Today’s readings give us another opportunity to rejoice in the mercy of God, the divine “force” which sets us free from the trap of sin and restores us to wholeness. Sin does not look like a trap when we are being tempted. Temptation is effective because it makes sin look like a good choice. But when we look closely at the reality of sin, we find that it is harmful and offensive. It is very ugly. That is why we prefer to hide it, or look at it only indirectly. We substitute words that don’t sound so bad when we talk about our sin. King David’s sin – really a whole series of sins – is particularly ugly. What a mess he has made of his life! He did not simply “have a little fling.” He fell into lust, adultery and murder. Looking at his spiritual condition, we shudder at how horribly he has defiled himself and squandered the countless favors of God. The woman in the gospel is also defiled. We are not told what her sins are; we know only that she is “known in the town to be a sinner.” Simon the Pharisee, who is hosting Jesus at dinner, sees her as an ugly sinner. He cannot understand why Jesus allows himself to be touched by “that sort of woman.”
If David’s sin looks ugly to us, and the woman’s sin looks ugly to Simon, how does our sin look to God? Sin is much uglier to God than it is to us, since he sees more fully how far we have strayed from his plan. To fall into sin is worse than falling into a putrid septic tank. Sin is repulsive. This gives rise to the fear that God will find us repulsive when he sees the reality of our sins. Today’s readings, however, show us that God is not repulsed by us when we sin. He does not treat us as our sins deserve; he does not condemn us. He knows a way for us to be restored, and this is what he offers us: the way of repentance and forgiveness. In contrast to the ugliness of sin, repentance is strikingly beautiful, and those who repent are made beautiful in the sight of God.
Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman display before us two very different attitudes: self-righteousness and contrition. We can reflect on both of these attitudes and consider whether we have them ourselves. Simon compares himself to the woman and is quite sure that he is better than she is. He sits in judgment of her; he does not even want her in the house, defiling his dinner party. Simon also forms a critical judgment of Jesus. He assumes that Jesus does not know the woman, and that if he did know her, he would shun her. How can a man everyone considers a prophet let himself be touched, even kissed, by such a woman! Eventually Simon learns that he is wrong on both counts; Jesus does know the woman; he knows her very well; and he does not reject her for her sins. Jesus can also read Simon’s self-righteous heart, and he does not reject him either.
The woman, on the other hand, does not waste time comparing herself to anyone else. She knows she is a sinner, and that everyone looks down on her. However, her focus is neither on herself nor on the opinion of others; her heart is fixed on Jesus, whom she knows is kind and merciful. Her gratitude and love overflow from her every gesture.
Jesus sees both of them as sinners, as is clear from the little parable he tells. Whether they owe a debt of five hundred day’s wages or fifty is not very important to him. They are both debtors, and neither one of them is able to repay. He comes with forgiveness for them both, so they should both be grateful – but it turns out only the woman is grateful. Simon gives Jesus no sign of thanks for blessing his house with his presence. He seems to think he deserves the Lord’s presence. In fact, he suspects that maybe Jesus is not quite worthy to be there! This shows how deceived we can be when we do not acknowledge our sins. The proper attitude is, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Simon is close to saying the opposite, “Lord, you are not worthy to enter under my roof”! In the end, the woman shines out as the much better, much more beautiful of the two. She is beautiful because her sins are forgiven.
The key to being interiorly beautiful is repentance. When we acknowledge before God that we are sinners and ask his forgiveness, he sets us free from our sins. The psalm describes the process: “I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not. I said, ‘I confess my faults to the Lord,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin.” King David’s sins were very grave, but when his conscience was reawakened, he did not deny them. He said, simply and directly, “I have sinned against the Lord.” The Lord forgave his sin, as confirmed by Nathan. David’s experience is a foreshadowing of the power of the sacrament of confession. In confession, we reveal our sins to the Lord and express our sorrow for them. The Lord forgives us, as confirmed by his minister, the priest.
We are not forgiven or “justified” by any good deeds we may do. We do not win the Lord’s love by showing him that we have changed. Paul’s statement to the Galatians is clear: “A man is not justified by legal observance but by faith in Jesus Christ.” This is why Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has been your salvation.” Faith is the key to salvation! If we do not live by faith, in our fear we will continue to try to hide the ugliness of our sins. We will not recognize the mercy of God, even if Jesus is sitting right in our house! When we have faith, we can take the risk of exposing our sins to the Lord, and experience the great joy of being set free. When we are free from sin, and are grateful for the great mercy of God, then we are free to love, like the woman in the gospel.
What is my response when I face the ugliness of my sins? Do I justify my actions or do I seek the freedom of God’s mercy? When I view the sins of others am I merciful or judgmental?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.