The Pharisees we have read about in the scriptures and the Pharisee Jesus encounters in Luke’s Gospel exhibit much of what is troubling in religiosity today. One wonders what the dinner host (Pharisee) expected from Jesus. He must have heard the scuttlebutt about how Jesus associated with tax collectors, pagans, and whores. Did he think that because he invited Jesus into his home, that he would “behave himself?” The “sinful woman” at least understood and trusted that Jesus would extend the same compassion and understanding to her as he had extended to Levi the tax collector or the pagan Centurion’s slave. Jesus is understood and is very attractive to those who are the least and the littlest in society. The “wise” and the “strong” would misunderstand Jesus to the end – …they still misunderstand Jesus today. What they don’t understand is that faith is not a success story – it is a love story.
Like Pharisees, many people’s religion is about winning the love of God by mastering the rules. Sadly, if we believe that we need to win God’s love – then what we seek wouldn’t be love at all, rather it would be a reward in an elaborate reward/punishment system. This kind of belief system is more an exclusive club where membership is based on meeting all the requirements, than on building the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is a commonwealth of love and justice, where we cooperate with God to build on Earth what is already present in heaven. The Kingdom of God on Earth is brought about by a change of heart that motivates right action in response to the radical love of God. The radical love of God is the love that God expresses to each one us before we do anything right or good.
The woman in today’s Gospel did not have to win Jesus’ love and forgiveness by bathing his feet and anointing his head. She knew that he loved everyone, including sinners and outsiders like her. In response to this love she couldn’t wait to show her gratitude. The respect and dignity she showed Jesus was her natural response to the love and dignity he had already shown to her. Jesus loved her first.
The Pharisee, in his own estimation, had met all the requirements of his belief system, he had access to the Temple, and therefore he was already a secure insider. Perhaps this Pharisee was curious about Jesus, and maybe he thought a dinner invitation would win Jesus over to his camp. However, he did not understand the message of love and forgiveness that Jesus was offering, and he certainly did not think he needed either.
Mature religion knows there is nothing we need to do for God – God is complete – our actions add nothing to God. If we understand that God loves us first, always, and forever, and that all we have comes from God for our benefit, then our natural response will be the selfless love only a humble sinner can give. Our natural response to God’s love is to love in return: We will love our neighbor who we see, as a way to loving God whom we have not seen. (cf. 1John 4:20 & Matthew 25:40) Our love response is what builds the Kingdom here on Earth. The Earth is a battlefield, and as Pope Francis describes, the Church is a field hospital in this spiritual war: “a Church that goes forth toward those who are ‘wounded,’ who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness, and love.”