Each morning at the newsstand you can view the full range of front pages, from the sober headlines of the broad sheet to the more salubrious ones of the tabloids. Our press reflects the diversity of political views in our society.
It is a visible and outward expression of the increasingly tolerant nature of our age, particularly in the area of personal morality. And yet under the surface the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of journalism is present. All that counts is the good story even if that comes at the expense of the individuals involved. Thus there is a double standard. Apparent broad-mindedness hides a cold Puritanism that judges others in an unloving and unforgiving way.
It was ever thus. In today's Gospel, Luke records the encounter between Jesus, Simon the Pharisee and the woman traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene. It is all about the interplay of love and forgiveness and therefore of our place in the Kingdom of Heaven at the heavenly banquet.
- First we have Jesus. A significant part of his teaching and pastoral ministry took place in the intimate context of the shared meal, still very much a feature of traditional middle-eastern life. This was in contrast to his times of prayerful withdrawal to be with his heavenly Father and his confrontational ministry with the crowd that led to his crucifixion. During such meals Jesus could relax and enjoy the friendship of others as well as giving visible expression to and foretaste of the coming Kingdom. It was best seen as a feast to which all were invited. This inevitably meant that when Jesus was a guest such occasions often had an unexpected twist. In the encounter between Jesus and his guests the truth of the Gospel emerged in challenging ways.
- In today's gospel, Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him. We are used to the Pharisee's having a bad press in the Gospels. In reality they were not all bad. Simon was essentially a decent man albeit with mixed motives. No doubt it was something of a 'coup' to have Jesus at your house for the evening, a newsworthy, celebratory guest. Maybe Simon and his friends wanted to satisfy their curiosity, perhaps as religious professionals they wanted to catch Jesus out, possibly Simon was genuinely drawn by the person of Jesus and his teaching. Whatever the truth Simon was scandalised by the appearance of one described simply as a woman in the city. The tradition sees her as a member of the oldest profession, one who in our day would be at home in 'Sex in the City'. Certainly her behaviour was extraordinary and highly erotically charged. She stood behind Jesus weeping and then bathed his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair. Our over-familiarity with the story has robbed it of its impact.
Simon was very correct, he did not create a scene, he simply muttered disapprovingly that a true prophet would have known the woman for what she was -a sinner. That was precisely the point; Jesus was and did. Jesus replied perceptively and gently with the parable of the two debtors whose debts were cancelled. Who would love more; the one who owed 500d or 50d? Simon gave the right answer but then received a further challenge from Jesus who contrasted Simon's perfectly proper but rather cold hospitality with the extravagant response of the woman. By implication Simon who had been forgiven little loved little. We don't know how he responded. Like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son he was given a choice. Join the feast full of forgiven lovers or remain outside forever.
- The woman has been identified as Mary Magdalene because of the reference to her in the verses that follow. Giving her a name personalises the story, making her more real to us. We feel that we know her. In fact we are told very little about her, only that she had many sins that were forgiven. In her meeting with Jesus she experienced the healing power of his loving forgiveness, of the type that drove seven demons out of her if she was Mary Magdalene. Her response of extravagant love revealed that she both knew her need for forgiveness and had received it. Unlike Simon we know what happened to Mary. She received absolution, 'Your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace'. Thereafter she joined Jesus as a disciple, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the gospel.
We have considered the three main characters in the passage, but there is more. Each of us, individually and collectively are there too. If we are honest most of us are more like Simon than Mary, outwardly religious and devout, correct and proper but a little cold and unwelcoming with a tendency to judge. We all know people like Mary, often envious of their natural spontaneity. They seem to have all the fun and are fun to have around, yet we feel we must disapprove of them. How can they have a place in the Church?
Because it is open ended, Jesus' challenge to Simon crosses two Millennia and comes to us. Are we prepared to acknowledge our sinful nature that in saying no to God and to life actually cuts us off from him? Can we receive his forgiveness in such a way that our love reaches out to others? Do our churches mirror Jesus' many meals where both the Simon's and the Mary's of this world hear and receive the Gospel?
Significantly the reformers disliked Mary Magdalene despite her being a biblical saint. Cranmer dropped her from his second Prayer Book but she was there in his first of 1549. So to end the Collect for her feast day: -
Merciful Father give us grace, that we never presume to sin through the example of any creature: but if it shall chance us at any time to offend thy divine majesty; that then we may truly repent, and lament the same, after the example of Mary Magdalene, and by lively faith obtain remission of all our sins; through the only merits of thy son our saviour Jesus Christ.
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Last updated 13/06/04 13:00 Author: David Shepherd