Renewed By Mercy
Reflection on Luke 7:36-50
A woman peers in the doorway of the house. There He is! She quickly ducks behind someone else in the crowded entrance. When this woman heard that Jesus was nearby, dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee, she immediately made her way here, stopping only to buy a jar of precious ointment. She is “a woman of the city,” and she risks recognition. No Pharisee would let her, a sinner, into his house. But her heart has been captured, perhaps for the first time in her life, and love impels her forward. Love takes risks. So, she pulls her veil around her face and, clutching the ointment vessel close, steps inside. Then, coming to Jesus, her tears begin to flow. Falling at his feet, she bathes them with her tears, pouring out her sorrow.
Simon is indignant, but he holds his tongue, waiting for Jesus’ reaction. His indignation only grows: “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,” he thinks.
Meanwhile, the woman has pulled the veil from her head and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. She kisses and anoints His feet.
And Jesus? He allows the woman to come close. For His Heart, too, has been captured, and He knows the risks love will take. Jesus looks at this woman and sees beyond the sin, to the depths of her person, created in God’s image. He looks upon her heart, in need of healing and her soul, in need of mercy. He looks upon her contrition, her readiness to change, her willingness to leave behind her former way of life and begin anew as His disciple. For this is what her gestures show. Her tears are a sign of a contrite heart; her hair the symbol of the precious gift of her beauty; the ointment an offering of honor and love. All this she gives to Jesus, more than willing to wash His feet—typically the work of a slave—because she loves Him and trusts in His mercy.
Jesus does not rebuke her; His strong words are reserved for His host. Jesus tells Simon a parable of two debtors to explain the outpouring of this woman’s love. And then he defends her. “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…. 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; hence, she has shown great love.” He recognizes the one who recognizes Him. And indeed this woman has the eyes to see—that Jesus forgives sins, that He welcomes repentant sinners, that His Heart is open to give and receive love.
Perfect contrition is fueled by love. It moves the soul to sorrow for having offended God, out of love for Him. And it draws down God’s mercy like dew from heaven. Perhaps many of us already have the good practice (in addition to frequent confession) of a daily examen. The examen is not about running through a checklist or beating ourselves up. It is a practice which helps us to grow in self-knowledge, spurring us on to growth in virtue and holiness—even if our contrition is imperfect. But it also helps us to grow in love. And love impels us to surrender ourselves—again and again—to the One Whose heart is captured by us…by you and me.
At the end of his life, St. Francis said to his brothers, “Let us begin again, for up to now we have done little.” He recognized, even after following the Lord faithfully for years, that there was more…more growth ahead, more love to be given, more grace to be received. Growth in holiness is a lifelong process. Perhaps we can be encouraged to “lean in” to our daily examen, for “the Lord is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him” (Lam. 3:21). And He never tires of receiving us with love and mercy.
“The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent;
they are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness!” (Lam. 3:22-23)
Sr. Cecilia Francis, CFR