Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church on Sunday 13th June, third Sunday after Pentecost.
When I was growing up I loved to watch films about the life of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Two of my favourites were Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl. “Fiddler on the roof” was the more famous of the two, but when I read today’s passage I immediately thought about Yentl, starring Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin. Yentl is a story of a rabbi’s daughter who was very unusual amongst other girls in the village. She wasn’t interested in cooking or sewing, and she wasn’t looking to get married like all the other girls. Yentl wanted to study the law of Moses, and the Talmud, which is a series of commentaries on the law.
But that was a problem in 1904, because women were not allowed to study the Talmud. The film begins in a Jewish market place, where a fish trader entices Yentl to buy a fish that is ‘so beautiful, it will cook itself’. Yentl needed all the help she could get, so she agrees to buy the fish, even if she’s not even looking at it. Her eyes are drawn to a book trader driving his cart through the market place yelling: “Picture books for women, sacred books for men! Picture books for women, sacred books for men!”
After buying a sacred book under the excuse of getting it for her father she returns home and starts cooking the fish. At the same time her father is in the room next door teaching one of his young students from the Talmud. She gets really frustrated by the student’s ignorance and shouts the answers to her father’s questions. The young student is shocked. “Yentl knows the Talmud? My father told me that a woman who studies Talmud is a demon!” he says. The rabbi cuts the lesson short telling the boy: “She is not a demon, she just has big ears!”
After dinner, the father lectures his daughter about how men and women have different obligations and then sighs and smiles warmly at her and tells her to get the books. He tells Yentl to close all the blinds in the house, so she asks him in frustration: “If I don’t have to hide my studies from God, then why from the neighbours?” “Why? he answers. Because I trust God will understand; I’m not so sure about the neighbours!”
If this was 1904, we can probably imagine what the status of women was in the time of Jesus. Women were not allowed to sit with men in the synagogue. They had their own section separated by a see-through screen. When Jesus is invited by Simon the Pharisee to a dinner in his house, there were only men reclining on sofas around a central table, and women were only allowed to come in order to serve at the table.
Imagine the stupefaction when Simon and his guests see the notorious woman walking in the dining room with an alabaster jar in her hands, and kneels at Jesus’ feet. In 1st century Judea a woman was not allowed to touch a man in public. And yet this woman is weeping at his feet, wetting his feet with her tears. In 1st century Judea a woman did not uncover or let her hair down in public. And yet this woman does exactly that and starts wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, and then starts kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. This was unthinkable!
And yet, to Simon’s surprise, much like Yentl’s father, Jesus shows his kindness to the woman by allowing her to express her devotion and gratitude to him. He doesn’t push her away. He doesn’t lecture her about what is proper behaviour for a woman in public. He doesn’t put her in her place. He is not even concerned about his own reputation being compromised by allowing a woman of her notoriety to touch him; to kiss his feet. Her devotion is powerfully and inescapably physical, and it must have generated very powerful feelings in those sitting around the table.
And yet Jesus allows her to show her love and devotion in this manner. He is graceful and accepting of her by simply receiving her gift. And instead of lecturing her, and being aware of Simon’s doubts about his calling as a prophet, he turns to Simon and tells him the parable of the two debtors. Instead of teaching her a lesson, he teaches him a lesson.
The woman is the learned one in this story, and the student is Simon. The roles are reversed by Jesus. He ends his story by asking Simon: “Do you see this woman?” Or in other words: “Do you really see this woman? She is teaching you about hospitality. It was your duty as a host to provide water for my feet, and yet she is washing my feet with her tears. It was your duty as a host to provide oil for my head, and yet she anointed my feet with ointment. Do you see this woman? She is the teacher here! She is teaching you about love and hospitality!”
In the beginning of the year, we met a few times on Thursday evenings for our Tea & Conversation gatherings. Out of all the things we could have talked about, Alec [one of our elders] suggested we talk about how we welcome people in the church. He had the insight to identify a key ministry of the church. In our discussions we realized that hospitality is not just about inviting people in. It is not enough to declare: “All are welcome!” Hospitality involves more than that. Today’s gospel passage illustrates this so powerfully.
The more I talk with people who are not church goers, the more I realize the barriers that people have to cross in order to come to church. Most of them told me that they are not good enough to come. John Harvey was told by a woman on the street that “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” One of my friends told me that church is for rich people. They gather and form a closed and impenetrable social club, and you cannot get in.
Someone else told me he messed up his life too much. He felt he didn’t qualify for church attendance. A prostitute told a minister: “I already feel bad about myself. Why would I go to church and be made to feel even worse?” A lady from East Kilbride didn’t even know if she was allowed to come to church.
I think we all go through that experience of wondering if we are good enough; if we qualify. We know in our minds we are all sinners, but we may feel that we are in a special category of sinners. When we mess up, we may think we are beyond forgiveness.
In the parable Jesus told Simon, the two debtors are very different. The first debtor owed around £2,400 in today’s money. The other one owed around £24,000. None of them could pay the debt. But perhaps the one who owed £24,000 felt he was beyond salvation, because the debt was so high. This is of course an experience that many people in the world can relate to nowadays. So many people and even nations are paralysed by debts they cannot possibly repay.
And our society developed a strange sense of justice that suggests it is improper for such debts to be cancelled, regardless of how people got to that point. It doesn’t matter if they accumulated the debt because of unfair economic conditions, or lack of opportunity, or because they squandered their money. Cancelling such a large debt is somehow unacceptable to society. And the tragedy is that people buy into this idea. That is why it is so difficult to imagine a God who cancels all debts and forgives all sins.
The woman in our gospel story had nothing to lose. She had hit rock bottom. Society branded her as ‘unforgivable’. The forgiveness and acceptance she found in Jesus prompted her to express her love and devotion for him regardless of how improper it may have seemed to others. Her overwhelming love and devotion for Jesus was scandalous, because God’s forgiveness for her was scandalous in the first place.
For a rabbi to teach his daughter from the law and the Talmud was forbidden and scandalous. And yet the love of a father is deeper than any human tradition. Love overcomes social and even religious barriers. Love tears down walls. Love goes much deeper than social and religious conventions.
But of course, we may ask: Is this kind of love available to me? After all I’ve done, after all the debts I accumulated, is there forgiveness for me? This story reveals to us a God who makes this kind of love, this kind of forgiveness available to all of us.
No matter how much we owe, no matter what you’ve done in the past, we can all experience this overwhelming forgiveness. And because of his love, we can all hear the words of Jesus spoken to the depths of our beings: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”