An unfortunate translation in the story in Luke’s Gospel often entitled “The Penitent Woman” gave rise to a misconception that forgiveness of sins depends on one’s fervor.
The sentence that caused the trouble was Luke 7:47, which came to generations of English-speaking Christians in the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible and in the Protestant King James Version, with slight differences in wording, as having Jesus say, “Many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much.”
This isn’t what Jesus said, though that translation of the Greek is literally defensible. What he meant and what he said are clarified by the context, especially by the parable he told. He didn’t say that her love earned the forgiveness that he was now going to give her, but that her love showed that she had already been forgiven. It was the opposite of what it seemed. She wasn’t forgiven because she loved; she loved because she was forgiven.
The scene is set in the house of Simon, who has invited Jesus to dine with him. In the course of the meal, a “sinful woman in the city” enters and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing them and anointing them with precious oil. Simon is offended by the woman but even more by Jesus, who lets her touch him.
Jesus knows what is going through Simon’s mind and tells a parable to offer him illumination.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages, and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” (Luke 7:41-43)
Jesus confirms Simon’s answer and goes on to show that Simon’s love and consideration for him is much less than that of the woman. Simon has not done any of the customary rituals of welcome, which was his duty, but the woman has done so extravagantly, even though it wasn’t her duty. The Jerusalem Bible catches beautifully the point of the parable and Jesus’ interpretation of what is going on in the woman’s life: “I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love.” And without naming Simon, Jesus interprets his reaction to the woman and to himself: “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love” (Luke 7:47, JB).
The teaching of Jesus in this story has important consequences for us. It is not any action of ours, even our love, that brings us forgiveness, but the love of God for us. We do not have to earn God’s forgiveness in any way, but simply open our hearts to it. God’s forgiveness is immediate when we turn to him. And when that happens, our lives begin to change from the inside. Freed from sin, we are able to love, and to spread love to others.
Although we have received forgiveness and have felt the weight lifted, we need someone to confirm that for us, as Jesus did for the woman: “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). In this case, Jesus is not saying, “I forgive your sins” but, rather, “I confirm the forgiveness you have already received, which is evident in the love you are showing.” The Sacrament of Reconciliation continues this ministry of Jesus in the Church. When the priest says the words of absolution, it may be that our sins are being forgiven at that moment or—and this is probably often the case—our sins were forgiven earlier when we turned back to God and decided to ask for forgiveness. In this case, the priest is confirming in the name of the Church what has happened: “Your sins are forgiven.”
The point we must take away from this story is that Jesus is always accessible and always ready to forgive. We do not have to rely on a good record in the past nor holy feelings in the present to get his attention and to receive forgiveness. He is always eager to forgive immediately and free us from the burden that has weighed us down, so that we may respond in gratitude and begin to live in love.
This is a selections from Is God in My Top Ten? by Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books