Am I Bovvered?

June 16, 2013

The_Anointing_with_Oil_and_Tears_1979,_Sadao_Watanabe( Galatians 2 15-21. Luke 7 36-8.3 )

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 )

anointing-his-feet-2

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?

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Outside In!

June 2, 2013

Icon, centurion

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C

1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.

After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships  as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.

Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts.  It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but  a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.