13th April 2017 – Maundy Thursday
Characteristically, Luke’s account of the anointing of Jesus gives us a woman who is manifestly on the outside. This is not Mary of Bethany as in John, nor is it the nameless woman of Matthew and Mark. This is ‘a woman in the city, who is a sinner’ – and she enters the story of Jesus with her embarrassingly extravagant display of love. Given her mention in the very next verses, you can understand the tradition which identifies this woman as Mary Magdalene, from whom demons were cast out; but there is no clear basis for making that link. So she remains nameless. Unlike Simon the Pharisee who is addressed by name, or Samuel likewise in our first reading, she is nameless. Her sins which, Jesus tells Simon, were many are not identified either. Fairly or not, tradition has ascribed to her a variety of fairly colourful sins. But her sins are not named, any more than she is. And out of the gospel her story is told the world over: an unidentified woman, committer of unidentified sins, who stands for many, perhaps for the whole of humanity.
This woman had learned that Jesus was there, and something impels her to seek him out. But when she finds him she speaks not a word to him or to anybody else. There is no entreaty, no begging for forgiveness; just weeping and kissing and anointing. This woman comes with all that afflicts her and disfigures her life, whatever that may be. She comes with the harms that have wounded her, with the harms which she may have inflicted on others. She comes with her regrets and her sorrows, her inner struggles and her unfulfilled desires. She comes with her guilt and her anguish, her broken relationships and her dis-ease. And all of that flows out in the weeping, and her longing to be loved is expressed in her kissing, and her desire to love is poured out in the anointing. And without her saying a word, Jesus gives to her three things which go to the heart of her longing: forgiveness, salvation (that is, healing) and peace.
She is me; she is you; she is the world and its peoples. I don’t know quite how close we may have come to a major international conflict in recent days, or whether we may yet come to that point. I don’t know where this current round of senseless and random killings or attempted killings of uninvolved people will go. I don’t know what shape of world we or our children will live in as extreme political views seem to find increased followings in many different places. I don’t know where things may lead as intergenerational sharing looks like disappearing in our economic system and others. I don’t know what the implications will be of growing gaps between the global rich and the global poor. I don’t know where an apparently increasing spirit of vindictiveness and blaming will lead our society. While not wanting to fall into the trap of so many generations whereby all is seen as doom and gloom, what I do know is that I see around me a world in which our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe and Tanzania face drought and famine; in which people here are living at the very edge of their financial resources, or even beyond that edge, with relationships put under strain even to breaking point; a world in which the young finding are that opportunity is not there as they had hoped or as it was for their parents; in which the issues of ageing and care for our elders is beginning to present apparently irresolvable challenges for families and for society. Forgiveness, healing and peace remain much in demand, and the story of the tearful woman reminds us where these are to be found.
When the woman comes to Jesus and he holds out his gracious gift to her, it is as if he is standing there at the meeting point of two worlds. She comes, representing in her own self the personal and social wounds and woes of her age, and of every age. She is dislocated humanity, separated from God, from those around her in that house, and from her own inner good. And Jesus, offering to her forgiveness and healing and peace, is pushing back those forces which so disfigure human living. I wouldn’t want to overplay the stark distinction between world and kingdom, flesh and spirit as St Paul might have expressed it, but here we do have that sense of two worlds which in this place and in this moment. The world of pain and struggle and hurt enters that house that day; but the outcome is that that world is redeemed by the world of forgiveness and healing and peace, the world of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And following Jesus, we also are called to stand in that space, that the one world might find the redemption and healing of the other.
Jesus has already been anointed by the Spirit at his baptism. Here, strangely, he receives his fresh anointing from within that world of brokenness and chaos which the woman represents. And perhaps then it is in engaging in that ministry, that struggle even, with all that spoils and disfigures humankind that we may find anew our anointing. For we are here today as those who are to see ourselves as anointed. With all God’s people, we are anointed in our baptism, called and sent to be God’s people in the world. For those of us ordained, we are anointed at our ordination, anointed for the reconciliation and blessing of God’s people. And God calls us into that place where Jesus was, that on the edge place where with him we confront all that marrs the face of humankind.
Of course you and I cannot bring peace in Syria, feed the hungry of Africa, or heal the rifts between the US and Russia. But day-by-day and year-by-year, we are there to pray with to dying, to minister forgiveness and reconciliation for the troubled sinner, to pour out the oil of healing for the physically or mentally distressed. We with our people are there working for justice and peace in our communities; we are confronting social ills, welcoming the stranger and reaching out to the isolated, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless. And all of that and much more is redeeming the world this woman represents.
The heart of our story is this woman’s encounter with Jesus. Assuming that she is not Mary Magdalene, we do not know what became of her – it would be lovely if we did. But we believe that she went away that day transformed. She received forgiveness for those unidentified sins; she received salvation and healing, she is made right with God and neighbour; she is enabled to go in peace, in deep contentment, in the wholeness of shalom. As one candidate for confirmation put it to me recently, ‘my life has completely changed’. Has yours? Has mine? May you this day receive afresh from Christ God’s gifts of forgiveness, healing and peace. And renewed in your anointing, may you be with Jesus in that place where he is changing the world.