This is a great gospel. Some version of this story is in all four gospels. It had to be quite a scene when Simon, who was expecting a dinner with a mover and shaker named Jesus found him big moment interrupted by this sinful woman. And what a scene she created! Without knowing her, or perhaps because he knew her in the biblical sense, Simon was mortified by her presence. But Simon learned a very important lesson about the spiritual life. Even though the woman was sinful, she loved more. And when she approached Jesus in love to seek forgiveness, he forgave her great sin. While love does not give us permission to sin, it does allow us to receive great forgiveness when we turn to Jesus in contrition.
What do you do when you receive unexpected and shocking news about the death of someone you care about? Or maybe learn about a serious illness that you have or someone else has? The temptation, perhaps especially on the part of a priest, is to give a simple solution, or an easy answer. The suffering, evil and death we experience does not lend itself to easy and simple answers, if the answers are in fact going to help us. Rather, we have a God who entered into our suffering and evil, and provides us a relationship with him and others.
I remember the first time I really heard today’s gospel. It was September 12, 2001. When I read the words of today’s gospel, the hair on my neck stood up. After the horrific events of September 11, I heard the words of Jesus in a way that cut me to the heart. ” “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” And just when I thought I had been rattled enough, Jesus continues. “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” And I realized on that day that it was too simple to think that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He did. In fact, he died for our sins. I know that I cannot live these words on my own. But I can try to be open to his grace. I can seek forgiveness. And I can seek a deeper relationship with him that even makes these hard words possible.
Go into any bookstore and find the “self-help” section and there are really an unbelievable number of books. It seems that many have an opinion that doing something easy will make life perfect. And if we are not careful, the Christian life can be reduced to the same “self-help” philosophy. If we go around doing good, we will be better. But Christian discipleship is more than this. It is entering into a powerful relationship with Jesus, and allowing that relationship to change us, perhaps even allowing it to take us where we do not want to go. Jesus is not a self-help guru, but the divine Son of God who heals our sin and brokenness and calls to something more than we can imagine.
The gospel today has an interesting quote from Jesus about the need to hate our parents to become a disciple. Can he possible mean that? The commandments tell us to honor our father and mother. Nothing in the gospels indicates Jesus did not love his mother. The gospel makes much more sense when we understand that the word hate in the Greek world was used as hyperbole to make the main point clear: to be a disciple is very hard work.