Trinity 1 year C
The gift of inspiring a readiness to repent
Luke 7. 36 – 8. 3: A woman anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume
Have any of you seen the new Harry Potter film? I think it is the best one so far – it must be the effect the new director has had. The famous three are back in action: Harry, Hermione and Ron. The suspense builds rapidly from the outset, especially when we learn that an escaped prisoner from Azkaban, Sirius Black, is apparently looking for Harry and wants to kill him. The plot does not move as we are led to expect, however. Without giving too much away – for those who haven’t seen it – there comes a critical moment when Harry, Hermione and Ron have to go back in time to enable something vital to happen which did not happen the first time around. As Professor Dumbledore puts it, when giving them unofficial permission to interfere with time, two lives are at stake.
Naturally there is a happy ending. The three heroes succeed, and just enough strands of plot are left unresolved to prepare us for Harry Potter Four. But it’s the going back in time that I want us to linger on for a moment. Harry, Hermione and Ron use a magic device to do this, and are thereby able to save an increasingly desperate situation. It struck me, as I watched the film, how useful this device would be. We make a mistake of some kind; we say something rash and hurtful; we make a wrong decision. How tempting it would be to go back a few hours, try again, and with hindsight get it right. The problem is, of course, that this is impossible. And because it’s impossible, we have to find other ways of making things right when they’ve gone wrong. That’s not normally easy – especially when your whole life seems to have gone wrong.
We just heard a Bible story about a woman whose whole life had gone wrong. It is generally thought that today’s reading from the gospel of Luke is about a prostitute. This prostitute is aware that she has sinned, and comes to Jesus while he is at dinner with a Pharisee named Simon. The woman is crying, and he tears fall on Jesus’ feet. She wipes the tears away with her hair, and then pours perfume over the feet. Let’s compare the reactions of Simon and Jesus. Simon is sceptical about the woman’s intentions and her motives:
(i) he judges her on her past record, warning Jesus that she is a sinner.
(ii) he may be thinking that she is trying to manipulate Jesus into being kind to her, by her display of emotion.
(iii) He is not open to the possibility of the woman reforming – changing her life;
(iv) So he condemns her and warns Jesus – implicitly – that a woman who is ritually unclean is touching him.
Jesus, however, reads the situation very differently:
(i) He is not stupid – he must have known who the woman was, and her reputation.
(ii) He sees her weeping, however, as a genuine sign of contrition and remorse.
(iii) Maybe the woman’s affection for Jesus reflected the fact that he had accepted her and not condemned her,
despite the stigma and uncleanness associated with being a prostitute. (note that if a woman became divorced –
usually on the decision of the husband – there were few opportunities for the woman to earn a living. So
resorting to prostitution could be very tempting, even though Jewish society was more harsh on the prostitute than
on her clients).
The contrast between Simon the Pharisee and Jesus, then, is striking. Simon does not seem to consider the possibility of the woman changing, starting a new life, repenting. He is hardened and cynical. For Jesus, however, this is not the first time that he has been able to give new life to those who repent, and wish to start a new life. (eg. Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well).
Jesus was not naïve or gullible, or subject to flattery. He was no soft touch. But he had a gift of knowing how to create in someone a genuine desire to turn away from sin and do good. This gift was the result of a combination of being realistic and honest about the sins of the past and their consequences, while not seeing these as a permanent barrier to a better and more moral life in the future. Jesus was ready to grant forgiveness – on behalf of his heavenly Father. But his was no ‘cheap grace’ (D. Bonhoeffer – see The Cost of Discipleship). In other words, he expected something in return for granting God’s forgiveness – and that ‘something’ was normally a sincere and genuine desire to allow that forgiveness from God to transform one’s life into a life that was lived according to God’s commands.
This gift possessed by Jesus, that of helping someone to confront the darker side of their past, to turn away from it and to cease being enslaved to it – is crucial in any network of close relationships – whether small in scale or global in its reach:
(i) In our families, we all make mistakes. Sometimes, therefore, we need to work hard to try to help the other people in our family to move on from the wrong things they have done, to repent – (change their ways, according to the meaning of the original Greek), and to hear the inner voice of God making them aware of their wrongdoing and pointing them to the right path. We do this not by ignoring the wrongdoing that one of our family may have done – we all have to learn, if necessary, to face the consequences of that wrongdoing. But if we harbour resentment and anger towards someone close to us who has harmed us or caused us distress or frustration, things will not tend to move on. We remain locked in acrimony and bitterness; the other person does not learn to do things differently next time. So just as Jesus saw that the woman who came to him was ready for a fresh start in her life, and so forgave her for the sins of her life until then, so too we in our families need to be able to forgive, and in doing so help one another to start afresh. This is an example of the redemptive power of forgiveness – the power of forgiveness to help a person to begin again when they have failed.
(ii) Second, there have been certain people in the recent life of our nation who have shown the redemptive power of forgiveness on a larger scale. Gordon Wilson, who forgave the IRA bombers who killed his daughter Marie in the 1987 bombing at Enniskillen. Jo Berry, who forgave the IRA bombers who killed her father, Sir Anthony Berry MP, in the Brighton bombing. Even the parents of the child Victoria Climbie, who was killed as a result of the neglect of her aunt and uncle in north London, have forgiven the killers. These are all examples of people who have refused to allow the evil whose effects they have suffered to dominate their lives. They have been able to fulfil the command of Jesus to ‘love your enemies; pray for those who hate you’ – by forgiving them. Such forgiveness may or may not have had any effect on the people who were forgiven. But it has had a far wider impact – by helping people everywhere to refuse to let evil have the victory, the last word, and to refuse to allow evil to beget more evil.
If the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet had been condemned by Jesus, rather than being forgiven – in spite of all her efforts to show that she was prepared to start afresh, and change her ways – she might well have simply fallen back into her old lifestyle. We do not know what she actually did after meeting Jesus; we hear no more of her (unless she was in fact Mary Magdalene, which is possible although not generally agreed by scholars). But at least, by being forgiven, she had a chance. Jesus gave her the love which frees, the forgiveness which heals the wounds made by sin – which would make it possible for her to begin a new life.
Our own daily acts of forgiveness and love may not have such a dramatic impact. We may not be called to forgive in such extreme circumstances as Gordon Wilson and Jo Berry. But even little acts of forgiveness can be like time machines for those around us. They can help others to live as if they could go back in time and have another go at the things they got wrong, knowing that the past is not held against us if we are truly contrite. Forgiveness does not rewrite history. It helps us all, rather, to learn from the past; so that it does not keep us imprisoned, but liberates us into the fuller life that is lived in accordance with the law of God’s love.