Msgr. Charles Pope: Knowing the Bad News Unlocks the Good News

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Painting:  Christ in the House of Simon, Dirk Bouts (1440)

By Msgr. Charles Pope, September 20, 2018

Some people suggest that the Church should speak less of sin and instead emphasize positive things. After all, it is said that one can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. In that vein, we in the Church have been collectively de-emphasizing sin to a large degree for decades, and yet our churches have been getting emptier and emptier. Maybe this is because people are just a little more complicated than the flies in the old saying.

In the Gospel for Thursday of this week (the 24th week in Ordinary Time), Jesus provides the reason our churches are getting emptier. Simply put, there is less love. He says, But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little (Luke 7:47).

Why is this? We love little because we have little appreciation for what the Lord has done for us and for the debt He paid on our behalf. And why is that? Because our debt of sin is no longer preached about the way it should be and thus we are less aware of the gravity of our condition. This diminishes love, and a lack of love leads to neglect and absence.

Understanding sin is essential to fully comprehending what the Lord has done for us. Remembering what the Lord has done for us brings gratitude and love. Again, to those who want the Church to de-emphasize sin, Jesus provides this warning: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47).

Let’s take a brief look at Thursday’s Gospel:

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Here is a woman imbued with sorrow for her sins and joy at the Lord’s mercy. The Pharisee’s exasperation is born out of blindness to his own sin. Being blind in this way, his heart is ill-equipped to love or even to experience love. He has no sense at all that he even needs it. His sense is that he has earned God’s love and that God somehow owes him! The Pharisee’s only hope is grace, love, and mercy from God.

Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “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.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

The central point of this Gospel is that to appreciate the glory of the good news we must first lay hold of the bad news. We must grasp the depths of our sinfulness in order to appreciate the height of God’s love and mercy.

In this “I’m OK; you’re OK,” world, there is little understanding of the enormity of sin and thus little appreciation for the glory of God’s steadfast love and mercy.

Jesus could not be clearer. Until we recognize the “bill” for our sins and grasp that we cannot even come close to paying it, we will make light of mercy and consider the gift of salvation that was earned for us with His blood as of little or no account.

How tragic it is, then, that many in the Church have either stopped preaching about sin or preach only about selected sins. The effect has been to minimize love and to empty our churches. Knowledge of our sin, if such knowledge is of the Holy Spirit, leads to love. In this Gospel, Jesus points to the woman as a picture of what is necessary.