In each of the four gospels there is a story of anointing. In Mark and Matthew it happens at Bethany, in the house of a certain Simon the leper, shortly before the last supper. The protagonist is simply introduced as “a woman,” and she anoints the head of Jesus. In John also the event takes place at Bethany, but in the house of Lazarus, six days before Passover, on the eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In this case it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, to anoint the feet of Jesus. Saint Luke does not specify the place where nor the time when the anointing comes about. Jesus is invited by a Pharisee named Simon. The woman, who anoints Jesus’ feet, is termed as “sinful.” There is a big difference between the account of Luke and those of the other evangelists: while the latter connect the anointing with the burial of Jesus, in today’s gospel at the center of attention there is the sinful woman’s pardon, so much so that, at the end, Jesus says to her: “Your sins are forgiven.”
To explain the meaning of what is happening, Jesus tells a small parable: there were two debtors; one owed a big amount; the other one, just a tiny sum. Both of them were unable to pay back their debt, and so they were both forgiven. Who will be more grateful? Of course, the one who had a larger debt. With this parable Jesus is not referring only to the sinful woman, but even to the Pharisee. Pharisees were usually convinced of their own righteousness. Jesus instead wants us to understand that we are all sinners, some more, some less; but all of us need God’s forgiveness. Of course, the great sinners, once pardoned, are more grateful to God; those who have sinned less think they owe nothing to God. And this is exactly what happens on this occasion. The Pharisee shows a cool hospitality to Jesus; the sinful woman instead lavishes all her love on Jesus.
There is an ambiguous phrase in the passage. At the end of Jesus’ discourse, the text literally reads: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, because she has loved much.” It would seem that the pardon of the woman is the result of her love. But this statement is not consistent with the parable nor with what follows: “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That is why the New American Bible translates: “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” Love is not the cause, but the result, the sign of pardon: we could not love, if we were not forgiven. Pardon is a totally free gift of God.
Have you heard what Paul says in the second reading? “Man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ … We may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” We cannot “buy” salvation with our works, not even with our love, simply because we are unable to love and to do good works until we are justified. It is Jesus who “bought” our salvation with his death on the cross. Saint Paul says: “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And this death is a sign of love: “[He] has loved me and given himself up for me.” The only thing I can do is to recognize this love and accept its effects into my life. Which happens through faith. Faith is precisely the reception of the gift of salvation through Christ. We believe that we, sinners, are forgiven by God through the death of his Son Jesus Christ. Even the sinful woman was saved by faith: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
If we can do nothing to merit salvation, we have then to show all our gratitude for the pardon received: we have to love much, because much has been forgiven to us.