June 13, 2016
11th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C
(2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36 – 8:3)
16 June 2013 – St. Thomas More Newman Center, Columbus, OH
Luke is the gospel of the Holy Spirit, the gospel of prayer, and the gospel of social justice. But today, another feature is obvious: it’s the gospel of women. We’ll spend time with four women in our gospel passage today, especially the woman who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears. Let’s be clear: she is not Mary Magdalene. She’s not Mary of Bethany. She’s not the unnamed woman in the gospel of Mark who anoints Jesus with aromatic nard.
Does the woman show great love because she was forgiven? Or was she forgiven because she showed great love? Does it matter?
God loves us and forgives us. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that!
Why were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna following Jesus? We don’t really know, but that hasn’t stopped people from questioning their motives in a way that we usually don’t ask about the male disciples. Mary Magdalene has gotten an especially bad rap. Yes, Luke says that she had seven demons exorcised from her… but why do so many people talk about her sins? In every other case of people being possessed by demons in the gospels, we don’t speak of their sinfulness. We speak of their physical or mental incapacities, not their sinfulness.
And if that’s bad enough, how about the backstories we tell of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet? Yes, the translation says that she was a “sinful woman.” But two chapters earlier, Peter declared that he was a sinful man. Hardly anyone questions what Peter’s sins were. Many people have spoken of this woman as if she had loose morals, but her actions are the opposite of a first-century courtesan: she doesn’t engage in witty banter with the invited guests, and she shows a total disregard for the state of her hair. And even today’s translation is lacking. The original Greek actually identifies her as “a woman who had been a sinner.” Her sinful action, no matter what it was, was in the past. And yet, so often, we refer to her as “the sinful woman.” Jesus’ challenge to Simon could also be posed to us: do we see this woman?
Simon the Pharisee thinks that he’s superior to the woman, yet it is the woman who has shown Jesus great love, great care, and superior hospitality. Simon did not see the woman for who she really was, because he was blinded by the sin of her past, letting it be the sole source of her identity.
How often do we judge people by an act in their past, rather than being truly present to them? For most of us, very often. Let’s start with a public example:
The secular media is in love with Pope Francis right now. He seems to be a great guy: holy, humble, and trying to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But the same media seems to have made up its mind about Francis’ predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, even before he was elected pope in 2005, because of his actions as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The fact of the matter is, anyone paying attention these past 8 years would have seen that Benedict is also holy, humble, and trying to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of the things that the media praises Francis for doing are the same things that they interpreted through a much more cynical filter when Benedict did them.
Closer to home, we can talk about how we act in groups – groups of friends, co-workers, and even family members. In the past 8 years, I’ve learned that many religious communities act the same way. When I visit a community of religious sisters, brothers, or priests, I can often sense some tension between people in the room or I hear funny-but-not-very-nice stories about someone not present. And more often than not, the tensions are about something that happened long, long ago. Now, because religious people are dedicated to being ambassadors of reconciliation, we don’t hold onto grudges for life. 40 years is usually sufficient.
Almost all of us – religious or lay – engage in judging people by their past on a regular basis… and it leads to terrible consequences. In our own church, we often get so caught up in condemning certain sins that we forget to care for the people caught in sinful situations. Many of us in the Church do a really lousy job of supporting women and men who find themselves dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, especially outside of marriage. Yes, we as a Church are right to speak out against relationships that lead to pregnancies outside of marriage, but the culture of shame to which we contribute, actually leads some men and women to feel as if they have no option but to terminate the pregnancy. Jesus invited us to life in abundance, but our judgments contribute to the culture of death.
I guess the usual adage that we apply to Simon the Pharisee is that he got so caught up in hating the sin that he didn’t love the sinner. I think his real error, however, is in not acknowledging that he, too, is a sinner…
…because there’s a phenomenon in the human mind. When we focus on the sins of others, we distract ourselves from examining our own quirks and imperfections. I think that’s one of the reasons why we like to gossip. Rather than share a real experience with friends, family, or co-workers in the room, we create a false intimacy by focusing on someone outside of the group. Simon chose to entertain negative thoughts about the woman washing Jesus’ feet and about Jesus’ apparent ignorance, rather than choosing to be present with Jesus in the moment. Some people have suggested that both heaven and hell will center around unending banquets. No matter where Simon has ended up, it must be embarrassing for him to have to introduce himself to everyone for all eternity as “I’m the guy who invited Jesus Christ to dinner but treated him like a jerk.”
And how will the woman in this story be identified in the kingdom of God? Somehow, I doubt that she’ll be called what many Christians call her: “the sinful woman” or “the harlot who washed Jesus’ feet.” If she’s remembered for her past deeds, I hope it will be for what’s truly remarkable about her story. Perhaps she’ll be called “the woman who showed Jesus great love.” If I get to heaven and I have the privilege of going through the buffet line next to her, Susanna, Joanna, or Mary Magdalene, it would be really awkward if I had spent my life badmouthing them!
It’s an on-going battle, but I try not to gossip about people. When I talk about people who aren’t present, I hope that I will talk about the good that they’ve done. As we jump back into Ordinary Time, perhaps we should remember Desmond Tutu’s declaration that are no ordinary people. As he says: “We are all quite special since we are each that marvelous creation, a person created in the image of God. For that reason, we are each a God-carrier, God’s viceroy, God’s representative.”
And hopefully, if we are consistent in showing love for our neighbors, that’s how we will be talked about when we’re not in the room. In other words, the stories won’t be so much about us, but about how we recognized Jesus Christ in others, and how we ourselves reflected Jesus’ love.