I often felt superior to my childhood Protestant friends and family members. As a Catholic, I was part of a system which guaranteed - if I minded my institutional "Ps and Qs" - to one day get me through the gates of heaven. They, on the other hand, seemed unable to come up with any concrete procedures which could assure them eternal glory. I worried about them. They sometimes spoke about "faith" in Jesus being the way they worked out their salvation; but I was certain such an amorphous experience was too "iffy" to guarantee anything. No one ever seemed able to exactly nail down what his or her faith was all about. Where were the concrete actions - things like no meat on Friday, or going to Mass on Sunday?
Then I began to study Scripture.
I quickly discovered some of the "Catholic things" on which I prided myself were actually condemned by our sacred authors, both in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. Generally accepted practices like novenas or making the nine First Fridays would most certainly have been anathematized by the classic biblical prophets, who would automatically have put them into the category of "fertility cults:" special rituals employed to control God's actions in our lives.
As we hear in today's Galatians pericope, Paul clearly zeros in on our relationship with the risen Jesus, making him/her the source and goal of our salvation, reminding his community, "... By works of the law no one will be justified." Yet such an emphasis on Jesus rarely surfaces when we're "doing the church thing." I recently took part in a clergy meeting discussing plans for the institutional reorganization of our diocese. Tens of thousands of people will be affected by our decisions. But whenever the dialogue reached a problematic point, we priests instinctively turned to the "expert" in our midst to clarify the direction we should take: the canon lawyer. Except for an opening and closing prayer, Jesus was never mentioned. His gospel vision for his followers was never brought up. Laws obviously were more important than relationships.
Yet in both today's first and third readings we hear relationships trumping laws. David broke two basic Jewish laws: murder and adultery. But once he admits his guilt and falls back on his relationship with Yahweh, Nathan announces, "Yahweh ... has forgiven your sin; you shall not die.
Luke's Jesus imitates Yahweh's forgiveness in our well-known gospel passage. His Pharisee host would have had no problem with Jesus' forgiveness of the sinful woman as long as he'd insist she go through the institutional hoops set up to deal with such cases. But Jesus never demands she follow the accepted procedures. Instead, to the legal experts' amazement, he simply declares, ". . . Her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love."
I trust we won't omit the last verses of today's gospel - the ones which talk about the women "cured of evil spirits and infirmities" who are about to accompany Jesus on his classic journey to Jerusalem and who "provided for him (and the Twelve) out of their resources." St. Louis University's late Scripture scholar, Fr. Frank Cleary, often addressed the historical Jesus' exceptional relationship with women. Frank believed this Galilean carpenter accepted women for who they were, not for how they were categorized, pigeonholed or used by men. For the first time in many of their lives they encountered a man who looked at them as important individuals in themselves. They would do anything for such a person.
Given the evidence, I suspect our church might still be on the ground floor of understanding and practicing biblical relationships.