Here’s my sermon for this week. I used the gospel reading, the story of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Essentially the story of two people who for their own very different reasons sought out Jesus.
In some churches it is the custom for the preacher to give their sermon a title. It’s not something that’s every really taken on in the Church of England, but it’s actually not a bad habit for the preacher to get into. It helps to focus the mind on the what message from the Scripture reading is about. So today, I’m giving my sermon a title: The Importance of Being Earnest. Most of you will, of course, recognise immediately the reference to Oscar Wilde and his most famous play. As I read this gospel reading a number of famous Oscar Wilde quotes came to mind, so as we think about the woman who was a sinner and who washed the feet of Jesus, Oscar Wilde will today help us reflect on what we are being taught by sharing with us some of his most famous quotations. I’m tempted to say, as Oscar himself once said, “I wish I had said that,” but he often puts things so well – and so much better than I can.
I’m calling this sermon The Importance of Being Earnest because in a way that is exactly what our gospel reading is about. It is about a woman who is earnest in seeking out Jesus because she is earnest about repentance of her sins, in contrast to a Pharisee who has sought out Jesus but isn’t earnest about it at all. And it is about the importance of being earnest in the love that we show to the unloveable.
Oscar Wilde: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Luke, in our gospel reading, tells us this moving and challenging story of a woman that society saw as someone from the gutter. She was, we are told, a sinner, and a well known one. Simon the Pharisee knew exactly what kind of woman she was. And although Luke doesn’t tell us any more it doesn’t take much imagination, given that she was clearly a well-known sinful woman, precisely what the nature of that sin was. And yet, outcast though she might be, she is able to look up from the gutter where society has put her and see the light in Jesus. Simon might not have thought himself to be in the gutter – far from it, he was a pillar of society – but neither had he lifted up his eyes to look at the stars. But this woman has – and something in Jesus attracts her and she is drawn to him, to an encounter that will change her life. And so she comes to the home of Simon the Pharisee where Simon is entertaining Jesus.
Well – what do we know about Simon. He is a Pharisee. That tells us a lot about him. We know, for instance, that he takes his faith seriously. We know, too, that he fasts, tithes, and attends worship regularly. He’s a model for people who take the spiritual life seriously. And in all probability he took that role seriously. Though as we see as the story unfolds he is seriously – he may live out his religious duties to the letter, but there is a lack of love at the heart of what he is doing. And the story that unfolds is the story of a meal – a special meal to which Simon has invited Jesus. A meal which is invaded by the woman. And this meal far more than a simple invitation to dinner.
Hospitality was a sacred duty in Judaism. You couldn’t – theoretically at least – refuse it to anyone who came to your door. And the custom had developed of the rich entertaining in public, as is the case here, showing hospitality for all to see. The doors of the house would be open, and people would gather around the door to hear the erudite conversation from inside. But this custom of public hospitality wasn’t just about showing off, it was about taking the opportunity to extend hospitality to strangers, to outcasts, to those in poverty. For it was also the custom that those in need could visit these public banquets and help themselves to the leftovers. Nothing was more important than hospitality – especially hospitality to the stranger. And there was an incentive to showing hospitality in this way. First century Jews and Christians. believed that at the end of time God would serve them as Host by entertaining them with an endless feast. But there was a catch: God would show them the same kind of hospitality as they had shown to strangers during their time on earth.
And it was this open door policy that allowed this woman, this well-known sinner, to gain entry to Simon’s banquet. And yet, for Simon there was a limit. Hospitality was all well and good, but this woman was a sinner. He knew it, and he expected Jesus to know it as well. The woman comes in and anoints the feet of Jesus, and then bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and continues to kiss his feet and anoint them. No-one would be allowed to get away with that kind of behaviour in today’s liberal society – just imagine how shocking that must have seemed to Simon in the deeply conservative society of his time. And Jesus does nothing to stop it!
So Jesus has to explain to Simon. This is about love. Oscar Wilde again: Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead. This woman, says Jesus to Simon, has shown great love. She might be – in society’s eyes – the sinner, and Simon might be the upright and self-righteous Pharisee. Yet Simon is the one without love in his life. Not only can he not welcome this woman, but he has not even shown Jesus the customary hospitality that he should have. Simon, despite his wealth and status, is the one whose life is like a sunless garden where the flowers are dead – for he has no love. And despite the sacred duty of hospitality, despite the open door nature of the banquet, hospitality for Simon only goes so far – and certainly not as far as extending it to this dreadful woman.
So Jesus carefully explains to Simon what is going on. He begins by asking Simon the question about the two debtors, who both owe someone some money. They can’t pay, so their debts are cancelled. Which one will love their creditor the more? Simon grudgingly says it is the one who had the greater debt cancelled. You get a sense that he is beginning to realise where this is going. Oscar Wilde once said I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. Simon, a Pharisee, was highly educated and no doubt thought he was clever. He probably thought that he could show off his learning to this intriguing travelling teacher who would no doubt be impressed, perhaps even over-awed, by Simon’s obvious intellect. And yet you get a sense here of a man who is becoming somewhat uncomfortable because clever as he is he no longer understands what is going on and can see Jesus is about to put him straight! Things aren’t going according to plan! The erudite banquet that he thought he was in control of is slowly going pear-shaped as he realises that Jesus is running the show and not him.
And Jesus goes on to highlight Simon’s lack of hospitality and contrast it against the actions of the woman. Between the two of them it is the woman, the notorious sinner, who has shown the greatest love, says Jesus. Why? Because she knows that her sins, great though they may be, have been forgiven – she knows what kind of person she is and she offers all the mess to God and accepts the love that God reaches out to her with. And therefore – and this must have come as a deep shock to Simon – Jesus says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Whatever she may have done in the past, it is forgotten. Her sins are wiped as clearly away as she has wiped away her tears from the feet of Jesus with her hair. And her deep love for Jesus shows that she knows deep down in her heart the release which comes from being totally honest about the past and asking for forgiveness. This encounter shows us the importance of being earnest about the sins of the past and being earnest in the way we show our loving response to Jesus for the forgiveness we receive.
Just one more quote from Oscar Wilde: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. We have some idea of the past of this woman, but what the future held for her we never know – Luke doesn’t tell us. We all have a past and a future with Jesus. For however much we may seek to live out a truly Christian, a truly Christlike life, we cannot avoid the reality that at times in our lives we have failed. Perhaps years ago – perhaps last week – perhaps this morning. But called as sinners to the service of Jesus, we have a glorious future, which will be lived out in eternity when we are invited to a banquet by Jesus himself.
The sinful woman who anointed and washed the feet of Jesus, who was forgiven much and who in return loved much, shows us so very clearly that every saint has a past and every sinner a future.