Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 12:7-10, 13;  Gal 2:16, 19-21;  Lk 7:36-8:3 ] at Mississippi Abbey

A Dominican, a Jesuit and a Trappist were marooned on a deserted tropical island. They found a bottle on the shore with a note inside offering three wishes. The Dominican said, “This is wonderful! I want to be preaching at St. Peter’s in Rome.”  Poof!  Right away, he was in St. Peter’s.  Then the Jesuit said, “I want to be teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris.”  Poof!  Just like that, he was there.  Left alone on the island, the Trappist said, “Well, I really don’t want to be a hermit. I wish those two guys were back here.”  And poof, there they were!

What would you wish for?  When I was in high school five of us freshmen used to ride to get a ride from one of our mothers.  One day she said, “Would each of you write a list of five things you most desire in life.”  We did.  Without consulting each other, a most remarkable thing happened.  All five of us had the same fist wish, “To go to heaven.”  None of us wanted to go right away, but we all wanted to be ready for that great and wonderful day, our birthdays into eternal life.

What would you wish for?  In today’s gospel a notorious sinner wished to be forgiven for all her iniquity.  She wasn’t ready, but she wanted to be.  Such great love filled her heart at the thought of being washed clean that she began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them dry with her hair, and anointing them with oil. What she desired in her heart she now heard with her ears.  Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Her wish came true, and so did his.

For Jesus also has a wish. He wants to say out loud, “Your sins are forgiven.”  He wants us to hear with our own ears those sweet words of mercy.  Our compunction and his forgiveness always begins with a silent exchange between his Heart and ours.  But Jesus wants to do more, especially for our grievous sins.  He wants us to hear his words of mercy, like the notorious sinner, leaving no doubt or uncertainty in our hearts that we have been washed clean, that we are ready.

This story of the notorious sinner who loved more because she was forgiven more, is about one of life’s greatest wishes being fulfilled.  But her story leaves me a little confused.  Must we first be great sinners if we want to be greater lovers of Jesus?  Will our love and gratitude be smaller if we have fallen less griveously?  Jesus says “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”   Will a saint who never committed a mortal sin love less?

St. Therese of Lisieux writes that she had a greater debt of gratitude to God than Mary Magdalene.  She writes, “You say that I owe little.  On the contrary, I owe more than Mary Magdalene … for God remitted my sins beforehand, as it were, by not letting me fall into them.  Put it like this: a doctor has a daughter who trips over a stone and breaks a leg.  Her father is at her side in a moment, treats his girl’s injuries with great skill, and tenderly picks her up.  Thanks to her father, the girl quickly recovers and is cured. The father has earned the girl’s love.  But suppose the father sees the stone, runs far ahead and removes it without calling attention to what he has done.  At the time, the girl is unaware of the danger that has been avoided by her father’s foresight.  She is less grateful than if she had been cured by her father’s tender care.  But if afterwards she learns what her father has done and how she has been spared from injury by her father’s efforts, then she will love him even more. And that is what God’s loving Providence has done for me.”1

If you have been protected from grievous sins, like St. Therese of Lisieux, who never refused God anything, then like her you can love God even more because of the more perfect way in which grace has preceded you and kept you from serious harm.

But for most of us, like the notoriously sinful woman, we need and want to hear Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  When Chesterton was asked why he became a Catholic, he said, “To get rid of my sins”2  After Elizabeth Ann Seton converted to Catholicism and went to confession for the first time, she said, “How awesome are those words of unloosing after thirty years of bondage!  I felt as if my chains fell away, like those of St. Peter [in prison] when he was touched by the divine messenger.”3  Saints want to get rid of all their sins, even the little ones.

The Sacreament of Reconciliation is an act of love fulfilling two wishes: our wish to be washed clean so that we will be ready for heaven, and God’s wish to say out loud “I forgive you” to make us ready.  Do this, and the day of your death, the wished for day, will be the first completely, totally happy day of your life in heaven forever! 

1. Ronald Knox, Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, P.J. Kennedy and Sons, NY, 1958, p. 113.

2. Michael Ffinch, G.K. Chesterton, Haprer & Roe, San Francisco, 1986, p. 287.

3. Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., Mrs. Seton, An Avon Book, NY, 1962, p. 191. 


Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam. 12: 7-10, 13; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7: 36-8: 3]

Over the years I have noticed a pattern of contrasts in many of St. Luke’s parables. In the parable of the prodigal son the contrast is between the younger son and the elder son. There is the contrast between the tax collector and the Pharisee in the parable of the same name. The Good Samaritan is contrasted with three classes in Judaism. In this morning’s gospel the contrast is not so much in the parable as between Simon the Pharisee and the repentant woman. The ideal to which we are to aspire in these stories is obvious enough. We might be shocked to hear the Holy Spirit saying within us: You are the elder brother. You are the Pharisee. Yet, I find it very much to the point to identify with all the characters in Jesus’ parables and in the gospel narratives. We will never advance toward the ideal unless we are willing to admit where we are at present; and in my experience, more often than I like to admit, that is with the weaknesses and shortcomings of characters in the gospel stories.

It has been suggested that the reason Luke focuses on the Pharisees and their negative characteristics is because he saw that same pattern of behavior arising in the Christian communities. I think Phariseeism is an occupational hazard of anyone who takes religion seriously. For that matter I think there are secular Pharisees as well as Jewish and Christian Pharisees, but that is another topic. Underlying the phenomenon is our desire to have some sort of a claim on God. Most of us realize that there are things that we have done that need to be forgiven; but are we willing to follow that realization through to its full implications and act accordingly?

There was no question that the woman in this morning’s gospel was a sinner and it seems a well known one. Luke states it, Simon knew it and Jesus knew it. The woman herself knew it. What she did and I submit what we find so difficult to do was to become totally vulnerable before Jesus. She had no claim on Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. She did not ask for anything. She simply and directly expressed her love for Jesus. She expressed in behavior what St. Paul expressed in more precise theological language: Nothing flesh is justified by works of the Law. Because she loved much, she was forgiven much.

Before we are too quick to pass judgment on Simon for missing the point of what was happening, we would do well to search our own hearts. That we need to put our faith into practice is clear enough. Are we willing to do it simply because this is what Christ is asking of us here and now, with no sense of entitlement for what we are doing? Are we willing to carry out God’s will for us as we understand it without presuming that we know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to God in the behavior of others? Are we willing to stand in vulnerability before God and acknowledge our sins knowing that we have no claim on God? Our behavior will never give us a claim on God. If we persevere in the way of conversion with humility, behavior can express our love for God.

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex. 19: 2-6a; Rom. 5: 6-11; Mt. 9: 36-10: 8 ]

A number of years ago when I was in college, one of my cousins sent me five dollars. In her letter she said, “Don’t worry about paying me back. Do something kind for someone else.” I think that is a very succinct behavioral definition of gratitude. Yes, we say “Thank you” to someone who has done something kind for us, but that is half of gratitude. If a person’s kindness has made an impression on us, it transforms us and we become kind in turn. Our gratitude is completed by being generous to someone else, and that person in turn becomes kind and does something kind for someone. And the process of generosity and gratitude continues and multiplies. That at least is the ideal. What prevents the ideal from becoming a reality is when we fail to complete our gratitude by not being generous to someone else.

This applies not only to our expressions of gratitude among ourselves, but also and especially in showing our gratitude to God. It is completely beyond our capability to give back to God the kindness he has shown to us. As St. Paul just reminded us, when we were completely undeserving of God’s kindness, Christ gave his life so that we might enter into the life of the Blessed Trinity and have eternal life. First and foremost if we are to live truthfully, we give our thanksgiving and praise to God and acknowledge our dependence on him for all that we have and are. Beyond this we also demonstrate our gratitude to God in extending God’s kindness to those God brings into our lives.

When we hear the accounts of the call and commissioning of the Apostles we can pass too quickly over them and not see them as applying to us also. It is true that only a few are called to be successors of the Apostles. We are not all called to be preachers or teachers. We are not all called to exceptional service in the Church. We are all called to be disciples and a mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be compassionate and kind. This is something we can all do in any and all of our situations. In this way we all share in the ministry of proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near. We bring the kingdom of heaven near through our behavior toward one another.

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 2Sam. 12: 7-10, 13; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7: 36-8: 3]

It seems to me that this morning’s readings have a simple and straightforward message: We cannot make ourselves right with God by our own efforts. We can acknowledge our need for forgiveness and in God’s forgiveness we become right with God, right with ourselves, right with others and right with the world. The problem with simple and straightforward messages is that we can too easily say “of course“, pass over them and move on to something else. I find it to my advantage to backup from my “of course” and not move on so quickly.

There is a current of thought in our culture that tells us that we should earn our own way in life. If things don’t go well for us, it is really our own fault. We should have tried harder, taken a more careful look at the situation, and on and on. Yes, it is true that we have our faults and weaknesses; and yes, we should try to correct them to extent that we can. But that misses the point of this morning’s readings. We cannot earn forgiveness from God or from anyone else. We can acknowledge our need for forgiveness and ask for forgiveness; but then we stand vulnerable, hoping that we will be forgiven. I doubt that any of us handles vulnerability particularly well, at least not initially. Nevertheless our relationship with God is always a relationship in faith, hope and love, and living in faith, hope and love keeps us in a position of vulnerability.

We can easily dismiss Simon for allowing his preoccupation with ritual purity to blind him to the woman’s expression of repentance and love, but ritual purity and defilement held a place in his culture that is foreign to us. How often do we let our concerns with proper etiquette, both secular and religious, distort our perceptions of someone’s awkward attempts to express herself or himself? How often do we let our understanding of correct religious behavior, acceptable in itself, cross over into the attitude that anyone else’s that is at variance with ours is at best inferior? Although it is not the main point of the narrative, I am struck by the fact that while Simon was criticizing the woman for her moral failings he seemed oblivious to the fact that he had fallen short of the accepted conventions of hospitality. The gospel calls us to go beyond the requirements of conventional courtesy, not fall short of them.

Perhaps it is my personal interpretation, but I think this morning’s gospel has much in common with the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Both the publican and the woman in this morning’s gospel knew who they were. They knew they had no claims on God. In their different ways they acknowledged their vulnerability before God and in faith had the courage to seek his forgiveness. Their culture considered them losers. Many people in ours would too. I submit we have much to learn from them.