June 16, 2013
Soon I will be off on holiday, and staying at a couple of different small hotels we haven’t used before. We know that at each we will have to get used to a new set of customs or rituals – especially concerning meal times. When do you come down for dinner? Do you go straight into the dining room, or do you order over drinks in a bar or lounge? Is there a table reserved for you, or if you get down early, can you make a beeline for the seat by the window? Are you expected to talk to the other guests or preserve a proper English reserve? Is coffee served at the table or in the lounge? and so on. And then of course, in the morning, there are another lot of new rules to suss out about breakfast.
All this goes to illustrate that, though eating is one of the basic human needs, the process of eating is surrounded by rituals. Most of us go in grave fear of ‘doing something wrong’ whenever we share a meal with people we don’t know very well. One faux pas can turn the whole thing into a disaster.
The meal described in today’s Gospel reading became just such a disaster, because none of the main participants – host, guest or gatecrasher – observed the conventions of the time. It was a small incident in a fairly commonplace occurrence – such meals must have taken place over and over again in the course of Jesus’ ministry. Yet it is seen as having major significance by our four Gospel writers, since it is one of the few incidents to be included in all four.
So, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves ‘why’?
One way of studying the Bible is to try to put yourself into the shoes (or rather, the mind) of one of the characters in whichever story you are reading – to try to think what they were thinking, feel what they were feeling, say what they might have said. If you were to do that with the three main characters in today’s Gospel – Simon the Pharisee, the woman with a bad name, and Jesus – in whose mind, I wonder, would you feel most comfortable?
Take the host first of all – Simon the Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels he is described as Simon the Leper – so it is possible Jesus had healed him of his leprosy, and the meal was a celebration or a thank you for the healing. But this doesn’t seem to fit with the way he treated Jesus. More likely is that this was a meal given to entertain and impress his friends, with a special celebrity guest – Jesus the Prophet from Nazareth. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been treated as a guest of honour, since he was extended none of the usual courtesies – his dusty feet were not washed, he was not greeted with a kiss, he was not anointed with oil to cool his forehead. Quite clearly Simon thought of him as just ‘the cabaret’.
We may be surprised that Simon did not keep the rules, because if there’s one thing Pharisees knew about, it’s rules! But perhaps, for him, rules were only kept in public. What he did in his own home was a different matter.
It is interesting that when his party is ruined by a gatecrasher, his anger is expressed not against her, but against Jesus. Why? Because his celebrity guest will not play according to the usual rules. Jesus refuses to recoil from the touch of a strange woman, to condemn her extravagant display of emotion, or the use of expensive ointment to clean feet. On the contrary, he expresses approval of her actions and takes the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of his host – something a polite guest would not dream of doing.
Because of this, Simon turns on his guest and mentally demotes him from his star status, reasoning that no truly religious person would react in the way Jesus did to such a scandalous act. We can easily imagine how shocked and angry, even frightened, Simon must have been. Not only was his splendid party ruined; not only was his precious social status threatened by association with a woman of ill-repute; not only were all his guests ritually defiled by her presence in his house; but Jesus – the hope of many Jews – refused to act in accordance with the established rules.
We know that he had completely misunderstood what Jesus’ mission was all about. So, of course, none of us will feel at ease in his shoes – or will we?
Perhaps we have more in common with Simon the Pharisee than we like to think. Do we not prefer our religious occasions to be respectable? Don’t many of us cringe at displays of emotion or enthusiasm in our services? Don’t our churches try to exclude from ministry and membership those whom some sections of society regard as having a ‘bad name’? And when someone we respect in the religious field does not react in the way we expect or when our religious group challenges rather than reinforces our own prejudices, are we not inclined to downgrade the person or the group, and withdraw our support from them? There is more than a little of Simon the Pharisee in most of us, I fear!
And what of the woman? Do we feel at ease with her unconventional behaviour, her extravagant gesture, her emotion?
Sister Margaret Magdalen, in her book “Transformed by Love” writes about a spirituality workshop when a group of people were invited to role play this scene. The young woman who was asked to play the gatecrasher listened in silence while ‘Simon’ berated her and ‘Jesus’ for their behaviour, and ‘Jesus’ defended himself and her. Then she blazed out with these words:(pp 42-43 )
All right, she said, Let me tell you how it feels to be a woman in this situation. You men can approach Jesus without impediment, whenever you like. There are no rules to say this is ‘not done’. Those who love him, such as his disciples, are free to be with him night and day. They enjoy his company, sit at his feet, drink in his words, watch him at prayer, accompany him on his travels, witness his miracles, act as his agents, share in some of his most intimate moments with his Father…. Apart from the times when he seeks solitude, they have him the whole time. But when can a woman get near him to enjoy his company? .. A woman’s life can be totally changed by an encounter with Jesus, but from then on she is expected to keep a respectable distance from him.
Women may love him with a burning devotion, but what avenues are open to them for showing it?
Don’t you understand my crying need? Yes literally crying need. What is so embarrassing about that? Why can’t you men cope with tears or understand their language? Don’t you realise what I was saying by them?
And the gesture, the pouring out of the ointment? Why were you so uptight about this? Do you not understand anointing and its implications?
If you want the truth, this was a baptism of love. I longed for him to baptise me, but that was not appropriate, for he didn’t baptise people himself. Yet I knew I was bound to him in bonds of covenant love for life. So I decided to reverse the act and baptise him, in the water of my tears; to pour oil over his head, and to show by this act that I renounced evil, that I turned to him, that I believed and trusted in him; to show that I intended to make a lifelong commitment to him; to assure him that I would suffer with him, die with him if need be, and follow him to my life’s end.
Love has to be expressed. You cannot dam it up by conventions and rules. I don’t care how people interpreted my act and what insinuations they chose to make. He understood and that is all that matters. He accepted the expression of my love as a pure thing. He saw the heart that longed to be united to him. He interpreted my tears as sacramental and the anointing as symbolic. He saw me not as a prostitute, but as a priest.
Do her words ring bells with you? The book was written in 1989, when women were excluded from priestly ministry in many denominations. Both the story of the gatecrasher at the dinner party, and the passage that follows, describing the women who followed and supported Jesus in his ministry, remind us Jesus did not practise such exclusion – so why did we in the churches for so long, and why do we still do so for some orders of ministry?
Actually, the only shoes in which we Christians should feel at ease in this incident are those of Jesus.
Jesus was the only person in this incident who could say (in Catherine Tate’s catch-phrase) “Am I bovvered?” Jesus didn’t seem to be worried by conventions. If they were kept, he accepted them; if they were broken, he accepted that too. It made no difference to his peace of mind or his self-image. His host failed to show him the normal courtesies when he arrived; Jesus didn’t make a fuss. He accepts Simon for what he is. A strange woman, her hair loose and obviously in distress, bursts in upon an all-male gathering, and Jesus calmly goes on with his meal. The woman weeps at his feet, anoints them with ointment, wipes them with her hair and covers them with kisses, and Jesus is not in the least disturbed. He accepts her and her ministry to him as he has accepted the ministry of other ‘unclean’ people before her.
The only thing that Jesus won’t accept, it seems, is Simon’s hypocrisy and total lack of sympathy for the woman. If Simon had been a leper, he knew what it was like to be shunned by religious people, excluded from normal society, and treated as less than human. However, now he was safely back in society and in control of his situation again, he could not extend to another the compassion he must have longed for when he was an outcast. His only security was in insisting the rules must be kept – and Jesus condemned that in the parable he told.
Both our Gospel and the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians remind us that in the Kingdom of Heaven we are accepted by grace, not law. For those who are ‘in Christ’, rules, rituals, conventions and worldly standards have no place. The only thing that matters is that we love God, and respond to his acceptance of us with the same extravagance that Jesus showed in living and dying for us.
It is love, not keeping to the rules that allows our sins to be forgiven. It is love, not ritual that allows us to join Christ at his table. And it is the depth of our love. not law that makes us Christ’s ministers, prophets and priests.
“Am I bovvered?” by this. Are you?