Guildford Cathedral, 2016
Luke 7, 36-50
"The whole thing was an outrage. The behaviour of Simon the Pharisee was completely beyond the pail!
The woman – well, she behaved impeccably throughout. True, she was classified as a ‘sinner’ – possibly a euphemism for the town prostitute – but she’d heard Jesus, she’d seen him in action, and she loved him – so what better way to show that love than impulsively buying an expensive pot of perfumed ointment, gate-crashing a private party, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing them and wiping them with her hair, then decanting the contents of her pot as lavishly as she possibly could? The whole thing seems perfectly reasonable: I’m sure you and I would have done just the same in the circumstances.
And what of Jesus? Well, he appeared completely untroubled throughout. Having the local prostitute letting down her hair in his presence; allowing her to touch him and anoint him with her ointment and tears in full view of Simon and all his nice Pharisaical friends; even holding up that woman as a role model, as an example of what great love really looks like. Well, that was quite reasonable as well, of course: just the sort of thing that happens to us all the time, in fact, whenever we host a meal for our nice Pharisaical friends.
But Simon: well, he behaved outrageously. He never gave Jesus a proper greeting – a welcome kiss, a little oil on his head, some water for his feet – he quietly seems to have snubbed his guest, doubting whether he was really a prophet at all. His motives in inviting Jesus along in the first place were distinctly mixed. Even the woman had a thing or two to teach him about gratitude, holiness and the love of God.
And that’s Luke’s perspective, and Jesus’ perspective, on the gospel story we have before us this morning. That’s what it looks like through kingdom eyes. And yet, for me at least, I still have to work at reading it in that light. I never went to Sunday School as a child, I’m afraid, but I have been a Christian for long enough to know that ‘Jesus’ is the right answer to every question. Yet the little Pharisee within - (and little Pharisees are to be found in those of all faiths and none) – the little Pharisee within still remains a serious force to be reckoned with. Simon may have behaved outrageously as a host, but at least his was a civilised kind of outrage – that little snub, that quiet sneer, that touch of sarcasm, that quest to avoid impropriety and embarrassment – an exercise that is often pursued far more energetically than the quest to avoid selfishness and sin. But as for the woman – well, great love is all very well, but couldn’t she have been just a little more… discreet about it?
The Pharisee default position. If left unchecked, I find, it causes me to side with the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, with the labourers who’d worked all day in the vineyard, with Peter embarrassed on a subsequent foot-washing occasion, where it’s Jesus himself who took the basin and towel - and with Simon and a dinner party that he’d never quite live down. Grace just seems so surprising, so exuberant, so messy and confusing.
Even in our wider culture, we get used to role models being lifted up one day and destroyed the next, when some flaw in their character is gleefully exposed by the tabloid press. So what do we do with a man who makes a prostitute a role model in good loving, a Samaritan a role model in good compassioning, a pagan soldier a role model in good believing, a child a role model in good understanding, an impoverished widow a role model in good generosity? It’s not as though Jesus is naïve or blind to the failings of those around him – it’s certainly not as though he’s condoning every aspect of their lifestyles. But in a strange kind of way, Jesus seems far less fussy about his role models than we are.
"How do I, how do you – so imbibe these kingdom values, that through them we are genuinely changed, transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ? It has something to do with good repenting, says Jesus."
So how do we shift the little Pharisee within? How do we gain a kingdom perspective in our reading of the Scriptures, of course, but also in our reading of life, as together we seek to live the mission of Jesus in this diocese? How does Jo, on this extraordinary day of her life – how do I, how do you – so imbibe these kingdom values, that through them we are genuinely changed, transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ?
It has something to do with good repenting, says Jesus, as he engaged Simon in a bout of dinner-party repartee - in the story of the two debtors, where Jesus’ host neatly fell into the trap that was laid for him. Had Simon sinned less than the woman? We’re in no position to judge, though in Simon’s own eyes, she was in a quite different moral category than himself. But the far more important question was this: Did Simon recognise the extent of his own debt to a holy God, the God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Because if he didn’t, it’s no wonder that his heart remained hardened within him.
It’s a real concern I have about the whole self-esteem movement: the subtle encouragement given to our generation, and the generations that follow us, to be metaphorically looking into the mirror or the camera lens each day, and solemnly intoning the facile creed, ‘Because I’m worth it’. It’s not that the aims of the movement are entirely wrong: there is a right self-esteem, I believe, a true dignity in being a child of God, created in His image, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. But the difference between the gospel according to our Lord and the gospel according to L’Oreal lies in this: that the gospel of our Lord starts with good repenting.
The little Pharisee within hates all that, of course. He’s quite content to recite the words of the confession, because everyone else is doing so around him, and it seems a fairly painless, if pointless, spiritual exercise. But any longer, deeper, more genuine, more honest approach to repentance is to be avoided at all costs.
It’s different for those in another moral category to himself – that goes without saying. It’s different for that alcoholic neighbour, who’s just joined an AA group and who’s following the 12 steps programme. Well, of course she needs to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of herself – step 4 - she needs to make a list of people she’s harmed and to seek to repair the breach – step 8 - she needs to learn to be honest and accountable to others. But any idea that the little Pharisee needs to do that himself is quite alien to the culture. And yet if Jesus is right – and, despite my woeful absence from Sunday School as a child, I think he is – good repenting is really rather important.
I wonder when you last spent time in serious repentance? I wonder whether Lent this year has been such a time for you? I must admit to having had a rather over-busy Lent myself, but I have managed a little time away to reflect on my life, my ministry, my motivations, the state of my heart, and the sins of a largely respectable nature that continue to dog my steps with just the same faithfulness as Oscar my dog dogs my steps! And the surprise – well, it’s no surprise to you, because you know this stuff – the surprise is that it’s not been a depressing exercise, it’s been instead a relief, a blessing. I’m not, by God’s grace, an alcoholic: but that doesn’t release me from step 4 in the programme - the need to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself – nor, I suspect, from the remaining 11 steps.
So something’s shifting at this point. My default position had been to stand with Simon the Pharisee and the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son and the labourers who’d worked all day in the Vineyard, and Peter in the Upper Room. But now I find myself with the woman, with the Prodigal, with the labourers who’ve only just started, with the humbled disciples, the recipients of God’s amazing grace. And somehow it feels a good place, the right place, for me to be.
Those who are forgiven much love much. Good repenting leads to good loving. So that if we don’t love well: if our worship of God and our relationships with others are cold and stiff - if we’re living a life of cheap grace – then we know where to start in putting it right.
So here’s the next thing: that those who are forgiven much love much. Good repenting leads to good loving.
So that if we don’t love well: if our worship of God and our relationships with others are cold and stiff - if we’re living a life of cheap grace – then we know where to start in putting it right: and here’s a tip: the starting point is not
looking in the mirror or camera lens and solemnly intoning the L’Oreal creed, ‘Because I’m worth it’.
Good loving. It’s a theme that frequently emerges in family life, especially in the joys and trials of bringing up children, including perhaps the odd prodigal son or daughter. It’s a theme that frequently surprises us as we discover depths of love within ourselves - and depths of desperation too – which are at the same time alarming, moving and profoundly encouraging.
For here’s where another shift begins to take place: a shift from Simon and the older brother and the hard-working labourers and protesting Peter – those for whom my inner Pharisee has the greatest sympathy; a shift too from the woman, the Prodigal, the late-in-the-day labourers, the humbled disciples – those with whom my repentant soul fully identifies: but a shift now to Jesus Himself and the Father of the Prodigal and the Lord of the Harvest.
Despite not being a violent or extravagant man, I would have killed any number of fatted calves to welcome a prodigal child home. That’s the truth of it, and it’s a truth borne from personal experience, both harrowing and joyous. And now the challenge of Holy Week is to push out the boundaries of that love beyond the narrow confines of my nuclear family and towards my friend, and my neighbour, and my congregation, and even – Jesus both teaches and models – my enemy.
So as we come together this Maundy Thursday – as we celebrate Jo’s presence among us as the Bishop of Dorking elect - and as I count myself genuinely privileged to stand in this pulpit and to address such a gathering of gifted, passionate colleagues and friends, fellow workers in God’s Kingdom - so I’m acutely aware that life and ministry has had some real struggles for many of us over the past year. Whether sudden bereavement, debilitating and even life-threatening illness, family struggles, church struggles, community struggles, the battle is on, even in amidst some remarkable signs across the diocese that spring is on its way.
And as we return to this story of a dinner party in which the kingdom of God broke in: the story of a broken woman breaking open her alabaster jar, in order to anoint what would shortly become the broken body of her Saviour – as we are reminded with young Samuel of our own calling under God, and commissioned, in the inspiring words of St. John the Divine, by ‘him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father’ – then how much better to approach this Holy Weekend not with the cold self-assurance of the Pharisee but with the deep, repentant gratitude of the woman and even some inkling of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit beating within our hearts.
In the words of the poet Lorna Inman:
Only a broken flask,
But through her love
A fragrance stole upon the evening air,
And Christ was honoured there.
Only a broken loaf,
But from his hands,
A food sufficient for the souls of men
Was offered to them, then.
Only a broken life,
But from that Cross
A love to save the world went forth in power,
Born of his darkest hour.
A flask, a loaf, a life with love infused –
Are all things broken that are greatly used?