Faith, forgiveness and love

Al Carino
Reproduced with Permission

Sometime ago, a cyberspace counselee sought my advice on a problem that was bothering her. She wrote, "Asking others to pray perhaps has its evangelizing effect. When family and friends ask me for prayers, I feel I am in good standing with God, that people see me close to our Lord, and therefore I must keep this relationship for the favor requested to be granted according to God's will and divine plans. Now I feel guilty because there are not very many people in my distribution lists whom I would tap for prayers simply because I only see their lack of divine relationship with Our Lord. Have I made a judgmental selection? Did I do what Jesus would have done?"

I wrote her back saying that she had indeed become "judgmental" since no human being can read into the heart of another person; only God can. I also told her to "recall the second part of the Hail Mary, namely, 'Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death'. That is what we all are: sinners - you, I and the others not in your 'distribution list'." I concluded by saying, "So why don't you give others the same chance to share in the 'evangelizing power of praying for others' by enlarging the list of people you can tap for prayer intentions?" ?" In her next email, she expressed her gratitude for the enlightenment.

The gospel reading is about a woman with a reputation as a sinner. It tells us that one day while Jesus was reclining at table in the house of a Pharisee named Simon, the woman came in with a flask of expensive ointment (Lk. 7:36-50). Weeping as she stood behind him, she bathed his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

When Simon 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."

Jesus heard him though and responded with a parable: two people were in debt to a creditor; one for five hundred days' wages and the other for fifty. Because both were unable to pay, he forgave both. Then Jesus asked Simon, "Which of them will love him more?" Simon replied, "The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven." Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."

Jesus then told Simon that when he entered his house, he was not given water with which to wash his feet as was the custom then. Neither was he given a kiss nor was his head anointed with oil. All this the woman did to him. Jesus concluded, "So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Finally he turned to the woman and said to her, "Your sins are forgiven" and "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

We can better understand what is going on if we look at the difference in the core values Jesus and the Pharisees held. The Pharisees though they meant to obey God, eventually became so devoted and extremist in very limited parts of the Law (plus all that they themselves added to it) and assiduously patterned their lives after them. But they did not stop there. They also imposed the same on the people. Those unable to do so they branded as sinners and because they were such, the Pharisees not only refused to associate with them but also would have nothing to do with them.

But not Jesus. He was sent by the Father for the redemption of all or in the words of John the Evangelist, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn. 3:16). Thus throughout his ministry, he did not only seek sinners but also looked for opportunities to be with them, including eating with them. While the Pharisees stayed away from sinners, Jesus not only sought them but also identified with them so that he would be able to help them get out of their sinfulness.

Simon the Pharisee was no different with the rest of his Pharisee brethren. Thus he was not impressed at all with the effusive gesture of repentance of the woman. What was important for him was that if Jesus was really a prophet then he should have known that the woman ministering to him was a sinner and he should therefore not have allowed her to even get near him, much less to minister to him. Jesus rebuked Simon for seeing only the sinfulness of the woman and not his own. Consequently he showed little love toward Jesus. Consequently, too, he remained in his sins as his self-righteousness was not righteousness at all.

What led Jesus to finally say to the sinful woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." The woman manifested such a deep faith in God that it led her to seek forgiveness for her sins. And because so much was forgiven, she in turn overwhelmed Jesus with her love. The whole episode is thus a powerful lesson on the relation between forgiveness and love.

This story of the sinful woman is repeated over the centuries in the lives of people who have lived their Christian vocation. The more they listen (not just hear) to the Word of God and live what it teaches, the more they realize how short they have fallen to live up to his teachings and worse, even against them. Thus they are the first to acknowledge that they are sinners. But because they have faith in God, they run to him to seek forgiveness. Seeing their repentant hearts, God willingly forgives them. Then out of gratitude to God for his mercy, they seek ways to express their love for him in their own unique ways. This usually finds expression in the service of the poor, the weak and oppressed; in short, the marginalized in society - the very same people Jesus sought and identified with during his ministry.

If we want to live as true Christians here and now, let us do likewise. We have to because there is no short cut to becoming true disciples of Jesus.