Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’[ The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’]
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;
1 Kings 21:1–10 [11–14] 15–21a
1 Give ear to my words, O Lord; •
consider my lamentation.
2 Hearken to the voice of my crying, my King and my God, •
for to you I make my prayer.
3 In the morning, Lord, you will hear my voice; •
early in the morning I make my appeal to you, and look up.
4 For you are the God who takes no pleasure in wickedness; •
no evil can dwell with you.
5 The boastful cannot stand in your sight; •
you hate all those that work wickedness.
6 You destroy those who speak lies; •
the bloodthirsty and deceitful the Lord will abhor.
7 But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy,
I will come into your house; •
I will bow down towards your holy temple in awe of you.
8 Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness,
because of my enemies; •
make your way straight before my face.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities:
Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Sermon on Fourth Sunday of Trinity
“Turning towards the woman, he said to [his host] Simon [a Pharisee], ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ ”
What a chilling vignette this is! How can anyone feel justified in any way? We come to church to visit our Lord and Saviour, but, alas, have we bathed Christ’s feet with our tears of abject abasement, or dried those sacred feet in any way, with any part of our very selves? I stand abashed here castigating my own self-righteousness. I kneel before the altar repenting of my self regard. I cast myself on the mercy of Christ mingling my self with the dust of the earth.
How can I rear up on my hind legs and proclaim my love for Christ, when Jesus tells me about that woman who bewailed her self, her past, her present and her future? How dare I speak about anything as the story of that woman still rings in my ears?
This all comes to the fore because I have finished my latest project, reading At the Existentialist Café. One of the concepts discussed around the table was the “thrown-ness” of humanity – in other words, how contingent life is. I find myself here and now, in this space and time and I must make sense of it all there and then. That is the existentialist’s dilemma – to find meaning in the seemingly arbitrary life one has.
Many of the existentialists found no meaning, or merely absurdity, and so we have a great deal of novels and films which explore life in all its manifold complexity. Film noir and the theatre of the absurd put into sharp relief what was found to be the meaninglessness of life into which we are thrown, whether we find ourselves constrained by the history we take part in or whether we can do nothing because of the paralysis of constraining fate or too much choice, choices which have no intrinsic worth and no compulsion for us to choose any one of them.
But here we have Jesus talking to us about this woman who has come to him. Turning towards the woman who was really making a scene, Jesus asks his host to consider her – “Do you see this woman?” Jesus is asking something particular here – not just “did you notice her?”, but “have you turned your gaze toward this woman so that she enters into your care and concern?” Simon now looks and sees that everything has broken down for her. We might speculate that she has collapsed in anguish at the life she has abused, for we know her history. She quakes with remorse as she weeps over Jesus’ feet drying them with her hair. She abases herself, we could say, by crying over her sins soaking Jesus’ feet and uses what should be her glory to dry up those tears of wretchedness.
I don’t know whether any of the existentialists have ever considered this woman of ill-repute at Jesus’ feet. Let’s try to use their method to interpret this story, a way of making sense of the words of Jesus. It may just happen that the words which touch this woman making such a scene in the Pharisee’s house could apply to us. The woman is obviously in a state of anguish. Her history is known by all, and now here she is sobbing and at Jesus’ feet. She is sobbing so much she has to dry them and she uses her hair. Then she opens a bottle of expensive perfume and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. What extravagance! All that rich scent gushing out and the aroma filling the house. – And the irony – a woman of ill-repute in a Pharisee’s house and she has flooded it with a fragrance Simon had probably never experienced anywhere else, let alone in his own completely kosher house.
How is this poor woman presenting herself to Jesus and the Pharisee? How is this poor woman being perceived?
Jesus turns his gaze to look at the woman and sees that she has washed his feet and kissed them. She has dried his feet with her hair and sacrificed that expensive perfume to honour him. Has anyone else seen all this? Is it only Jesus who has plumbed the depths of her anguish and interpreted her as the Other person.
Simon looks at a woman creating a scene. She has no connection with him. Simon is detached from this woman as she wails and sheds tears all over his guest. – Jesus gazes at this woman and accepts her tears, kisses and perfume as befits the gifts welcoming a stranger – a valuing of another Simon did not undertake. Then Jesus turns his gaze on Simon to remonstrate – “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
That gaze when turned on us, chastens us. For we haven’t dealt with the stranger correctly – as if she were Jesus. Doesn’t Jesus say something like – “when you have dealt with the least of them, you have done so to me.”
So what happened when Jesus turned his gaze on the woman? Why did she break down so irretrievably? Jesus must have said, “Sister!” and her old world collapsed, as when Jesus said “Mary” at the empty tomb. Everything was turned upside down with that one word. The old world passes away and everything is made anew. Nothing could possibly ever be the same. Everything is revalued. So Mary ran off to proclaim the good news to the others and this woman cried the rivers in which she washed Jesus’ feet. Her world had changed radically. She was to go and sin no more, as Jesus said to another who entered under his gaze.
Why did this happen then and there? That is the question the existentialists among us must approach – we must describe the light entering a life. We must share our experience with each other, with friends and strangers alike, for don’t we believe that all are equal before God?
When we turn our gaze to see the Other really as they are, and the Other turns their gaze on us to see us as we truly are, then we will be in the same existential situation as Jesus and that woman. — Who knows what the outcome will be? Perhaps we will break down completely and welcome the Other into our homes as we would Jesus, that we might see as Simon did, but mostly I pray that the perfume of holiness will spill and waft out from our greeting to everyone, friend or stranger, wherever we meet.