Sermon - 23rd June 2013
The woman who anointed Jesus
Scripture - Luke 7:36 - 8:3
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Luke's Gospel is interesting in the way he portrays outsiders as central to the story he tells about Jesus. We've seen this over recent weeks – three weeks ago we looked at the Roman Centurion and his boy whom Jesus healed, two weeks ago we looked at the raising of the poor widow's son in Nain. Last week we looked at how the early Church included and shared their goods and ministry as seen in Luke's second book, Acts. Today we look at the woman who anointed Jesus with her tears.
Luke has a particular interest in telling women's stories and in showing how they were central to Jesus' life. At the start of his Gospel we read of Elizabeth who, in her old age, became pregnant with John the Baptist. We read of Mary who sang for the poor when she realised she was to bear the Messiah. After Jesus' birth we're introduced to Anna, the old prophet, who lived in the Temple. At the end of today's reading three women are named and many others are mentioned who travelled with Jesus and worked with him and the disciples. This passes almost without comment but, given the later debates in the Church about the place of women it would be fascinating to know if their roles were similar, or different to, the male disciples.
So we have a writer who is concerned with stressing Jesus' relationship with and attitude to women in his Gospel – a stress that isn't found in the other Gospels. In the foundation documents of our faith are the tools needed to counter the sexism that is so often seen in the Churches – but there is some sexism in the passage.
There is a contrast between how Simon treats Jesus – as a tolerated guest – and the extravagant hospitality that the unnamed woman shows to him. We are told that Simon is a Pharisee – a religious person, concerned with keeping the law and obeying the traditions of his ancestors. He has invited Jesus for a meal - a singular honour. Perhaps he was impressed by Jesus, perhaps he wanted to know more about him. Many think that Jesus' approach and education was similar to that of the Pharisees, so maybe Simon saw something of a kindred mind in Jesus. Yet we know from Jesus' rebuke the welcome he offered was correct, not lavish. He didn't have Jesus' feet washed, or offer him the customary rituals of hospitality.
In contrast the unnamed woman washed his feet with her tears and anointed him with costly ointment. We know little about her – other than she was a notorious sinner. Simon and the others all knew about her – which puts them at a certain advantage. Many commentators have concluded she was a prostitute and I'm not sure why. Nothing in the text indicates this – I wonder if men are more inclined to ascribe sexual sin to women than to themselves. Perhaps it is the intimacy of her actions – crying on his feet, drying them with her hair, anointing him with oil – these are all bodily functions; these are all intimate; these all may have been embarrassing to watch.
The hostility shown to this woman – simply naming her as a sinner is a hostile act – may indicate that she was believed to be a prostitute by Simon and the others. There is a huge irony that straight men can be very hostile to women who work as prostitutes – abusing, beating and vilifying them yet also using and controlling them for their own physical, emotional and financial gratification. One of the most interesting agencies I know is Manchester Action on Street Health which works with women who work on the streets of the city as well as those who work in massage parlours. They do amazing primary health care work with the women, offer counselling, art classes and a whole range of activities to help them build up their self esteem - no mean feat given the circumstances they have to deal with. These women are beaten, are victims of rape and abuse and see the nastiest side of male power and dominant sexuality. Maybe it is this shadow side in the male pysche that has made so many interpret this woman as a prostitute.
We don't know what her supposed sin was. Maybe she lived with a guy who wasn't her husband like the woman at the well, maybe she had stood up to the men around her and lived her own life, maybe she lived with another woman, maybe she was a prostitute. We can never know. What we do know is that in her experience of Jesus she found acceptance, healing, wholeness and forgiveness.
There are parallels with our own experience of Christ:
- In him we find acceptance for who we are, for who we've been and for who we will become.
- He doesn't care what we've been but is passionate about who we can become.
- In him we find healing – not the quick fix so beloved of those who seek sensations but deep, lasting change in our souls that makes us stronger, wiser and nearer to what God intended us to be.
- In him we find wholeness – an ability to see the world as it is, to see our place within it, to understand more and accuse less.
- In him we find both forgiveness for our own sins and the ability to forgive others who wound, betray and berate us.
Just as that woman, long ago, found in Jesus her salvation, so can we now.