Yesterday, the Gospel at Mass was from Luke 7, recording an encounter that took place when Jesus was eating in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. As Jesus is “sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house,” a woman whom St. Luke refers to as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner,” enters the house, bringing “an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7:36-38). Simon the Pharisee is aghast, thinking, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (v. 39). Jesus then uses the opportunity to contrast Simon and the woman, saying that “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v. 47).
That message is straightforward enough, but when you get into the nature of Christ’s forgiveness, there’s more going on here. For starters, we have clear evidence of Jesus’ divinity, which is why “those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (Luke 7:49). That is, Jesus is forgiving not just those who wronged him directly. The woman who approaches him has apparently never met him before, yet he tells her that “your sins are forgiven” (v. 48) and, after the others murmur, adds, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50). As. C.S. Lewis put it, in forgiving sins, Jesus “unhesitatingly behaved as if he was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.”
Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) invites us to grapple with another meaning of the text. Observing the beauty of the woman’s repentance, he remarks that “I feel more like crying than saying something. Indeed, what heart, even if it were of stone, would not be moved by the example of penance that the tears of this sinner give us?” As Gregory explains, her repentance is beautiful because she takes the same parts of her life that had been dedicated to sin and gives them to God:
It is very evident, my brethren, that this woman, formerly addicted to forbidden deeds, had used perfume to give her flesh a pleasant odor. What she had shamefully granted to herself, she now offered to God in a manner worthy of praise. She had desired the things of the earth by her eyes, but now mortifying them with penance, she was crying. She had emphasized the beauty of her hair to adorn her face, but she was now using it to wipe away her tears. Her mouth had uttered words of pride, but now, kissing the feet of the Lord, she was staring at that mouth in the footsteps of her Redeemer. Thus, all that she had in it of attractions to charm, she found there material to sacrifice. She turned her crimes into so many virtues, that all that in her had despised God in sin was put to the service of God in penance.
In other words, God doesn’t just want to heal us when we fall. He wants to heal us where we fall. The parts of ourselves that we devote to sin are parts of ourselves that we received from God, for his glory, and he wants to redeem us even there. Those are the parts of our lives where we should find there “material to sacrifice,” to be burnt up in the fires of love: “for the rust of sin is all the better consumed as the heart of the sinner burns with the great fire of charity.”
Nor is the woman of Luke 7 the only example of this in the New Testament. Another person who understands this is St. Paul, who can say in one moment that “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God,” and then, in the next breath, “but by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor. 15:9-10).
Prior to his conversion, Paul (then Saul) was so zealous a persecutor of the Church that he approved of the killing of St. Stephen, whom he wrongly considered a heretic (Acts 8:1). St. Luke records how “Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (v. 3). Yet by the grace of God, Saul became Paul, and this same zeal became a great engine of evangelization. The aspect of his character that once led to the persecution and death of Christians now led to his being the hardest working of all the apostles. God saw Saul’s zeal not as bad, but as misdirected. Instead of demonizing or eliminating that zeal, God redeems it by redirecting it toward the spread of the gospel.
What might this look like in our own lives? We can start by recognizing that sin is a perversion of something good. Our hatred of sin shouldn’t lead us into a hatred of the underlying good, or into self-hatred. Too often, we see those parts of ourselves that led us to wander from God, and we treat them as dangerous, boarding them up and barring the door. But God wants to meet us there, because those are the places where we actually need healing. That doesn’t mean putting ourselves back into sinful situations, or inviting what the Baltimore Catechism calls “near occasions of sin”: those “persons, places and things that may easily lead us into sin.” But it does mean that we should emulate Paul and the woman of Luke 7 by having the courage and faith to offer God those passions and those places that once led us from him. Do you struggle with lust? Remember the holiness of the body God gave you (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and use it as he intended you to, for his glory. Gossip? Use your mouth to bless God and to speak well of your neighbor. Pride? Thank God for the gifts he’s given you, instead of thanking yourself. Whatever the case, turn your “crimes into so many virtues,” so that all that is in your that has despised God in can be “put to the service of God in penance.”