19 September 2013

Loving greatly

24th Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA 

Like a first-century Maury Povich or Jerry Springer, Luke sets the scene for an epic showdown between the Professional Religious Figure—proud of his social standing and secure in his holiness—and the, um, ahem, Professional Woman—humbled outcast, confident of nothing more than her sinfulness. Plopped down between them on stage: an itinerant preacher, healer, and rabbi who's been running around town hinting to the crowds that he's the Son of God. The fuse for this explosive mix of conflicting personalities and cultural norms is lit when the, um, Professional Woman cries on the preacher's feet and then dries them with her hair. The audience, cued up for outrage, gasps at the uncleanliness of the brazen act, and as the disgusted murmuring grows to a low mobbing growl, the audacious harlot dumps a jar of expensive perfumed oil on the preacher's feet! The audience goes wild, and the Religious Professional, offended but composed, raises an eyebrow, screws up his face, and clears his throat. The Preacher, his attention focused on the sinner at his feet, whispers to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then, a little louder, over the heads in the audience, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Her faith has saved her? What faith? When does the Harlot profess the faith? When does she confess her sins and express contrition? She doesn't even speak! All she does cry on Jesus' feet, wipe them off with her hair, and then rub some oil on them. Apparently, this is enough for Jesus to pronounce his forgiveness. Twice. BUT! This is exactly backwards. Note what Jesus says to the Religious Professional: “. . .her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” So, her sins are not forgiven b/c she has shown great love; rather, she shows great love b/c her sins are forgiven. It's her faith that saves her not her works. Her works express gratitude for her salvation and her great love for Christ. This scandalous public display of affection is best understood as testimony. The scandal of Jesus' ministry among the Jews is made manifest—given body and soul—in the scandalous gratitude of the Harlot. What is her witness? Faith forgives. Faith dares. Faith humbles and frees. So, while the Religious Professional waits for cleanliness to happen; Jesus does the cleaning. And great love flourishes.

But if great love so obviously flourishes, how does the Religious Professional misread a scene so carefully staged to teach him the rewards of faith? We might say that he is hopelessly trapped in the social conventions of his station; or, blinded by his religious ideology; or, even forever scarred by the “purity” of his moral legalism. Any one or all of these might explain his misreading. However, Jesus clearly indicates why he thinks that the R.P. fails to understand: he has no faith, no faith in Christ. And having no faith in Christ, he cannot greatly love. The Harlot's many sins are forgiveness b/c of her faith, therefore, she greatly loves. “But,” Jesus says to the R.P., “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Those deepest in debt rejoice loudest when their debt is canceled. And their gratitude is louder still. How much do you love? A little or a lot? If we are truly grateful to Christ for forgiving us our sins, then our love must always be great. Must always be greater than any sin we might commit and greater still than any sin that might be committed against us. Social conventions, religious ideologies, moral legalisms must not be allowed to render us illiterate when it comes to reading the signs of God's forgiveness, nor leave us paralyzed when it comes time to act in love. 
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  1. Um, yeah, first paragraph? Really not liking it . . . overly contrived for my tastes. Once you stopped with the somewhat adolescent mode of speech, I thoroughly appreciated this homily. Actually, I really liked the second half.

    But on second thought, maybe the first half DOES tie into your idea of "scandalous" gratitude . . . still don't like it, but I can see a purpose to it.

    1. Huh. Well, the seminarians loved this one. So there. (Sniff).

    2. I'm sorry - didn't mean to make you cry :-(. Not feeling my best today, so I was a little harsh. I apologize.

      Drew really liked it too. Must be a guy thing!

    3. LOL. Glad Drew liked it.