Politics of Humility
Learning from Jesus’ favorite sinner.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
According to the Catholic liturgical calendar, last Sunday, Father’s Day, was the day set aside to honor Saint Mary Magdalene. I know this only because I was visiting my mother in San Jose and we went to church together. To tell the truth, I had forgotten that Mary Magdalene is recognized as a saint. It felt good to remember her story, to think about the fallen woman who was spurned by all and embraced by Jesus, and who became his closest disciple. I was glad to realize that the church has bestowed its highest honor on her.
Generally I only go to mass with my mom once a year, on Easter. She is devout, but the fact is I have not been a practicing member of the church for quite a few years; this is one of many things about her son that require my mother’s forgiveness. I am probably not going to reform my heathen ways, but I wanted to be there with her last Sunday.
I had also decided that I wanted to receive communion, to eat the wafer and drink the wine that represent the body and blood of Christ. Fact is, it was mostly just so I could walk up to the altar with my mom, but I am not beyond respect for the sacrament, which for me is simply a ritualized affirmation of the basic Christian values that I still cherish: the recognition of the divine spirit of love (which is my mother’s definition of God, the one she taught me back before I can remember).
We live in a world where modern-day Pharisees cite religious laws to justify their condemnations.
Technically, one is supposed to go to confession before receiving communion, and I haven’t been to confession in 30 years. But I remembered from catechism that if one is unable to confess one’s sins to a priest and receive absolution, a sincere act of contrition will suffice in a pinch. Of course, I couldn’t remember the words to that prayer, and if I did, I probably couldn’t recite it with any sincerity —I don’t even believe in sin. I do, however, believe in forgiveness. So sitting in the pew, I made up a prayer and asked for forgiveness.
The Gospel reading was the story in which Mary Magdalene and Jesus first meet, and she washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair —she is not referred to by name in this Bible passage, but only as “a sinful woman” who is nevertheless devoted to the man she considers a prophet. This takes place during a dinner party at the home of a deeply pious man, a Pharisee, who is appalled, and asks Jesus why he accepts this sinner’s affection. I had forgotten that part, but it is the point of the story.
Jesus replies to the Pharisee with a parable about love and forgiveness, and then turns to Mary Magdalene and says: “Your sins have been forgiven.” It was, then as now, a radical idea. According to the apostle Luke, the Pharisee’s guests were shocked: “The others at table said to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ ”
In the sermon following the Gospel reading, the priest reminded the congregation that this story is the first mention in the New Testament of a profound concept that later becomes a core of Jesus’ teaching. In the world that Jesus lived in, religion was not so much about love and forgiveness; it was more about laws and judgment. Belief in the forgiveness of sin, then as now, offers a kind of spiritual freedom.
It felt good to be reminded of that last Sunday. And to be reminded of the spirit of tolerance at the heart of Christian faith.
We live in a world in which modern-day Pharisees cite strict religious laws to justify their sanctimonious condemnations. They wage jihad against modern permissiveness, building a wall between themselves and the sinners, disregarding their own savior’s teachings. I have long despised these pious hypocrites, who have divided the nation in my lifetime. The Sunday Gospel reminded my that their prideful self-righteousness isn’t really Christian.
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When I used to fix cars for a living, we used the word “forgiveness” to describe the mechanic’s practice of leaving things just a bit loose. When putting an engine together, for instance, it’s important to leave a little space here and there, sometimes just a few thousandths of an inch. Just in case.
That trick didn’t require love, but it did involve a degree of humility. Get too cocky, tighten things down as hard as you can, and the engine will likely seize.
Like mechanics, Christians are supposed to be humble. Before receiving communion, Catholics —even devout ones —say a silent prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I will be healed.” I learned that from my mother; Mary Magdalene was the woman who taught it to the world.