Readings: 2 Samuel 12:7-10,13; Psalm 31:1-2,5,7,11; Galatians 2:16,19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
The Gospel of Luke tells us about a number of symposia in which Jesus took part. One was at the house of Levi, the tax collector, after he had been called by Jesus (Luke 5). The symposium is a classical setting: a group of men, having dinner together, putting questions and dialoguing about the issues raised. The same setting is found in Luke 11 and Luke 14, similar events in which the discussion sometimes becomes provocative and argumentative. These dinner parties gave Jesus an opportunity to teach and he used them to comment on rituals such as hand-washing and to tell parables about banquets and being invited to feasts.
Today's gospel reading recounts what is, after the Last Supper, the most remarkable of these Lucan symposia. The male company is interrupted by a woman of ill repute who proceeds to kiss Jesus, wash his feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and massage them with ointment. In fact it is remarkably like the Last Supper as John recounts it, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and dries them.
The woman's actions give the host bad thoughts. But these thoughts are known to Jesus who draws a contrast between the woman's tenderness and love, and his host's unfriendliness and discourtesy. We are not sure what the host's motivation was in inviting Jesus but we are certain that the woman is urged on (moved, provoked) by the love of Christ. Of her can be said already what Paul was to say of all who are moved by the Spirit of Jesus: 'caritas Christi urget nos', the love of Christ urges us, moves us, provokes us.
Jesus sees her love and its source: her many sins must have been forgiven - how else explain such great love? He said this, it seems, to the Pharisee, his host, and then, in front of everyone, said to the woman, 'your sins are forgiven'. There is no other symposium like this in the ancient world where a guest claims the ability to forgive sins, and it provokes murmurs of protest. But Jesus continues on his way, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. The woman had clearly understood the meaning of that good news and, it may be, is one of the women included among his entourage.
So who is she? Is she Mary Magdalene, mentioned as one of that group of healed women? Is she the woman caught in adultery and forgiven by Jesus, whose story has wandered from Luke's gospel to John 8? Is she the unfaithful wife of Hosea, a woman representing unfaithful Israel, a sinner whose journey to repentance is actually easier than is that of the Pharisee although (because?) her sins are more obvious and more scandalous?
'She has been forgiven before she has been forgiven' is more or less what Jesus says. Her many sins must have been forgiven because she has loved much. Translators struggle with the meaning of the text and theologians with its implications for understanding repentance and forgiveness. In one and the same moment we see her contrition, generated by the love of Christ, and His words of absolution, generated by the same love. Are we forgiven because we love much, or do we love much because we have been forgiven? One is tempted to turn immediately to Augustine's comment when he became exasperated at his own efforts to explain the mystery of grace, 'show me a lover, he will understand'.
The symposium of Luke 7, like the famous Symposium of Plato, is, then, about eros. It is about the human eros which seeks union with a Beloved who heals infirmities and expels evil, who restores to integrity and goodness. It is about the Divine Eros, Jesus Himself, who seeks union with a beloved who turns to Him in faith and trust, who desires to be made well again: 'say but this Word and my soul shall be healed'.
People looking on at these Divine and human exchanges may well be embarrassed and even scandalised. But they are invited also to this 'erotic banquet' in which now we even eat His Body and drink His Blood. They are invited to shed their pride and be present in simplicity, not hiding their vulnerability and fragility but allowing the Lord of Life, through His Word and Sacrament, to kiss and touch and heal them. Caritas Christi urget nos ...