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by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

Listen to something lovely and radical happening in the Gospel story today. The uprooting happens when Jesus is invited to dine with Simon the Pharisee. A woman (presumably of the night, “a sinful woman in the city”) gatecrashes the party and begins “to bathe his feet with her tears,”wiping those tired heels with her hair, and anointing them with ointment. Simon is of course scandalized to see this scene of Jesus being touched and defiled by this woman. With eyebrows raised, he begins to doubt the saintliness of Jesus.

Jesus responds by telling Simon a story: two men were indebted to a creditor. One owed him several thousand, the other just a handful. Seeing how both “were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.” So which would love the creditor more? Simon replied, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

Tama ka. Jesus seizes the initiative: “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.”

Simon by this time is probably squirming in his seat. Then the clincher: “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.

QED, quod erat demonstrandum (“which had to be demonstrated”). Tapos ka. Proof completed. Bias (and bigotry) broken. Misguided theology of grace and forgiveness ejected.

This radical understanding of grace comes from knowing what really comes before mercy and what after. Those of us who have had to mollify the ones we have hurt may not understand right away. Those of us who have had to negotiate terms of surrender or sorriness may not see the sequence and sense of grace. But in God’s eyes, does love precede mercy? Are we forgiven only after we have loved enough? Can we ever earn or engineer forgiveness? To paraphrase a line from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Cinderella: “do I forgive you because you are lovely? Or are you lovely because I forgive you?”

The word “forgive” itself means to give before anything else. Forgiveness is the first move. And if we have loved much, if we continue to love and forgive others, then might it not be because much has been given us beforehand, including mercy and love and all things gratuitous and free?

For all her sinfulness, Jesus tells us, the woman who washed his feet must have been forgiven much for her to have loved so much. Effusive mercy begets love overflowing. It is not our love that merits forgiveness. Our love is consequence not cause of the mercy.

This brings us to the painful question about those who love little. Go out and you will realize how this pearl of the orient has been endowed with so much loveliness that is the envy of many nations. That beauty is found naturally in our land and seascapes and most notably in our people. If we who are surrounded by all this loveliness, if we have been given much, why do we love so little?

Why is God merely a Sunday religious obligation? Is our love for God so qualified, so confined to church it does not spill over outside and on weekdays? Why do we allow our children to be disfigured by poverty? Is our love for them so impoverished we do not mind stealing from their dreams? Why can our love of country be so little we invest mere tokens of ourselves in its future? Why must our way with nature or with other cultures be a cost and liability? Is our love so limited, our embrace so calculating and narrow that we think we can do without gardens or the abounding diversities in culture and creation?

If we have been given and forgiven so much, why do we love so little? Could it be that we do not know the magnitude of the much we have received? Perhaps there is no time anymore to relish all that is gift. Or if we doubt the forgiveness or the much that has been given us, perhaps we have asked little? Perhaps we have forgotten what it is like to be grateful. Perhaps we have taken all this for granted, taken all this as something we have rightfully earned and deserved. Perhaps we have missed the giver for the gifts. Those who are greedy can only love little because plenty seems never to be enough for them.

Ironically, it is only the poor in spirit, such as those with bent knees and cleansing tears, who know the meaning of indebtedness. May we learn to become like them who have a true sense of the magnitude of what we have all received from the bounty of heaven through Christ our Lord.

About Jet Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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