I would like to begin with a true story told by Sr. Anne Shields at a conference in Rome some ten years ago. This is a story of Jack, not his real name, who lived in California and was haunted by his past. His life had been totally miserable due to the harrowing burden of guilt. As Fr John, (not his real name) was preparing to go to bed on a Sunday night after a busy day; the phone rang. It was a nurse at the hospital which was a couple of hours drive away. A man was dying. He was a Catholic and would “Father” come. The priest was reluctant because there was a storm raging outside. But he decided to go. Upon arrival he entered the room of Jack, the dying man. When Jack saw Fr John, he immediately remarked firmly, “Father, go to hell. I don’t want to see a priest.”
The conditions of the storm had worsened; so the priest decided he would hang around for a while. An hour later he approached the man again. “I am a Catholic priest. You are dying. Are you sure I can’t help you in any way?” Again the Jack rebuked him, demanding that he be left alone. For some reason Fr John decided he would try once more. He waited another hour. Then he entered the room for the last time. To his surprise the man responded, “Well, I may as well tell you.”
Then Jack began to relate the story of his life. Forty years previously he worked on a railway signals box. Everything was done manually in those days. It was Christmas time, and he had been drinking. When the train was approaching he pulled the wrong lever. The train went down the wrong track and collided into a car as it was crossing the lines. A woman and her two children were killed instantly; from that day onwards, Jack said, “my heart was filled with so much guilt that I have lived an isolated life, never got married, gave up on life and live my entire life in despair.”
Fr John listened to Jack intently, then asked him a few questions about the date and time of the accident and then said, “Jack, in the accident, not everyone died; one of the little boy survived; he grew up and eventually became a priest, and he is speaking with you right now! And I want you to know, I forgive you, and have forgiven you long time ago.”
Jack was lost for words. He had spent his whole life in such an awful prison of self-hate, guilt and self-recrimination. And just as he was about to die, he hears from the priest the words of forgiveness that set him free. He was finally able to forgive himself as he not only heard the words of absolution from the priest, but also the words of forgiveness from the little boy who had lost his mother and siblings in an accident 40 years previously. He died in peace…
My brothers and sisters in Christ, those of us who are chained by our anxieties and guilt about our past sins need to learn to love ourselves. This comes in the light of God’s great love for us. We must first believe that God has forgiven us our sins when we have truly repented. He does not hold an accusing finger pointing towards us, nor has he been counting our faults with the intention of paying us back with future punishment. Once we have repented we receive the free gift of His forgiveness. We can be sure of His unconditional love for us we can let go of the condemning attitude we have towards ourselves . . . and focus our gaze on the Merciful Heart of Jesus so that we will find our “true selves” again.
My sisters and brothers, in today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed, we hear of Jesus forgiving the repentant women whose serious sins are known to the public. The incident describes vividly how the repentant woman without being invited, boldly forced herself into the Pharisee’s home where Jesus was gathered for a meal. She immediately threw herself at the feet of Jesus and started weeping. The Gospel tells us that “her tears fell on Jesus’ feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; covered them with kisses and anointed them with an alabaster jar of ointment.”
In this incident, the common tendency for us is to misinterpret it as Jesus forgiving the woman’s sins because she was deeply remorseful for her sins . . . as though her gestures of deep repentance had “earned or merited her forgiveness.” Scripture scholars tell us that this is the wrong interpretation. The correct interpretation of this incident is that when the woman approached Jesus, /her sins had already been forgiven.
Jesus then highlighted, to Simon the Pharisee, the Truth of God’s Merciful Love further by a parable of the two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii and another fifty. Both were unable to repay; so, the moneylender pardoned them both. Which of them would love him more? Simon answered, “the one who was pardoned more; and Jesus replied, you are right, Simon.
Then, Jesus highlighted to Simon the great contrasts between how he as the host did not show any hospitality in welcoming Him to his house, as he neither offered Him water to wash His feet nor to welcome Him with a kiss nor anoint His head with oil, whereas in great contrast, the repentant woman had ‘bathed His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair and anointed them with perfume.
Jesus then added, “And for all these reasons, Simon, her many sins, must have been forgiven her or she would not have shown such great love. It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love. Then, turning to the woman, Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
In order to understand the incident of the repentant woman in today’s Gospel further, let us recall that in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son had left home to squander his father’s property on a sinful lifestyle. However, His father, symbolising God the Father, continued to love His son totally and unconditionally. The Father’s “Forgiveness was already offered to His son in advance of his son’s repentance.” All that is needed is for the son to return home to his father’s loving and merciful embrace.
Likewise, God’s Compassionate Love in today’s Gospel incident of the repentant woman sinner is that when the woman approached Jesus, she had already experienced the gift of forgiveness from God. In other words, the expression of the woman’s deep sorrow for her sins, was not the reason why Jesus forgave her sins. Instead, this woman, like the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal son, had already experienced God’s Forgiving Love, and as such, was able to find the “strength and wisdom” to return home to the Father.
And so, whenever we are moved to seek God’s forgiveness for our sins, and go to “Confession” let us be sure that what is happening is that God has already and continues to give us the graces we need to be reconciled with Him and with the people we have hurt by our sins.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as I conclude, let us ask ourselves a few questions to help us reflect on today’s Gospel more clearly. First, “As God’s Merciful Love for us is total and unconditional, are our hearts open to receive such love and healing graces?” Let us not presume that this is so. Jack in our true story lived a life of guilt, seclusion and misery, because he could NOT forgive himself for the sins that he has committed. Have we allowed God’s Healing graces to enter our hearts and homes? Have we “returned home” to God’s Merciful and Loving embrace, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
Second, the repentant woman in our Gospel expressed her deep love for Jesus with great courage, sincerity and generous love. How grateful have we been and are we to God for His deep Love for us?
Third, like Fr John in our true story too, if someone has caused us much pain and suffering through their faults and sins, have we forgiven the person? Let us not presume that we have NOT been resisting, rationalising and convincing ourselves that there is no more room in our hearts to forgive. There are NO sins that cannot be forgiven. If we cannot forgive, then we are not living the Christian faith as fully as God Wills of us. Fr John has shown us through his forgiveness of Jack, that we can forgive, if our hearts truly want to live the Christ-like life that today’s Gospel is challenging us.
(ref: adapted - the littlestsoul.wordpress.com; 23 May, 2012; story extract from: Fr. Ken Barker’s book, ‘His Name is Mercy’ (chapter 13, Forgiving Yourself; under the subheading, ‘His Mercy sets us Free.) .
Msgr Philip Heng, S.J.
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