A boastful American from Texas was being shown the sights of London by a taxi driver. ‘And that is the Tower of London, sir’ said the taxi driver. ‘We can put up buildings like that in two weeks’ said the tourist. A little later: ‘That is Buckingham Palace’ said the taxi driver, ‘where the Queen lives.’ ‘Is that so? You know, in Texas, we could put up a palace like that in a week’ said the tourist. And when they were passing Westminster Abbey, the American asked, ‘Hey, what is that building over there?’ ‘I am afraid, I don’t know, sir’ replied the taxi driver, ‘it wasn’t there this morning.’
Simon, the rich and influential Pharisee in today’s gospel, invited Jesus to be his guest at dinner. There were others invited too, and we can have an educated guess that they were Simon’s friends – you hardly ever invite strangers or people you dislike to dinner. The party seemed to be ruined by a woman of ill-repute, behaving in a pretty embarrassing way. She was weeping, pouring her tears upon Jesus’ feet, then drying them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with a fragrant, expensive ointment. It’s not your usual ‘do’ at dinner unless it’s a stag night that isn’t going according to plan! Simon the Pharisee watched the whole situation with barely-concealed satisfaction, with a strong sense of superiority, and with utter contempt for the woman. I think that this happening was pre-arranged in order to embarrass Jesus and to ruin his reputation. It’s hard to imagine that someone could actually get into the house without being stopped and be allowed to perform such a bizarre ritual uninterrupted without the host’s consent. The gospels are rife with snares set by Jesus’ opponents, mainly the Pharisees; so it’s quite likely the meal was yet another trap. And, like many others, this one backfired. Instead of tarnishing Jesus’ reputation, it uncovered Simon’s duplicity, conceit and arrogance, which up until then had been disguised successfully beneath self-respect and good manners.
In the course of the last 50 years we have gradually ditched the concepts of sinfulness and of personal moral responsibility. Nowadays the common perception of us is as near-perfect people, with a strong sense of our individual worth and self-esteem. But when we look a bit closer at this seemingly desirable attitude, we can notice that quite often it’s achieved at the expense of other people. We make ourselves seem better by belittling others. Need an example? Here it comes. Have you ever met a driver who regards himself as a bad driver? Those I’ve come across have always been Masters of the Road – and if anything went wrong, it was always the other driver’s fault. We are pretty good at finding excuses and justification for our own actions and behaviour, and we are similarly good at blaming others, deservedly or not. Consequently if anything needs to change or improve, it’s not ‘me’, it’s ‘the world around me’.
Jesus in today’s gospel does what Simon the Pharisee did: he makes a comparison between the two individuals. But, unlike Simon, Jesus doesn’t condemn either of them, but presents the woman’s case as an example to be followed. Simon is invited to look at himself with a critical eye in order to recognise his own imperfections and shortcomings. In this way, and only in this way, Jesus will be able to offer him anything. It’s the same story for you and for me. Jesus remains powerless as long as you consider yourself powerful and perfect. He offers forgiveness and healing to those who need these. Or, to be more exact, to those who recognise those needs in themselves. Empowerment begins when you recognise your own powerlessness. Only then can you hear Jesus telling you: ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.’