Vicar's Sermon - 12th June
In 1815, Beau Brummell,
Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepoint
were joint hosts of a ball, to which the Prince Regent had been invited – one
of the many George’s! The Prince, who had once been a great friend of Brummel’s
but had since fallen out with Brummel over his lavish lifestyle, greeted
Alvanley and Pierrepoint but then "cut" his former friend and Mildmay
by staring them in the face without even speaking to them. They were ‘snubbed’.
They were ‘cut off’ from the Prince’s acquaintance; the snub was public and,
for that, deeply humiliating.
You have to be prepared to do a little work to get under the skin of what is happening in today’s gospel reading: The story of the woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house. The occasion was full to the brim with emotion and by no means was all the emotion ‘positive’. If you had been a fly on the wall at this meal you would have wanted to look away from what took place: there is deep suspicion here, an unspoken hatred, an embarrassing outburst and then some plain talking. I would have hated this situation if I had been there. Not being ‘good at conflict’ this seemingly innocuous meal would have dropped me into my deepest nightmare.
‘But what’s the problem’, you ask? ‘I’ve heard this story many times before without picking up how charged it was, so what’s going on?’
To understand the story you have to remember that it is set in a deeply conservative culture. In the Middle East ‘hospitality’ is a moral and religious obligation – it still is.
Jesus has arrived at Simon’s village. He has preached a gospel that is revolutionary: the woman who will feature in the story has heard of a ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ that can find a place for even her. She knows she has done wrong. She knows too that she has been judged to be ‘a sinner’ by the people of the town and yet Jesus has brought her the possibility of a new start. She cannot undo the past. She cannot even make amends for her past life but Jesus’ gospel offers her hope and so, hearing that he is to dine at Simon the Pharisee’s house she makes her way there. Of course she doesn’t expect to join in the meal – Simon certainly hasn’t invited her but she is there before Jesus arrives: maybe the meal is to be outside, in full view of the people of the town, maybe she has got into the courtyard of Simon’s property (think al fresco, sunshine and shade, an open air meal). She has with her some perfume. She wants to honour the young Rabbi Jesus by anointing him with it on his hands and head: she wants to do this and then she will go, having offered him her thanks she will leave the scene.
But the scene does not play out as she thought it would. Why is Jesus going to Simon’s house. Well, ‘good form’ and Middle Eastern hospitality demanded that the senior men of the village act as host to visitors – all visitors, not just those they liked, not just family and friends but all visitors. Simon feels that he has drawn the short straw in being expected to entertain Jesus: he has no respect for the young teacher. Simon has already decided that Jesus’ teaching is not for him. How do we know? Well, he issues Jesus the invitation to his home as was expected of him but Jesus in the story makes it clear how Simon treated him. ‘You gave me no water. You gave me no kiss. You gave me no oil.’ Jesus has arrived at the house only for Simon to make it absolutely clear that he is not welcome one bit. It is as if someone arrived at your door, offered you their coat for you to take only for you to drop it on the floor in front of them. Remember, hospitality was a moral and religious obligation and Simon refuses to offer it to Jesus.
Jesus presses on however. He is in the house, he will bring this unspoken issue to a head. In the first verse of our reading we are told that he ‘reclines’ at the table. Simon has ‘cut’ Jesus publicly but Jesus will not let him get away with this: by ‘reclining’ at the table we are meant to realize that Jesus has taken the most honoured seat. Now what’s going to happen?
The woman, who simply wanted to express her thanks to Jesus for helping her realize that she is a child of a loving heavenly Father, the woman who has lived for years with the oppressive, judgement of others against her she has witnessed Jesus being publicly humiliated and she starts to weep. There are many different sorts of tears aren’t there? Tears of anger. Tears of laughter. Tears of penitence. But the woman isn’t crying for her sins – that’s an important point- she is in the room not to earn or ask for forgiveness but to express her thanks with the perfume she has brought for forgiveness already received. Her tears are because she has seen this wonderful man, Jesus, abused by Simon and his friends. And then she realizes that she can make good the situation. For this, she will have to ‘go public’, she will have to identify with Jesus so closely that she will again be judged by others but this is not a time for her to sit on the fence. She is His.
Her tears provide the water for anointing. She cannot (heaven forbid) climb up onto the couch next to Jesus to kiss him so she kisses his feet. We know the 23rd Psalm – ‘you have anointed my head with oil’ - well, she cannot anoint his head. Again, to do so would involve her climbing up next to Jesus so, instead, the oil she had brought must all be poured out over his feet. She has no towel so she uncovers her hair and wipes his feet with her hair. Simon is horrified: 2000 years later the women of the Middle East still cover their hair, 50 years ago all the women in church today would have been wearing hats. She uncovers her hair and carries the shame of doing so for Jesus.
Jesus publicly affirms her actions and, it should be said, equally publicly shames Simon by contrasting his actions with her: Jesus is no push over, there is some blunt speaking here. More than this, the parable at the heart of the story makes it clear that her actions have sprung from her experience of forgiveness. Contrary to the belief of Simon and his guests she is not the only sinner in the room: as a Pharisee Simon is trying to observe the Law but he knows nothing of forgiveness, he is, as yet unforgiven for if he had known the grace of God in his life he would most certainly have acted differently.
Which begs the question for us all: how can we know the love of God in our lives? How can we be more like this woman and less like Simon? How can we force ourselves to be open to receiving His love? The answer lies in first recognising your need of God and your own inability to contribute anything to ‘saving yourself’. It is difficult. Difficult to let go of our own feeling that somehow we must earn our place in God’s affections. Difficult to let go of a credit and debit approach to understanding how God distributes His love. Difficult to believe that we are loveable at times. The woman’s life was transformed because she heard a gospel that had room for her in it: God’s love embraced her as she was and no doubt, from that day, would start transforming her into what he wanted her to be. His love is a free gift, open for all who reach out for it. As we receive communion today may His love transform our loving that we might better serve Jesus and bring him honour through all that we do and say.