We take part in a lifetime struggle to find a balance between law and grace. Without law our lives would be shapeless. Unless there were regulations there would be utter selfishness. But if we live by the law alone then we become lifeless, unimaginative, hidebound. For a fulfilled life we also need God’s gift of grace. Grace inspires us to live generously and creatively and above all lovingly. I think of it as being like the strings on a musical instrument like a violin. If there is no law – that is, if the string is too loose - the music will not sound right. But if there is too much law - that is, if the string is too tight - the music will still fall short. With the right amount of tension, the musician can play brilliantly – and in the same way, with the right faithfulness to tradition in our lives, we can respond with greater flexibility in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
This delicate balance between law and grace underlies the second reading and the gospel. In writing to the Galatians, St Paul explains why, although he is a Jew, he asks them to go beyond the law which has long guided the Jewish people. His letter acknowledges that the law guides and shapes people for good, but ultimately, he says, what makes the deepest difference is the extent to which our lives are touched by Christ. Indeed, we hear St Paul say of himself that he lives in and through Christ, ‘the Son of God who loved me and sacrificed himself for my sake’ (verse 20). In the gospel we find a concrete situation where the fellow guests watching Jesus expect him to react negatively to a woman of ill repute. This, they believe, would be what a good Jew would do. It is very easy to think of a parallel situation where people might expect a good Christian to behave similarly. But Jesus reads the woman’s heart. He sees her gratitude for God’s message of love which Jesus brings, and her joy in being forgiven. When he looks at her he does not see a case study. He does not respond as if her touch might be contaminating. He not only assures her that her sins are forgiven, he also praises her hospitableness and kindness to him. In doing this he effectively holds her up to the more legally-minded as a model of good conduct. He turns their expectations upside-down, and challenges them to think about who they are and what they have become. They rely too much on what the law says, too little on the grace that God gives them in this moment.
The woman with the scandalous reputation is seen by everyone else as a problem. She is the sinner. They are not. Yet they have their own faults. Simon has been indifferent towards his guest Jesus – no small matter in the Middle East, where hospitality is important. Then there is the hardness of heart shown towards the woman. She is not allowed even this small chance to show that she does, indeed, have a soul, to show how much she yearns to know herself loved by God. To these hard of heart people (and which of us could say we have never been hard-hearted?) the message of Jesus is simple: only if you are prepared to acknowledge your own faults and frailties, and to accept God’s free forgiveness, can you really begin to know God’s love for you. And with this knowledge, you are more likely to find the right balance between law and grace.
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London. His new book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114