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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=266


 

Proper 11 Year C (June 12, 2016)                                         St James', Peace River

The Old Testament and the Gospel reading today present a study in contrast. In one, we have a king acting like a pouty child, unable to get what he wants, until his wife steps in to commit fraud, solicit false testimony, and connive at judicial murder. In the other, the key character is an intruder at a dinner party, a woman “who was a sinner”, taking precious ointment and lavishing it on Jesus in the most extravagant way imaginable. One is a story of taking without conscience; the other a story of giving without inhibition. There's a rich but profound irony in putting the two stories together, as they end up saying to us that we do better to behave like the woman of bad reputation, than like the king.

That's not too far off the mark, if we acknowledge that in one way or another we can recognize ourselves in both these stories. In this section of I Kings, Ahab and Jezebel are almost stereotypes of the bad guys – they play Wile E Coyote to Elijah's Road Runner – but in this particular incident we get a rare glimpse of the very human motivations behind their crimes. Ahab going to bed and turning his face to the wall in a big sulk, is an exaggerated picture of something we're very familiar with. Whether we admit it or not, being frustrated in our own aims and ambitions does have an impact on our mood and behaviour. And that's especially the case when we can attach a human face to the reasons for our frustration.

How hard it is not to take your annoyance out on the store clerk, or the telephone agent, when what you're really mad about is the company policy or the business failure that has left you dissatisfied? Who doesn't look for someone to blame when your team loses the game, or your firm loses the contract, or your holiday plans fall through, or whatever it might be? And while we may be mature enough to shake off most of that initial blame game, often there's a little bit of undetectable hate that lingers, like a hardening of the arteries, affecting your relationship with the person involved without you even realizing it. If we had the free rein Ahab had, the power of a king combined with Jezebel's conspiratorial genius, who know how much harm our petty frustrations would really do.

On the other hand, I hope you can also recognize something of yourself in the woman who anointed Jesus' feet. Her moment is one of total commitment, complete being-in-the-now, heedless self-giving. Where Ahab sets himself up by convincing himself that he would be happy if only he could get what he wanted – thereby making sure he's never going to be happy, ever – the nameless woman doesn't even seem to be thinking about happiness. If you could ask her, after the dinner party, was she happy she got the chance to do what she did? - she might say yes, but that would be beside the point. The happiness would be a side effect. The point was to do something beautiful, to surrender herself to that action that honoured Jesus, to make him the focus rather than herself.

So if you or I are going to recognize ourselves in her, we'll need to think of times when we have acted like that. What is it that allows you to focus on someone else? What makes you forget where you are, because you are so caught up in what you are doing? When have you gone “all in” with some commitment, knowing its costs and risks but believing them to be worthwhile? What are the occasions when you have found yourself absurdly happy, or content, or joy-filled, after the fact, without ever aiming at feeling that way, or thinking it was going to happen? And how many of those occasions came about because you started by saying, “I want to give...” rather than “I want to get...”?

Now, one way of drawing a lesson from these two stories might be to construct a moral: to say, you ought to be less like Ahab and more like the woman at the Pharisee's dinner. I'm not sure that's especially helpful, though. Shaking fingers at people doesn't usually help them to change their behaviour, at least, it doesn't work very well on me! And in this case it misses a deeper concern that many of us church people have in common with the people around us, which is that we want to be different, we want to be better, and we just don't know how. Not to mention the paradox involved in telling people to pursue a program of self-improvement which consists in not thinking about ourselves so much.

But what if the good news in these Bible passages isn't an effort to shame us into a fruitless effort to lift ourselves  

 

up by our own bootstraps? What if it starts us off in a different place instead – by showing us how the transformation we are looking for in ourselves can be, not something we try and fail to achieve for ourselves, but a gift God wants us to have and only needs us to accept? Something like that, at least, seems to be behind Jesus' understanding of what the woman who anointed him has done and what is really happening with her. You can tell she has really experienced forgiveness, he says, because see what great love she has demonstrated.

I don't know if the experience of forgiveness is behind every act of self-giving love, but I think it accounts for more than we realize. And it certainly makes sense in the context where Jesus mentions it. The woman was able to be where she was because she no longer feared being identified as a “woman who was a sinner”, as the wrong kind of person, as someone with a history, who didn't belong. She could feel in herself how all that was behind her, and so it didn't matter what other people thought. But she wanted to be there because it was Jesus who had given her that gift, who had opened the door for her to be right with God, right with herself, right with him and right with the world. That was worth all the extravagance, all the humility, all the self-forgetfulness that she could muster.

Something like that does seem to be involved in the less lavish but equally powerful acts of dedication and commitment that we might experience in our own lives. To forget yourself in order to focus on others is, at least in part, to forget your sins: to leave behind the things that make you keep your attention on yourself and how you can be a better person. You can be unburdened from all that, but you can't do it yourself – it takes an act of grace, whether straight from God or mediated by another person, either way giving you the opportunity to stop having to be your own self-improvement project, and instead be the person who can pour their attention on someone else and their energy on making the world better.

On the other hand, Ahab stands there to keep us aware of how much we need forgiveness for, and how difficult it is to accept the gift of forgiveness when you're not even conscious of what you've done wrong. Can we really be forgiven when we think are getting what we deserve? What does our sense of entitlement cost others in our world today, without our even realizing it? Whether that's your immediate neighbour who loses when you gain, or the person in another country whose low wage, or damaged health, or lost opportunity – or death – brings you all the things that make your life comfortable. It takes a lot for us to realize what consequences we create for others, let alone to acknowledge their wrongness, and that all has to happen before we can realize how God is willing to set that aside and make us truly different people who aren't caught up in that web of deceiving ourselves and hurting others.

But when we keep those two images in front of us – Ahab taking possession of Naboth's vineyard, and the woman giving all she can to honour Jesus – we know which we want to be. And we know that most of the people we meet in our day-do-day life would make the same choice. The only difference for us who have met Jesus is that we know there is a way out of the trap. That's not to say we always choose that way – we are still learning the depth of our own need for forgiveness, and there is still something inside of us which resists the humility that we need to accept what God is offering. But we do know it's there.

And that gives us a responsibility to all those people we rub shoulders with, living next door or working at the next desk or sharing the other spaces where we live our lives. Because mostly, they are looking for what we are looking for: a way to be different; a way to stop the self-defeating demand to make ourselves happier by getting more stuff and more control; a way to be free to give ourselves away, as the only path that offers real fulfilment.

To tell people that Jesus is the answer to those questions, is to come up short in our responsibility. The woman in the story didn't go to the party to tell Simon what he needed to know about Jesus. She showed it. She lived it. She made him feel uncomfortable enough, by the extravagance of her commitment, that he started to ask questions. That's our responsibility. To respond to God's love in the only way we can, when we truly experience it – by using our new found freedom to give ourselves away. And to know that as we do that, people will be made uncomfortable, and will start asking the questions that will lead them to experience God's grace, and will lead us to experience it with them, more deeply than we can yet realize.