In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a new commandment: “As I have lovedyou, so you must love one another (John 13:34). I suggest that thiscommandment means that when we are trying to express our love foreach other, we should do our best to imitate the manner in which Jesusgives expression to his love. The usual occasion on which we have theopportunity to love each other is when we have a personal encounter withsomeone. So every time we encounter another human being, ourambition should be to relate to them as Jesus would in that situation. Inorder to make it possible for us to do this, we need to pay close attentionto our Lord’s personal encounters as recorded in the Gospels. For wantof a better word, we need to study the “technique” he employs in theseencounters, so that we can make it our own. Our Gospel this Sundayaffords us an opportunity to do just that, but before we turn to theGospel, let’s take a moment to prepare the ground.
Jesus is quintessentially “the man for others.” When he hadencounters with others, their needs, not his own, were paramount. Itwasn’t about him. It was about them. This runs counter to our owninstinct when we have a personal encounter with someone. Our deepseatedinclination on such occasions is to make it about us. Is this persona threat to me? Might this person be useful to me? Will they admire me?Will they say nice things about me to others? We need to overcome thisinstinct by the grace of God, through prayer, and by disciplined practice.We need to learn to trust that God will look after us in the moment, sothat we can afford to look after this person that God has sent our way.And, of course, regarding the needs of another as more important thanour own is a pretty fair definition of love. It is the way parents feel abouttheir children and lovers and friends feel about each other. It is thereason that Jesus is able to say that the consummate expression of loveto lay down one’s life for a friend (John 15:13). The breathtakingambition of Christianity is to universalize this love. We will only get thereby disciplined imitation of our master.
We regard it as a triumph of selflessness when we allow ourselvesto be interrupted by another when in the midst of the heavy demandsthat our own life and our own plans place on us, we manage to take timefor some else’s needs. But even this is not enough. It isn’t enough topatiently endure another’s complaints until they’ve said their piece andgone away. In the words of University of Portland theologian ReneSanchez, we need to allow ourselves to be not only interrupted, butdisrupted by them. We need to allow our own plans and our own ideas tobe changed in the encounter.
With all this in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel. Jesus has beeninvited to dinner by Simon the Pharisee. Given our Lord’s difficultrelationship with the Pharisees, the occasion is fraught with tension. Thetension is heightened when Simon fails to extend to Jesus the courtesiescustomarily accorded a guest. At this delicate moment, a woman widelyregarded as a sinner arrives uninvited. Weeping, she bathes Jesus’ feetwith tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with expensiveointment. Jesus calmly accepts her outrageous demonstration of loveand gratitude in the presence of his host and the scandalized guests. Buthe does more than endure an extremely awkward interruption of hisdelicate plans for the evening. He lets the encounter be about her. Herneeds in the moment are of paramount importance to him. He protectsher dignity by drawing a favorable comparison between her and therighteous Simon. And he goes so far as to proclaim her sins forgiven,fully aware that those present will regard his words as blasphemous.(Everyone knew that only God could forgive sins.)
I ask myself what I would have done if this situation had beensprung on me. I imagine I might have said, “I’m sorry, Simon. Allow me tostep outside to speak with this woman. I’ll rejoin you when I can.” ClearlyI’ve a ways to go before I love as Christ loves. I’ll only get there by aclose study of Jesus’ example in Scripture, by prayer, and by practice.Then, by the Grace of God, I hope that loving as Christ loves will becomesecond nature for me, so that, in the end, it will be not I who lives, butChrist who lives in me.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”