Friday, June 11, 2010

3rd Sunday after pentecost

Have you ever wished you didn’t blush so easily?  You commit some sort of social indiscretion - for example you call somebody by the wrong name or you make what’s commonly referred to as a Freudian slip - a slip of the tongue where you come out with the “wrong” word that reveals to all and sundry what’s really on your mind - and instead of being able to get away with it by keeping a straight face and carrying on as though nothing had happened - to your horror - you feel yourself blushing beetroot red - and you know for sure that everybody else knows that you know what you’ve done.

The good news is that scientists tell us that blushing serves a vital purpose, that the tell-tale signs of social embarrassment that can neither be faked nor hidden actually make all the difference in allowing all concerned to laugh it off.  Blushing sends the unmistakable signal, that ‘whoops, I made a mess of that - I know it, you know it - but really, I’m not generally like that - can we all just be friends?’.  And in all sorts of experiments carried out by social psychologists, whether or not somebody was blushing was the crucial factor in whether or not their faux pas could be forgiven.  So blush away, it just proves you’re human.

Our gospel reading gives a glimpse into a situation so embarrassing that we might almost wish we didn’t have to read about it.  Just imagine - the polite dinner party, the host a fair-minded religious person who maybe wants to show some support for this strange wandering rabbi, or who perhaps has just invited Jesus out of curiosity or to add a bit of colour to the dinner party - the tearful woman who arrives unannounced and uninvited to what would almost certainly have been an all-male gathering and proceeds to weep publicly all over the feet of the reclining dinner guest and wipe her tears off his feet with her long, unbound hair.  It is simply inappropriate - it would be highly inappropriate by our fairly relaxed social standards in the 21st century - it would have been absolutely shocking in the rigid social world of the 1st century where women were preferably neither seen nor heard, and even talking to an unrelated man let alone touching him in such an intimate way would have been nothing short of scandalous.

We’re meant, I think, to feel uncomfortable.  We’re meant to notice, and to feel uncomfortable about, the almost sexual overtones of the woman’s actions.  And we’re also meant, I think, to feel uncomfortable about the fact that in this little story there isn’t a single character we can positively relate to, none of the characters have a point of view that we can share without squirming.  But it’s the point of view of both Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman that we need to think about.

There’s a long history of Christian interpretation of this story that not only emphasises Luke’s throwaway line that this woman is a sinner, but presumes her sinfulness has got something to do with sexual impropriety - if she is a prostitute, then that makes her sinfulness even more shocking, even less like the regular sort of sinfulness that we acknowledge in ourselves. It’s an assumption that helps us make sense of the unbound hair and the perfumed ointment and the over-familiarity with which she treats Jesus -  but the Bible itself doesn’t support that assumption, or the assumption of Pope Gregory the Great that this woman is actually Mary Magdalene, who is introduced in the very next episode.  The point is, of course, that the woman is anonymous and her sin, whether great or small, whether real or imagined, was what isolated her from every other human being in her small community.  When we make assumptions about who she was or what her sin might have been, we fall straight into the same trap as Simon the Pharisee, the trap of self-righteousness which prevents us from seeing her actions for what they really are.

And Jesus’ response to Simon’s unspoken words, the words swirling around the inside of Simon’s head which would have been clearly enough written in the discomfort on his face - Jesus’ response is aimed at getting Simon to see straight.  Simon is embarrassed and blushing, presumably, because this dreadful and probably immoral woman has blown away the facade of politeness and respectability on which his dinner party was based.  His embarrassment acknowledges that the polite fiction of respectability is no longer going to work.  Jesus, however, doesn’t help his host to save face - he makes him squirm even more but in doing so, he helps Simon to see both himself and his uninvited guest more clearly.  As he so often does, Jesus makes his point by telling a story.  It’s not one of his more cryptic parables, and it gets both Simon and us asking ourselves some awkward questions.  In our slightly titillating fixation on the woman’s sinfulness, how aware are we of how much we ourselves need forgiveness?  How aware are we of the forgiveness we have withheld from others, or the forgiveness we have withheld from ourselves?  In our judgmental distancing of ourselves from the woman’s over-the-top display of emotion, are we in fact drawing attention to our own lovelessness, our own failure to practice what we preach?

Jesus’ excruciating point-by-point contrast of Simon’s behaviour with the actions of the sinful woman illustrates perfectly what my commentary tells me is the whole point of St Luke’s gospel - that when Jesus comes into the world as a guest he doesn’t receive any hospitality from the ones who should have recognised and welcomed him – instead it is the outsiders, like this woman who is known publicly as a sinner – who welcome Jesus and in return receive from him welcome and acceptance.  But the most devastating point it makes is a whole lot closer to home - how well do we show the hospitality of God to those for whom just coming through the door into the closed shop of our community takes all the courage they have?  Because the point is not really how sinful this woman was, but how excluded she was.  Her physical posture, as Luke describes it, shows us that she is excluded, overcome with awareness of her own unacceptability - not only is she weeping, but bending over Jesus feet she hides her face.  She has so internalised the judgement of her community that she seeks to become invisible.  The dreadful thing about this is that people like this woman invade not only Simon’s dinner party but our own as well.  People so overcome by shame, by lack of self-esteem, by the unforgiveness of others or their own inability to forgive themselves, that they don’t always behave appropriately - but so drawn by the message that in Jesus, God’s unconditional love can be experienced - that they come here anyway, hoping to be welcomed.  People who all too often - because their antennae are so attuned to the signals of rejection, and because as God’s people we are more like Simon the Pharisee than we like to think - leave feeling even emptier than before.  Unfortunately the one thing that puts more people off God than anything else - is God’s other people.  How well do we show the welcome and hospitality of God?

The point is not how sinful she was, but how excluded she was, and how simply and completely Jesus sets that exclusion aside.  There’s another common misinterpretation of this passage – and that’s the idea that Jesus forgives this woman because she shows such extravagant love.  Because actually Jesus uses the past tense – he tells Simon that her sins have already been forgiven, and that is why she loves so much – when you think about it, that’s the only way it makes sense, because Jesus is telling the parable to interpret the woman’s actions – she has heard of Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, she knows she is forgiven, that she is good enough for God, and for that reason she has the courage to demonstrate her love.  So Jesus is not offering her forgiveness, but declaring what God has already done for her, and he is pointing to the fact that genuine forgiveness is known by its effects.  Simon, who thinks he has already made the grade, that he has earned his good reputation and his acceptability to God – Simon doesn’t seem to feel in need of forgiveness, and neither does he demonstrate compassion.  His thoughts, which the gospel writer somehow records for us, reveal a person whose self-righteousness has made him judgmental - towards the woman and towards Jesus.  Actually, judgmentalism is about making ourselves feel better by interpreting the behaviour or the motivations of others negatively.  It is the opposite of love, the opposite of compassion, and it creates an environment in which forgiveness can neither be offered or received.

Of course, both Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman are us.  Each of us carries memories of rejection, of being shamed by our own sin or scarred by the sin of others.  We’re all too aware of the self-contradictions of our own lives, of the double-bind that only God’s grace can make us into the people we know we’re meant to be.  We’re also aware of the irony that we, who have experienced the totally unearned gift of grace, still fail to show love and understanding to others.  That, like Simon the Pharisee, we forget our own flaws and contradictions and use the veneer of religious respectability to distance ourselves from those whose suffering is too raw or whose need is too powerful. 

Both Simon and the inconvenient woman are left blushing by Jesus’ exposure of their contradictions.  Her face turns red as she realises the grace that overcomes shame and rejection.  His face turns red as he realises his own failure to love is shamed by the hospitality of God.  And, having the grace to blush - the grace, that is, to acknowledge the embarrassment of having been shown to be thoroughly human, both of them receive the gift of divine grace - another chance to get over themselves.