Breaking boundaries, flouting convention

Pentecost 4 – 2016

Luke 7:36-50

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who breaks down boundaries, flouts convention and welcomes sinners. Amen.

 Imagine this – you have gathered for worship at your local, traditional Anglican Church. The priest (Jane) has just announced the first hymn when the usually sedate, dignified curate (Maurice) bursts in, robe awry, and runs down the aisle shouting: “ I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I now understand! God loves me, God REALLY loves me! I’m not perfect, but God loves ALL of me! Can you believe it? It’s so amazing, so wonderful. I want to laugh and cry at the same time. God loves me, God really, really loves me. Here take this,” he says as he thrusts bags of money into the priest’s hands. “I can’t think of any way to say ‘thank you’ except by giving all my savings to God. Take it, take it all, use it for whatever you think. God loves me, God really loves me.”

During this rant, you (and possibly everyone else) were almost certainly squirming in your pew. Perhaps it was your voice that the priest overheard saying: “Why doesn’t she just stop him. Can’t she see he is overwrought? Surely she knows that his behaviour is totally inappropriate. Anglicans in this place are more constrained, more reserved. No one will come to church if this gets out.”

Imagine your surprise when the priest not only lets the curate finish his speech, but takes him by the hand and says: “I am so happy for you. Come and take your place beside me. Help me to share this good news with everyone.” Your surprise turns to indignation when the priest singles you out: “(Your name here) do you begrudge Maurice this joy? Have you never experienced the marvel of God’s love? Do you not know what it is to be truly loved and forgiven or do you think that you are so special that God can’t help but love you? Maurice knows that he has nothing to deserve God’s love, that is why he is so overwhelmed. I wish that you could share his humility, because only then could you share his joy.”

It is hard to imagine the scene in this morning’s gospel. We have become so inured to the woman’s extravagant, beautiful act of love that we often fail to see how scandalous and socially inappropriate it was and is. Simon, the Pharisee was simply voicing what any respectable person would have thought in that situation. The woman has broken a number of social and religious laws, and in Simon’s home. No wonder he is offended. In first century no woman would have been invited out for a meal, no man would have touched a woman, let alone allowed her to touch him in such an intimate way. Any such contact would make the man ritually unclean and unfit to fulfill his religious duties. What is more, it appears by the fact that the woman’s hair is loose, that she is not even a respectable woman, but a woman of the streets.

By allowing himself to be touched by such a woman, Jesus also is crossing all kinds of boundaries and is himself guilty of causing offense. Even by today’s less rigid standards, if an unknown woman gate-crashed a party and started wiping the feet of the guest of honour, it would send shock waves through the room. The guests would not know where to look, they would squirm in discomfort and wish her anywhere but there. Most of them would quietly hope that Jesus would say something to make her stop.

Instead of chastising the woman, Jesus tells a parable that indirectly condemns his critics. It is their self-righteousness, their rule-bound lives, he implies that, rather than freeing them to experience God’s loving forgiveness, actually imprison them in their own smugness. Those who criticise Jesus and the woman are so busy “being good” and conforming to the expectations of those around them that they have failed to see that their very self-assurance is a vanity that contradicts their sense of goodness.

The woman on the other hand, knows her short-comings all too well. She knows that according to the standards of the church and the standards of society she falls far short of expectations, but somehow, (and we are not told how), she has grasped what the others in the room have yet to grasp – that God loves her utterly and unconditionally. She is aware that she has nothing to deserve God’s outpouring of love and yet she knows that it is hers. The experience is simply overwhelming – a mixture of joy and awe. She feels that she has to respond and so she does, in the only way available to her. She takes the most expensive possession that she has and seeks Jesus out. Weeping with gratitude and joy she collapses at Jesus’ feet, bathing them with her tears, wiping them with her hair and finally anointing them with ointment. She doesn’t care what other people think. Her only concern is to let Jesus know how overawed she is by his gift of love and acceptance.

Those of us who are cradle Anglicans may not have had the sort of experience that brought this woman to her knees. Not all of us have had the sort of conversion experience that led Paul to understand that despite his past actions, God could not only forgive and love him, but use him to build the church. Our experiences may be less intense – the quiet, deep gratitude that a loved one has pulled through surgery, the elation at the safe birth of a child, the thankfulness that God has brought us through a time of trial or tragedy – but they are no less real.

We may not have experienced for ourselves the intensity of this woman’s love, but hopefully in our journey of faith we have learned that what sets us apart is not that we are better than anyone else, that we are more law-abiding, or that we do more good works. What sets us apart is that, despite our imperfections and despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve it God loves us.

God loves us unreservedly and unconditionally and will continue to love us for all eternity and even if we were to give everything that we have, we would never be able to repay God for the tremendous, awesome, underserved gift of that love.

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