Sex & Power

Sunday 17th June 2007
Year C, The Second Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 7:36-50; 8:1-3

Here's a puzzle. According to the tradition of the Christian church, women are lewd temptresses and the downfall of men - well, ladies, is that how you see yourselves? - but at the same time the backbone of Christian congregations is women. I suppose we could solve our puzzle by saying that all the female temptresses repent when they have lost their allure and spend their time in church. Is that why you're here, ladies? No. I don't think so.

For a whole complex of reasons, not long after its birth the Christian church became radically sexist and violently frightened of women. In spite of his respect for some of his female colleagues this fear emerges sharply in the first Christian writings that survive, the letters of Paul; and by the time we reach the Evangelists the accounts of the transparently non sexist Jesus are clouded by subconscious anxiety, even in St. Luke, the most egalitarian and non sexist of the four Evangelists.

That tradition of sexism and fear has persisted to our own times and you can see it in today's pairing of the reading from 2 Samuel with the Gospel. The prophet Nathan is telling David off for his affair with Bathsheba. Let us remind ourselves of the basics: Bathsheba was washing herself when David saw her at which point he did not turn away but apparently watched with some enjoyment. He wanted Bathsheba so he summoned her to the palace, had sex with her and then devised a plot to have her husband killed; and he ultimately married her and she bore him a child, the great King Solomon. As David was King and was entitled to take whatever wives and mistresses he liked whether they were married to somebody else or not, the real sin here is David's murder of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah the Hittite, but what sticks in the mind from the text of Samuel and subsequent commentary is not the murder but the adultery; and there is more than a hint that Bathsheba, by washing unconsciously in view of the king, was somehow to blame.

Now let us look at the Gospel incident by incident: Jesus was eating with Simon the Pharisee when a woman, said to be a sinner, came in and washed Jesus feet and anointed them. Simon thought that if Jesus knew who she was he would not allow her to touch him. Jesus forgave her sins. Then the reading switches focus to Jesus travelling and it mentions a number of women helpers including Mary Magdalene from whom, it says, seven devils were expelled (apparently by Jesus). So what have the male compilers done? They have taken extreme liberties with the text by implicitly assuming: a) that the woman doing the anointing and kissing was a prostitute, and b) That this prostitute was Mary Magdalene. There is no evidence for either of these conclusions.

Drawing the two readings together, the first refers to an adultery which led to a murder; the second really deals with the lack of courtesy of Simon the Pharisee who is unfavourably contrasted with a repentant sinner. But what this pairing asks us to do, quite gratuitously, is to think about the evils of adultery and prostitution and, by inference, it asks us to focus not on the men but on the women.

Last week Margaret and I were in Amsterdam, a city well known, depending on your perspective, for tolerance and pragmatism on the one hand or licentiousness and vice on the other. Where the red light districts of most cities are clearly defined and relatively easily avoided, in Amsterdam all but the widest thoroughfares contain brothels where almost completely naked girls pose in shop windows, advertising their wares. the natural reaction of many people is disgust; disgust that they can flaunt themselves so. But my reaction was to think that the tolerance and pragmatism I mentioned earlier depend on exploitation; and also to think that the licentiousness and vice are to be primarily attributed to the men that own and take profit from the girls and those who use their services. To condemn the girls themselves and leave it at that simply reflects the traditional view of the church that somehow the women who allure are guilty and the men are innocent dupes. (Incidentally, the rise in the number of resident prostitutes in a city was a well known by-product of the meeting of Medieval Church Councils.)

It is a platitude to say that prostitution would not be possible without the economic power and the callousness of the men who own and use the girls but let us say that to ourselves just once more before we draw the conclusion that the compilers of the Lectionary have a lot to answer for, as does the Church they represent. It would be wrong to make generalisations about the characteristics of women and equally wrong to sentimentalise (a few days before being in Amsterdam we passed the house of Joan of Arc) but it was men that seized the Christian Church and down-graded women and, as a consequence, down-graded physical love and the Sacrament of marriage; it was men who turned Christianity into a political power base; it was men who fought tooth and nail against the ordination of women; it is men who are fighting a totally mystifying battle over the ethics of homosexuality; and it is men who have turned the Christian Church into a factional, political battleground. No doubt if women ran the Church it would not be perfect; there would be different defects; but that at least would be a refreshing change!

Let us alter our focus and tell our two stories again: Bathsheba, washing in preparation for the return of her husband from battle, was forcibly removed from her house by David who had sex with her and caused her husband to be killed. The result of the pregnancy was a child which died. She was then forced to marry David and she bore him children including the future King. A woman who sinned wept for her wickedness, anointed the feet of Jesus and was forgiven; and many women followed Jesus so that they could look after him. Lest we forget, it was these same women who stood at the foot of the Cross when all the men but John had fled.

At root, at rock bottom, today's readings are both about the misuse of power; David uses his power to get his own way; Simon the Pharisee uses his power to condemn. It's about time that the Church, and we as part of it, stopped talking about sex and began to talk seriously about power, most of which is still in the hands of men. After that, we might want to talk about the nature of authority.