Simon, Jesus and the woman
SERMON - 10.15am, Emmanuel Church, Pokfulam, Hong Kong
Sunday 17th June 2007
Revd. Matthew Vernon
We don't usually associate Jesus with erotica, but it's right here in this wonderful story from Luke's Gospel.
Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee and a woman comes in with a jar of ointment.
She starts to wash Jesus' feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.
She continues to kiss his feet and anoint them.
Luke intriguingly describes the woman as a sinner, without saying what her sin was.
It's easy to presume she was a prostitute.
Which adds to the erotic tension!
Perhaps she was just the local foot masseur.
But a massage is a still sensual experience.
I'll spend a few minutes talking about some of the other details of the story.
And then think about how the story relates to us.
There are a few cultural details worth highlighting.
Luke's Gospel, remember, was written in Greek.
The Greek says the woman was 'fervently kissing' Jesus' feet – our English translation misses the fervently.
The Greek also says Jesus was reclining in the Pharisee's house.
Reclining was the usual posture for eating in Jesus' time –
• people lounging around the table, not sitting up in seats as we do.
That makes it much less awkward for the woman to kiss Jesus feet:
• rather than crouching under Jesus' chair, struggling to reach!
Another thing we easily miss in our modern setting is the shock of drying Jesus' feet with her hair.
She would have had to let her hair down, which no decent woman would have done in public.
Women only let their hair down at home, revealing all to their husbands alone.
Lastly, you may be wondering how the woman got into the house in the first place.
They didn't have our private space and homes.
In a Pharisee's house the doors would have been open to everyone and people could walk in, even beggars off the street.
People would have wandered in hoping to catch some of the Pharisee's teaching.
What's amazing is Simon the Pharisee doesn't seem too bothered by what the woman is doing.
He is more concerned with her being a sinner.
That of course is Luke's point.
In reality the Pharisee and everyone there would have been shocked by the woman and her kissing and pampering and hair drying.
But writer Luke tells the story in order to make a statement about forgiveness and grace compared with hardness of heart.
Luke uses the story in a different way to Mark and John.
In both Mark and John a woman anoints Jesus' feet with expensive ointment.
People ask why the money wasn't given to the poor.
Mark says the incident took place "at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper"
John also places the story in Bethany, but rather in the house of Lazarus, and the woman is Mary his sister.
So as usual, there are differences between the Gospels.
And we don't know exactly what happened.
But exactly what happened was not the concern of the Gospel writers.
They were concerned with showing the kind of person Jesus was and what that meant.
The Gospels are more like fables than works of history.
So, what was Luke's point?
Luke sets up a contrast between Simon the Pharisee's attitude and Jesus' response to the woman.
Simon is portrayed as mean spirited and rule bound:
• "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner."
Jesus on the other hand is compassionate and forgiving:
• "he said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven'."
Who do you identify with in the story?
It strikes me that sometimes we are like Simon, sometimes like the woman and sometimes like Jesus.
Let's take each on turn.
We can be like Luke's Simon the Pharisee, can't we?
We tend to be judgmental.
We like to follow the letter of the law,
• at least when dealing with other people.
There was an awkward incident in Pacific Coffee on Thursday.
Two people had ordered the same coffee.
So when the coffee was ready and the person behind took it,
• the person who had been waiting longer was not too impressed.
• "I was first!"
• "That's the coffee I ordered!"
No doubt both were in a desperate hurry to get on with the crucial, life or death task that was waiting on their desk.
Until one of them backed down.
Both had forgotten that the second coffee would appear very soon afterwards anyway!
It reminds me of the story of expectant fathers waiting outside the delivery ward.
A nurse appeared and said to one of them, "Congratulations, you have a son!"
One of the other men dropped his magazine and shouted, "Hey, what's going on? I got here two hours before he did!"
Grace and compassion are easily squeezed out of our lives.
We all know how infuriating Hong Kong bureaucracy can be.
Those times when we have to follow the exact procedure the bank requires.
If only those bank employees could be a little flexible!
If only we could be a little more patient with people who are only trying to do their job!
We can be like Simon the Pharisee.
At other times we are like Jesus in this story:
• kind and forgiving, compassionate and generous.
It's too easy to identify ourselves only with Simon.
We are very capable of goodness and love.
Times when we cut through the rules of a situation
• and see the person in front of us,
• as Jesus saw the woman in the story.
Times when we ignore convention or expected behaviour
• and respond to the need of someone crying out for kindness.
Times when we resist judging and criticizing
• and instead offer empathy, time and attention.
We are able to be like Jesus,
• even in our modern, busy lives
• that make us more like Pharisees that we'd hope.
Finally, some times we are like the woman.
I mean the times when we are overwhelmed by the generosity, forgiveness and love of God.
When we are like the woman who has been forgiven much and so loves deeply.
I'll end with an incident from my trip to the Holy Land –
• how could I go a whole sermon without mentioning it?
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, includes what's believed to be Calvary, where Jesus was crucified and died.
The Calvary Chapel is up some stairs, on one side.
Down on the ground level, near by, is the Stone of Unction.
It's the place people remember Jesus' dead body being placed after he was taken from the cross.
Its definitely isn't the actual place,
• but it's where people remember Jesus lying dead.
You can watch women, often short elderly Greek women, bring their icons and pieces of material and place them on the Stone of Unction.
The cloths will be used as a burial shroud.
In fact often a woman will come with the shroud that will be used at her own funeral.
She places it on the stone and so makes a connection between Jesus' death and her own death.
It's a symbol of the ultimate pilgrimage.
This is very moving to watch and I decided to join in.
I bought this icon of Jesus in Jerusalem…
I took it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and laid it on the Stone of Unction.
As I meditated there, I was struck for the first time with the profundity of Jesus' lifeless body.
Usually we think of Jesus suffering or dying on the cross.
Or we jump to the tomb.
Pausing by the Stone of Unction, I realized what a powerful symbol of love Jesus' lifeless body is.
His life given in love.
Sometimes we are like the woman and we remember the depth of God's love and compassion towards us.
And that inspires once again to be less like Simon the Pharisee and more like Jesus.