Opening the Word: Mercy at Jesus’ feet

What did the most famous king in the Old Testament and a poor, anonymous woman in the Gospels have in common? They were both sinners. They were both in need of forgiveness. And they both knew it. 

King David’s sin is as well-known as the woman’s sin in today’s Gospel reading is unknown. David, having witnessed the beauty of the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s loyal warriors, arranged to have Uriah put on the front lines of battle, where he was killed. It was the darkest moment of David’s life, and the king finally confessed to the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” 

In the Psalm written after Nathan had confronted him about his murderous actions, the repentant David wrote, “A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit. ... Rescue me from death, God, my saving God, that my tongue may praise your healing power” (Ps 51:12,16).David’s life and sin were chronicled in great detail, by others and by himself. His remorse was expressed with poetic poignancy by his own pen. 

It is quite a contrast to the sinful woman who came to the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was invited to dine. Her name is not given, her sins are not described or listed, and if she uttered any words, they are not recorded. She may have been a prostitute; whatever the case, her sins were apparently public and well-known. 

These various facts and details are not of primary concern to Luke the Evangelist, because he is intent on revealing Christ’s mercy, love and power to forgive sins. “You perceive,” wrote St. Peter Chrysologus about this particular story, “that Christ came to the Pharisee’s table not to be filled with food for the body but to carry on the business of heaven while he was in the flesh.” 

A significant amount of this business of heaven was worked out within the earthly context of Jesus’ ongoing debates and confrontations with the Pharisees. The host, the Pharisee Simon, was concerned with judging — was Jesus a true prophet? — which is why Jesus asked him a question that required his judgment as a Pharisee, an interpreter of the Law. Simon, in judging rightly the answer to Jesus’ question, rendered judgment upon his own actions, or lack of actions.  

The problem was that Simon, like many of the Pharisees, was fixated on the letter of the law, while failing to love the Giver of the law. Put another way, Simon had asked Jesus into his home in order to judge Jesus, while the sinful woman sought out Jesus in order to kiss and anoint his feet. The Pharisee wished to stand face to face with the Incarnate Word in stubborn wariness; the woman desired only to worship at his feet in a silent act of vulnerable love. She did not have to give verbal expression to her sorrow, and repentance for her actions spoke louder than words. Her sins, Jesus said, were forgiven “because she has shown great love” and because of her faith: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 

“To err is human,” wrote Alexander Pope, “to forgive divine.” That is the message of today’s readings, which unflinchingly point out man’s sinful ways while rejoicing in God’s merciful ways. All of us — famous kings and unnamed women and everyone between — are sinners, and Christ died for us so that we, as Paul writes, can be crucified with Christ and thus live by faith and love. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.