More Serious than Adultery
A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere at S. Saviours, St. Albans, on the first Sunday after Trinity, 2001
She’s a sinner. Today’s gospel story - this wonderful, tender, and for the gospel, quite sexy story - says she’s a sinner, quite clearly
And I’m sure that all of you immediately assumed you knew the nature of her sin.
Surely she must be an adulteress or a prostitute. A fallen woman. I bet it never crossed your mind that she might be an embezzler or a seller of fraudulent goods, someone who watered down the wine and put sawdust in the bread.
Whenever we hear the word sin or sinner we automatically think about sexual sin. Perhaps this is a reflection of the way our minds work, but more likely it is a result of centuries of simplification.
We know there are big sins – murder, violence, cruelty, fraud. Few of us commit those, and the law defines them and deals with them for us. Then there are the things we think of as little sins: lies, laziness, tax evasion, mockery. And in between are the sexual sins. In our minds they are not as big or as uncommon as murder nor as unimportant and universal as lying. And of course, sexual sins are very easy to identify and much more interesting than other sorts of sin. The story told in the gospel wouldn’t have half as much impact, only a fraction of the frisson, if the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping with her hair were not a prostitute but a fraudulent trader. We love to dwell on sexual sin – either because we’ve done it and it’s fun to look back on and feel deliciously guilty about it, or because some one else has and it’s equally delicious to disapprove. And we think they are really easy to define, about which we are quite relieved, morality being such a tricky area. We think sexual sins are easy to define, even though Jesus warned us against such simplistic thinking, when he said:
You have heard how it was said: You shall not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
The truth is, we like to identify sin with sex because it saves us having to think about it. The minute you realise that other things might be just as serious as illicit sex – that the fraudulent trader might be a greater sinner than the prostitute – then all your own behaviours are subject to question. I mean – it’s fairly easy to know when you’re having an affair, but it’s a lot harder to be sure that your business practices are absolutely moral, or your treatment of your children genuinely just and loving.
I would like to go one step further and suggest that for you and me - and in no sense to I think I am exempt from any of the strictures I might lay on you – for us – our wrong-doing is not things we do, but massively, overwhelmingly things we fail to do. And worse, things we do not even realise we are not doing.
I would further suggest that for most of us - civilised, humane, kind-hearted, law-abiding, respectable people that we are – our wrong-doing lies not only entirely in the realm of omission but in one specific area – what we choose to do with our money.
Let us go back to today’s gospel. Right at the end of the story we are told that Jesus went through the cities and villages proclaiming the kingdom. The twelve were with him, and a number of other people, some women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others. Interestingly the evangelist tells us that Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward. Now I suppose this made her a rich and respectable woman. He also says that these people, named and unnamed, ‘provided for them out of their resources’. So these people, presumably people of substance, were effectively keeping at least thirteen grown men in food and sandals. After all, Jesus had no other means of living except what he was given. But there were people among his followers prepared to support him and his disciples entirely. Not giving a little bit now and then. Entirely. Without them the kingdom could not have been preached.
Well perhaps that’s all very well in first century Palestine, where the issues are clear cut. He’s a wonderful prophet, going about the countryside with his followers doing good. You are a rich woman, it’s easy to see how you might tag along and pay all the bills. But the chance to do that nowadays isn’t afforded to us. Everything has become institutionalised to the degree that none of us feels responsibility any more for relieving the pain and need of others, or for attending to their education, healing or comfort. We have passed all those responsibilities onto larger bodies, government organisations or charities to whom we pay a subscription. We think there is no alternative to this. The magnitude of the social problems that must be addressed seem to us to require proper, professional management. But the trouble is, that by passing on our responsibility for the needs of society, we have effectively lost all sense of their reality, and of our own role in meeting them. In this we are doing wrong without even noticing it.
Let us take the church as a good and, to us, pertinent example of this process in which we commit sin without even being aware of it.
You may have seen in yesterday’s Times a very good article on the terrible state of the Church of England’s finances, brought about by the longevity of clergy. The central body of the church now has to spend all its investment returns on clergy pensions, throwing the burden of running parishes back onto the dioceses. The dioceses do not have enough in reserve to prop up thousands of effectively insolvent parishes, not to mention the terrible millstone of the fabric of so many listed buildings. A crisis looms.
But it looms principally because we, the people of the church, have lost touch with our financial obligations. We take whatever the church gives us, and in return we give God a tip.
It is, starkly, wrong for us corporately to treat the church like a service that is provided for us. It might have been once, but it is not going to be in future. This is our parish and we – that’s you and me and nobody else – have to pay for it. If we don’t come up with the necessary funds, either by finding it out of our personal resources, or giving enough of our time and energy to generate it, then we will not have a parish. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility that you can slide out of by thinking, oh well, I don’t come very often, so a pound will do. The church isn’t a service provided by a benign authority like the BBC. It is you and me, working together, with whatever we have - money if we have it, time, energy, ideas and skills to keep this community solvent. Not to do so is a form of selfishness.
Sadly keeping our own house in order, paying our way as a community is only the first obligation that we are shirking. We have serious obligations to society and to the world. We think that if we pay our taxes, moaning all the while, that the government will feed the poor and clean up the estates. We think that if we put a pound in the Christian Aid envelope that this absolves our obligation to the relief of the poor worldwide. But handing over responsibility like that is a form of sin, possibly quite serious sin, much more damaging in its effects than minor lapses from purity. If a whole body of people refuses its obligations, political, social and charitable and global, we have government that is unaccountable, society that allows the winner to take all, exploitation of the environment, oppression of minorities, and gross, wicked discrepancies between rich nations and poor.
You see, to be wrong, ways of life don’t have to feel sinful or appear sinful . A selfish, sin-filled way of life is frequently very comfortable indeed. You can be deeply dishonest and deeply self-serving and still parade to yourself and to society as a nice, respectable citizen, very different from the sinner washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. You can be as pious a churchgoer as any and still completely fail in your obligations to your community and society.
So I say this: stop gloating over the peccadilloes of Michael Barrymore and Jeffrey Archer, and start taking responsibility for God’s work in the world. Start with this community – accept that you personally are part of it and have an obligation to contribute energetically to its survival. As soon as we get that part right, the habit of giving and contributing will have been established, and the rest will follow automatically.