June 12, 2016: 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Samuel 12:7–10,13 / Psalm 32 / Galatians 2:16, 19–21 / Luke 7:36–8:3
Being Real About Forgiveness
Two things are crushingly hard: trying to live up to something you’re not, or for most people to think of you as an awful person. We see both in the Gospel reading.
We probably do not think often enough of how we live in a culture obsessed and warped by image. People often give more attention to looking good than being good (in so many contexts). What if everyone spent as much time caring for the soul as the body? Yet we too easily focus on the veneer. It’s threatening to us simply to be real.
This comes into focus in the two characters from the Gospel reading. First, consider Simon. Simon used other people of reputation to elevate himself. His hospitality was actually patronization. Being at his table was a big deal. That is why he was not courteous to Jesus; Simon's mind was on himself. He wanted to look important. Simon had no spiritual discernment in spite of his outward religious identification as a Pharisee. His assessment of things was based on the outward appearance. Simon wanted Jesus in his house because Jesus was reported to be a mighty prophet. He could tell everyone that he knew Jesus–– "had him over for dinner the other night.”
Then there is the woman. Luke tell us she is a sinner. This means something specific, beyond what is generally true of all us. Tradition says this woman was a prostitute. She suffered from a horrible image. We have no details, but almost never does a person choose a sordid lifestyle as a preference. Sometimes it’s “collateral damage” ––people crash to an awful bottom when they’re caught in a bubble that bursts. Others try to live in a fantasy of their own making. Both are crushing, and God wants better for us.
These are the dynamics at work between Simon and the woman. Simon is focused on his image, even as his projected image of Jesus fades––If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him… Simon was thinking of himself and his reputation. What would happen when the word spread about this incident at his dinner? There was no concern nor consideration of the woman, and Simon did not really know Jesus.
Simon had two options. Simon could have recognized and rejoiced at this woman’s demonstrative but humble display that said so powerfully: I need forgiveness and love. But to do that Simon needed to recognize his own sin, and that's hard to do. Simon had a respectable image. How could he identify in any way with this groveling wretch of a woman who had disrupted his dinner party? Simon had never faced his deep need of forgiveness, so how could he appreciate what this woman experienced?
The one who recognized the most about Jesus was this woman. The woman had no difficulty showing her need. At first it seems odd that such a person would have that measure of intuition. Yet when you think about it, the greater a person's need, the greater the awareness. It's the person with no pretenses, the person who is humble and honest, that is most open to the reality of love and forgiveness. It was because this woman was down and out––because she needed love so badly––that she recognized what kind of man Jesus was. She was so close to bottom there was nowhere else to go. That comes into focus when we look at Simon, this woman, and Jesus.
I have an outward reputation as a Christian. But if that’s all it is, I’m in serious trouble. Think also of David. He was king, and that certainly carried the pressure of an outward image. What if David had chosen privilege and image over honesty and repentance? This is an issue for most of us who are regularly in church. There is an external pressure to be outwardly righteous and we sense that. At one level that can be good. Yet it is here that we need to guard against the world’s exaltation of image. Sin tries to tell us it doesn’t matter as long as the outward appearance looks good. It’s easy to fall into an attitude that's more like Simon than the penitent woman.
If we try to live behind an image we are being like Simon the Pharisee––and we could end up like the woman before her restoration. Today we are reminded that forgiveness is a basic issue for all of us. We all need to be forgiven. Early in the Liturgy we have the Penitential Act. The Confetior reminds us: I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…. Do we mean it? Do we embrace an awareness of our need for love and forgiveness that can only come through Jesus? Do we extend that mercy to others?
We can be like Simon and be more concerned with what other people think of us instead of what God thinks of us. We can be critical and unforgiving toward others, especially if we think doing so can make us look outwardly good––but that’s only image.
We need to be like this woman. We can admit our need of forgiveness, and in doing so, find the kind of forgiveness that causes us to respond to our Lord with abandon.
When you respond to the “altar call” at Communion, do you come freely admitting that you are a sinner who need forgiveness? The invitation is to come just as this woman did. In our hearts we can fall before him and bathe his feet with our tears. Then we can become models of the love we have received. Having received grace, we respond to God in gratitude. Having been dealt with graciously, we practice graciousness toward others. That's what this story tells us, and that's what we are called to in every Eucharist.
Let’s be real about forgiveness. It’s so much more than image.