Chapter & verse: Luke 7: 36-50
In the film of the same name, the Star Trek federation and the Klingons drink a toast with echoes of Hamlet: to “the undiscovered country” – a not-knowing-what-it’s-going-to-look-like-now-we’re-at-peace-instead-of-mortal-enemies place – a place whose contours aren’t at all clear, or even appearing on the horizon.
Looking at the Gospel lectionary readings for the Sundays of June (the centurion’s slave healed, the widow’s son raised, the sinful woman anointing Jesus, “Legion” healed), and pondering these stories, that phrase, “the undiscovered country” kept intruding itself in my mind. The people around Jesus, in their need, grief, love or indifference, pain, torment, each face the unknown.
Change is unnerving. Very few find it easy, or walk into the unknown without fear. It is an undiscovered country – the closure of a building, a vacancy of undefined length, a long-serving post-holder struggling to let go, retirement bringing the worry of what will fill each day, living without a loved one… we can all think of examples.
Let’s enter the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) and watch two people face the challenge of a new place.
Simon seems to be full of his own certainties, and his sense of his own righteousness compared to the woman and compared to Jesus who allows the woman’s touching, weeping, anointing and kissing. Jesus tells the story of the two debtors: one owes 50 denarii and the other 500, neither can pay, and both have their debts forgiven. Simon acknowledges the greater debtor would love most. Jesus unfolds to Simon the truth that the woman is that greater debtor and the implied question to Simon is, why, then, is her poured-out gratitude something to be sneered at?
Simon was an educated man. If he recognises that the woman owed 500 denarii, did he take that extra step, see himself in the parable, and acknowledge that he was in debt too?
And if he could acknowledge his debt, did he glimpse what forgiveness might look like? Was his self-perception so full of ease and honourable status that he shut his eyes and ears to the call of the undiscovered country of humility and forgiveness? We do not learn the rest of Simon’s story.
The woman saw her present situation very clearly – and she dared. She dared to approach the one she believed could open the door to that new existence; dared to face the humiliation of the Simons of the world to discover the country of forgiveness and reconciliation even if that was as unexpected a place for her as it was for the federation and the Klingons.
Do we, as Christian readers, associate ourselves with the woman? We confess our sins (all 500 denarii-worth of them), glad to acknowledge that we know exactly where our debt is owed. But Simon’s story is a challenge to us too: we need to face the possibility that we are clinging on to the known, the who-we-are, the roles we fulfil that give us status in our own eyes because we see our status reflected in the opinions others have of us.
That means there are hard questions in this passage. Is there an undiscovered country that God is calling me to – so new, so unexpected, that I cannot yet see its contours. And am I prepared to step out on that journey of change?
The Revd Dr Rosalind Selby is principal of Northern College, Manchester – a United Reformed Church learning resource centre
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform
Read more articles by Rosalind Selby