Toorak Uniting Church

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The Heart of Darkness

Luke 7
Rev. Glennis Johnston
Pentecost 4
16 June 2013

"If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner."

That would have to be one of the ugliest statements in the New Testament. As Simon looks at this woman’s embarrassing display of inappropriate behaviour we can almost feel his skin crawl.

There is much discussion around whether this was Mary Magdalene who had been a prostitute before meeting Jesus, or another woman. The most relevant point here is that we don’t know for sure because of the very obvious omission of her name. The Pharisee is named – he is called Simon - a worthy, upstanding man in the community. He deserves to be named. But she isn’t even worthy to be named.

So in honour of this woman who loved so much and who doesn’t have a name, and in a stand for equality, I will, for the rest of this morning, not speak of Simon either, he will simply be "the Pharisee".

It’s what we still do when we don’t want to give people the dignity of our respect for them as real human beings – we don’t use their names, - we just label them - ‘aboriginal’, ‘the homeless’, ‘illegal immigrants’, (with its implications of "sinners").

If we don’t use a person’s name it’s easier to lock them into a box, a category, a type, than to understand them as someone like us with loved ones and hopes and fears and dreams.

If we categorize people it is easier to judge them as undeserving, or the cause of problems, or dangerous to our way of life.

Throughout the centuries we have tried to deal with those who threaten our morals, our way of life, through deliberately creating distance.

If there is sufficient separation between us and them, we won’t be contaminated and will be able to maintain the wholesome purity of our own religion, our culture, our own race or family. It’s easy to name the obvious examples of separation theology throughout history, like Apartheid, or Nazi ideology, or the white Australia policy.

But it is closer to the bone to examine our own personal thinking surrounding choices such as which school to send our children to, which neighbourhoods to live in, which jokes we laugh at and which anti-Muslim emails we will forward to others or programs we will watch on TV. The fear of contamination is still alive and well in our society.

The first Christians who were Jews also struggled with this very issue when non-Jews first entered the Christian community. Judaism had maintained its concept of purity through separation from non-Jews, and from certain foods, animals and women, and sex and occupations.

As Christians, we inherited and took on board that thinking around separating the holy from the profane. And the physical body has so often been at the centre of such thinking because we have tended to separate out the spiritual from the physical and set them over against each other as opposites.

Cleanliness is next to godliness is the saying many of us were brought up on. But we didn’t stop to think how deep that maxim went. It isn’t merely that we accept the wisdom of washing our hands before meals for hygiene. But we have tended to assume that the body in general is somehow inferior to the spirit – the body is the centre of desires, impulses, appetites, sexuality - those parts of our nature that we find hard to control and which threaten our image of ourselves as pure and unselfish.

Throughout Christian history on balance, rather than accept our sexuality as a gift of our God-given humanity, we have considered it something to be ashamed of and denied.

And so we separate ourselves from the embarrassment of touch and feeling. We condemn as a sinner anyone who acts differently or whose life does not fit the respectable norm of relationships. Traditionally the Church has considered as outside of the experience of God those who live in de-facto relationships, and those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual.

No wonder then, that in the traditional religious community of Jesus in 1st century Palestine, this woman, who may have been a prostitute before meeting Jesus, knew all too well that she was condemned before God and the world.

Yet Jesus had believed that her life still had meaning and that she was a human being of worth and could find dignity again in his kingdom of God. He kept talking about this alternative community, and it seems there was a place in this kingdom of God for her.

We’re not privy to what had passed between her and Jesus before this day. Perhaps she had merely heard him preach and found her life transformed through the hope that his words expressed.

She had come to see that God’s goodness far outweighed her sense of uncleanness, that the One who stands behind reality is, in the end, the One whose nature is always to have mercy.

She had experienced a breakthrough into the very heart of God, and that had changed everything about her life – the way she understood herself. She had been seized by a wonderful realization that God was more interested in her future than in her past.

And so she came into this daunting and hostile place in order to express her love and gratitude for the one who had opened her eyes to this deepest truth.

Because of him she had new possibilities for her life, new possibilities for happiness, for love and relationships and even honour.

She loved him. She may have even been in love with him. Perhaps this was the first time she had really loved in any affirming way in her whole life.

In Jesus she discovered what real holiness meant and it didn’t mean being separated from everyone respectable.

What she felt for him could not be easily contained. She didn’t want anything back. She didn’t want sex, she didn’t want importance or even attention – hers was an act of pure love.

All she hoped to do was to express herself and she did it physically. She touched him – in a most humble way – at his feet, but with emotion and love in her touch. Jesus felt honoured by her touch, by her tears, by her humble anointing of his feet. He wasn’t offended. He didn’t recoil from her touch. He wasn’t afraid of being contaminated.

He wasn’t shocked by the intimate physicality of it.

Do we really keep ourselves pure and holy by keeping our distance from those whose lives are messy and compromised and perhaps unholy?

Or do we become holy by loving more?

Who has seen the movie, ‘Chocolat’?

It’s a delightful study in exactly this subject. The small French town has been kept "clean" by the village mayor. He controls everything - an upright man who observes religious ritual and moral rules and judges all who don’t.

But Vianne and her daughter come to town and she opens (during Lent!) a Chocolate shop, which magically feeds the needs of those who eat it. Vianne, does not go to church, and has an illegitimate child, does not fit in well with the town's people. Her bright, friendly and caring nature begins to win the villagers over one by one. She opposes self-righteous religion and domestic abuse in her efforts to care for individuals.

Without giving away too much in case you haven’t seen the movie, there is a battle in the village between the "clean" forces centred on the Mayor and the "unclean", centred on Vianne. But before long it becomes obvious that those who are "unclean" are living out a life of love and goodness.

The part of the movie I love the most is the young priest’s Easter Day sermon. He reflects, "We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." I know it’s from the movies, but it’s one of the best sermons ever written, so I’ve stolen it for mine.

When Jesus responds to the Pharisee he is extremely confronting to his host. The condemning heart is a heart of darkness.

Instead of defining what is good by externals and propriety, Jesus defines goodness by the presence of love, honour and beauty. If the Pharisee will listen, he too could embrace this alternative way of seeing life and reality. His heart is dark because he is full of condemnation. But it needn’t be that way.

Instead of rejecting this woman of unknown name for her sin, Jesus is moved by the quality of her humility, her spirituality, and love.

You know, I don’t very often these days go to my Greek New Testament. But I did yesterday. I just had to check out the wording of this text, and it confirmed for me what I suspected. Although, yes, there is something in the story about sinners being forgiven much and therefore loving God more, that’s not exactly what it says about the woman sitting at Jesus feet.

It says, that her many sins are forgiven because she loved much (not therefore she loved much). It’s the other way around, you see.

Genuine love itself is a purifying fire. Because of the new vision of wholeness that this woman has embraced in trust and faith, she is forgiven and cleansed within.

Jesus speaks to her deepest need when he says to her that her sins are forgiven. Forgiving ourselves can be the hardest thing for some of us to do.

Jesus makes it clear that it is her faith, her own heart made pure by love that has saved her – she is now a whole person – this is indeed salvation in its fullness!


© Rev. Glennis Johnston, 2013

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