Sermon for HIGH MASS – Trinity 3 Sunday 12 June 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I wonder if you’ve ever heard of British Israelite Church? It existed (and for all I know still does) to promote the belief that the British people are the lost tribe of Israel and that the British monarch is a direct descendant of King David. I’m sure we can all sign up to that this morning.
Queen Victoria, who was a lot less popular than our present Queen during much of her reign, was no fan of her putative Jewish ancestor. She is reported, in response to learning that the British Israelites traced her descent from King David, to have remarked that she had little time for King David, because, she said, of his disgraceful behaviour about Bathsheba. That disgraceful behaviour is, of course, the content of our first reading this morning.
It always amazes me that devout Christian people, of whom I do not doubt Queen Victoria was one, are so little interested in forgiveness. I suspect that the sexual motivation for the sin in this story is one reason for that blindness, but sin is sin and we do not stop there. The heart of the gospel, and indeed the whole Bible, is concerned with our relationships with God and each other, all of which are subject to failure and forgiveness.
And the story of David and Bathsheba, whom David obtained as his wife by placing her loyal husband Uriah in the forefront of battle, thus ensuring his certain death, is one about failure and forgiveness (including the cost of forgiveness).
The Jewish commentary called the Talmud says, ‘one pang of conscience is worth more than many lashes’. We heard in our first reading how, by the subtle story-telling approach he adopted, Nathan the prophet enabled David to see the magnitude of his sin and condemn it for himself; forgiveness follows, though there is a cost – his child dies. We see this approach, inviting people to examine themselves in the light of accessible stories, echoed repeatedly in Jesus’ story-telling parables.
In today’s gospel we have, not a parable, but a further real encounter, following the healing miracles of the last two weeks. This meeting is with someone who is identified as ‘a sinner’. Entering the house of a Pharisee and coming before Jesus as a publicly acknowledged sinner (whatever that means – we are not actually told), she exposed herself to the probability of public condemnation and shaming; and so it proved.
Far from repulsing her, Jesus received her in a kind and gracious manner. He didn’t sternly confront her with her sins. There was no need: her action indicated that she was already conscious of them and repentant. Jesus assured her that she was forgiven. More than that he let her know that she was loved. From that place she could make a new start.
Simon, the Pharisee, looked at the woman and saw a sinner who would always be a sinner. Jesus looked at her and saw a sinner who was capable of being a saint. She had already travelled further down the road of eternal life than those who were now judging her.
There’s a fascinating afterlife to this story, parallel to Queen Victoria’s blinkered response to the history of David and Bathsheba. For the church has been guilty of misreading this gospel story and turning it into something else and the result provides a salutary warning about the corrosive effects of suggestive and ill-founded gossip.
At the end of the Gospel we heard a little of Luke chapter 8 in addition to the story of this encounter from chapter 7. If you were listening carefully you would have noticed that they are clearly part of separate narratives:
7.50 And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
8 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, etc
There is no reason to link those first three verses of chapter 8 to what we’ve just been considering. But for centuries they were taken together and used to associate Mary Magdalene with the sinner-woman. The sin was said to be prostitution (which is not mentioned). So Mary Magdalene, who was healed by Jesus, and was revered in the East as the apostle to the apostles (the first witness to the resurrection, the person who told the others what had happened) this woman who Luke says was healed of demon possession, was demonized by the church as a sexual sinner. Her name was given to institutions dedicated to the reform of fallen women. The old English pronunciation of her name, ‘maudlin’, became an adjective associated first with penitence and then with drunken self-pity. Yet she is clearly not the same woman as the sinner who receives forgiveness, but a member of Jesus’ inner circle who was healed of suffering. It would be difficult better to illustrate how the inaccurate and prurient tendencies of gossip can damage a life-story than with this example of how the church has treated one of its saints.
But, as I suggested earlier, the good news for today, is that these stories are really about the nature of forgiveness – how there may be a personal cost to seeking it, but that also it is freely and generously given. These are behaviours we are called to emulate, rather than focusing on the weaknesses of others or, worse still, constructing weaknesses for others out of innuendo and half-truth.
Jesus’ answer to Simon’s unspoken question clarifies several points. The forgiveness comes gratuitously from God, from his merciful love, which anticipates, and is the motive of, human repentance. The love shown by the woman expresses her acceptance of forgiveness. Just as the essence of sin consists (as Nathan says to David) in ‘despising God by doing what is evil in his sight’, conversion is shown through gratitude and love in God’s sight. Forgiveness is the work of God’s freely-offered love: once it is received it commits us to love
47 Therefore, 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.” Luke 7.47
God’s forgiveness is not just ‘let’s wipe the slate clean’; instead it invites and empowers us to enter into a new relationship with God, based on self-awareness and generous love.