One of the rich insights that Saint Paul gives us is that we see through a glass dimly. What we can see only in part now, we will one day see fully and perfectly. There will be a day when everything makes sense: but that day is not today. For many of us, our experience of glass is, of course, the reverse. We actually wear darkened or tinted lenses in our sun glasses in order to help us to see things not more dimly, but more clearly, unobscured by the glare of the afternoon sun; and those of us who are long sighted or short sighted, and need to wear glasses all of the time or perhaps for reading or driving, have become so used to wearing our glasses that we rarely stop to think about how important they are for us.
Our current fashionable versions of glasses and contact lenses are simply the latest in a long line of devices to aid our vision, whether to make distant objects closer, or closer objects more distant. At least one thousand years ago glass sphere reading stones were being laid on top of materials to magnify the detail, and the first glasses that could be worn were invented in Italy in the thirteenth century, so we have had these aids for a very long time.
All those of us who wear any of the variety of spectacles that are available to us, know their power to transform what we see and to bring clarity to our vision. And yet we know that whilst glasses – in whatever form we wear them – help to bring some clarity, Saint Paul is also right, that all of us still see through a glass dimly; that none of us are able to see well enough to truly give the level of meaning that we desire to the things that we see and experience.
What is true for those of us who wear physical glasses, is also true for all humans, because we all wear a more sophisticated set of invisible spectacles. Each of us makes use of this set of invisible lenses, whether we are aware of it or not, that determine how we see and experience the world around us. All that we say about the world, about ourselves, and about God is provisional, because no pair of glasses or any other aid to sight, can give us the knowledge and clarity that we long for.
We are familiar with the idea of someone who wears a rose-tinted set of these invisible spectacles, and through them sees the world in an artificially positive way that may not really reflect reality. We are inspired by the ways that children are able to see the wonder and enchantment and magic of the world, through lenses that we have long since lost and do not seem to be able to find again.
The spectacles that I am describing are not made of physical glass, they have been constructed by layers of things that we have been taught, experiences that we have had, and aspirations and hopes that we hold on to; and although we cannot see these glasses, they are much more powerful than the physical versions that some of us wear, and they act in exactly the same way. They help to bring into focus clearly what we see around us, but they also dictate how and what we see. Each of us wears lenses that are made up of a particular set of values, and when we see the world, what we see is filtered through those values without us even realising it.
In the Gospel encounter that we gather around at this Mass each of the characters in the story that is portrayed so richly for us by the Gospel writers are wearing their own unique set of these invisible spectacles. The Pharisee, Simon, in whose home the drama takes place wears a set of lenses that dictate both how he sees Jesus and how he sees the woman who comes and kneels before him. The woman herself, wears a set of spectacles through which she sees a world in which she has been forgiven and given new hope for the future, and that is why she lays everything else aside in order to simply be close to Jesus and to worship and adore him, no matter what any one else in the room thinks about her actions. Jesus, wears a set of glasses through which he sees people not as others do, but with the love and compassion that his Father has for them.
These three people are in the same physical space together, and yet they see the world profoundly differently. All of this is taking place at a formal dinner, much less like the kind of private meal that we might have in our own homes with people gathered together in a dining room; and much more like a public event, in which the doors of the house are probably open, and people are wandering in and out, watching what is taking place, gathering in a wider circle around the guests who are eating, and watching and listening intently to what is being said and done.
In the middle of this meal, the woman in the encounter makes her way to the centre of the room, where Jesus and the owner of the house and the other guests are eating, and breaking open a jar of costly ointment, she washes Jesus’ feet with a mixture of the ointment and her tears, and then dries them with her hair. We can detect the embarrassment that such an action would have elicited in the others who were gathered there. Such an intimate act taking place publicly at a dinner party. But this woman does not care. Her natural inhibitions, probably the terror within her of risking doing such a thing, counts for nothing in comparison to the forgiveness that she has received, and the new world of possibilities that she now sees with Jesus.
Simon the Pharisee, the owner of the house, sees everything very differently. This is a notorious woman, perhaps a prostitute, who is disrupting his dinner party, but worse still, Jesus who is his guest is doing nothing to stop her. It is all to do with these spectacles, these lenses through which the various characters are seeing what is going on. When the Pharisee looks at this woman he sees a sinner.
When he looks at Jesus he sees someone who is purporting to be a prophet but who cannot even realise the kind of woman that this is. When Jesus looks at this woman he sees a forgiven sinner, in other words, someone who is a sinner no longer, and he rejoices to declare this to everyone and to share in her joy at being released from all that has imprisoned her. The woman sees only Jesus, she does not care who else is in the room. She sees only him, and the new future of hope in God’s love that is ahead for her.
Of course, as we know, these encounters with Jesus are proclaimed for us Sunday by Sunday not so much because of the particular significance of the original characters, but because they represent you and me. Every time we read the Gospels in the life of the Church, we paint ourselves into the stories – because they are stories about Jesus and people then, and Jesus and people like you and me now; and so the question that it is often helpful to ask, is who are we in the story? Or who would we be if a scene like this unfolded here in Church today? Are we the woman, wearing spectacles that see the world through the joy of knowing God’s extravagant love for us? Are we the Pharisee, wearing spectacles that deep down tell us that sinners are sinners, and that this place is really just for people like us and not for them? In other words, what lenses do we wear to understand ourselves and the world around us?
It is worth stating the obvious that both of the characters who engage with Jesus in our story today are seeking God in their lives, not just one of them. The Pharisee – probably if we are honest, the one closest to how we see the world – is not a villain, he simply sees what is going on through a set of understandings and values that make him think that this woman is further away from God than he is. It is an easy mistake to make, most of us probably see the world like that as well, after all we are here week by week, taking the time to worship and pray, and look after this place, and the majority of people around us are not doing that. Through this story we are forced to come to terms with the fundamental injustice of grace.
God does not love us because of what we do, he does not stop loving us because of what we do not do. He loves us because as he looks at us he sees Jesus. Saint Paul, in our Epistle reading is able to proclaim, “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.”
Membership in God’s family is not something that we earn, or lose, by what we do or what we do not do – it is a gift that we are freely given through Jesus, because God desires it; and that is the lense through which we are called to understand our life and our faith, the people around us and our world.