This morning we were visited by the Archdeacon of Leeds, The Venerable Paul Hooper. Here are the notes from his sermon:
Today’s gospel drama is set in the beautiful courtyard of a fashionable house belonging to a prominent religious leader. Here two people met with Jesus – two very different people.
One is a man of high social status and of great material wealth. He owns the house, with its prestigious post code, ideally suited to the regular dinner parties at which this well respected Pharisee entertained others from the religious establishment. The other is a woman of ill repute, a sinner of low social status. Materially poor, on the margins of society and shunned by the religious elite and by orthodox believers.
What a contrast! But there they were – both in the company of Jesus. There was a contrast too in the way they approached Jesus. One saw him as a Rabbi who could entertain, the other saw him as Saviour who could forgive..
Simon, the owner of the big house, thinking that his other, more sophisticated guests, might be interested, even faintly amused to hear the quaint views of the country Rabbi, adds Jesus to the bottom of the guest list. But when Jesus arrived (bottle of Cana wine in hand) Simon’s greeting was cold and formal. There were none of the little gestures – the footbath, the kiss, the perfume – which would signify a warm welcome. The truth is that Simon regarded this rustic Rabbi as inferior. Soon the guests were invited to the table and as the custom dictated, they reclined on low couches facing the table, with their feet behind them. Often the doors of a large house would be left open and through the open door on this night came a woman. She approached Jesus from behind and in a lavish expression of gratitude and devotion she provides all the gestures – the foot washing, the kiss and the anointing which Simon had so rudely omitted. Tears welled up in her eyes before she was able to get the stopper out of her bottle of perfume, and forgetting something that a decent woman never did in public, she let her hair down to wipe the feet of Jesus before she kissed and anointed him.
Through all this, Jesus did not turn around, he had no need. All that he needed to know about the uninvited guest he could read in the mirror of Simon’s shocked and horrified face. “If this man were a prophet, he would know the kind of woman who was touching him – a sinner..” Simon of course didn’t say a word, but it was written all over his face – he despised the woman. As far as Simon was concerned, Jesus was no prophet – or he would have known about this women.
I wonder what would have happened if, instead of being drawn to Jesus, this woman had approached Simon the Pharisee, seeking forgiveness? As a woman of evil ways and with an evil reputation (Simon recognised her) she had offended against the law. Simon felt no compassion for her, he would have had nothing to do with her. Most certainly the Pharisee would never have allowed her to touch him – she was unclean. She was beyond hope, doomed.
But the woman approached Jesus, not Simon, and Jesus accepted her gestures of penitent love and of grateful adoration. The most profound difference between Simon and the woman was not their income, nor their address, not their social status nor even their involvement in the religious life – what distinguished them was this. The woman was contrite and the man was condescending. The woman knew she needed the forgiveness that only Jesus could offer, and Simon felt no such need. The woman was spiritually alive, Simon was spiritually dead .
It is often said that there are three “yous” and three “mes”. The first me is the me that you see. The second me is the me I know myself to be. The third me is the real me, the truest me, as God sees me – “for the Lord looks on the heart and not on outward appearance..” (1 Sam 16.7) There is a world of difference between outward appearance and true reality. In this drama, Jesus lays bare the true character, the “real me” of Simon and the woman. Simon’s façade of uprightness and virtue is shattered, and his hard, selfish and unloving character is revealed. On the other hand, the woman’s notorious lifestyle and sinfulness is passed over and her underlying love is exposed.
It’s exam time for many of our young people. This morning you and I can test ourselves to find out if we are spiritually asleep or alive. Ask yourself – do I have any feelings of sorrow for my shortcomings, my weaknesses, the grief I cause others and the Lord? (Simon didn’t – woman did). Do I have any feelings of joy and gratitude that I am forgiven, that on the cross, Jesus has born the grief and punishment for all my faults and failures ? (Simon didn’t – woman did)
St Paul was a Pharisee like Simon. But unlike Simon, Paul was spiritually alive! He felt both deep sorrow for his shortcomings and exultant joy and gratitude that God has forgiven him through Christ. Once he had become a Christian, this knowledge and these deep feelings shaped the whole of the rest of his life, “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Gal 2.20b.
Simon the Pharisee could never have spoken those words.
The woman who anointed Jesus could.
I hope you and I can.