The Readings for this Sunday revolve around a constellation of fundamental issues in our relationship with God: sin, repentance, forgiveness, faith, and love. Two of the passages used in this liturgy have been battlegrounds in the theological polemic between Protestants and Catholics, but ought not to be so.
1. Our First Reading is 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13:
Nathan said to David:
“Thus says the LORD God of Israel:
‘I anointed you king of Israel.
I rescued you from the hand of Saul.
I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own.
I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah.
And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more.
Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?
You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword;
you took his wife as your own,
and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites.
because you have despised me
and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’
Then David said to Nathan,
“I have sinned against the LORD.”
Nathan answered David:
“The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin:
you shall not die.”
To understand this passage, it helps to know the narrative context. In 2 Samuel 5, David was made king over all twelve tribes of Israel by common consent and by means of a covenant. He quickly captured the Gentile city of Jerusalem to use as his capital and “federal district.” In 2 Samuel 6, David honored God in one of his first acts as king, by bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, where it could serve as the focus of the liturgical life of the nation, enabling the king himself could lead the nation in worship. In response to David’s piety, God granted David an everlasting covenant of kingship over all mankind in 2 Samuel 7—a covenant which would later be restored and transformed in the “New Covenant” established by the Son of David through his Body and Blood (Luke 22:20; cf. Isa 55:1-3), renewed for us at every Eucharistic liturgy. In 2 Samuel 8–10, David reached the height of his earthly power, but in 2 Samuel 11 he gave in to sloth and self-indulgence, which metastatized into lust, adultery, and bureaucratic murder. Lazing on his roof when he should have been out leading the army in war, David saw his neighbor’s wife Bathsheba bathing on the roof, fell into lust, forcibly took her, and then had her husband Uriah killed to hide the unexpected pregnancy. This brings us to this Sunday’s Reading, in which the court prophet Nathan roundly rebukes David for his corruption, and David repents.
The narrative of David in 2 Samuel illustrates for us the distinction between the concepts of guilt and temporal punishment. Guilt is the moral culpability for sin; whereas temporal punishment is the disorder introduced into our lives by the sin. Confession removes guilt; indulgences are the Church’s assistance offered to us to aid in the removal of temporal punishment. David sins in 2 Samuel 11, and repents in 2 Samuel 12. His guilt is forgiven in our First Reading. However, there are still temporal consequences. Because he sinned by adultery and murder, this same very sins have been allowed into his household and will manifest themselves in the chaotic and violent history of his own family from 2 Samuel 13–20. David’s sons will imitate the sexuality and violence of their father in these subsequent chapters.
There is a theme of irresponsible fatherhood that runs throughout the historical books of the Old Testament (the “Deuteronomistic History”). The downfall of Eli, Samuel, and David is all, to a certain extent, their failures as fathers. The father is the priest of the ecclesia domestica, the domestic church. Sins practiced or permitted by the father enter the home, are replicated by the children, and bear their evil fruit. The story of David is a warning, especially to fathers, to be vigilant in the practice of virtue, and not to give in to self-indulgence or sensuality, which can lead domino-like to greater sins we would not normally even consider committing. It is particularly poignant in today’s culture, with the rash of pornography addiction that is destroying marriages and family life. On a more hopeful note, the story of David also reminds us of God’s forgiveness and covenantal mercy: for all David’s sins, God continued to show him his “mercy” (Heb. hesed, “covenantal fidelity”). We also can run to God in the hope of finding that same mercy.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11:
R. (cf. 5c) Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed the man to whom the LORD imputes not guilt,
in whose spirit there is no guile.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
my guilt I covered not.
I said, “I confess my faults to the LORD,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
You are my shelter; from distress you will preserve me;
with glad cries of freedom you will ring me round.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you just;
exult, all you upright of heart.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
Psalm 32 is not a typical todah or Thanksgiving psalm, but it does share that basic form. The intention of the psalmist is to thank God for an act of deliverance. Looking back, he recalls the situation of distress he was in, a situation of physical illness whose root cause was unconfessed sin. The psalmist rehearses how he confessed his sin, and thereafter found refuge in God. He exhorts all persons of good will to do likewise.
Psalm 32 would have been chanted in the Temple courts as part of a thanksgiving sacrifice liturgy. Likewise, the confession of sin referred to in Psalm 32 was usually a public, liturgical act, performed before a priest, accompanying the sacrifice of an animal (Lev 4:20,26,31,35; 5:10,13,16,18; 6:7). Thus, the psalm reminds us of the connection between confession of sin and public worship. Our sins affect those around us. David’s sins had severe consequences for his family and nation. Likewise, ours ripple throughout our circles of family and acquaintances. Since our sins effect those around us, our repentance should also be manifest to those around us. The penitential rite in Mass and the Sacrament of Penance provide opportunities for us to manifest contrition before the Church and the world. But we also need to go personally to seek the forgiveness of those we have directly harmed.
3. The Second Reading is Gal 2:16, 19-21:
Brothers and sisters:
We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ,
even we have believed in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ
and not by works of the law,
because by works of the law no one will be justified.
For through the law I died to the law,
that I might live for God.
I have been crucified with Christ;
yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me;
insofar as I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God
who has loved me and given himself up for me.
I do not nullify the grace of God;
for if justification comes through the law,
then Christ died for nothing.
One of the key questions concerning this passage is the meaning of the phrase “works of the law.” Does this mean “any human effort to be righteous,” as Luther and other reformers supposed? Or does it mean “the regulations of the Old Covenant,” as Thomas Aquinas suggested? Further light was thrown on this passage by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s. Among the Scrolls was found a document scholars have called “4QMMT.” This document is (apparently) a letter from the Essenes of Qumran (an all-male religious community on the shores of the northwest end of the Dead Sea) to the Pharisees of Jerusalem, written some time between 100 BC and AD 100. It contains some of the few, perhaps the only, examples of the phrase “works of the law” in ancient literature outside of the Pauline epistles. In 4QMMT, “works of the law” functions as a reference to observances of cultic purity, such as the ritual cleanliness of liquids, leather, wheat, the city of Jerusalem, etc. The evidence of 4QMMT suggests that Thomas Aquinas was correct: “works of the law” was a semi-technical phrase employed by St. Paul and other Jewish religious thinkers of his day to refer to cultic observances of the Mosaic law.
What does it mean to be “justified”? In classic Protestantism, “justification” is often seen as a legal or juridical category, like being declared innocent in a court of law. However, the Catholic Church understands justification as an ontological category, as an act that changes our nature. Thus, to be “justified by faith in Jesus Christ” means not merely that we are “declared legally innocent because we have faith in Jesus,” but that “we are truly changed in our being as a result of our faith in Jesus” (many contemporary Protestants would agree). The cultic observances of the Old Covenant did not change anyone in their inner person, but faith in Jesus Christ truly results in us being “crucified with Christ,” so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This is a reality, indeed an experiential reality. All Christians can and should know Christ personally and experientially. Spiritual dryness and darkness may subsequently come as God purifies the soul, but the new life in Christ is never limited to an intellectual knowledge alone. The saints experienced Jesus, knew him personally.
4. The Gospel is Lk 7:36–8:3:
A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.Now there was a sinful woman in the citywho learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,she stood behind him at his feet weepingand began to bathe his feet with her tears.Then she wiped them with her hair,kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself,“If this man were a prophet,he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,that she is a sinner.”Jesus said to him in reply,“Simon, I have something to say to you.”“Tell me, teacher, ” he said.“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty.Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.Which of them will love him more?”Simon said in reply,“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,“Do you see this woman?When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,but she has bathed them with her tearsand wiped them with her hair.You did not give me a kiss,but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.You did not anoint my head with oil,but she anointed my feet with ointment.So I tell you, her many sins have been forgivenbecause she has shown great love.But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”The others at table said to themselves,“Who is this who even forgives sins?”But he said to the woman,“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another,preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.Accompanying him were the Twelveand some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities,Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza,Susanna, and many others who provided for themout of their resources.
At first glance, this narrative sounds like a variation of the anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-8), but careful comparison of the accounts makes it difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to hold them to be the same event. But could Jesus really have been anointed by women at a supper twice in his ministry? Yes, and I think there is a plausible explanation why. The event recorded here occurred earlier in Jesus ministry, and Jesus praised the sinful woman for her deed. Not to be outdone by this unknown woman, Mary of Bethany, who harbored a great deal of devotion to the person of Jesus, later also anoints the Lord to shown the depth of her own love (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8).
This Gospel passage deals with themes of sin, repentance, forgiveness, love, and faith that have shown up in the previous readings. Like David in the First Reading, this woman is (almost certainly) a sexual sinner, who expresses repentance and sorrow for her sin. She also exercises faith in Jesus Christ, the faith discussed by Paul in our Second Reading.
The direct way in which Jesus announces the forgiveness of sin: “Your sins are forgiven,” is all but a claim to divinity. Although forgiveness of sin was usually obtained through the priests, and on occasion could be announced by a prophet (see the First Reading), it was mediated in the name of the LORD. Jesus’ declaration appears to be unmediated: a sovereign judgment on his own authority. The bystanders rightly sense that this is a statement inappropriate for any mere man.
In this account of the sinful woman, we observe the dynamic relationship between love and faith in the Christian life. First, Jesus observes that the love shown by the woman is a sign that she has experienced the forgiveness of sins. It seems likely that Jesus had some previous dealings with this woman, prior to this dinner, through which she had experienced this spiritual healing and forgiveness.
She doesn’t earn forgiveness by her love, but the love she shows is the sign of her reception of forgiveness. That is the logic of Jesus’ parable told to Simon the Pharisee. This kind of love should characterize our relationship to Jesus as well.
But note, this love for Jesus presumes the recognition that we are sinners and that we do need forgiveness from God. This woman was probably Jewish in background and was conscious of the law of God and his will concerning the use of the body and sexual relations. On the other hand, ancient Gentiles, much like modern Americans, had little or no sense that the promiscuous sexual use of the body could be offensive to God. It was just a matter of pleasure, not a matter of following the will of the Creator. The Good News preached by the Church offers forgiveness of sin; but both in ancient and modern times, there are many who find the offer uninteresting, because they are not conscious of having done anything that requires forgiveness. We have to give thanks to God even for the fact that we have enough light to realize we are sinners in need of forgiveness.
Jesus tells the woman, “Your faith has saved you.” Here we see the foundation in Jesus’ own preaching for Paul’s emphasis on the life of faith in Galatians. This woman experiences forgiveness from the Lord himself, apart from the “works of the law,” that is, apart from following the prescribed rituals of the Mosaic law, such as animal sacrifice. This faith is not a mere intellectual assent, but it is a heartfelt trust that naturally manifests itself in love. As St. Paul describes it elsewhere: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
This Gospel has obvious echoes with our own experience in the Sacrament of Confession. In the confessional, we encounter Jesus again, as truly as this woman encountered him at the supper. We express our love for Jesus, and sorrow for our sins. The priest, acting in the person of Christ, lends his voice to Jesus in order to say to us, “I absolve you of your sins. . . .” It’s a scandalous statement, only ultimately appropriate for the lips of God Himself; yet we believe Christ to be God, and the Church is his Body, speaking his words and performing his deeds in the world, even to this day.