The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s178g98 Somerton Park 14/6/98 Sunday 11

A "woman ... stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment." Luke 7:38.

I have had a request to preach a sermon on forgiveness and grace, and it is true that I rarely mention sin, as I rarely mention the devil or evil. It seems unnecessary to give these things any more credibility or power than they already have. They weigh enough in each of our own hearts without having me mentioning them. In our gospel story for today, it was Simon the Pharisee who first raised the issue of sin, if only in his mind, not Jesus.

We are given a lovely tableau in today's story. Jesus is there - he must have been reclining for the woman to be standing behind him, yet bathing his feet with her tears. At some stage she must have bent down to anoint his feet, and wipe them with her hair. And I begin to wonder why she came, who she thought this Jesus was, and what she expected of him. And as I wonder why she came and what she wanted, it leads to question why Simon the Pharisee asked Jesus to be his guest, who he thought Jesus was, and what he wanted from him.

CS Lewis begins his Chronicles of Narnia with a picture of Digory who had just had a good cry and had wiped his face with his dirty hands. So I've always assumed that there was something similar with this woman; it would be logical to assume that something traumatic had just happened - perhaps she had had a fight with her husband. I think I've thought she was just dazed and unaware of her surroundings. Somehow she had found herself in the right place at the right time, and with an alabaster jar of ointment in her hands. I thought perhaps she was even unaware how she even got there, as the household of Simon the Pharisee were certainly taken aback by her sudden and unexpected appearance. She says nothing - perhaps it would have been more of a social faux-pas to speak in the presence of males.

Or perhaps she had just lost someone through death, that such emotion had overtaken her.

Neither of these are, of course, of the nature of sin. One can have a barney with one's husband as one can be overcome with grief - without sinning. The woman makes no statement of faith in Jesus or expression of repentance for her (presumed) sins.

It is Simon the Pharisee who wants to be the centre of the conversation, even though he keeps some of his comments to himself. One wonders how Simon knew this woman to be a sinner - perhaps he thought of himself something of a prophet, or perhaps he had had some personal experience with this woman himself ... Perhaps he shared the altogether far too common (now as much as then) perception that women were naturally sinful.

One shouldn't take too much notice of Jesus being able to read what was going through Simon's mind, I suspect what he was thinking was written all over his face.

And we should not get too worried about Simon's assessment of this woman - we always seem to assume it is true. I mean, just because the evangelist reports the words of Simon, it doesn't make the words that she was a sinner necessarily true. It is certainly true that Simon thought so, but that does not make it true in fact. The best method of defence is attack, even if only in one's mind.

Nor may we get too fussed that Jesus comments that her sins were many, for we are told by Jesus - they "had been forgiven" already. We all have many sins, some of which we recognise, and some of which are mercifully hidden from our eyes. We are not less religious if we recognise only a few of our sins, it is as much that God is more merciful.

The fact that her sins had already been forgiven is an important statement for Jesus to make, for we do not get forgiveness by pouring ointment on the feet of Jesus and wiping it off with our hair. Jesus didn't complain that Simon hadn't imitated the devotion of the woman to earn his forgiveness - such a thought would have been quite repugnant to Simon and to any exposition of a faith in grace, quite inimical to the mission of Jesus, and the woman and most of us too, would have thought Jesus very strange.

But it is the oil which really rules out the possibility that she had experienced a recent traumatic experience. If she had just had a "domestic" she would have more likely thrown the jar at her husband, or any other male that had come anywhere near her. She came, not because she had had a traumatic experience, but because (we are told) she found out that Jesus "was eating in the Pharisee's house". No, this woman was not dazed, she came with a purpose.

The most likely scenario in my mind, is that she was a bit like Zacchaeus, who being short of stature, climbed the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. He wanted to see for himself what manner of man was this - and he indeed found out. Jesus' willingness to dine with him profoundly affected Zacchaeus. This woman had obviously heard of the willingness of Jesus to involve himself in the minutiae of daily existence - his preparedness to enter the Centurion's house (7:1-10), to raise the widow's son at Nain (7:11-17) with the attendant reports spreading like wildfire, reaching even John the Baptist. So this woman had come, wanting indeed to see for herself, but also being prepared to find someone of grace she expected, came with the ointment, as an offering of thanksgiving and love.

In the (immediately preceding) interchange with the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus tells them to tell John what they see and hear, and amongst the many miracles he lists, the last is to tell John: "the poor have good news brought to them" (7:22). I always remember being told by my first training Rector, this last was the most miraculous of all, surpassing even the raising of the dead. It was and is almost unheard of to hear good news - even in Church. So often we get told what to do - to repent, to study, to read this, to give more. The immediately preceding sentence before the story of this woman, is "the Son of Man comes eating and drinking ..."

Clearly for me this woman had twigged that this coming meant (and means) that she was accepted for who she was, and this had a profound effect in her life. She was overcome with thanksgiving and love - in precisely the same way as Zacchaeus was prepared to give so much of his wealth away. I have little doubt that this thanksgiving and love which made Simon most uncomfortable.

The woman herself may have only half-believed that her sins had already been forgiven. Even so, she came, and by coming, her understanding that her past had already been forgiven was confirmed. That wasn't what Jesus was interested in, therefore that wasn't what God was interested in, and therefore it isn't what we as the Church ought to concern ourselves with overly much either.

There can be little doubt Simon is piqued that someone else was taking centre stage and gaining Jesus' attention in his own house. His idea of hospitality was that a guest such as Jesus should feel honoured by being invited to his home - Jesus should have been concerned only with his host and his family. Much more appropriate that Jesus should have engaged him in conversation about what his youngsters were doing at school.

What did Simon offer this woman but anger, pique and belittling?

What did Jesus offer this woman who had already been forgiven - acceptance and dignity?

What do we as the Church offer people? Do we question their perception of personal forgiveness before we accept them? Is it our perception of personal forgiveness that "makes us Christians" or acceptance by God? The fact that Jesus was as prepared to enter the house of Simon the Pharisee as he was to enter the house of Simon the leper, shows me that the perception we have personally of our own shortcomings, or divine forgiveness thereof, is immaterial to Jesus. This is indeed the good news "the poor have ... brought to them".

Jesus accepted the (grossly overwhelming) offering of the woman and set aside any consideration of her past - Jesus accepted the (albeit rather mean) offering of Simon the Pharisee and set aside any consideration of his past. I mean Simon was supplying the food and drink - no doubt he wasn't ordering in a pizza or two, or plonking down a stubby in front of Jesus.

Jesus accepted the offering of this woman, and Simon was quite put out. He wanted Jesus to express his gratitude to him for inviting him, not take notice of an uninvited no-body. In the final analysis this is why the religious people had Jesus put to death. Accepting the offerings of all is the primary method of evangelism - wanting to restrict God's acceptance to a select few is the opposite.

One of the things I have found odd about the high Church tradition is bowing to the Altar. When I was young, I think one bowed to the Cross. Somewhere along the line someone suggested that one should bow to the Altar rather than the Cross - something new and something I didn't understand. Fortunately generally it has been in the same direction. In fact, since College, I have always found myself more comfortable genuflecting towards the sacrament contained within the aumbry. However it has come to me with some force, that the Altar represents both the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and our offering to God in thanksgiving. If the Cross represents anything of ordinary humanity, it is the inhumanity of humanity towards another there represented; certainly an ever - present reality, but surely something which God doesn't wish to remind us of every minute of the day, and surely would have us move from.

The Altar of offering is the symbol that God accepts our offerings, one and all, and this was Jesus primary evangelical tool - to accept what others gave - what all others gave. Forgiveness and grace come through acceptance and the conferral of dignity.


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