Love for the Despised
by Noel E. Bordador

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.  A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50

One of my favorite Church historians is the late French Cardinal, Jean Danielou. Inspired by his research, I curiously delved into his personal life and found out that he died in the home of a prostitute named Mimi, his pockets filled with cash. Many were quick to judge him guilty of being involved in flagrante delicto, an illicit sexual affair. But investigation turned out that the scholarly cardinal went to see Mimi who begged him for money to bail her husband out of jail.  He was there on a mission of mercy. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack and died in disgraceful circumstances.  Further investigation showed that his clandestine meeting with a known sex worker was not so odd after all for the Cardinal for many years had helped countless despised people- like Mimi- but he would do so in secret.  His own brother, Alain, a gay man himself who converted to Hinduism, once said he never received condemnation for being gay or Hindu but only compassion- from his brother, and that the late Cardinal Danielou, despite a person of high stature in the Church and the scholarly world- was known not to have turned anyone away who came to him for help. He was at home not only with Popes and princes of the Church, but also with those who are either ignored, neglected or scorned- the poor, homosexuals and prostitutes. A few years ago while I was eating dinner at a sidewalk, and was proposed to by a prostitute. I was at first shocked and would be quick to condemn but did remember that Jesus hanged out with prostitutes and all kinds of unseemly characters. So I politely told the young man that though I was not interested in what he had to offer, I was still willing to pay his fee after he sits down to dinner with me and talk to me about his life. No preaching from me, just conversation. I found out that his sex working was just a sideline to help him survive and finish college.  Suddenly, my heart that before wanted to condemn him was softened by the suffering of a person coerced into prostitution by none other than his poverty.

In the Gospel today, we are told that a woman of some ill repute, a “sinner” crashed a party given by a religious biggie named Simon. We don’t know much about this woman. No name is given. We are not told either what sin she had committed that made her an unwanted guest, deeply despised by the party’s host. But she is known in the city to be a sinner. Some commentators say she is a prostitute, but the Greek of the Gospel does not really say that. She is simply described as a sinner. But there is one behavior that led many to suppose that she was engaged in prostitution. In Jesus’ time, modesty meant that women didn’t let their hair down. Either the head was covered by a veil or the hair was pinned up in a bun. A woman who had loose hair in public would be considered a woman of loose morals.  So when the woman let her hair down and washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and hair, she exposed herself to the charge of indecency.  But whatever her sin might be, obviously the religious Simon scorned her as morally impure and he publicly criticized Jesus for letting the woman approach him.  Simon even doubted the holiness of Jesus.  Simon said that a true prophet would not let himself be approached by sinners. Holy people should not have anything to do with unholy and sinful people.  Jesus then retorted back at Simon by saying that the holiness of God consists not of separation from those who struggle with moral purity. But the holiness of God consists primarily and chiefly in showing mercy and compassion, especially to those who are the most despised, the most scorned, the most rejected, the most vilified, the most demonized, the most abandoned. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who I often quote in this pulpit, was fond of saying that our claim of loving God can only be demonstrated by our love for the despised people of society.  She was fond of saying, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” We can only truly claim to love God by showing mercy to the people we often despise.  In defending himself from those who criticized him for showing compassion to despicable people, Jesus (Matthew 9:13) quoted the prophet Hosea (6:6) to his critics by saying, "Go and learn what this means:  'I desire mercy not sacrifice.'  We can only truly claim to love God chiefly by showing mercy to the people we want to despise.

 

©2019 Noel E. Bordador

Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.


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