This week’s Gospel (Luke 7:36 – 8:3) features a penitent woman bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair. She then kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment. She is unnamed, merely referred to as a sinner. Her act of contrition is total. Her tears reflect the pain of a hundred bad decisions and a true desire to start over. The Pharisees recoil from her. They know who she is and what she has done. How can Jesus dare let her touch him, and in so intimate a way? They are shocked and dismayed. Jesus, however, welcomes her, and acknowledges her sorrow and her desire to be forgiven. He says the unthinkable – that her sins are forgiven, and tells her to go in peace. These are the same words that priests today use in the sacrament of confession. Through the power given to them by Jesus Christ, our sins, too, are forgiven.
We live in a world that has largely lost a concept of sin. We have a culture that tells people that if something feels good, they should do it. People often feel that the most important thing in life is to be happy here, right now. If you are not, then something is wrong. If you are denying yourself something that would give you some temporal pleasure, then you are missing out. The Ten Commandments are considered anachronistic, made for a different era. They aren’t relevant anymore. The seven deadly sins? They aren’t so deadly these days. This is what the world at large would have us believe.
We know better. The strange thing about traveling along the spiritual road toward Christ is that along the way, you realize how much you come up short. You start off thinking you are a pretty good person (and you probably are), or you have a huge conversion experience and shake off your old way of life with the desire, like the penitent woman, to completely begin anew (this is obviously a good thing). You begin to pray more and try harder to do the right thing. You read Scripture and other uplifting spiritual works. You attend the sacraments more frequently. You make spiritual progress and receive consolation from God. Then one day, God decides it is time for you to move a little farther down the road. He begins to point out to you the areas you especially need to work on. You now begin to see the wrong in actions and thoughts you felt were fine before. Sins of omission become more obvious. You start to see your sins and your need for forgiveness much more clearly. Saints such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena referred to this has having “self-knowledge” and describe it as being central to having true humility before God. The saints were keenly aware of their shortcomings and the need to throw themselves on God’s mercy. We can do nothing without His help. We need His love and forgiveness at every turn.
It is easy to read this Gospel and dismiss the penitent woman as a great sinner. Like the Pharisees, we may feel self-righteous, and wonder how God could forgive her. The truth is, we need to imitate her. We need to be that sorry for the wrongs we have done, for the times we have failed to show love to God and to our neighbor. We need to beg for forgiveness and resolve to make a new start, even if it is the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth new start. We need to keep trying, and with God’s grace, keep moving closer to Him and His example of perfect love.