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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Jesus and the Pharisee

This was an informal service, just a few of us, on holiday in the German Alps. I didn't record it.

This story, of the anointing of Jesus, is incredibly familiar. It’s one of the few stories which appears in all four Gospels, although in slightly different versions, which reflects the fact that those who made the gospels wrote down what was said and taught in their particular fellowships, and from their particular collections of "The sayings of Jesus", or whatever unofficial manuscripts were floating around their church.

Matthew's and Mark's stories are the most similar. They set the episode in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper. A woman wanders in off the street, pours the ointment over Jesus' head and, for all we know, wanders straight out again. The disciples and others gathered there go: "Oh, what a waste! If she didn't want it we could have sold it and given the money to the poor."

Jesus tells them to be quiet, because the woman was anointing his body for burial and what she did would be remembered for ever. As, indeed, it has been.

In John's gospel, the story is still set in Bethany, but John says that Jesus was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that it was Mary who upended the ointment all over his feet.

Luke’s version, the one we have just heard, might possibly be talking about a different episode, because his version takes place in a Pharisee's house, although said Pharisee is also called Simon, and the woman is known to be a hooker, and she pours the stuff all over his feet, and Jesus said that only goes to show how much she knows God has forgiven her.

Putting the stories together we know that Simon lived in the village of Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived –
some commentators have even suggested that Simon was Martha's husband, which is possible, but not explicitly stated anywhere.
It's also possible that the woman who comes in with the alabaster jar of ointment is actually Mary –
in John's gospel we're told that she did anoint Jesus' feet.
On the other hand, that could have been two separate instances;
we don't know and it isn't quite clear. The Bible isn’t even clear whether this woman, Mary Magdalen and Mary of Bethany are one, two or three different people!
Anyway, it doesn't really matter, although it's fun to speculate.
But the point is that Simon has asked Jesus to dinner,
but he obviously thinks he's being terribly broad-minded doing so.
It was a public dinner, probably held in the yard in front of the house,
so everybody could see what Simon was doing.
The public were rather expected to come and gawp,
rather like we do at film stars going into premières and so on today.
But, according to Jesus, Simon is really an appallingly bad host –
he didn't offer Jesus any of the usual courtesies of the day.
I wonder whether he even spoke to him during the meal, or whether he had sat him as far away as possible.
"I might ask him to dinner, but that doesn't mean I have to be friends with him!"

And then this woman wanders in, this street woman.
From the context, it's clear that she has lived a sinful life,
probably as a prostitute.
Although we don't know why she became one,
probably not by her own choice.
Sometimes, in that time and place, it was that or starve.
But she had one possession that stood between her and utter destitution –
her alabaster box of ointment.
These were incredibly precious –
you may remember that in most versions of the story,
the disciples, and especially Judas, chunter about how she could have sold it and given the money to the poor,
it would have been less of a waste.
Luke doesn't mention that;
what he does mention is that Simon gets impossibly uptight about all this,
and wants to have the woman thrown out, but Jesus intervenes.

And first of all, he tells Simon a little story:
Suppose there were two men, and one owed you a vast fortune, and the other owed just a couple of days' pay, and you let them both off, said it was a gift.
Which one do you reckon would love you most?
And Simon, quite rightly, suggests it would be the one who had owed the fortune.
And Jesus then points out to him that her actions, which incidentally have more than made up for his, Simon's deficiencies as a host, show how much she has been forgiven, and tells the woman that she has been forgiven, and that her faith has saved her.

Which, of course, leads to chuntering about who on earth was Jesus to say that sort of thing..... poor man couldn't win, at times!

But what’s it all about, and what does it say to us?

I think it’s partly about extravagance. Those alabaster jars were incredibly precious. If you were lucky enough to have one, it was your most precious thing and you guarded it with your life, practically. It could only be opened by breaking it, so it couldn't ever be used again. You didn't go pouring the contents all over the head of passing prophets, no matter how charismatic.
So when the disciples said, "What a waste!" they seriously meant it. The jar was broken, it was no use any more. The ointment was poured out, and that in itself was costly enough. The woman, Mary or whoever she was, had given her most precious thing to Jesus, and from everyone else's point of view, it looked like a terrible waste. They couldn't even make use of the gift by selling it and giving the money to charity. It was all gone. What a waste.
But – how like God. You see, Mary was frantically extravagant and wasteful. But so often, God's like that.
Think of the story of the wedding at Cana, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. When they ran out of wine, towards the end of the festivities, Jesus provided some more. But he provided far more wine than anyone could drink. I worked it out once that the six stone jars he had filled would hold about eight hundred bottles of wine. You could open a young off-licence with that.
Or think of the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Actually, one of the gospels, Matthew, I think, says that the five thousand was only the men, and didn't count the women and children, which would have made it more like thirty-five thousand. Anyway, when Jesus provided lunch for them, and he certainly did count the women and children, even if nobody else bothered, it wasn't as though there was only just enough to go round; there were twelve huge basketfuls left over. Enough for each disciple to take one home to Mum.
Or what about our natural world? Look at the beauty of the Alps all around us.... not just the scenery, though, but all the flowers and the grasses and so on. And think of all the houses and towns and villages between home and here, and yet God knows and loves the inhabitants of each and every one of them!

It’s about extravagance – the woman knew she had been forgiven so very much, and responded in her turn with a gesture of extravagance.

Simon, on the other hand, couldn’t see it at all. He really shouldn't have asked Jesus to dinner if he wasn't prepared to accept him for who he was.
Holding him at arms' length, failing to offer him more than the most rudimentary hospitality, you wonder why he bothered.
He might have wanted to show how broad-minded he was, inviting this itinerant preacher that none of the other Pharisees would dream of inviting.
Or maybe he was curious about what Jesus had to say –
but his curiosity didn't extend far enough to actually welcoming him, and certainly not to welcoming someone that Jesus wanted to see but he didn't.
For Simon, allowing a street woman into his grounds was quite beyond the pale, totally not done!

It looks as though Simon missed the whole point of Jesus altogether.
At that stage, Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the kind of person that was part of the kingdom –
we know from the various collections of Jesus' teachings and stories that have come down to us what sort of a person that is.
And basically, Simon wasn't it!
He was judgemental, he put people down in the worst kind of way, he wasn't open to new ideas....
as for loving his enemies, well, I highly doubt he would have thought that proper behaviour for a good, upright Pharisee like himself!
Simon, I don't think, did accept that he was wrong.
We don't hear what he replied to Jesus, but maybe he just said, "Yes, yes", but didn't let what Jesus said get to him.
I hope that's not the case, but too often it happens.
We don't really let God's word into us and change us the way the woman did.

She knew she was all wrong.
We don't know why she went wrong –
perhaps it was her only option if she was to feed her babies.
Perhaps someone like Simon, perhaps even Simon himself, had abused her and then cast her out into the street like so much litter.
But she repented, and demonstrated her repentance by giving Jesus her most precious possession, anointing him with very precious ointment, weeping over him.

Maybe she could have stopped her descent into prostitution by selling the ointment and its jar.
We don't know.
We do know, though, that she thought Jesus was worth all of it.

It's quite scary, isn't it? There are so many issues about world poverty and so on that the very word "extravagance" seems to sit oddly on Christian lips. Yet we only have to look at so many of the stories of God and God's people to see that it isn't a word that is out of place when it comes to God.
We can be desperately hard on ourselves, far harder than God ever is. Even this holiday week – it’s can be quite difficult to escape the notion that it’s wrong to enjoy ourselves, or to realise that God wants us to enjoy ourselves, and to enjoy the holiday in and through us! Our God is an extravagant God, and we need to rejoice in that! Amen.

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