by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s
It was a scandal. How dare he overturn nearly two millennia of tradition and upset people’s faith unnecessarily? And he’s kept doing it. It’s absolutely against the rules…. So some Catholics say about the 2013 papal innovation by Pope Francis’ of washing the feet, not just of devout Catholic men, but of people including women and those of other or no faith, on Maundy Thursday in remembrance of the Last Supper.
In 2015 Pope Francis changed the rubric, the rules of the service, to allow others to do what he’d already been doing – not that those who disagreed with him would have wanted him to make it legal anyway. Interesting that Jesus had a habit of doing that: challenging the rules made up by those around him, and doing it in order to share wholeheartedly the love of God and the challenge of God with those who need it.
I was preaching last Sunday on a gospel passage which has spoken powerfully to me across the years about this: Luke 7.36 onwards. And in the context of conversations and disagreements, I was struck anew by the question which Jesus asks his host, a question which on the face of it seems absurd.
‘Do you see this woman?’, Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee as they recline at table, probably in the open courtyard of Simon’s house, perhaps surrounded by curious onlookers. How could he not have been transfixed by the woman in question? She had been sobbing behind Jesus during the dinnertime conversation, had been caressing and kissing and anointing his feet, letting down her hair in the process, and acting in a way which shocked those who looked on. Even in Britain today, such behaviour would be regarded as outrageously inappropriate for a dinner party. Luke tells us what Simon was thinking, and it wasn’t good news for Jesus or the woman. How does Jesus rescue the situation in a way which doesn’t demean anyone but which challenges all with the truth of the love of God?
You can read it: the parabolic story with its transforming question, the comparison between the lack of hospitality given by Simon and the devotion of the woman, and the declaration of forgiveness and healing which further challenges those around the dinner table.
And what does this have to do with us?
As the reactions to Pope Francis show, touch is embarrassing, crosses boundaries, invades our space – but if we don’t touch God and God doesn’t touch us, we’re lost. And that touch of God is about love and forgiveness, the love which God offers us no matter who or how we are; the love which challenges the judgements we make about others.
‘Do you see this woman?’ The point of Jesus’ question is that we think we do, but we don’t. We need to really stop and see, to look at people as they are, and not cast them as a caricature or stereotype in our categorisation of the world. Think of how we look at people around us, in the street or on the TV, especially those who make us feel uncomfortable. Beggar? Posh person? Rough diamond? Office worker? Celebrity? Slapper? Hoodie? Gay? These categories determine how we react to people as stereotypes, but we don’t see them – and often we’re surprised by the way in which people don’t behave as our script says they should. Which is because, all around us, there are no stereotypes. Only real people in all their beauty and sin and brokenness and need for transformation. People like us.
That’s what faith should grow in us – the ability to see better, to stop and perceive the person who is there, instead of the image in our own minds. Road safety for small children starts with the phrase: Stop, Look, Listen. That’s a good slogan for safety in our relationships and encounters with others, in person as well as on the road. It even works well for our worship and prayer too, in our relation to God: because at the heart of Christian prayer is contemplation – simply looking to God, paying attention to God, in order to touch and be touched by God and so be changed.
Simon Butler’s blog last week pointed out how we get stuck in talking at one another in the Church instead of talking – and listening – to each other. And that’s why we need to stop, look, and listen to God; and then stop and take time to really look and listen at the person in front of us, and see them as Jesus sees them, and allow God to challenge us through each other.
Do you see this woman, this person? Do you see what forgiveness & acceptance can do? Are you ready to be generous with your love?
Do you see this woman?