"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Love and debt

You may thank the Lord that this will not be a marital advice column. There are those who would not hesitate to point out that I am the last who should give such advice unsolicited. Even when it's solicited, I give it only by offering myself as a negative example. Instead I shall comment on today's Gospel in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite: Luke 7:36 – 8:3, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus' feet with costly perfumed oil, washes them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. I shall comment because neither I nor anyone I know seem ever to have said much if anything about its most extraordinary lesson. Doubtless some real saints have; Augustine and Chrysostom come first to mind. But I haven't read any of those thoughts; nor do I remember any of the ordinary homilies I must have heard on the passage. This comes from the heart.

The first thing I note is that this "sinful" woman who loves Jesus, and is forgiven by him, is a lot like King David, whose sin, condemnation, and confession we hear about today's first reading. Given her time and culture, it's likely that the woman's sins were sexual. Given that she could afford expensive nard to lavish on Jesus, she may well have been a high-class whore. Or perhaps she was just a successful businesswoman who had enjoyed sexual variety; the end of today's Gospel does, after all, identify a group of women who subsidized Jesus' ministry, and she may well have been one of them. In any case, the very lavishness of her gesture signified the great thing about her: the "great love" by virtue of which her sins were forgiven. The same, I should think, was true of David. He committed adultery with another man's wife and, so as to take her for himself, ensured that her husband would be killed in battle. Serious stuff. Yet when the prophet Nathan confronted him with the Lord's judgment, he admitted his sins and was told he was forgiven. David was a passionate fellow, and his passion carried over into his love of God, as any reader of the Psalms can see for themselves. And like David, the woman whom Jesus forgave loved God passionately. Of course she loved a man who is God, which is very important; for as the Fathers liked to say: "God became man so that man could become God." But both sinners attained forgiveness by virtue of their love of God.

This is not to say that they earned forgiveness thereby. We cannot earn divine mercy, which is his grace, which is primarily the Spirit living within us, transforming us into the gods we were created to become by living that same life. It's rather that the same Spirit which moved them to repentance moved them to love for the God they knew they had spurned. The fathers and doctors of the Church called the accompanying attitude "compunction." And the gift of compunction often brings that of tears, such as that woman's. But the love of God to which they were moved is, itself, the forgiveness of God. Love for God wipes away sin; beyond merely declaring the sinner righteous, which he does, God transforms the sinner. When that starts to happen, and only then, people realize that God always loved them and was just inspiring them to come home and embrace him. They react with disgust for their sins and joy in the Lord. I know it well. Conversely, the "wrath" or "judgment" of God is what happens to us when we prefer to live on our own terms, forgetting God's love, which brooks no compromise and entails unconditional obedience. I know that well too, and it's a lesson that we must all learn in order to grow into spiritual adulthood. As Dorothy Sayers once said: "None of us feels the true love of God till we realize how wicked we are. But you can't teach people that -- they have to learn by experience."

So why Jesus did say to the woman (and to others on other occasions): "Your faith has saved you"? Did she earn salvation by faith? Of course not. Accepting God's love in compunction is part of the same process by which we trust him and his word. All is made possible by the Spirit working within us, and what we call "graces" are just the occasions and manifestations of that primary grace. Existentially, it's not important which comes first; either can lead to the other. Conceptually, I suppose, faith comes first; for we can love God only if we recognize his presence or word as such, believe it, and trust him accordingly. And that means loving him, which entails putting him first. But explicit faith sometimes only follows on repentance and the experience of mercy.

Hence the most extraordinary thing about this passage is another statement Jesus makes: "The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Ostensibly, that's about the mercenary attitude Jesus describes in his little parable about the debtors. The more I am forgiven for, the more I love the one who forgives me; conversely, the less I am forgiven for, the less I love the one who forgives me. But here's the thing: it's only the one who is forgiven little and loves little who thinks of the whole thing as a mercenary exchange. Like the Pharisee, in this case the "Simon" to whom Jesus addressed himself. He is the opposite of that sinful woman, who seemingly went overboard with the hospitality Simon should have shown Jesus. And there are many pharisees. They're the ones who think God owes them for keeping their part of the deal. An archetypal Pharisee says to himself that if he keeps the Ten Commandments, and most of the other 603 commandments, then he's a decent-enough sort and doesn't need forgiveness. So of course he doesn't get it. And he doesn't get it because, even though he needs it without realizing it, he doesn't really love God as God. That's why Simon didn't bother making any gesture of care or affection for Jesus. He saw God as The Boss who owes him fair pay. He had little or no love.

That attitude is all too easy for "religious" people and, yes, "spiritual" people to fall into. I'm afraid that explains how many Catholics today see the spiritual life. They say to themselves: "I'm a nice person. I don't rape boys; I obey the civil laws (OK, not the speeding law, but who does?); I pay my taxes and even throw a twenty into the basket each week; I love my kids and visit my aged mother in the nursing home; I even get a tingly feeling when I see a sunset or meditate. So what's the problem? The Church is so hung up about [sexuality] [social justice] [fill in your own blank]. I've got enough demands to meet, and I'm not doing a bad job of meeting them. There's no need for me to confess to some pampered hypocrite in black. And half the time I can't believe I'm paying to hear awful music and boring sermons!" The loss of a sense of sin is why Sunday Mass attendance is down to about 30% and one rarely sees people at the confessional. People don't love God because they think they're already keeping their end of the deal and aren't interested in hearing that they are supposed to become gods. Football and shopping are more interesting than fire insurance one doubts one needs.

To be fair, it's hard to blame people for that attitude. Too often, they are not challenged to become more than what they are. Semi-Pelagianism is not limited to the laity. Too often I hear preaching—whether from the Right, the Left, or the Laodicean middle—which reduces the Christian life to morality. What the laity hear, if they're listening, is not that they have to be something of another and higher order, but simply that they must do more of this and less of that. Another list to check off, another exam to pass.

In the end, though, it's not about sin and forgiveness, because the "rules" broken by sin do not exist for their own sake or even to facilitate a bargain. To stop at that level is to reify the metaphor of exchange that Jesus uses. The story of sin and forgiveness is ultimately a love story. Our destiny is to become partakers of the divine nature (1 Peter 2:4), which is love (1 John 4:8). Sin is whatever keeps us from that; repentance and forgiveness are what re-introduce us to it. We are released from our debts not to live as we prefer, but to live the unimaginably joyful life of the one who releases us. That is why Paul says, in today's second reading: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." My daily prayer is that that statement become true of me. It should be every Christian's prayer.
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