For U.S. history buffs, the feud between two families who lived during the 19th century remains seared into our consciousness. Living along the Big Sandy, the river that borders Kentucky and West Virginia, the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys began in 1865 when Randolph McCoy’s brother, Asa, was murdered by a local militia group that counted the Hatfields among its members. The reason? Asa McCoy had served in the Union Army during the American Civil War; as such, he was viewed as a traitor. From that day onward, events between the two families spiraled out of control, leading to greater anger, violence, and more deaths. In the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, one tragic event had resulted in a line being drawn that forever severed hopes of reconciliation. For them, there was no crossing back toward forgiveness.
In my own family, when I was younger, I remember driving with my mother to a funeral home to pay our respects to a great aunt who had died. On the way, my mother warned me that there would be family members who had not seen each other in many years. When I asked why, she told me that there had been a verbal disagreement that had gotten out of control. In a sense, I guess, part of my family experienced the modern-day version of the Hatfields and McCoys. In their pride, once a certain line was crossed, there was no turning back.
But on this 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, why this talk about Hatfields and McCoys, my family, and, perhaps, yours? Why this talk about lines that have been crossed where we seemingly can’t retrace our steps—and begin again? I propose to you that these circumstances will often be the case when we can’t find forgiveness. Furthermore, when we can’t find forgiveness, we can’t find the Lord. And finally, when we can’t find the Lord, love is nowhere to be found.
Which brings us to this story in Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50). There, we are told that a Pharisee had invited Jesus to cross a line in order to dine with him and recline at table. At the onset, it appeared that the line Jesus had crossed was the entrance to the Pharisee’s home. But with Jesus, there is always so much more. And in this case, events are just beginning to unfold.
With Jesus now seated, a commotion erupts and a woman—a sinful one, at that— bursts through the door and immediately begins to attend to Jesus. The Gospel tells us that she had brought with her an alabaster flask of ointment and used its contents and her long hair to anoint the feet of Jesus and kiss them. True to form, the Pharisee is aghast with this situation (let alone shocked that such a woman would barge into his house). And he mumbles about our Lord:
“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.”
Which is precisely the point!
But then the teaching continues. Jesus speaks to Simon the Pharisee as though he were an accounting professor spending time clarifying the relationship between debtors and creditors. And this dialogue occurs:
“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 loved him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Notice what is being said here. In regard to sin, no debtor has the capacity to discharge a debt on this own. In regard to sin, even the richest person in the world does not possess the capacity to discharge the debt of sin. Only Jesus Christ has that power. Only Jesus Christ has the power to forgive sin!
In the Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13), King David is confronted with his sins by the great prophet Nathan:
“Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel, I rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.'”
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.”
And so, how do we receive this discharge of our sins? Like David and the sinful woman who, in faith, asked the Lord for forgiveness, we also must ask God for the gift of new life. Ever patiently, He waits for us in prayer, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in the reception of Holy Eucharist. He waits and waits and waits and seeks to forgive.
But first, there is that line we must cross which requires humility and an openness to change our life. For each of us here today, the question is, are we courageous enough to do so?