For I am the least of the Apostles, not fit to be called an Apostle,
because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God
I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
1 Cor 15: 9-10
Turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this
woman? I came into your house You did not give me water for
my feet. But she bathed my feet with her tears and dried them
with her hair. You gave me no kiss. But from the moment I
entered she has not ceased kissing my feet. You did not anoint
my head with oil. She anointed my feet with perfumed oil. On this
basis, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, since she has
shown so much love. The person forgiven little loves only a little.”
Luke 7: 44-7
“But by the grace of God I am what I am….” When we speak of “loving God,” what do we really mean? Since our usual experience is of ourselves as subject and all that is not ourselves as object, we often think of God as an object of our love. We tend to think and speak of our “relationship” to God as if it is something that we do, that originates in us. But Paul, in today’s passage from 1 Corinthians, as Ryken after he suffers his deep humiliation, comes to know the love of God out of the experience of knowing that outside of God they are nothing.
A friend told me of once meeting a woman in line at the post office who, in the course of a conversation, expressed to him the following: “The good God has made me a new person.” To recognize and live the love of God is to realize that it is “by the grace of God that I am what I am.” It is to realize that living outside of that love, as exemplified by Simon the Pharisee in today’s gospel, is to live an illusion.
In the contrasting behaviors of the Woman and Simon in Luke’s story we see the contrast between loving God and choosing “self”. For the Woman there is no distance between herself and Jesus. Her sins are forgiven for the sinful alienated self has ceased to exist. She is sheer hospitality and communion. She is living her life in God. Simon, on the other hand, has failed even to perform the most basic duties of hospitality toward Jesus. All that he does and does not do is an assertion of a life of his that is separate, that passes judgment on others and the world, that is the subject in relation to all and everyone else as object.
Thus, to love God means to repent of the falseness of the life I have created apart from God. It is to recognize that so much of what I’ve done and how I live is an assertion of someone I am not. The Woman in the gospel story loves much because she recognizes that “God has made her a new person.” The “life” of that new person is marked by a humble presence that doesn’t even think of how she is seen by others, but rather generously pours out the love of God in which she now “lives and moves and has her being.”
But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner self, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.
St. Augustine, Confessions, Book X