The event in this Sunday’s Gospel sounds very much like the normal fare in gossip columns and Hollywood obsessed television journals. I could easily imagine a story about Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan or some other media darling who crashed a party.
It’s easy to picture the scene: mascara running down the face of the party-crasher, disheveled hair, behavior that speaks of an air of entitlement, and all this followed by scandalizing and inappropriate behavior.
Dinner parties in Jesus’ time, just as today, were opportunities to see and be seen; the socializing at a party was inextricably linked with the status-seeking of the party goers. There were expectations on the part of the host and the guests about how the party was to be conducted; any deviation from socially acceptable norms was considered to be extremely shameful.
Dinner parties today are more relaxed than in Jesus’ time, but there are still things one does, and things one avoids. If these events in the Gospel occurred at a party today, all who witnessed the debacle would have had the same thoughts as the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner.
At this particular party in Luke’s Gospel, a woman known to be a sinner walked in, unannounced, with an air of entitlement. Then she went about performing really inappropriate actions. Everyone at the party was scandalized and offended, all but one.
The one person who wasn’t offended saw in the party crasher’s behavior, not an inappropriate sense of entitlement, but love. He remarked about the woman, “It is easy to see that her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown such great love.” (Luke 7:47)
The Pharisee, in contrast to the uninvited woman, showed no love for Jesus, his guest. A host was expected to greet his guests with a kiss, wash the dust from their feet and anoint their heads when they arrived for the dinner. Guests were expected to observe the laws of ritual purity (kosher laws). The Pharisee was offended because he judged the sinful woman to be ritually impure, and he judged Jesus as allowing himself to be defiled by the woman’s impurity.
Jesus was offended by the host and other guests because they judged the woman a sinner, when in actual fact, she had already been forgiven. The translation of this passage of Luke obscures the impact of Jesus’ words. He was, in effect, saying that the great love she demonstrated in washing his feet was the result of the forgiveness that he had already given her (evidently, at some time prior to the dinner party).
Jesus scolded the host and party goers for being so blind. The parable he told was an explanation of the woman’s behavior (and his own). She had been forgiven much, and as a result, she was very grateful. Simon and his guests should have been able to see this in the loving acts that she performed.
Perhaps we should feel sorry for the host and guests. They did not have the opportunity to see the antecedent to the woman’s bizarre behavior; they weren’t present when Jesus offered her God’s forgiveness. Perhaps, if they had witnessed her repentance, they would have understood her actions, as Jesus seems to have done.
However, if we grant some leniency to those who were scandalized by the woman we might fail to see the impact of Jesus’ words. Jesus made a startling statement about love and forgiveness. He said that the woman’s love was the product of her experience of forgiveness – this is the polar opposite of how love and forgiveness are usually defined. For the most part, we see forgiveness as one of the consequences of love. Jesus said that love is the consequence of forgiveness.
Love is most often seen as the consequence of desire, want, need, attraction, sentiment or obsession. Have we ever considered the possibility that true love is none of these things? Jesus says that love arises, not as a reaction to something external to us, but rather from an internal action of the soul. True love arises from our willingness to forgive.
Simon and his guests did not see love in the woman’s actions because there was no forgiveness in their hearts. By contrast, God sees love, and lovableness, in us because God first forgives.
Rather than granting forgiveness grudgingly because we feel it is a requirement of the Faith, perhaps we should be eager to forgive. If forgiveness is the source of real love, then forgiveness is a life-changing act for all involved.
There is a notable lack of forgiveness in the world, and an obvious lack of love. There are a lot of false and troubling notions about God held by both believers and non-believers. All of this avoidable tragedy has the same cause. We do not show love because we have not been forgiven. We have not been forgiven because we have so many desires, wants, needs, sentiments and obsessions that we project onto God.
Simon and his guests viewed God as demanding moral, spiritual, liturgical and juridical perfection from His people. Jesus knew God to be the One who eagerly forgives imperfection. Which God has your heart’s allegiance? The evidence of knowledge of the true God, who is forgiveness, is the presence of great love.