“The one to whom a lot is forgiven, loves a lot.” Reflection for 11th Sunday
In the extract of the gospel of St Luke for this Sunday, there is a jigsaw of actions, words and teachings which show Jesus in the fullest expression of his mission, humanity and divinity.
Jesus is invited to dinner in the small town of Bethany by a Pharisee, a Jewish lawyer called Simon, whom St Matthew in his version of the story, describes as a leper.
St Luke does not tell us how, when or where he came to know of the invitation but he is clearly there as one for the disciples accompanying Jesus. He faithfully describes what happened just like a news reporter would.
The description shows Jesus as a Jew, and at home with Jewish customs. Simon, his host meets Jesus and brings him to table, but does not offer him a kiss of greeting, much as we nowadays would offer a handshake at the door, nor does he offer Jesus water to wash his hands, nor does the host follow the Jewish custom of having a servant wash the dusty feet of an incoming visitor.
The remedy to all of this is given by an unnamed woman who is neither of the household, nor one of the disciples, nor on the guest list, who having heard of the arrival of Jesus in town, comes to the house, gate-crashes the dinner party and sees what has happened.
She opens, what both Saints Luke and Matthew describe as a vial of alabaster, and pours its perfumed contents over the feet of Jesus to bathe them, kissing them, anointing his feet and head with the jar’s contents.
The woman thus remedies the host’s three omissions. The missed kiss at the door becomes a tearful kissing of Jesus’ feet. The missed offering of water to wash Jesus’ hands and feet, and the missed formal traditional putting of oil on the head of an honoured guest are remedied with a jar of far more valuable perfumed ointment anointing Jesus.
‘Anointing’ is an inspired choice of word by St Luke, because in Jewish tradition, anointing was done on the person of a messiah who had been given a special God-ordained purpose or mission, such as to the high priests or kings of Israel. The actual meaning of the word ‘messiah’ in Hebrew means the ‘anointed one’, which in modern-day English we translate as the ‘Christ’.
And here at a dinner party in Bethany, was a woman anointing the feet of a man with a mission. It is a prophetic moment of things yet to occur in the life of Jesus the Christ, a prophetic moment which those present, and particularly not the Jews, recognised.
St Luke then comments on what Simon the host was thinking, that if Jesus were a prophet, surely he would have an insight into the woman and her background. How does St Luke know what his host was thinking? God only knows, but perhaps Simon, the lawyer host, was an easy read and the shock on Simon’s face described what was in his mind.
In the Jewish tradition of the times, Jesus replies to all of this by way of a parable — a made-up story containing a message or a teaching and, in this case, a punch line.
What is the message? The message is that two guys are totally forgiven a ton of money which they owe and have no way of repaying. Which of the two is the happier? Clearly, the guy who was forgiven the most money. Simon, the leper lawyer, is not hard pressed to get that answer right.
What is the teaching? Jesus’ own words make it clear that “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”. Jesus does not have to spell it out to a perceptive Jewish audience of those listening that “the one to whom a lot is forgiven, loves a lot.” We can all get that answer right.
What is the punch line? It is the words of Jesus to the woman “Your sins are forgiven you.” These words are very significant as those at the dinner table with Jesus realise.
While humans can forgive things such as debts of money, as Jesus has just taught in the parable, only God can forgive spiritual sins which are offences against a divine being. This punch line requires the presence of faith.
Jesus ends his teaching at that dinner party with two phrases to the woman, previously only identified by St Luke as a sinner – “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
The woman for whatever reason had recognised what was good and right in Jesus. Her faith was not a theoretical one, hanging on a hanger of belief in the back of her mind.
Her faith led her to put her belief into practice – in her case taking on the job of a servant or slave to wash the dusty feet of a guest. There is no record in either Saints Matthew’s or Luke’s versions that the woman had said a single word to Jesus. She had let her actions and her tears do a far more eloquent talking.
The final nice touch of this teaching of Jesus is that with faith, we should go about our lives in peace. Faith, in what God has revealed about Himself, provides both purpose and comfort in our lives. It also provides a tranquillity of order in keeping God as the companion and compass in all our actions of hope and love.
Go in peace!