Preached 17 June 2007 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Have you ever come-in on a story half-way through? I’m sure you have. You join a queue at the supermarket just as the lady in front says to her friend: “So, what does he do? He chucks the whole lot over the fence!” And then they both howl with laughter. And you want to ask: Who are you talking about? And what was it he chucked over the fence? And why is it so funny? You’ll never know, of course, and you just have to be content with guessing. Well it’s a bit like that with this story that Royston read to us this morning. Although, on the face of it, it’s a story told in some detail, on close examination we find that in some respects it’s a story we’ve come in on half way through. And it’s a story that has me asking questions.
For a start, I find myself asking why Simon had bothered to invite Jesus round for Sunday lunch in the first place. Though he addresses him as “Rabbi” it’s clear from what Jesus says at the end of the story that that was about as far as Simon’s esteem for Jesus had taken him. He hadn’t afforded Jesus any of the common courtesies due to a guest who has come to eat with you.
In those days, when a guest entered your house, it was the custom, first, to give your guest the kiss of peace. Then a slave would be beckoned, shoes removed and cool water would be poured over your guest’s feet. Shoes in those days were merely soles held in place by a strap and the roads were mere tracks in the dirt and dust, so the water was really needed. And thirdly, you would place a drop of attar of roses on your guest’s forehead to refresh his brow and to please his senses with the sweet scent.
But Simon had done none of these things. Had it happened today, Simon would have been guilty of opening the front door and taking Jesus straight to the dining table without even shaking his hand, taking his coat or bothering to offer him a drink.
So if Simon thought so little of Jesus, why had he invited him for lunch? Surely it can only have been that he hoped to compromise him – to get him to say or do things that would give Simon and his fellow Pharisees a basis on which to bring charges against him. If so, well, as we’ll see, he wasn’t going to be disappointed!
So much for my first question; but my second question concerns this woman who features so prominently. Who was she? And (here’s where we really have come in on the story half-way through) what had taken place in her first unrecorded encounter with Jesus of which this is simply the sequel? You see, the narrative makes it very clear that she had come specifically to honour Jesus and to express her heartfelt love and gratitude for what he had done for her. But we are told nothing of the circumstances that led to this display of love and gratitude. However, three things we do know.
(1) The woman was a prostitute. That’s what the expression “a woman who was a sinner” means. And even if we didn’t know that for sure, we could deduce it from Simon’s “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is”. (2) She has had a personal encounter of some sort with Jesus. Maybe she was present at one of those parties thrown by tax-collectors or others on the fringes of society that Jesus seems to have attended fairly regularly. Or maybe she found herself at the edge of a crowd one day as Jesus stopped and began to teach and heal near her patch. And (3) however the two of them had come to meet, the encounter had ended with Jesus forgiving her sins, wiping her past clean and giving her a fresh start and a new life.
All that is clear and straightforward from what we are told in this morning’s reading. Well, clear, yes … but, straightforward, well, no. For what is straightforward about Jesus forgiving her sins or forgiving anyone’s sins? Let me try to explain what I’m getting at.
When Jesus was on the cross, he looked down at the people who had put him there and said: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.” And that is a legitimate act of forgiveness on Jesus’ part. They’ve put him on the cross. It’s a wrong thing to have done. But he forgives them. Hopefully, we all engage in this kind of forgiveness all the time. Someone isn’t looking where they’re going, and bumps into you with their trolley at the supermarket. They say they’re sorry and you forgive them, even though tomorrow you’re going to have a real bruise on your arm. Someone pops round for a chat and carelessly breaks one of your favourite cups and saucers. “Oops, sorry about that,” they say. And even though you’re upset, you don’t let it show and you forgive them.
But the problem with Jesus is that he spent the three years of his ministry going around the place forgiving people for bashing their trolleys into, not himself, but other people whom he had nothing to do with; for breaking, not his cups and saucers, but the cups and saucers of people he’d never ever met. And what is more, he freely offered this forgiveness without ever consulting the people who had been bumped into or who had had their crockery broken. Do you see?
And so with this woman. He had forgiven her all her sins although, on a human level, none of her sins had ever hurt him in the slightest. And furthermore, he’d done it without any regard to all the people whom she really had injured over all the years by her promiscuous, immoral lifestyle. Indeed, he repeated his blatant declaration of forgiveness in front of Simon at the Sunday lunch: “Then Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” Which, as C S Lewis once remarked: “unless the speaker is God, is really so preposterous as to be comic.”
Do you see the absurdity? We have read about Jesus forgiving sins so often that the strangeness of his readiness to do so simply passes us by. We no longer see what his claim to forgive sins amounts to. It is a claim that makes sense and ceases to be absurd only if, in every sin and misdemeanour, every offence, every shortcoming and failure, he, Jesus Christ, is the person most chiefly offended, chiefly injured, and chiefly wronged. But for that to be true, Jesus would indeed, as we all now believe, have to be God himself. For it is only God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every single sin, from the greatest to the least.
This point was certainly not lost on Simon and his cronies: They began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Just like another bunch of Pharisees on an earlier occasion, who, when Jesus pronounced the sins of the paralytic let down through the roof to be forgiven, said: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
No, the claim was too preposterous to even be considered by these religious experts, but, of course, the woman who came to say thank you to Jesus at the Sunday lunch knew it to be true. She may not have understood the theology but she had certainly experienced the reality. She had gone to him, dirty and left him, clean. Gone to him, full of darkness and left him, full of light. Gone to him, lost and left him, found. Gone to him, in pain and left him, at peace. And now, her heart overflowing with thanksgiving, she comes to him again.
Sunday lunch is being eaten in the large courtyard at the centre of Simon’s house. Here, in the garden by the fountain, the guests are reclining on low couches, facing a low central table. They rest on their left elbows, leaving their right hands free to pick up their food, and have their bare feet stretched out behind them. And, as was the custom whenever a rabbi dined at such a house, anyone was free to wander in and listen to the rabbi’s teaching and conversation.
What had the woman intended, I wonder? We’ll never know precisely. But, according to the text, her plan involved the use of the tiny phial of costly perfume that, like many Jewish women, she wore around her neck – an alabaster it was called. Maybe she had thought to pour some of it on his head – such an anointing would be a normal if extravagant use for it. But she couldn’t get to his head, and in any case, as she stood by the feet of Jesus, looking down at him, the tears of gratitude had already started to fall. Then, plans forgotten, love takes over and, without thinking, she does what she’s been doing all through her life for the men who have visited her: she let down her hair. But this time she uses it not as an act of seduction but to dry her grateful tears from his feet.
Let me say that we can have absolutely no concept of how jaw-droppingly shocking that would be to those around that table. You see, once puberty had passed, no Jewish woman ever let her hair down again, except in private for her husband. It was absolutely taboo to do otherwise, but this woman – out of love for the one who has brought her from death to life – just does it without a second thought. And then having dried his feet, she breaks the tiny phial and pours its contents over them.
What was Jesus doing as all this was taking place? Had it been me at that table, I can imagine myself freezing with embarrassment, trying to pull my feet away from the woman, saying “Are you crazy? Stop it, people are going to get the wrong idea. Put your hair back up, for goodness sake. Everyone’s staring at us. Go away right now. We’ll talk later.”
But not Jesus, no, not Jesus. It’s clear from Simon’s reaction that Jesus calmly and happily and unconcernedly receives the woman’s love and gratitude. It thrills his heart. But, “Doesn’t he realise what sort of woman’s touching him” are Simon’s thoughts. “A great prophet? I don’t think so!”
And that’s the point at which Jesus takes Simon on. “Well, yes, I am a prophet if that’s what it means to be able to read your mind, Simon. And what I read is not nice. Let me tell you a story. Two men owe money to a moneylender – one £500 and the other £50. Neither has the means to settle up, so the moneylender tears up the IOUs and says “We’ll just forget it.” Which of the two will feel most gratitude to the moneylender?
Simon sees the trap but has no option but to walk into it. “The one who was forgiven most,” he says. “The 500-pounder.”
“Right,” says Jesus. “Well that’s the situation here, don’t you see. You’ve shown precious little love for me since I walked in here – for the simple reason that you’ve received precious little from me, and nor do you see the need to do so. You don’t think you have any sins so you don’t see yourself as needing my forgiveness – even if you were to recognise my authority to give it, which of course you don’t. By way of contrast, this woman saw clearly the truth of her own failure and darkness and dishonesty and corruption and, not just that, she believed in me when I said I could take it from her and set her free. And her faith then enabled the miracle to take place from which all this love and gratitude is springing. She has experienced the wonder of salvation, full and free. She has received from me a complete spiritual makeover, and she’s now a shiny, bright new child of God.”
I wonder where each of us fits into this story. Are we a Simon or are we someone like the woman, or are we somewhere in between? For my own part, I have to confess that, while there is something of that woman in me, there is much of the Simon too. And I have to ask myself why. Is it because I don’t believe that my sins, whatever they are and whoever they affect in human terms, are all sins against God? No, I certainly do understand and believe that. So is it that I don’t believe that Jesus, as God, has the power and authority to forgive me? No, I certainly do understand and believe that; and that it took his self-giving on the cross to secure and seal that forgiveness. As Stuart Townend says in his song: “Oh, to see the pain, written on Your face, bearing the awesome weight of sin. Every bitter thought, every evil deed, crowning Your bloodstained brow.” So what is it then?
Well, I suspect it’s that, like Simon, I simply don’t realise the seriousness or the magnitude of my sins and that I am actually blind to some – perhaps even the worst – of them. When I lose my temper you see, I don’t see that I’m grieving the heart of God – No, I’m just being a bit crotchety because I’m over-stressed and rather tired. And anyway, I was provoked, wasn’t I … so that’s alright then. When I get judgemental about someone I don’t see that I’m causing God pain – No. The person is simply being blatantly unchristian isn’t she, and I’m just seeing her for what she is – and I can’t help that can I? So, again, that’s alright then. And so it goes on, day in, day out. Me, a sinner? No, not really.
Maybe you have the same problem. Maybe we are all to some extent suffering from sin-blindness and, if so, perhaps we need to pray for sin-sight. Maybe we need to see ourselves as we really are in the light of Christ’s dazzling love and purity. Because until sin is recognised and confessed it lies unforgiven and free to work its poison in our lives, sapping our spiritual strength, and putting a distance between ourselves and God.
Let’s remember this: the saintliest men and women have always seen themselves in the white light of Christ and so have always had an acute sense of their own sinfulness. St Paul called himself “the chief of sinners” and St Francis of Assisi said: “There is nowhere a more wretched and miserable sinner than I.” If I on the other hand think that I’ve got it more or less together and am leading a pretty blameless sort of life … then I can be pretty sure I’m in trouble. And there is a litmus test. “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.” How much do I love Jesus and what is that telling me about myself today? Let’s think about that this morning. And let’s remember that the communion rail is a good place to bring all our blindness and pride and complacency.