Love and forgiveness: context

Simon-Sinful-WomanA Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 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.” 40 Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. 42 Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 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 tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. 47 So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Context. What is the context for this pericope? While there are many possible outlines for Luke’s gospel, let me offer the following:

  • Luke 5:1-6:11  Jesus calling and forming his disciples via controversy
  • Luke 6:12-49   Jesus instructing his disciples via the Sermon on the Plain
  • Luke 7:1-50     Compassionate ministry of Jesus
  • Luke 8:1-56     The Word proclaimed – the Word heard and followed

As Joel Green [281] notes, Luke 7 forms a discreet section of the Gospel, bordered on each side by reports of Jesus’ teaching (6:12–49; 8:1–18). Luke 7:1, following on the heels of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount) both intimates the completion of Jesus’ sermon and denotes a geographical change for the events to follow. Luke 8:1 registers a chronological shift and marks Jesus’ return to an itinerant ministry following his activity in Capernaum (cf. 4:42–44).

What role does ch. 7 serve in the narrative? Let’s remind ourselves of the outline of Jesus’ missionary program:

He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21 citing the Prophet Isaiah)

Beginning with 4:31, Luke tells of a series of encounters in which the outlines of Jesus’ ministry of “release” to the “poor” would be developed further. In 6:20–49, Luke defined in positive terms both the new conditions of existence in his community and the general shape of the behaviors and values that would come to seem natural for those who participate in this community. The message of Jesus’ deeds and words now come together in Luke 7, which is composed of three exemplary stories

  • Healing the Centurion’s Servant (vv.1-10)
  • Raising the Widow’s Son (vv.11-17)
  • Forgiving the Sinful Woman (vv.36-50)

Each story reveals the character of the salvation made available in Jesus’ mission. The quality of Jesus’ ministry raises questions about his identity from the disciples of John the Baptist (7:18–19; cf. 7:18–35), a question Jesus answers with reference back to the quality of his ministry (7:21–22, in terms borrowed from Isa 61:1–2; cf. Luke 4:18–19).

In Luke 8, Jesus begins to more pointedly prepare the disciples for mission. It is mission promised in Isaiah that Jesus says in coming to fulfillment in his person. It is the mission Jesus demonstrates in the three encounters of mercy in Luke 7. It is mission Jesus received from the Father that is none other than revealing the very love that gives itself to every person: “Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion” (Misericordiae Vultus §8, Pope Francis’ papal proclamation of the Year of Mercy).

Pope Francis invites us to realize the overall message contained in these stories and parables of Mercy. He writes: “Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy. We know these parables well. In these parables, God is always presented full of joy, especially when he pardons. In them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.” (Misericordiae Vultus §9)

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