Homily for Third Sunday after Trinity
Clippesby Celebration Service
All four Gospels have the beautiful story of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, but in Luke’s version Jesus is at table having a meal, his host, Simon, is a Pharisee, a religious leader, and the event takes place in Judea. The central issue is not the waste of the expensive ointment, as it is in the other Gospels, but the character of the unnamed woman herself. So, just for the next 5 minutes, let’s look at this Gospel story that we heard today a little more closely.
There are actually two sinners in the story, Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman. Simon has invited Jesus as his guest, but when He arrives, the host seems to ignore Him. When a guest entered a house in first-century Palestine, three things were normally done. The visitor was welcomed with a kiss of peace. Then, because the roads were hot and dirty, water would be poured over the visitor’s feet to cleanse and to cool them. Lastly, it was usual to burn some sweet-smelling incense or to place a few droplets of attar of roses on the visitor’s head. In what was a blatant breach of etiquette, Simon, it seems, did none of these things.
The meal may well have taken place in the open air, in the central courtyard of the house, but in any event the woman enters the dining area. This is not quite as strange as it sounds, because when a rabbi or teacher visited a house, people from around often got to hear about it and came to listen.
So, as Jesus reclines at a low table, the woman comes and stands over Him. She is weeping and she uses the resources at her disposal. Her tears drop onto the feet of Jesus. She loosens her hair and uses it as a towel to rub Jesus’ feet. She has a phial of sweet-smelling perfumed oil. She breaks it open and anoints His feet with it. Her motives are not spelled out, but maybe she feels the insult of Simon’s lack of attention to Jesus’ needs. Whatever her reason, Jesus accepts it, and the motives behind it. He must have been aware of her, but He doesn’t move. He lets her be. Simon, however, can hold back no longer. He is completely scandalised. His criticism is not spoken aloud, but he thinks that if Jesus was really a prophet then He would know what kind of woman it was who was touching Him – an outcast, a sinner. Perhaps Simon hadn’t heard that Jesus made a habit of hanging out with sinners! We are not told what made the woman a sinner and it would be wrong to assume she was a prostitute. But her sins were obviously public knowledge even without Twitter. Poor woman!
Jesus is aware of Simon’s reaction and He tries to talk to him about forgiveness. Simon accepts that the person who has been forgiven much will love much in return. The trouble is Simon still doesn’t see himself as in need of forgiveness. He doesn’t see himself as a sinner. Perhaps he thinks that, as a Pharisee, He is justified by keeping the detail of the Jewish Law, but St. Paul tells us that no one will be saved by the works of the Law. However, the woman who loves much and has been forgiven much has her forgiveness confirmed.
Someone was once described as ‘a self-made man, worshipping his own creator’. Think about it! Often, what keeps a person from God is the illusion of self-sufficiency. Believe me, serious illness completely destroys that myth. But if we take one thing from this morning’s Gospel story, let it be this. Some people think churches are for good people. This story knocks that on the head. Churches are for anyone who knows they have faults and failings and joyfully receives God’s acceptance and forgiveness of them.
So, let’s take comfort. Far from condemning the woman in our Gospel story, Jesus says that she has shown great love because her sins were many and she has been forgiven much. This is not a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ faith. The fact that this church has welcomed the ‘less than good’ over generations and centuries, and has now, with your help and support, been repaired and restored so that it can continue to welcome new generations of less than perfect people, is a sign of God’s continuing love and mercy towards us all. The response of the unnamed woman in our Gospel story to God’s grace, was love and gratitude; our response can be no less.