The First and Third Readings for this Sunday both deal with forgiveness, and both are linked to parables. The prophet Nathan's confrontation with David follows right after a famous parable, one of the few in the Hebrew Bible (2 Sam 12:1-7). To help the king acknowledge the heinousness of his murder of Uriah (in order to possess Bathsheba), Nathan plays a parabolic trick on him. “Judge this case for me,” he says. He then proceeds to tell the story of a rich man who takes and kills a poor man's pet ewe lamb to serve up to a visitor. When David responds to this account in rage (“As the Lord lives, the man who has done this merits death!”), Nathan confronts him with the reality hidden behind what was really a parable masked as a legal case: “That man is you!” For the arrogant injustice of the rich man is only a pale image of David's lust-driven act of murder. The “case” that turns out to be a parable about David is only the first surprise. There is a second: Nathan informs the king, “The LORD, on his part has forgiven your sin.”
Like the prophet Nathan, Jesus, in today's Gospel, uses a parable to open arrogant eyes. And, as in the case of David, divine forgiveness appears in a surprising way. The Pharisee who hosts Jesus sees a woman, reputed to be a sinner (the nature of her sin remains undisclosed), who enters the dining area and proceeds to wash Jesus' feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and then kiss them and anoint them with perfumed oil. That Jesus allows such a woman to touch him (and so sensually) disqualifies him as a prophet in the eyes of the Pharisee. Knowing the Pharisee's thoughts, Jesus does what Nathan did with David, proposes a situation for the Pharisee's judgment: A money lender forgives two debtors, one owing 50 coins, the other 500. Which would be the more grateful? The one forgiven more, of course. Then Jesus describes how the woman's startling actions really made up what had been lacking in the Pharisee's hospitality. Whereas the Pharisee had been distantly relating to Jesus only to size him up and to find reason to reject him and his message, she had fully responded to Jesus' call to repentance.
“So I tell, you,” Jesus says, “her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
But wait a minute. Was not the point of the parable that loving gratitude is a response to having been forgiven? Now Jesus' words to the Pharisee seem to say that the loving behavior somehow preceded (and merited?) the forgiveness. This apparent contradiction points to a translation problem often noted by commentators. The wording of the Greek original of Luke 7:47 is ambiguous. A literal rendering would be “her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much”—leaving unresolved whether the love is the occasion (cause) or the evidence (effect) of the forgiveness. The translators of the 1986 version of the New American Bible translated the verse, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love,” explaining in a note, “that the woman's sins have been forgiven is attested by the great love she shows toward Jesus,” insisting that “this is also the meaning demanded by the parable in verses 41-43.” That the current Lectionary editors have chosen to stay with the more traditional rendering of the verse should not distract us from the essential biblical teaching that God’s forgiving love precedes and invites our grateful repentance.
That theme of the priority of God's loving action comes through powerfully in Paul's words in the reading from Galatians: “Insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). The faith that saves is a grateful response to God's loving and forgiving initiative. It can even lead to exuberant tears, the washing of feet, and kissing.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
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