Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!
Although this Gospel falls on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, it is far from ordinary. Elements of it point to several other Gospel stories. For example, this foot washing is not the only one depicted in the Gospels. At the Last Supper, John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, commanding them to continue to do the same to each other. To the early Christians, the rite of foot washing was much more meaningful. It was a basic courtesy and sign of hospitality. After traveling a distance over hot, dry sand, with nothing but sandals to protect one’s feet, the sensation of cool water would certainly be welcomed!
The task of washing feet was reserved for the lowest of servants. As such, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he reinforces his teaching about the Kingdom of God: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tell us that,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
“Whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
That certainly sounds a whole lot like what we just heard him tell Simon,
“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.”
What possessed that woman to approach Jesus and extend the hospitality that Simon had withheld? Although Luke does not tell us explicitly, it certainly was a force that was outside of her sinful nature. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit. It was certainly the same sort of spirit that helps each of us when we face a choice between doing what is right or doing nothing at all.
I once went on a class trip to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It was my senior year in high school, and as part of a class in European History, we were touring the Cathedral, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After we had finished touring the Church, I was heading back to the bus along with my classmates. Suddenly, I noticed that one of my friends was missing. I turned around to see him talking with a homeless man who was pan handling.
I have to admit that I did not notice him. All I recall was that he was black, unshaven, and that he wore an old army jacket. But I do remember what Mike told us when he eventually rejoined the group. The man was from North Carolina. He had no job, and no way to get back to his family. The rest of us probably sounded a lot like Simon when we scolded Mike for talking to someone like that gentleman. After all, we were in the big, bad ‘city’. But Mike saw past his outward appearance, and granted him a sign of hospitality and dignity.
The 'urge' to step out of our zone of comfort and reach out to another comes from the Spirit. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Bread for the Journey, notes that, "The way God's Spirit manifests itself most convincingly is through its fruits: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). These fruits speak for themselves. It is therefore always better to raise the question "How can I grow in the Spirit?" than the question "How can I make others believe in the Spirit?""
There is another scripture story that comes to mind when I reflect upon this Gospel. At the conclusion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we witness the pure contrition of the younger son, the jealousy of the older son, and the unconditional love of the father. In today’s Gospel, we see similar characters. Simon the Pharisee is no different from the older son. He is unable to grasp the full potential of God’s mercy. It is an interesting question to ponder. Who is the bigger sinner? The one who strays, realizes she has done so, and returns, or the one who never strayed but does not understand the full capacity of God’s love for him?
Before we can be forgiven, we must accept that we are forgivable. That can be a very difficult leap. Simon the Pharisee and the Older Son could not make it. The Woman and the Younger Son could. They were all sinners. We are all sinners. We all have the capacity to extend mercy and hospitality to one and other, and to withhold the same. Jesus is consistent in his message. We must give without expectation of anything in return. That is the generosity that God the Father gives to each of us. Quite frequently, He gets nothing in return but a slap in the face. But he still gives, and remains ready to celebrate our return.
So keep your eyes open for those opportunities to extend hospitality to those around you. In the home, in the school, in the workplace. On the highway, at the store, on the street corner. Opportunities abound, but we must allow God to work through us to bring about the Kingdom. The quiet voice of the Spirit will be there, as long as we are listening.