Trinity III 2016 Luke 7:30-8:3
For such an usually long narrative, to-day’s Gospel story still leaves us in ignorance of a number of matters most authors would have included. Where did this incident take place? Who was the Pharisee later named as Simon? Why did he invite Jesus to a meal? Who was the woman? Who were the other guests?
This narrative is unique to Luke. Mark and Matthew have the story of Jesus at Bethany in the last days of his ministry being anointed with oil by a woman in the house of Simon the Leper which Jesus interprets as an anointing in anticipation of his burial. John has a somewhat similar account also set at Bethany but at the house of his friend Lazarus where to protests from Judas Iscariot, Mary, Lazarus’s sister, anoints Jesus. But Luke’s incident has nothing to do with Jesus final days in Jerusalem but takes place during his itinerant ministry. Let us return to the narrative itself.
It is clear that the Pharisee’s welcome of Jesus was anything but polite. What then was his motive in inviting him? It can only have been curiosity about his teaching? We know that Jesus evoked such an attitude and Simon formally recognizes him as a Teacher. Perhaps he already regarded him with suspicion: hence the churlishness of his welcome. While neither a kiss nor provision of oil was obligatory for the host, though desirable, water for foot washing was. Yet no water had been provided for Jesus. So we are probably right in regarding the invitation as less than the offer of genuine hospitality.
But no sooner was Jesus reclining for dinner than a notorious sinner, a local prostitute apparently, came up behind him, burst into tears wetting his feet and having no towel used her hair to dry them before anointing them with myrrh.
Now it is important to grasp that the unknown woman was not seeking anything for herself. As the parable will make clear, she is exhibiting gratitude for what she has already received – forgiveness for her sins. When she received this we are not told, but her act is one of extravagant generosity in response to the generosity of God himself. Myrrh was expensive.
The guests would undoubtedly have been shocked both by the well known background of the woman and her daring exhibition of intimacy with Jesus. To them she was a gross sinner, unclean and would make anyone she touched unclean too.
Luke then craftily makes Simon soliloquise. His suspicions have been confirmed. If Jesus was a real prophet he would have known what this woman was and rejected her outright. But Jesus, no doubt from the expression on Simon’s face, read his thoughts and told the parable. He uses it to get Simon to convict himself.
The parable was so simple that no one could miss its meaning. Simon knew as he gave his answer that Jesus had wrong footed him. He had been given no wriggle room: he could only answer correctly.
The issue here is of course the way in which the two named participants in the narrative, Simon and Jesus, regard the woman. For Simon her great immorality has put her beyond the pale and no decent God-fearing Jew would have anything to do with her, let alone unresistingly let her touch him. But Jesus saw her as a sinner pardoned and restored whose action demonstrated her huge gratitude to him who had made her whole. Her action demonstrated that she had accepted what he had done for her: she knew now that she was acceptable to him.
Now comes the punch line for the verses that follow are a rather tame conclusion and perhaps were added later. So at the story’s climax, Jesus drawing on the parable, declares ‘So, I tell you her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven little love is shown’. Clearly Simon as a good Pharisee thought he had little need of forgiveness, perhaps none at all. As a consequence as Jesus points out he has shown little love to his guest.
Those who devised our lectionary then require the reading of the opening verses of the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the account of how Jesus was followed by a company of women, some certainly wealthy and of importance, who provided for him and his followers from their own resources. One woman is named as Mary of Magdala from whom seven demons had been cast out. The purpose of this passage is probably to identify the unknown woman who had anointed Jesus with Mary Magdalene whom Luke records was among those women who went early in the morning and found the tomb where Jesus had been buried empty. That’s how traditions are established. And for John, Mary of Magdala unaccompanied by any other women becomes the first witness to the risen Christ when she mistakes him for a gardener. The Church has not been afraid to give a supposed former prostitute this honour.
But what has Luke’s narrative to say to us this morning? Well first there is a warning about how we look at others. It is very easy to categorise people, even to write them off as Simon did. And the corollary of that is to think better of ourselves than we deserve, minimise our own failings – particularly failings in showing love.
And that can have another consequence, regarding ourselves as spiritually self-sufficient, forgetting that we all need God’s forgiving love. It is easy enough to make the formal confession at the beginning of this service. But how much did it touch our hearts, prick our consciences?
But I am not advocating that we should wallow in our guilt. Indeed there is no place for guilt in the Christian life. For the generous God who sent his Son to stretch out his arms on that bloodied cross and is ever waiting to wrap us in those arms, the generous God like the Father of the prodigal son is already running out to meet us and give us his forgiving kiss. For the paradox is, as to-day’s parable pointed out, that when we know and acknowledge the depth of our failures and bring them to God, the freedom that his forgiveness gives us evokes in us a generosity of Spirit of which we never dared to dream.
For the longer I live the more I am convinced that generosity – generosity of our resources, generosity of our skills and most of all generosity of pour love – generosity must be the overriding focus of the Christian life so mirroring the generosity of God to us. Without proper acknowledgment of the latter, we shall never fully exhibit the former. That is why great sinners forgiven are those as Jesus says most likely to be the most generous of all. For Christians, austerity in love for others is a no go area: like the unknown woman of Luke’s story we must exhibit an extravagance of love of which few of us have yet had the courage to embrace.