Sermon – 17 June 2007 – The woman with the perfume

When I was first in full time ministry, as a lay person, some fifteen years ago, I worked as a member of the chaplaincy team, in the University of London. The team that I worked in was a team of five people, four ordained, and me, a lay person. Four were men, and one a woman. We worked from a rather extraordinary modern chapel which was entirely circular. It was the inside of a dome which was decorated with some rather frightening scenes from the Book of Revelation. As your eyes drifted up at morning prayer, you would find yourself gazing at the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

No doubt as a consequence of these rather scary murals, various people had tried to put other things into that space which would attract the eye and keep one’s gaze away from the walls. One such object was a statue, about a foot and a half high. It was a woman, kneeling, her hair still braided carefully in place, holding a box of ointment. It was the woman of our gospel story this morning. She sat there expectantly. Watching. Waiting. Waiting for the moment when she could sneak forward to anoint the teacher’s feet with her perfume and wash them with her hair.

Now, I quite liked this figure, but not everyone did. Indeed, one of my colleagues used to nudge her ever so slightly each day until she was pushed out of view behind the organ casing. Presumably he found the four horsemen of the apocalypse more spiritually uplifting than the woman with the perfume.

One morning I remember coming in and hearing the most almighty row going on in the chapel. Indeed, it sounded as though the four horsemen of the apocalypse had finally arrived and the harrowing of hell had begun. The voice of my female colleague was raised. Raised very loudly and I heard her cry, “You’ve put that young woman in a dark shady corner. Just like men have all these centuries. Get her out. Get her out and listen to what she has to say.”

That young woman with her box of ointment has the power to cause tempers to be lost now as much as in her own day. What am I to do with her now? What shall I say about her in this sermon?

Well, I’m going to ask you to give her a nudge out of the way, don’t worry, it is only temporary. We will encourage her out from her shady corner in a moment or two and hear more about her then. For the moment, I want you to leave her be, and think just for a bit about Jezebel and Ahab.

Now, I can remember doing the story of Naboth’s vineyard in Sunday School when I was but a lad. I cannot now think for the life of me what that was about. Why on earth this was considered suitable material for an eight year old, I cannot imagine. It is a story of power gone wrong, of a weak man and an evil woman. It is a story of the destruction of a good though simple man Naboth so that Jezebel could please her husband the king.

I was trying to think of a way of rehabilitating Jezebel this morning. You know the kind of sermons that you sometimes hear – Pilate was set up, Herod was much misunderstood, that kind of thing. Those of us of a liberal persuasion maybe try too hard to explain away difficult people. However, I think there is no way around it. Jezebel just seems to have been plain bad.

She uses the power of her man’s name to get what she wants and does so with great cruelty and deception.

However, it is not particularly the morality of the exchange of property that I want to pick out from this story this morning. Rather, I want to pick up on the way the bible speaks of how men and women interrelate. Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard. When he doesn’t get it, he sulks. He turns his face to the wall and he sulks. You can almost see written in the margin the words, “Just like all men do”. And Jezebel, what does she do? She sets out using her wiles and gets what she wants in order to please him and to stop the sulking. Is that just like all women do?

The point here is that those kinds of prejudices are written into the stories that we routinely read as scripture. The idea that men get what they want and that the only option that women have is to buy into that system is central to the patriarchal assumptions of the times. It is as though Ahab and Jezebel are playing out an old script learned long before. It is familiar enough to us that it can still get a laugh. It is the basis of lots of good jokes and a even more jokes that are no good at all.

Now, let us go back and get that statue out of the corner. Let us take a good look at the woman waiting to anoint Jesus with her smelly, sticky ointment. The point of her story for me is that Jesus and this woman seem to be improvising a new unscripted scene. They don’t seem to be playing out the expectations of patriarchy. Rather they seem to be challenging them fundamentally.

The punchline of the script that Simon the Pharisee had in his head was that the wicked woman at the men’s feet gets thrown out onto the streets from whence she came. She gets recognised for what she is – a worthless troublemaker and gets thrown out and never thought about again. But no. Jesus seems to indicate that it does not have to be like that. He rips up the script and rather scandalously starts to improvise something altogether more interesting. It is as though he is saying that we do not have to live out the old, rather tired poor jokes about power and gender that we have lived with for too long. We do not have to be confined to the roles that others have given us.

Women can be models of the grace of God just as much as men can. (And that was a stunning revelation – more shocking than it can seem to us)

And men and women can get closer to the grace of God with things like touch, kindness and hospitality rather than by putting on an impressive show in a posh house with all the right people sitting in all the right places. (And even now in our celebrity culture, that should shock us more than it may seem at first to do). And it is still a little shocking for men to realise that intimate touch is where Jesus indicated grace could be found.

The tired pathways of patriarchy need not be the ways which we chose to walk. The presumptions of power and wealth and status are the presumptions of the kingdom of this world, not the grace filled reign of God.

The reign of God’s grace is more unguent, more potent, smellier and stickier than most people are ever entirely comfortable with. The scandal of the gospel is that God’s grace sticks to everyone and its smell is detected by the least worthy far more quickly than the high and mighty or the purity-obsessed Pharisee such as Simon, in whose home all this is being played out.

The whiff of that perfume wafts down the ages. Stronger and more powerful than many other gestures made to Jesus in his lifetime. Pure and holy is that smell and it covers up the stench of prejudice and presumption that surrounded that women when she made her way from the streets into the house of the Pharisee. It is her gratuitous kindness that is remembered now as a model of God’s grace, not his starchy stiff pseudo hospitality.

Let me finish by asking you to think about where you have smelled the smell of that perfume? Where have you encountered gratuitous grace. For we all need to remember that the perfume jar was not exhausted on that day. It still gets opened occasionally these days too. One of the most moving things that I have encountered in my first year here was the service for World AIDS day in December. During that service, we were asked to take some oil, infused with rich, smelly scent and rub it into the hands of the person sitting next to us. Of the many things about that service it is that moment that I remember, as all over the Cathedral, people turned to their neighbour and began gently to anoint one another and to speak quietly. As it was done to me, I remembered the relentless years of people dying, the crazy hope in life that has never died with them. The smell of that perfume was enough to waft away all kinds of stigma, all kinds of things unsaid. I turned to my neighbour to anoint his hands too and found I was looking into a face that like mine was wet with tears.

When have you known God’s grace? When have you smelled the perfume?

The sticky, smelly unguent perfume that that young women released into the Pharisee’s house is still with us. Where kindness is present, God is there. Where stigma is extinguished, God is there. Where tears are shed and shared, God is there. Where God’s people chose new pathways of grace over and against the tired well-trodden pathways of patriarchy, God is there.

God is present. Gratuitous grace is released. And there is no putting it back into its box.



  1. Kenneth Macaulay says

    Thank you Kelvin!

  2. I don’t think there can have been a dry eye this morning, if reading this sermon can be so powerful. Thank you!

  3. Eamonn says

    Powerful stuff indeed! Well done and thank you!

  4. William Bennett says

    I wish I had heard this sermon this morning instead of the one I heard. I agree that it is powerful stuff. I am proud to be a member of the American daughter church of the Scottish Episcopal Church which has produced a priest such as you.

  5. asphodeline says

    I’m very fond of the “perfume lady” and I love what you’ve written here. Thank you, I needed this today.

  6. Harry Monroe says

    I heard the sermon on Sunday, got a copy of it for a friend who was off, and have read it again. Will stay in my memory for a long time.

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