And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
The Woman Who Washed The Feet of Jesus
Are you saved? Many of us have been confronted with this stark question in hand-outs from street-corner evangelists. As Orthodox Christians, what is our answer?
We can begin to grapple with this issue by looking at the story of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee, as told in the Gospel of Luke. The tale itself is profoundly moving, with its vivid contrast. There is the respectable religious figure and his skepticism toward Jesus, and the sinful ‘woman of the city’ who goes to great lengths to revere Him. For our purposes, however, we need to consider the short parable embedded in the story.
The parable is in the form of a question: If two debtors are forgiven their debts, which one will love the lender more? Simon rightly replies, the one whose debt was greater. So it is in the case of the sinful woman, who loves God far more lavishly than the cold and complacent Pharisee.
But wait. The woman displayed her devotion to the Lord when she entered, and before Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven. Which came first? Did she love much because she was forgiven much, as the parable claims? Or was she forgiven much as a result of loving much, as Jesus himself says to Simon later?
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much (Luke 7:47)
Here we come as close as we dare to the mystery of salvation. Orthodox theologians call it synergeia -the ‘working together’ of God’s grace and human repentance. This reconciling work of Christ in our lives is a continuous process, not a once-for-all event. Perhaps we can better understand the sinful woman by considering these words of St. Paul
And we all…beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
The first step toward salvation is taken when the grace of God convicts us of the disorder in our lives. The grace of God, his outreach to humankind, never compels by force, but works by awakening in us in an inward way, enlightening and strengthening us.
The initiative of God, however, must be met with the commitment of faith. And this faith must continually grow, for salvation is nothing less than advancing more and more into the likeness of the One Who Saves. Salvation is not something in addition to faith, hope, and love, a result or reward. It is faith, hope and love itself, advancing from glory to glory. Our commitment and responsibility is put best by St. Paul
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)