Sunday 17 June 2007

Year C, Trinity 2, Simon the Pharisee and the Woman Who Was a Sinner (Luke 7:36-50)

1. In this morning’s address I’m going to focus on the story we have just heard from Luke’s Gospel, about how Jesus responded to Simon the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner.

· It really is a very vivid little story, isn’t it? It’s told with such skill that one can almost see and hear what goes on. It could almost be part of a film script, I think.

· Simon was a Pharisee, which means he was one of the separated ones, separated out by himself for a life of purity, self-consciously trying to live according to the law set down in the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament. He would be literate and highly educated in the Jewish law and the scriptures. He would be used to making moral judgements, and used to people following his lead on what was right and wrong. And he no doubt saw himself as a good man, in a right relationship with his God.

· We are told the woman was a sinner, and everyone knew she was. We aren’t told how she sinned, but she has traditionally been seen as a whore, a prostitute. Whatever the truth, we can see clearly that she was ‘no better than she ought to be’, because of her abandoned behaviour with Jesus. It was the custom then for respectable Jewish women of a marriageable age to put their hair up in public and only let their crowning glory down in private with their husbands. So for her to use her hair in public to wipe her tears from Jesus’s feet would have been an act of great immodesty.

· First I want to tease out some aspects of the story, and then I want to look at the lessons we can learn from it about love and forgiveness.

2. So let us picture the scene:

· I imagine Simon’s house would have been a typical well-to-do middle-eastern house of the time – not so different to many traditional houses there still. It would be built round a courtyard, perhaps with a bit of a garden, a fountain if he was really well off, and a trained vine to give shade. In warm weather meals would be taken outside, in the courtyard, in the shade of the vine.

· A guest would usually be given water on arrival to wash the feet, at the very least. In those days roads were dusty and shoes just an open sandal, so cool water would be poured over the feet to clean and comfort them. A specially honoured guest would be welcomed with a kiss of peace too, and a drop of perfumed oil, in much the same way as I remember being offered eau-de-cologne when I got onto a long distance bus in Turkey a few years ago. But Simon does none of these things for Jesus.

  • Was this a deliberate discourtesy? Not necessarily. Not all Pharisees were enemies of Jesus, but it does suggest that Simon was not a particular admirer and sympathiser.
  • Was he perhaps intending to catch Jesus out, so that he could condemn him? This also seems unlikely, because Simon courteously calls Jesus Rabbi or teacher when Jesus addresses him.
  • Maybe Simon was simply patronising Jesus. This startling young Galilean was something of a celebrity already, and perhaps Simon enjoyed collecting celebrities. This could explain the combination of a certain respect with the omission of the usual civilities.

· People lived much more public lives then than we do. It would be quite normal when a Rabbi, a teacher, was invited to eat at such a house, for others not invited to come into the courtyard to listen to the conversation, to pick up the pearls of his wisdom on the sidelines. This would explain the woman’s presence – as a notorious sinner she would definitely not have been invited by Simon.

· Table manners were also quite different to ours. Diners would not sit but recline around a tray or low table, on low couches or cushions, resting on the left elbow to leave the right arm free to eat, with their feet stretched out behind. This explains how the woman was standing behind him at his feet. It would be quite wrong to imagine her crouched at his feet under the table!

· So when Jesus reclines, in my minds eye I see this woman, who was no better than she ought to be, so overtaken by love for him that she bursts into tears. The tears flow over his feet, and she uses her loose hair to dry them. Then she kisses the feet, and anoints them with the very concentrated perfume which like other Jewish women of the time, she carried in a small phial around her neck, called an alabaster.

3. Jesus uses this remarkable scene to challenge Simon in a parable about love and forgiveness. Who loves most? The person who has been forgiven most or the person who has less to be forgiven for? Simon gets the answer right, and Jesus relates it to the woman.
‘Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

· Is this a criticism of Simon? Probably, though we are not told of the extent of Simon’s own sins! But I feel it certainly is a criticism of Simon’s closed and self-satisfied attitude to sinners. It would surely have given Simon a lot to think about! And it set tongues wagging around the table in criticism of Jesus: ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’, because all Jews would know that only God can forgive sins. Though I notice that in Luke’s text Jesus makes no such claim; he only declares to her: ‘Your sins are forgiven’.

· So how are we to interpret this parable today, 2000 years later? On the face of it the clear meaning is that the people who love God most are those who have sinned most and been forgiven most. How can this be true? And if it is, doesn’t it invite us to be as bad as we can be, to be forgiven most and love most?

· Some scholars have detected an ambiguity in the Greek text handed down to us. Clearly the woman loved Jesus very much, and Jesus himself declares that her sins have been forgiven. But was the woman forgiven because she loved, or did she love because she had been forgiven? Commentators have argued at length about this, but I’m certainly not qualified to give an opinion on it.

· I wonder though, if this is to look at the link between love and forgiveness in the wrong way. Maybe we should look at it as a dynamic psychological process at work in a relationship between two persons, rather than as cause and effect operating on abstract categories. Think about how it is between people who love each other, whether they are husband and wife, parent and child, or just good loving friends. This is me speaking to someone I love:

  • I confess I have faults, which lead me to do things I know are wrong and give you pain.
  • I also know that you love me and accept me for who I am despite my faults.
  • And I love you, and I am truly sorry for what I have done to hurt you. I will really try to be better, and I will be better.
  • I know I don’t deserve it, but I ask you to forgive me.

When you do forgive me, my love for you, and my determination not to hurt you, are both reinforced.

· Here the relationship is one where love and forgiveness operate together in a dynamic process – neither one precedes the other.

· Perhaps God works a bit like this too, but in mirror image. Now this is God speaking to us:

  • I know you have faults, which lead you to do things you know are wrong, and give me pain
  • But I love you, and accept you for what you are despite your faults.
  • I can see that you love me, and that you are truly sorry you have hurt me. You say you will really try to be better, and perhaps you will surprise me by being so.
  • You don’t deserve it, but you are forgiven.

4. If this is right, if God really does work like this, it is a message of great hope, isn’t it?

· If we are open to the love shown us by God - Our Father in heaven, as Jesus puts it - God will forgive our trespasses of the past, our sense in the present of loving and being loved by God will be reinforced, and that will make us better able to be good and please God in future.

· It is a virtuous circle, which drives away corrosive guilt and helps us to be better people. As Jesus said to the woman: ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

· And on this Fathers’ Day, I see an important lesson here for all of us: we should try to model our behaviour in relationships on the loving, forgiving behaviour we experience from our loving-father God!