Several years ago, on a flight home to Melbourne, I remember being struck by the vivid blue of the sky, and the brightness and clarity of the sun above the gleaming white clouds. Then we descended through the clouds to land at the airport, and I was struck by how different it was underneath the clouds. There was no vivid blue, no clear sunshine all was grey, dull and rather dreary. Since seeing the two different aspects side by side that day, however, I have never found the grey days quite as oppressive as before, because I know that above the clouds, the sun still shines, and sky is still bright blue. It is only my perspective that has changed. But perspective affects our decisions and behaviour, so while I adjust my clothing to the weather I am experiencing, I try not to let the winter gloom dominate my mind and mood entirely.
I mention this to illustrate the issue that the combination of our readings today nudges us towards. In Galatians, Paul is forcefully restating the arguments he put to Peter about allowing faith to be the determining factor not just in our behaviour, but in our motivation and reasoning. If Gentiles have accepted Jesus as their God and Saviour, he says, we have no right to impose on them the practises of Judaism. Faith in Jesus needs no shoring up by the customs or tradition of our previous perceptions. We would nod and say, yes, thats right, that is our own position and claim.
Yet it is always difficult to accept even to recognise all the changed attitudes that a profession of faith imposes on us. Our perspective if altered, but we often find that habits of thought are not completely unaffected by prevailing cultural values and our own backgrounds.
We all build our own traditions, and we are all shaped by the expectations of our families, schools, careers and our own beliefs impose on us. Periodically, we should be reviewing whether we are wholly guided by our faith, or whether we have begun to accommodate other priorities side by side with it. And none of us are impervious to the tendency to do this, because we find these other things reinforce our sense of self.
The encounter Simon the Pharisee has with Jesus is a wake-up call for him. We sometimes read this passage as if it were a superficial chiding by Jesus, a rebuke because Simon has not done enough to honour Jesus during his visit. But Jesus never was one to need special treatment or to be feted, so perhaps it also points to some other agenda between Simon and Jesus.
If we accept that Simon has a genuine interest in a dinner conversation with Jesus and other Scripture scholars that evening, we hear the story differently. There might well have already been conversations and discussions between Jesus and Simon before this invitation was issued. There is a note of perplexity and perhaps disappointment when Simon ponders to himself "If this man were a prophet, he would know who was touching him." And Jesus initiates the conversation from that assumption.
It becomes clear that Jesus does know the woman. Not personally, perhaps, but he recognises her motivation and wholehearted commitment to the love of God that he offers. She is not holding anything back, and not allowing any other expectations or priorities to come between her and her outpouring of loving gratitude for Gods grace towards her, and acceptance of her.
The normal social etiquette, the criticism she can expect from other people, all of these are as nothing to her compared to the value she places on her new faith.
Simon had a position in the town among the people whose respect mattered to him his fellow-scholars and churchmen. Jesus suggested that these were pale and insubstantial motives and supports compared to the depth of meaning the womans life had gained when she committed to faith in Jesus. The gospel writer supports this perception in the few verses that follow this scene.
In Simons view, the woman is unknown, unnamed, and noticed at all only because she doesnt blend inconspicuously into the background. Read 8:1-3. Hear how clearly and fully the women who follow Jesus are identified in these verses. They are all fully known, and their contribution to the life of the community is valued.
This gospel passage reminds us of the consequences of a changed perspective. We cannot go back and un-know something that has been revealed to us, and that our own judgement has led us to accept. Having accepted a new perspective, we must then also accept that as we go forward, the enduring principle of that perspective will require us to continually make adjustments to the values and motivations that we will permit to co-exist with our faith perspective, and which will be given full rein in any of the changing circumstances we face as individuals, and as communities seeking to be true to Jesus, the focus of our faith.
I wonder if Simon was able to change his perspective and live with the consequence, as we are all called to do.