In every culture, “the meal” plays a fundamental role far beyond nourishment through consumption of food and drink. That is why in the ancient tradition of biblical language the imagery of the banquet takes on a sacramental significance highlighting the life-giving relationship of the individual with God and of the participants among themselves. In the Judeo-Christian understanding, the ritual gathering and sharing of the gifts of the earth become a “sacred moment” focusing on the spiritual dimension of our personal life and enlivening the human experience of the divine. Sharing a meal together realizes the union with God through the common union of hearts and of intents of the participants.
Jesus himself seems quite partial to this kind of gathering, and in the gospels some of the most significant event and teachings are set in table conviviality and encounter. Today’s Gospel reading highlights precisely the web of personal relationships established and expressed through table fellowship. Jesus is the honoured guest of one of the leaders in Israel when their sacred but exclusive table gathering is interrupted by an event that is at the same time both shocking and radically challenging to host and guests alike. A woman well known as “that woman” boldly challenges the taboo of exclusivity by breaking into a ritual setting reserved for men, and proceeds to perform a gesture that sends waves of shocked condemnation through all those present. Almost parodying the acknowledged rules of hospitality ignored by “those who know”, she washes Jesus’ feet with tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with perfume. She, “the public sinner” actually touches Jesus. Of all the senses, touch carries by far the greatest freight of emotions and power, speaking of intimacy, connectedness, belonging, preciousness, healing – and these at a depth that we can only experience and never fathom completely. Touch offers the deepest clue to encounter, awakening and belonging. And Jesus not only allows this public expression of such emotions, but he actually praises her for such a gesture that speaks of a deep and personal love relationship.
Relationship – that is the key! All the characters in the story share one similarity. In the presence of Jesus they all seek to get to know him and to relate to min as the Master. What is radically different is the intent that justifies their search and the type of relationship that they seek. For the Pharisee and his other guests, honouring the Master means to keep faithfully “the rules of the game” like observing the rituals of purification set out by ancient customs, although in this case, even these are overlooked, as Jesus himself reproaches the host. The result is that one gets the feeling that most of the guests are more intent on “judgement” than on “acceptance” of this Jesus who, in their eyes, seems to deal with the situation in a rather unacceptable and “ungodly” manner. Fancy allowing yourself to engage with “that woman” and letting “a public sinner” caress your feet! And so “the rules of the game”, become “the rules of engagement and separation” between the host and the woman.
For the observant Pharisees, relationship expressed through table fellowship is a matter of rules and rituals, and so Jesus is someone to be respected but also to be assessed according to strict ritual laws, and consequently to be rejected when he breaks the rules. For the woman on the other hand, relationship means acknowledgment and trust, and so the presence of Jesus is a healing presence. She knows that here is the only One who can forgive her “many sins” and heal her brokenness unconditionally and without judgement. She just trusts in his healing love, and because of that trust and faith she is forgiven. Jesus himself says that much when he publicly reminds all those present at the banquet that her sins, her many sins must have been forgiven her, and then reassures her with those words that in our human brokenness and sinfulness we all long to hear: “Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.
What follows is simply a consequence of the two opposite attitudes towards God through Jesus. Because their relationship with God is entirely a matter of rules and regulations, mutual condemnation is the only possible result between the Pharisees and Jesus himself. On the contrary, the woman’s trust and faith explodes into an uncontainable expression of love towards this Jesus who has forgiven her. Her tears and her touching of Jesus are not a magic rite of healing, but the outpouring of her love and gratitude for the one who has forgiven her totally and unconditionally. In “that woman” we have the clearest example of the mutual relationship between love and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gratuitous gift to us from a loving God, and love is the most authentic expression and fruit of the re-established relationship with our forgiving God.
Deep down we all know that God forgives us, but at the same time we often nullify the transforming power of God’s gift by reducing it to ritual purification, to some ill-conceived private asceticism, and to an exercise of the mind rather than as an expression of the heart. The tendency to control our lives through ritual and purification, rather than reaching out to God with the heart and letting God touch our brokenness is our most unconfessed sin. Unfortunately such obsession with “control of things spiritual” distorts our understanding of the presence of a loving and forgiving God, plunging us further into a relationship of distance, fear, loneliness and judgment as exemplified by the Pharisee of the Gospel.
There indeed lies sin. When the sacrament (= “sacred moment”) of reconciliation is reduced to a ritual of purification, then we do not really seek to re-establish our relationship with our God, but we settle for some palliative for a troubled conscience, reducing God to a stern and angry judge from whom we can only hope for a lenient sentence, but never quite a full re-instatement into table fellowship. When reconciliation is reduced to a ritual practice, then we operate out of self-pity and of fear of punishment, and never out of love of God and from our God. When reconciliation is reduced to a ritual practice, then we control the process, never allowing God to reveal his true face of the Father, full of tenderness and mercy discovered and accepted by “the woman who was a sinner”.
As we gather at the Eucharistic table, let us pray for wisdom, faith and trust – wisdom to discover the God of healing love inviting us to table fellowship with him and with each other, faith to accept his healing presence in our lives, and trust to abandon ourselves into his hands, and thus experience his embrace of forgiveness and love.