statement captures the essence of David’s repentance. Another tradition in the Scriptures expresses a more elaborate and heart-wrenching description of David’s repentance. The passage is Psalm 51; also referred to as the Miserere. The acknowledgement of his sin, his repentance, is met with mercy as Nathan says: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin.”
The themes of repentance, forgiveness, love and mercy come to life in our own experiences. The call to repentance remains even though we have experienced the Lord’s forgiveness. The experience of being forgiven frees us to love, and the mercy we have been given demands that we share mercy.
The ability to love is related to our awareness of God’s mercy — not in the abstract, but a genuine awareness and appreciation that God has been merciful to us because He loves us. The call to repentance is always a call to grow in love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.