God of mercy and compassion
(Readings: Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today illustrate one of the main consistent features of God's character: his willingness to forgive, his strong desire to repairing our damaged friendship with him. We play our part in restoring that friendship by acknowledging our sinfulness, the weakness of our moral judgement, and by avoiding the spirit of self-righteousness and self-justification before God.
So, as we come before God now, we begin as always by admitting our sins and faults and asking God for his forgiveness.
One of the big differences between Jesus and the Pharisees was that Jesus never tried to impress people with a sense of his own virtue, and he never set out to preach in a way that made his listeners feel inferior or unworthy. He had a vivid and lively appreciation of human sinfulness, but the good news of Christ's message was that God doesn't - even remotely - expect us to be perfect before we dare to approach him or speak to him.
Jesusí distinctive message was that God, for his part, is positively eager to show us mercy and forgiveness, to restore the damaged friendship between himself and us. But Christ proclaimed, equally strongly, that on our part we need to admit reality: that one way or another, we all stand in need of God's forgiveness and reconciliation.
That's the thread running through the readings for today's Mass.
King David, in the first reading, was someone who had an affair with another man's wife, got her pregnant, and then arranged to have her husband murdered: not a very good example, especially considering that the King of Israel was supposed to reflect God's ways of ruling. But confronted by the prophet Nathan - who was carrying out the prophet's vocation of fearlessly confronting powerful people in the name of God about their lies and misdeeds - King David admitted his sins.
He could have stood on his pride and tried to justify himself and deny that he'd done something wrong. That seems to be the more typical reaction today. Some people seem emotionally incapable of admitting they're wrong about anything, or apologising for anything.
He could have used his position to deal with Nathan the same way as he dealt with Uriah, and covered his tracks totally. But he doesn't do any of that. Nathan has managed to stir his conscience, and David admits what he's done: "I have sinned against the Lord".
In her own way the woman in the gospel reading is the same. She doesn't speak, but her actions are the actions of a person who is willingly admitting her guilt and failure, and asking God for forgiveness.
The important thing about the gospel story of course is the comparison - or the contrast, rather - between the woman's attitude and the attitude of the Pharisee, whose house she comes into.
The Pharisees were very strict and disciplined, morally. Their standards were high and they stuck to them rigidly. They felt entitled to look down on anyone who didn't come up to their high standard. This was the self-righteousness of the Pharisees that Christ found so repugnant.
And according to Christ, these are the kind of people God finds it difficult to work with - because they're self-sufficient, because they're proud of their achievements, and because in their pride they nurture a contempt for other people who aren't as strong as they are. The Pharisees acted in effect as though they didn't need God's forgiveness, so they were harsh and unforgiving themselves. As Christ says: "It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love".
People like the woman, on the other hand, know what high standards they might like to achieve, but they always seem to fail, they always seem to be defeated by circumstances - so they have no illusions about their need for God's mercy.
From Christ's point of view, they're the ones who have a better grasp of the truth about themselves and about God. And because they know that they need forgiveness themselves, they're more gentle and compassionate towards other people's weaknesses. "Her sins must be forgiven," says Jesus, "or she would not have shown such great love".
What conclusion should we reach, reading these passages of Scripture?
None of us can claim any entitlements when we come before God, and the more accurately we see things, the more we become aware of that. It's difficult to think of any Christian saints who went around declaring how holy they were and how much they deserved God's approval. What they were convinced of was that God extends his forgiveness to anyone who admits the need for it, and gives his grace and salvation to anyone who asks for it.
The sort of pride and the sense of spiritual achievement that the Pharisee showed is a door slammed in God's face. A bit of truthfulness and humility about ourselves, on the other hand, is the first step towards genuine holiness.
Those are some of the basic lessons I would take from the example of the different characters that the readings put before us this Sunday.