It is often lamented, and rightly so, that we don’t hear enough about the reality of sin, whether from priests and parents, or within the public square. We are often reluctant to acknowledge something that is obvious — or at least should be — despite the seriousness of the matter. Anyone with cancer or another grave illness is foolish to refuse medical attention, yet we find ways to avoid seeing the cancers in our own souls. There are various reasons for this, but Blaise Pascal pointed out one reason that seems quite appropriate to our own age. “There are only two sorts of men,” he wrote in his Pensées, “the one the just, who believe themselves sinners; the other sinner, who believe themselves just.”
Did King David, when he gave in to the sins of lust and murder, believe himself just? It would seem that he did, for when the prophet Nathan told him a parable about a poor man whose lone ewe sheep is taken by a rich man to be killed and made a meal for a visitor, the king was outraged: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this merits death!” (2 Sm 12:1-6). David was blind to what was quickly obvious: He was the rich man, and it was he who had committed an injustice worthy of death. As the prophet exclaimed, “You are the man!” After recounting God’s many blessings to David, Nathan asks a question that each of us could very well ask ourselves: “Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?”
How did David respond? Did he deflect by blaming someone else? Did he, as some political leaders do today when facing their own serious failings, resort to spin and stonewalling? No, he simply said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” In short, he confessed and repented. “Happy the sinner whose fault is removed,” he wrote in one of his many psalms, “whose sin is forgiven” (Ps 32:1). In the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “To be a sinner is our distress, but to know it is our hope.”
In admitting his sin, David was in the same place as the unnamed woman in today’s Gospel reading. Both were sinners, both faced up to their situation, and both sought forgiveness.
We know a great deal about David’s sins. No such details exist for the “sinful woman in the city” who boldly went into the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was invited to dine. Not only are her name and sins unknown, her words are not recorded. What is clear is that her sins and reputation were public knowledge. “If this man were a prophet,” the Pharisee Simon thought to himself, “he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” How did St. Luke know the thoughts of Simon? Because Jesus knew them, for Jesus “said to him in reply” — that is, in reply to Simon’s inner thoughts!
Jesus, like the prophet Nathan, confronts a ruler of the Jews with a parable. In doing so, he revealed the hypocrisy employed by Simon, who had invited Jesus into his home, not to learn of him or from him, but to judge him and condemn him. But the sinful woman, wordless and helpless, came to Jesus in order to kiss and anoint his feet.
St. Ambrose saw in the woman a figure or metaphor for the Church. “The Church,” he wrote, “does not cease to kiss Christ’s feet … The Church alone has kisses, like a bride.” And the sons and daughters of the Church say, with St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.