Sin and Penitence

Sunday 13th June 2004
Year C, The First Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
2 Samuel 12:7-10; 13
Luke 7:36-50; 8:1-31

Let us pretend for a minute that we are playing in one of those quiz shows where you have to guess the name of the person with the difficult clues first:

A bit of a lad, Henry VIII; all that humanity in one person, the randy theologian!

What about this one:

King David, too was a bit of a lad, quite in the Henry class, the randy liturgist!

In today's Old Testament Reading we find David at his worst and at his best. The story begins before our extract. King David, who can have anything he wants, has seen Bathsheba bathing and sent his servants to bring her to him. He has made her pregnant, duped her husband into staying away from her so that he cannot discover what has happened, and then has arranged for him to be killed in battle; Adultery leading to murder. The Chapter then shows the other side of David, the sensitive and just king. Nathan the Priest tells him the lovely story of the rich man who has many sheep and the poor man who only has one lamb which he prizes so highly it is almost one of the family; but the rich man takes the lamb and serves it to a guest and himself. David is instantly angry and compassionate; without waiting for Nathan to ask him what he would do, he says the rich man must surely die and the poor man must be recompensed fourfold. Then the blow falls, as it inevitably must; the lamb is like Bathsheba and David has behaved as the rich man. He recognises his sin; and Nathan says it is forgiven; then, further on in the story in a profound passage which deserves deep contemplation, the baby dies but Bathsheba, now David's wife, goes on to bear Solomon whom the Lord Loves.

Perhaps Nathan said David was forgiven because he knew how difficult it is to be a king when you can have anything you want; perhaps that is why Henry was such a mixed up person, full of piety and good intentions but coarsened by always getting his own way.

The Gospel Reading tells the story of a woman, described as a sinner, who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them.

When I first looked at today's Old Testament and Gospel Readings I couldn't help thinking that the designers of the Lectionary had made a subconscious connection between David's sin and the sin of this woman, traditionally thought to be adultery. So I looked at the alternative Old Testament Reading for today; and it was another infamous woman; Jezebel, the byword for female wickedness.

But the connection between our two Readings, of David and Mary, is much more profound than any incidental observations on adultery; however, this is only made clear if we probe a little deeper into the background of the penitent woman. In the verses following immediately after the passage about the anointing, you heard about Mary of Magdalen amongst the women ministering to Jesus, who is described as having had seven devils cast out of her; it  says nothing about adultery. The seven devils story also appears in Mark where Mary is listed as one of those at the foot of the Cross; that presence is confirmed by Matthew and by John who at that point says nothing of Mary's origins. The plot thickens when we are told by Matthew that this anointing was not, as Luke would have it, in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee but was, rather, in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. (Are you still following?) Enter John who says in Chapter 11 Verse 2 that Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, was the very same woman who had anointed Jesus and dried his feet with her hair. He goes on to describe the incident in Chapter 12 very much in the same terms as Matthew but places the incident at supper not in the house of Simon the Pharisee, not in the house of Simon the Leper but in the house of Lazarus where, in a startling reflection of the Luke story, Mary is doing her anointing while Martha is cooking and serving. Finally, if we turn to that Luke short account of Bethany family life we find Martha busy and Mary sitting where? Yes, at the FEET of Jesus! It makes you wonder whether Mary has something about feet!

So there is, to put it at its very least, a strong possibility that the very same Mary who was supposed to be such a wicked woman, was the very same Mary  who sat calmly to hear the words of Jesus as Martha rushed around the house.

In the history of the Church the Eastern, Greek Church has tended to think that there are three quite distinct Maries: the sinner in today's passage from Luke; the sister of Martha and Lazarus; and Mary Magdalen. The Western, Latin Church has tended to think of all three passages as referring to one person. Protestant churches have tended to think of two different Maries: the sinner who is also Mary Magdalen; and the sister of Lazarus. They have such a problem with the theology of forgiveness that they cannot see the sinner and the sister of the risen Lazarus as the same person.

Interestingly, too, in the Matthew account, when Jesus is rebuked for allowing Mary to anoint Him He says that she is preparing him for burial; she who has seen her brother die and rise again; she who will see Jesus die and rise again.

I have tended, without thinking about it too much, to adopt the Protestant position, not for any theological problem with the idea of the forgiveness of sins but because of a failure to read John 11.2 carefully enough and a tendency which I think many of us share, in spite of what we know about ourselves and others, to classify people as either goodies or baddies. We see people who, we think, are so good that they could never do anything bad; and we see people who, we think, are so bad that they could not possibly have any good in them. That is the first connection between and lesson from our Readings; We are all sinners but we all have good within us.

So, as I say, I have tended to think of the penitent sinner as one person and the woman meekly sitting at the feet of Jesus, chided by Martha, as quite another. Thinking of them as the same person would certainly explain why Martha is so fed up. Here she is, the epitome of starched respectability, house-proud, honourable and prudent, serving up supper; and there is that doe eyed Mary, once the talk of the town, going over the top yet again, making an exhibition of herself and drowning out the hard won, delicious smell of lamb stew with some exotic perfume, redolent  of her disreputable days. She might have come from a village called Magdala but more likely the origin of her name means black and curly hair and we all know what St. Paul thought of women who didn't wear hats!

Most of all, then, we should remember that whatever Mary Magdalen's sin - and only God knows its origin and its depth - it is quite clear that she underwent a life changing experience in the meeting with Jesus which brought her from social notoriety to spiritual ecstasy, from the ugliness of the crowded town to the beauty of the empty tomb. Of the accounts of the Resurrection, three are clear that Mary was amongst the women who first saw the Risen Christ and John says that she alone was the first. In this account the women discover the empty tomb and run to the Apostles who come to see it and then all rush home; but Mary stays and then meets Jesus alone. Whether she was tidying up in a ghostly echo of Martha or saying a last little prayer, we do not know; but what we do know is that it was not a theologian nor a patriarch, not a scholar nor a cleric that first saw the risen Jesus; and it was not a wise man nor a good man; it was a woman; a woman whose wickedness could only have been so emphasised by the Evangelists in order to contrast it with her Salvation.

The connection between the two Readings, then, is not the kind of sin that David and Mary committed but the penitence of them both and the forgiveness of their sins.

Since the beginning of Advent we have lived through the drama of the life of Jesus, compressed into half of the Church's year, and now we go into what we call Ordinary Time. This is the time to apply what we have lived and learned. We must never give up on ourselves when we fail Jesus but neither should we give up on those who appear to be beyond redemption; we must bring a message of hope from Jesus and instil it in those who seem lost; we must affirm the life changing forgiveness of sin and the salvation of sinners.

Jesus died so that all who believe in Him might be saved; let us be content to nourish that belief, to hoe the hardest ground, to sustain the weakest plant so it may grow in the love of Jesus; and may we return again and again without complaint to the field if the harvest should fail.

Kevin Carey

13th June 2004