Much of society is used to the old slogan of “changing hearts and minds”. It is often used by those within the pro-life movement to describe the goal of not only ending abortion, but actively converting people who are in favor of abortion to become pro-life. In many ways it points to a mystical reality that is not always properly understood and may be taken for granted in modern society. But this simple phrase has a strong historical background and profound theological meaning.
The phrase itself can be traced back to Biblical times when it is actually used in the New Testament to describe conversion or repentance. The term “metanoia” literally means “change of mind” and was a fundamental part of Christ’s message to sinners. One of the more striking images of this in the New Testament is the story of the penitent prostitute in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 7: 36-50). One reads how Jesus is invited to dine with Simon the Pharisee when, all of a sudden, a sinful women appears and bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then anoints them with oil.
In order to properly understand this passage, one must look at it with some historical context in mind. First, it is obvious that the Pharisee saw this woman as unclean and that her reputation preceded her. But what is her sin? The passage does not specifically state it, but Scripture says that she is, in essence, untouchable; the Pharisee Simon states, “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” (Luke 7: 39). One can almost hear the disgust rolling from Simon’s mouth as he utters these words. Tradition holds that the sins of this woman were sexual in nature; something along the lines of either adultery and/or prostitution. But upon reflection, because this woman was involved in sexual activities that could lead to pregnancy, it potentially could have also made her connected to those who provided abortions at the time. Not only was she unclean because of sinful sexual activity, but Simon’s disgust is made even more apparent because he may also believe that she has participated in an abortion or helped others participate in abortions, which was contrary to Jewish law.
This is a pivotal moment. While it is impossible to know for sure, one may be actually reading an account of how Jesus deals with a post-abortive woman. At bare minimum, he was dealing with a sinner who was connected to those who concocted abortifacient potions at the time. But what is telling is Jesus’ reaction, which is starkly different than that of Simon’s. Jesus looks on her with loving sympathy while she repents of her sin by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and oil. This is a stark contrast to other episodes of when Jesus forgives sin. Here the sinful woman is crying. In no other place in the Gospels does the forgiven cry. Her sin must have been very great.
Unbeknownst to Simon, who has just accused Jesus of not knowing what sort of woman this was, Jesus seems to show an inner knowledge of her great sins when he rebukes Simon, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). But what does the phrase “for she loved much” really mean? On one level it is obvious that she shows great love with her humility before Christ. She literally performs a service that many slaves did not even do and that is wash the feet of another. Christ acknowledges her humility and forgives her. But on another level, this is a passage foreshadowing Christ’s death. Here the woman anoints Jesus’ body with expensive oils, thus preparing Him for his future burial. She certainly shows great love for Jesus who she obviously accepts as the Redeemer, but is there anything more to this love that Jesus speaks of? Is her love so great she recognizes the loss of a child? It is not said, but how appropriate that a woman who possibly unjustly killed her own offspring, who has a change of heart and is willing to change her ways, anoints the Lord who is condemned to unjustly die. Jesus, who truly understands the significance of her act and of her sins, forgives her and accepts her.
Jesus has given mankind a model here. It is not known if this penitent woman is post-abortive, but it is known that she has a radical change of heart. Simon the Pharisee rejects this love; his only focus is on an outer appearance of repentance. This woman has not gone to the Temple and performed the necessary sacrifices. However, Jesus’ actions are far different and something that many in the pro-life movement ought to emulate. Much of the pro-life movement is dedicated to helping women who have had an abortion find peace and love within the Church; groups such as Project Rachel and Rachel’s Vineyard are fine examples of this. At present, the pro-life movement is beginning to witness a new form of this ministry as well: the ministry of helping those in the abortion industry to get out through organizations such as And Then There Were None.
A change of heart and mind can happen, even to those who have abused the sexual act and killed the fruit of the womb as well. Jesus certainly understands this necessity, hence His acceptance and forgiveness of the sinful woman. Any pro-life person who shuns another because of their past is playing the part of Simon. Jesus rightly rebukes this model.
Professor Joe Kral is an expert in bioethics and is currently adjunct professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. This article has been published by kind permission of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.