How do you make amends when you know you have hurt someone deeply or when you become aware that your patterns of life choices cause great harm to others? Sometimes you can kiss and make up with the hurt person. But at other times it is not possible to repair the damage to the ones directly affected. Even as remorse and relief flood over you when you become the recipient of forgiveness, you search for how to express the love and joy that come from being freed from guilt. Today’s Gospel captures a scene in which a woman who was known as sinner, and who had experienced forgiveness, pours out her joy and gratitude toward Jesus in lavish demonstrations of love.
The rest of the woman’s story is lost to us. We do not know her name or where she came from or any other details of her life. We do not know what kinds of sins she had committed, nor how she met Jesus. We do not know when or where it was that he had absolved her from her sins (the tense of the verb apheontai, “have been forgiven,” in verse 47 indicates an action that happened in the past whose effect endures into the present). We have only one small slice of her life, a moment in which she takes advantage of the open door for poor people to partake of the scraps of a banquet, and she enters the home of Simon to seek out the one whose kindness and love had set her free. She finds the guests reclining on cushions, reaching into the center to partake of the food, with their feet extending out into the room. She spots Jesus, and in an extravagant gesture of love, she mingles her tears of joy with precious perfume and anoints his feet.
This act is open to misinterpretation. Simon, the host, immediately harbors judgmental thoughts. He is certain in his knowledge that the woman is a sinner, and he is unaware of the forgiveness she has experienced. He is just as certain in his judgment of Jesus: he cannot be a prophet. Much as the prophet Nathan used a parable to bring King David to repent of his murder of Uriah (see the verses immediately preceding today’s first reading), Jesus tells Simon a parable aimed at getting him to repent of his false judgment and to open himself to the forgiveness Jesus offers.
The point of the parable is easy to grasp: great love flows from having been forgiven much. While Simon easily grasps this in story form, we are left to wonder if he got the point when Jesus brings his attention back to real life and asks him to look again at the woman. Jesus retells what he saw: great gestures of love outpoured that sprang from having received great forgiveness. He contrasts her great capacity to receive forgiveness and give love with Simon’s puny capacity and invites the Pharisee into this expansive love. As the story ends we do not know how Simon responded. Did he accept Jesus’ offer, or did he join his table companions in murmuring critically about Jesus’ ability to forgive? The story turns the question toward us as well: How do we perceive forgiven sinners? How do we ourselves respond to Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and love?
The scene that follows provides an exemplary response. Having been healed of severe illness, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and other Galilean women expend all their monetary resources (this is the connotation of the Greek word hyparchonton) for Jesus and his mission.