This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 7:36—8:3:
A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
Readers may already know that I’m a huge fan of The Big Lebowski, just for its absurdist take on life. (Or maybe I just miss bowling, which I had to give up because of back problems.) Perhaps the most memorable character in the film is Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman in one of his classic Coen Brothers movie performances, who constantly refers back to the norms even while he’s breaking them.
Today’s Gospel reading brings one scene in particular to mind. During league play, another bowler commits a foul, and Walter insists on enforcing the rule by yelling out “OVER THE LINE!” Smokey insists that his foot didn’t cross the line and wants credit for the frame, but Walter insists on marking it zero. Smokey moves to mark the frame himself while The Dude tries to explain that it’s not a big deal, but Walter whips out a pistol, points it directly at Smokey, and shouts, “Am I the only one here who gives a **** about the rules?”
Rules do have importance, but too often we lose perspective on their purpose. They exist to allow people to come together in a common purpose. In The Big Lebowski, the purpose was to have fun in a bowling league and to compete in a healthy environment (or as healthy as beer and cigarettes allow, anyway). For Walter, the rules became more important than the purpose they served.
The same holds true in today’s Gospel. The pharisee loves the law, which is good, but loses perspective on its purpose. The Lord did not give the law to the Israelites as an end to itself, but for the common purpose of unity and salvation. Jesus points this out with the strong implication that the pharisee himself isn’t exactly perfect at following the law, and at least the fallen woman acknowledges her sins and asks for salvation from them.
In our first reading from 2 Samuel, the same holds true. Nathan delivers the Lord’s verdict on David’s treachery, having murdered for lust despite all of the blessings the Lord bestowed on him. Nathan explains that the effects of sin will remain with David’s house for the rest of his life, but David’s sincere repentance and recognition of his offense to God has allows David to be forgiven for them. “You shall not die,” Nathan tells David, even though David has committed some of the worst sins and offenses to the Lord.
That’s a sharp contrast to the Gospel passage today. The pharisee parses the sins in a ranking order, and considers the woman more contemptuous and unworthy of engagement as a result. The specific sins themselves matter less than the true mourning we suffer for them, and the recognition we have that we need the healing grace of Christ to heal.
Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Galatians. The world had the law before Christ’s appearance in flesh, he points out. “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” The law, in proper perspective, intended to prepare Israel for its Messiah. It serves faith and love (caritas), not the other way around, a point which the pharisee misses for all his fidelity to the law.
That is not an impulse that is limited to pharisees, either. Rules make life easier. They tempt us into becoming indifferent to the plight of others by offering us an easy out. It’s easy to reject the woman who is begging forgiveness if the law is put above caritas. It’s easy to point a gun at Smokey — well, for Walter, it’s easy — rather than realize that eight pins probably won’t matter a heck of a lot at the end of a match and that he’s a friend rather than an implacable enemy. We can put aside discretion and introspection, while feeling a bit superior in a moral sense, by relying strictly on the rules.
Actually, Walter Sobchak is almost the perfect example of a pharisee. He turns out to be right in almost every point in the film (except about the elder Lebowski’s disability), but his own self-righteousness blinds him to the big picture. Walter’s right about the rules at the bowling league and at the diner (as well as “accepted nomenclature” of Asians and the care of show dogs), but he gets so caught up in them that he alienates everyone. He’s also right about the nihilists, but his two attempts to impose his own strange sense of justice on them turn out to be disasters. Walter figures out that the kidnapping is a ruse, but gets the players wrong and disregards the potential for human damage. Walter becomes a comical figure not necessarily because his beliefs are in error, but because he has almost no introspection at all and gets so lost in the rules that he can’t see he’s breaking them constantly.
In truth, most people do give a darn about the rules, and want to see them followed. They make life easier by allowing people to understand in advance the parameters by which we live our lives. But when we become so straitjacketed by them that we cannot put them in the perspective of their purpose, we lose some of our own humanity and close ourselves off to the salvation Christ promises.
To put it another way, the rules may tie the room together, but they aren’t the room itself.
Note: I will be off on vacation the next two Sundays.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.