Word has come from the Church of Tanzania that communion is “severely impaired” with the Episcopal Church, and there will be no further dealings with anyone who is “homosexual” or who has approved of just about anything having to do with “homosexuality.” In addition to the condemnation and the declaration of impaired communion, the Church of Tanzania joins the Church of Uganda in stating that it will no longer accept financial or material support from The Episcopal Church or its tainted coffers.
Frankly, I don’t know what theological justification there can be for refusing financial help from those deemed unclean. Certainly Israel was instructed to take as much as they could from the Egyptians when they set off on their Exodus (3:22). And I don’t recall the pericope about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:35) ending,
And when the man recovered from his wounds, and hearing that the one who had helped him was a Samaritan, he cursed the day of his birth, saying, “Woe is me that I should be helped by an unclean sinner.” And entreating the host to cast the coins he had received onto the dungheap, for they were unclean as coming from unclean hands, he wrote letters to his friends in a far country, earnestly desiring that they should send him money that he might pay the host all that he owed.Nor did Jesus refuse the help of the Samaritan woman, though he had better water for her than she for him (John 4:7). So the idea that money from TEC should by no means be allowed to taint Tanzanian hands seems to be a novel idea based on notions of ritual purity; which would explain a great deal.
Now, if this refusal of funds merely meant one less perk for the bishops who passed this legislation, that is, if it really concerned them directly, I would say, fine. But the money these bishops are refusing isn’t meant for them — it is for ministries to the hungry, the poor, the widows and orphans — of which there are hundreds of thousands in Tanzania. The bishops are holding a metaphorical gun to the heads of these suffering hostages, and threatening to pull the trigger unless The Episcopal Church repents and recants. Do you think that image overwrought? We are talking here literally of life and death for many of these innocents. And while going on a hunger strike oneself to force others to an act of conscience is one thing, to make others undertake a starvation strike seems altogether immoral. I don’t know what ethical system these bishops were instructed in, but in my book (you know, the one with an Old and a New part) the primary duty of those who would serve God is to serve the suffering, not to demand adherence to a purity code.
Of course, this is only the latest chapter in the continuing saga of those who think of themselves as holy versus those who do the things Jesus actually commanded his disciples to do. Let me explore one of the earlier chapters with you, and how Jesus dealt with one who thought he knew where holiness was to be found — and not found.
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In the present debates the story of “The Woman Taken In Adultery” has come up more than once. This episode from our Lord’s ministry, appearing only in some versions of the Gospel of John, and occasionally in Luke, is cited by “liberals” for its notes of tolerance and suspension of judgment and by “conservatives” for its call for reformation of life. As with much of Scripture its one-size message apparently fits all.
There is another gospel episode, however, that I find much more apposite to our present case, called “The Anointing in Bethany.” John (12:1-8) places the scene in the hospitable and somewhat irregular household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, while Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) place it in the home of Simon the leper. All three evangelists highlight the extravagant offering of perfume, the diversion of resources that might have served the poor, and Jesus’ response that serving him in this instance takes precedence. (In these cases the Tanzanian and Ugandan fund-refusers might — by a squint-eyed misunderstanding of Jesus — have some remote justification for letting the poor be “always with them” while they serve Jesus directly. Point is, Jesus has now told us, in his absence, to serve him in the poor. Sorry, bishops.)
Luke (7:36-50), however, with his characteristic urge to highlight issues of salvation and redemption, places the scene in the enemy camp, in the home of Simon the Pharisee, whose concern is not with perfume or the poor, but with the woman, or rather, with the sort of woman he knows her to be, not an individual person so much as a member of a despised class of people.
The Pharisee no doubt thinks that he has escaped the snares of sin by his careful observance of the rules. There is no hint that it ever occurs to his purified conscience, “If this man were a prophet he would not accept my invitation to dinner, for he would know what sort of man I am.” No, the Pharisee is prudent; he is temperate. Like his confrère who compared himself favorably to the tax collector, the great gulf between his upright life and this fallen woman’s lifestyle is obvious to him. “Yes,” he might say, “we are all sinners; but some are clearly more sinful than others.”
And Jesus appears at first to ratify this assessment: he offers the analogy of debt forgiveness, forgiveness to one who owed much and to one who owed little. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, with what the Pharisee could well take as a flattering assessment, a pat on the head for his correct answer to the moral drama unfolding at his dinner table.
Instead Jesus presses home the significance of the answer: the Pharisee has judged himself, correctly this time, and Jesus goes on to compare and contrast Simon’s parsimonious welcome with the woman’s lavish and costly service.
The Pharisee welcomes Jesus to the table, but keeps him at arms’ length and sits in judgment — and in error. For Jesus not only knows what sort of woman it is who is ministering to him, but knows it better than the Pharisee possibly can, better than the Pharisee knows himself. The Pharisee cannot fathom why Jesus would allow a sinner to be a minister to him, or at least such a sinner. Of his own trifling sins he cares but little, for he is sure of his own righteousness. But this woman! That is another matter altogether. And so he sits in double judgement, of the woman and her Lord.
She, on the other hand, isn’t worried about her sins, which indeed are many. Nor is there a mention of repentance concerning her tears — unusual for Luke! Rather these are responsive tears of love flowing from faith and hope, from the knowledge of forgiveness, the theology of virtue encompassed and expressed in a woman thought by the Pharisee incapable of goodness, a woman who incarnates and enacts the liturgical sacrament of baptism with her confession of faith, the washing of her tears, and anointing her Lord with fragrant ointment, sealed with the kiss of peace.
So we are presented with two models for our own encounter with Christ, with Christian ministry, with service to the body of Christ which is the church. All who serve the Lord are sinners, all who serve the Lord are forgiven. Some will prefer to spend their time worrying about other people’s sins and how the church can tolerate them. They will seek to obstruct their service, thinking all the while that they protect God’s body from the touch of unclean hands. Others will get on with the works of faith, of hope, and of love. Is there any question at all which Christ would rather have us do?
— Tobias Haller BSG