Sunday, June 12, 2016

mercy and the Lord's anointing

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel today concerns the story of the Lord's anointing by a woman as he sat at table. We are given versions of this event by all four of the Evangelists, which makes it quite unusual really. There are not that many stories, other than our Lord's Passion, Death, and Resurrection, that are in all four Gospels. True indeed were our Lord's words that all long as the Gospels were preached that this tale would be told in memory of her.

As is so often the case with stories that are in more than one Gospel, the details vary as each writer seeks to draw from the event a different theological emphasis. Looking at all the accounts, the full story seems to have been as follows: Jesus, along with his followers, is invited to dine with a man called Simon, a Pharisee, at his home in Bethany. St Mark calls him 'Simon the Leper' so perhaps he is a man who formerly suffered from one of the many quite loathsome skin diseases referred to in the Bible as leprosy, but are not what we call leprosy today. Perhaps he was even healed by Jesus as we know that he healed many lepers. 

And as a leper was ritually unclean, someone forbidden to mix with others or take part in the religious rituals of the day, that would have been something quite important to a man like Simon. Maybe that explains why he invited Jesus to his house, even though the Pharisees in general did not like Jesus. Also present, as we learn from St John, is Lazarus after he had been raised for the dead. While they sit at table a woman comes in and anoints Jesus with a very expensive perfume, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. And it is St John alone who gives us the woman's name – Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

At this point, the accounts separate. Matthew, Mark, and John focus on the reaction of the bystanders to the anointing – they see the cost of the perfume and think of the woman's actions being a waste. But Jesus defends her actions – he is worthy to be treated with such honour. John draws out in particular the hypocrisy of Judas in this matter – even as he protests the waste he mourns the chance to sell the perfume and keep the money for himself, as he was a thief.  

We must pause here to consider what kind of sinner it is that the woman is. All people are, of course, sinners; but this woman is more than a sinner in that sense – she is a notorious sinner, known to all about her as being someone who had led a sinful life. The tradition of the Church, from the Fathers down, is that her sin was of a sexual nature, even perhaps a woman of the night. Given we know from the context of the times in which she lived, this seems the most likely explanation.

If we turn to St John's Gospel, we know that by the time of this anointing that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were already well-established as followers of Christ. So it seems reasonable to suppose that long before the anointing Mary had turned from her sinful life to become a disciple of Jesus along with her brother and sister. Their faith in him was proved to be well founded by the raising of her brother. And at this dinner at the house of Simon – to which, as a follower of Jesus she would have had access – she comes weeping, to express not only gratitude that her brother has been restored to her, but also that her own sins have been forgiven. The family's close brush with death would very likely have brought home to her with a particular vividness what her own fate would have been had she died in her sins, had she not been granted pardon of them by Jesus.

Simon the Pharisee is rather sneering of the whole thing. Once a sinner always condemned is his attitude. And if Jesus really were a prophet he would know the sort of woman that she is. But Jesus knows what he is thinking and acts to correct it. Most especially he makes it clear that the sins of Mary have been forgiven. God has mercy even where men do not. What is past is past; and the prostitute is now a saint. And her holiness is made clear by St John who records the words of our Lord making it clear that her act of anointing him is a prophetic one, part of preparing him for his death, which we know he will give for the lives of the sins of all. The sinner can indeed be a saint – if they will but recognise that what they do is sin, turn from it, ask God's forgiveness, and instead lead their life according to his holy laws. That is how sinners become saints. And that is what we are called to do – for we are all sinners; and we are called by God in his mercy to be saints with him, and St Mary, in heaven. Amen. 

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