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Friend of whores

Ordinary Sunday 11: 13th June, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 7:36 - 8:3

It has been said that, 'boxes, boundaries and categories have power to name, and thus create, a world'. So, for example, David Day has suggested that, 'form-filling is an exercise in defining through boundaries. We are classified by name, address, postcode, gender, age, salary, and so on. What began as a whole person, is divided up into categories. ... Some characteristics are highlighted because they are relevant to the purposes of those who designed the form. Other characteristics that may be of intense importance to the individual are marginalized or even become invisible.'

The Gospels give many examples of social boundaries that shut out whole groups, like Gentiles, tax collectors, women and Samaritans. Eating with such people was considered very risky. That at least, was what Simon the Pharisee thought when an unnamed women gate-crashed the party he was having in his home for Jesus. His hospitality operated with a map that was criss-crossed with boundaries drawn to include and exclude, drawn to show who could be 'in' and who was definitely 'out'.

Simon considered his unwanted visitor to be on the wrong side of the line for two reasons: first, for being a woman. And second, for having a reputation of being a public sinner.

Being a woman

In an open letter to a daily newspaper, headed 'Are women people too?' a correspondent wrote: 'Dear Sir: You no longer know what Women's Liberation is about? You ask, what do women want? ... The one straightforward feminist demand is to be treated — in discussion, at work, in social and domestic life — as an equal member of humanity'.

In the last 50 years we have witnessed a radical transformation in society's attitude towards women such that women have blossomed as leaders in areas such as industry, politics, medicine, education and law. This is not to say that all repression of women has been dealt with. The number of cases of domestic violence against women and children reported in recent months in our Country is deeply disturbing.

In many 'under-developed' nations we know that women are still forced into positions of subjection and degradation. And in the Western world, the 'popular' image of women as glamorous sex-symbols reinforces the pattern of women as disposable, throw-away objects for men to enjoy and then discard.

For many, the Church or some parts of it, seems like one of the last bastions of male dominated cultures. There are young male clergy in this diocese who are distressed over what they regard as an 'unbiblical lust for equality'. Moreover, for feminist Christians, it is not just the Church. It's the Church's authoritative book, the Bible, that is at fault in presenting a male dominated perspective. Christians who are accustomed to seek in the Bible, not a male perspective, but God's perspective on human life can find this feminist critique very confronting.

Thankfully feminist theologians draw attention to the gynocentric or female stories in the Biblical narrative that relativize the dominant androcentric or male perspective of the Bible. Biblical books like Ruth in the Old Testament and Luke's Gospel in the New Testament cast a different light upon the place of women in society. From the birth narrative onwards, Luke emphasizes the role of women. While Matthew tells his birth story from the perspective of men like Joseph, Herod and the Shepherds (telling us nothing at all about what Mary said), Luke details the intimate conversation between Mary and Elisabeth and their outbursts of praise.

And later in his Gospel he goes out of his way to record a number of stories about boundary-crossing women, especially at mealtimes — women like the sisters, Mary and Martha and the unknown woman in today's Gospel who commits the utterly shocking act of literally and metaphorically, 'letting down her hair'. Even in our touchy-feely culture, the scene is almost unbelievable. Jesus said to Simon, 'I came into your house and you offered me no water for my feet — yet she has bathed my feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair. You gave me no kiss — yet ever since I arrived, she has not ceased kissing my feet You did not anoint my head with oil — yet she has anointed my feet with ointment.'

Imagine the sneers and tut tuts, if that happened to the archbishop as he presided at Synod!

This is first, a story about Jesus the violator of boundaries between men and women.

2nd A public sinner

We are not told the precise nature of her sin. The fact that it was public knowledge reminds me of the wonderful words used by an English Newspaper reporter who was shocked by the way Anglo-Catholic priests were introducing new rituals into the parishes of the East End of London. Some of the more dedicated ritualists, he said, 'even practiced celibacy in the streets'!

Whatever the nature of her sin, the woman's ritual acts stirred up concerns within Simon the Pharisee: 'If this man were really a prophet, he would know who this is and what sort of woman is touching him — namely a sinner beyond the pale'.

Interestingly, knowing or exposing the moral state of the human heart appears to have been a defining characteristic of a prophet in the first century. Simon thought that if Jesus really were a prophet, he would have known the moral state of the woman showing him such deference. Similarly, the Samaritan woman in John 4, when confronted with Jesus' knowledge of her marital and extramarital history, immediately declares him to be a prophet (John 4:19).

It is because Jesus is a prophet that he knows what is going on in Simon and so he moves to bring it to the surface — this time employing a short parable. 'A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed him five hundred pieces of silver, the other 50. Since they could not pay it back, he graciously cancelled both debts. Now which of them will love him more?'

Simon cannot deny that the debtor released from the greater sum will from now on love the money lender more than the one released from less. Jesus draws the inevitable conclusion: 'I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little'.

Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus appears content to accept sinners as they are. Notice carefully, he ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes — not reformed tax-collectors and reformed prostitutes. He even said that such people would enter the Kingdom of God ahead of others, especially the religious leaders.

Certainly, Jesus' character was such as to provoke change in people without always needing to give concrete instructions as to how they should demonstrate repentance. The love that this woman extravagantly pours out on Jesus is enough to show the reality of her repentance. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, 'The Church is not just about those who have believed, the Church is about those who don't believe, might believe, could believe, will believe. But you don't know that; you just know that they're there and the promise is for them'.

Jesus will not accept Simon's estimate and treatment of women nor will he accept his estimate and treatment of sinners. He reshaped what it means to belong to the people of God. In his Kingdom, no one is superfluous. There are no 'waste people'. In relation to him every person can find their destiny and their freedom, particularly those who thought they had absolutely no chance of realizing their freedom. They are touched, welcomed, received and affirmed by Jesus as part of his new definition of the people of God.

A song from the Iona Community, 'The Touching Place', brings together the touch of Christ and the touch of his followers:

To the lost Christ shows his face
To the unloved he gives his embrace,
To those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes with his friends a touching place.

Professor James Torrance, of Aberdeen University, tells the story of visiting the Community of the Transfiguration in Roslin village, a few kilometers out of Edinburgh and noticing a piece of sculpture in the garden he had not seen before. On enquiring about its origin he was told that it had been sculptured by a young man from Edinburgh who had been a member of the Exclusive Brethren. One day the young man had confessed to the Church's leaders to being gay and he was subsequently excommunicated from the church. In his turmoil and distress at being rejected he found his way into the chapel of the Community of the Transfiguration. There a close friend of Professor Torrance, Roland Walls, found him weeping alone in a pew.

Roland was a very pastoral man and after listening to the young man pour out his story he simply put his arms around him and gave him a big hug. That hug touched him to the core of his being. Because of it, he knew himself to be loved, accepted, forgiven. He went back home a bought a block of sandstone from which he made the sculpture that now stands in the garden of the Community of the Transfiguration. This is how he explains the meaning of his work. 'The sculpture represents two Adams. They are kneeling and embracing one another. Christ lays his head on the right shoulder of fallen Adam, and fallen Adam lays his head on the right shoulder of Christ the second Adam. The only way you can distinguish between the two Adams, is by the nail prints in the hands of one of them. The sculptor saw himself in fallen Adam, and in that symbolic hug he saw himself accepted in Christ, the second Adam.' [1]

To belong to the people of God is not to be the object of God's exclusive love, but it is to be the vehicle of God's inclusive love for all. Boundaries do not exist to keep people 'in' or to keep people 'out'. Boundaries between people exist to be crossed. There are no 'gated communities' in the Kingdom of God. Such inclusiveness has been wonderfully captured in the words of a young gay Christian activist:

They drew a circle that shut me out
Rebel, heretic, thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.

God's purpose and God's love determines the boundaries of human living We must never think of ourselves as being beyond the pale of God's love, God's mercy and God's help. Every congregation has within it those who are burdened with agonies that come in all shapes and sizes.

If you are in some way carrying such a burden, reflect on our Lord's interaction with the unknown woman who came to the house of Simon the Pharisee and follow her boldly across the boundary to claim your place at the table of the Lord. You can be sure you will always find him there, ready to welcome and to help.

Our need may be great. God's grace is greater.


[1] J. B. Torrance, Worship, Communinty and the Triune God of Grace, Paternoster, 1996, p.56


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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