Thirty-sixth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
I once remarked in this series that “repentance” seems to be Christianity’s dirty word, largely due to misunderstandings over the idea of sin. Sin, simply put and whatever else it may be, is a mistake, and not understanding that can cause us to misunderstand the idea of repentance as a corrective action – or even the idea of mercy as compassion, as shared suffering (because we all make mistakes). But perhaps Christianity’s most misunderstood word is the one at the center of today’s readings: “justification.” Virtual wars have been fought within the Church over how to understand this concept. Deriving from the Greek dikaiosyne and the Latin justitia, justification has to do with acting properly in accordance with the entirety of a set of legal principles. In this case the principles we are dealing with are the Law, the commands set forth by God through Moses by which God’s people were to conduct themselves in order to be in relationship with Him – the same Law, by the way, that was fulfilled in the Redemption.
In the First Reading, the prophet Nathan pronounces a curse upon the family of King David, for taking the woman Bathsheba and arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed. Nathan tells David that because he has acted in this way, because he has spurned not only the command of God but all the good things God has done for him directly, because of it all “the sword shall never depart from [his] house.” There are reasons for the very specific nature of this curse which the reading does not go into, but for our purposes it is enough to know that David immediately acknowledges his guilt. And when he does the prophet says something curious: “The LORD, for his part, has forgiven your sin; you shall not die.” David’s confession of his sin – of his mistake – while it does not take away the consequence of his actions, moves God to forgive what he has done. So right away, from the ancient days of learning our relationship with God, we see that justification in the sight of God cannot be merit-based. It does not spring from perfect practice, but from an honest acknowledgment of imperfect practice. And this acknowledgment moves God, whose practice is always perfect, to act on our behalf. Such is the great example of the Father’s mercy: we, for our part, make mistakes and seek to correct them; God, “for his part,” erases those mistakes so that we can try again.
Not that we always follow this example in our dealings with others – as the Gospel reading reminds us. Here we see Jesus dining in the house of Simon the Pharisee when a known sinner enters in and begins to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet. Luke tells us that Simon spoke to himself (or perhaps to those immediately near him) and remarked that Jesus could not possibly know how sinful this woman was, or he would never let her touch him. Jesus interjects with a parable of two debtors, one owing a small sum and one owing a large sum, and “[s]ince they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.” This woman may have had an infamous reputation as a sinner of some sort (be it sexual or covetous or what-have-you), but her humility led her to the One Who could heal her, and her charity led her to love Him even if only in the limited ways she knew how. Simon the self-righteous Pharisee, on the other hand, was an ungracious host and Jesus publicly calls him on it by way of comparison – and no one of any social standing ever wanted to be thought of as one who did not receive guests well. Much like King David, Simon cursed himself by his own actions. There was no humility in his charity and no charity in his hospitality, which led Jesus to declare: “[H]er many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
It was the woman’s faith that brought her to the feet of Jesus, and it was faith that saved her, as Jesus Himself said. And it is faith that, in the wake of the Redemption, provides us ever-present opportunities to reconcile with God and deepen our relationship with him. This is what saint Paul means in the Second Reading when he tell the Galatians “we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ…because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Remember: justification cannot be merit-based. Humanity’s fallen condition does not enable a person to act properly in accordance with the whole of the Law, even the Law of Love. Simply put, we can’t not make mistakes. But we can acknowledge those mistakes. We can seek to correct our behavior. And we can trust that the God-Man – the one man whose practice is perfect – suffered the consequences for our mistakes on our behalf. That is what Paul means when he writes “I have been crucified with Christ.” We all have, when we have accepted that He did in fact die in order to take away the sins of the world, as we say at every Mass before the broken bread of the Blessed Sacrament. And in this way, every single time we repent, we are set upon the right course. Just as the power of the Redemption is not confined to a single moment in time and space, we are continuously justified in accordance with the whole of the Law, because “through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God.”
The Second Reading ends with these wondrous words: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.” To be justified by faith means to be ready at all times to receive God’s grace, because it’s the only thing that really helps us correct those mistakes we make. It’s also the only thing that will help us help each other to do the same thing, which is what being “merciful like the Father” is all about. So when it seems like you can never make any headway in your spiritual or even material life, or think that you’re such a great sinner or stayed away from Mass or a confessional for so long that God can’t possibly have mercy on your soul, don’t despair! The opportunity is always there. It’s true what they say: where there’s life, there’s hope. We are meant to live for ever, and the Lord “for his part” is always ready to help us do that.