Sermon at Grosvenor Chapel – 12th June, 2016
Readings for Proper 6, Year C
Gospel: Luke 7:36-50
May I speak in the name of the living and loving God whom we know as + Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen
Well, what a pleasure it is to be here on a Sunday
To put myself in context – I am a weekday Parishioner
I work at 29 Farm Street and I normally only ever come here Monday to Friday – I try to get to as many as possible of the Masses which Fr Richard faithfully holds for a few of us at lunchtime.
I am also an Ordinand in the Diocese of Guildford – God willing, I will be ordained Deacon on 3rd July and will begin my curacy as an ordained local minister in the Parish of St Martin’s Epsom
As such I commute here and I usually walk from Victoria Station, across Green Park and through Shepherd’s Market to get here.
Shepherd’s Market has changed somewhat in the 25 years that have been working in London. It is rather smarter and less edgy.
Juice bars and fashion outlets have replaced the rather more bohemian art dealers and gone are the days when you would often see a woman in a dressing gown hanging out of a doorway with a cigarette in her mouth who looked at you in a very particular way.
All of which serves as a rambling and perhaps rather obvious introduction to a discussion of this remarkable story in the Gospel of Luke, for we assume that this woman of the city, ‘who is a sinner’, is a prostitute.
It is interesting that women who are ‘sinners’ are usually assumed to be misbehaving in the area of sex. Whether adultery or prostitution. Tempting men to sin by their feminine wiles is a story as old as Adam and Eve. Perhaps the Old Testament reading with the story of David and Bathsheba serves to remind us that in these matters men are at least 50% and perhaps more of the problem.
The last module in my training course is in Pastoral Care and the first thing that we are taught in Pastoral care is to be aware of our prejudices and predispositions.
We have to understand those prejudices in order to avoid making assumptions about others.
This story raises the issue of such assumptions – the woman is known in the city to be a sinner. But who really knows that someone is a sinner? If she is a prostitute then the only people who know that for sure are her clients – perhaps Simon the Pharisee is one of them?
In any case Jesus avoids the temptation to prejudge and whatever she may have been or done, he asks us to see her as she is today.
The next teaching for a pastoral encounter is to be alive for unusual behaviour and try to make sense of it – the woman’s treatment of Jesus is unusual in any circumstances – it is hyperbolic.
What husband has received such treatment ? With his feet washed with tears, dried with the woman’s hair and anointed with perfume?
This goes some way beyond the famous injunction to young wives from the 1950s to prepare for the homecoming of their husband
Prepare yourself: Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking.. Make him comfortable: Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes.
This woman leaves the good wife of Housekeeping Monthly firmly in the shade – let alone the normal way to treat a dinner party guest.
So why might she be acting in this way?
Attachment theory would encourage us to understand her behaviour in terms of how the woman normally forms relationships.
If indeed she is a prostitute, then she is used to giving of herself physically in exchange for money – a form of transaction.
For her, love has a value. She shows her gratitude with the love that she values.
This putting of a value on love and forgiveness fits within the framework not just of this reading – where 500 denarii of forgiveness are compared with 50 – but indeed the whole of Luke’s Gospel where sins are equated with owing money, the forgiveness of sins compared to a forgiveness of debts and greater gratitude with greater forgiveness and greater value – think for example of the story of the story prodigal son.
The manner of her showing this gratitude would seem to lie at the hidden heart of this encounter. Her solicitude is very intimate – even erotic.
As such this would certainly seem to stretch the limits of what would be considered best practice in pastoral care where there is an ever increasing focus on delineating and observing boundaries – both physical boundaries and those of time.
Notice how she comes to Jesus at dinner – interrupting his personal time – perhaps this was Jesus’s ‘day off’. If so he ignores it.
Instead Christ allows a high degree of intimacy and so gives scope to the woman’s ministry.
I am about to become a Deacon – one who serves – and she serves just as Christ will later describe himself as ‘one who serves’ (Luke 22:27) using the same metaphor of waiting at table.
In order to serve others then we have to be given scope to do so – and Christ allows the woman this service.
I recently made a formal confession ahead of my ordination and in that explored some of my besetting sins. What my confessor explained to me is that our sins are often found close to our talents and strengths – it is when these are misdirected or followed slavishly that they cause us ill.
By way of a topical example, on the occasion of the Queen’s 90th birthday, we are mindful of her unstinting service to God and country and the honouring of tradition.
However, we also remember that the low point in her reign came when, for a while, she allowed tradition to stand in the way of a natural act of respect in allowing a flag to fly at half-mast following the death of Diana Princess of Wales. She recovered and for that act of humility and a relaxation of her boundaries won back the love of the nation.
Our story in Luke seems to perfectly illustrate this point – this woman appears to be someone with a talent for showing physical love – she is self-actualised in the bestowing of kisses and anointing with perfume.
Christ provides the scope for her to show that love – not in a back alley, a brothel or between adulterous sheets, but rather in a public act of love and worship. It is in turning to Christ and showering her love upon Him that she is saved.
There are lessons then for us in this Gospel.
Christ offers us the perfect model of pastoral care – receiving without prejudice, allowing an intimate encounter within boundaries which may be stretched beyond convention but not beyond morality, and then sending out to serve Christ, released with love. – ‘Your faith has saved you’ he says, ‘go in peace.’
In turn, the woman offers us the perfect model of the recipient of Christ’s redeeming love – acknowledging our weaknesses, turning our talents from self-gratification to offer them to Christ in love such that, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
So may it be for us
Grosvenor Chapel, 12th June, 2016
 The Good Wife’s Guide, from Housekeeping Monthly (May 1955)
 The causality in Lk 7:47 is the subject of scholarly disagreement and is perhaps deliberately vague