Dear Homily Recipients: If you recall yesterday’s Gospel passage about the mustard plant, you know that this homily doesn’t go with it. That’s because I inadvertently chose the Gospel for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time from next year’s Cycle C instead of the current year’s Cycle B. Sorry about that. (This year’s passage was about the mustard plant; next year’s features the adulterous woman. At the end of the broadcast, our Radio Mass deacon advised me to say, if I am questioned about the error, that the woman was found under the mustard plant entertaining someone she should not have been with!)
A seminary classmate of mine, now deceased, was assigned to an inner-city parish where the pastor was severely handicapped by sickness and old age. One Sunday that pastor, not strong enough to give Communion to the hundreds of worshipers in the congregation, made his way to the young priest kneeling in the sanctuary, bent down and said, “Father, would you please give me a hand distributing Communion to this crowd? I’m not at all well this morning” My classmate answered, “Sorry. I can’t. I have to finish my morning prayers.”
Compare that with Jesus’ over & over insistence that one law is more important than any other, and that is the universal law of love, of concern for others, and I’m sure you’ll agree that my classmate was more than a little mixed up.
Jesus did not hide the fact that among his ancestors was the celebrated King David, an adulterer and murderer. And Jesus knew that, after David repented of his shameful crimes, he moved on to serve the people with total dedication and genuine love, humbly regarding himself as forgiven by God and being eager to live henceforth as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, to whom he prayed for guidance and strength.
Jesus views the woman in today’s gospel in the same way. With no attempt to whitewash her public sins, he calls attention to the deep love that motivates her to stand courageously before a hostile crowd and kneel before him to wash and anoint his feet. It’s as if she were saying, with reckless abandon, “Jesus, you know me and how shameful and sinful my life has been. But you know also that I want to be a good person and that I do love God and I do love others with compassion. I see how good you are; I see God in you. Help me, please, to rise above where I am now.”
Can you imagine the jeering and the outrage that must have erupted in those holier-than-thou witnesses, accusing her of hypocrisy? Nothing would have pleased them more than to hear Jesus humiliate her and reduce her to an object of total disgrace. But instead he defends her — not excusing what we may assume was her unfortunate life as a prostitute, but praising the sincere love that moved her to perform such a heroic act in front of angry men who would like to kill her. It was that gesture of homage to Jesus that showed who she really was in her heart of hearts; Jesus could not fail to recognize that, and he would not allow others to miss it either.
The anonymous priest I mentioned at the start of this homily was known to be an uncaring man, unusually selfish, occasionally even ruthless in his dealings with others. How different things could have been had he closed that prayer book and leapt to his feet to assist the old priest who needed his help. But most of us religious folk are inclined to permit obedience to the law to get in the way of simple charity – of doing the loving thing. If the sinful woman in today’s gospel account had obeyed the law, she would not have dared to speak with or to touch Jesus; she would have kept her distance, and life would have limped along unchanged for all involved. But instead she became God’s gift to us, assuring us that every loving thing we do expresses who and what we really are and covers forever even our most shameful failings.