Sunday 12th June 2016, Trinity 3, morning

2 Samuel 11.26 - 12.10, 13-15; Luke 7.36 - 8.3

by Revd Chris Palmer

In 2004 five graduates wanted to open a bar in Palermo, Sicily. They realised they would be asked to pay protection money to the mafia. 80% of businesses in Sicily pay this money, called the pizzo. Frustrated with the Mafia's stranglehold on the local economy and political life, they went out at night and covered the city with stickers saying: "A whole people who pays the pizzo is a people without dignity." They organized demonstrations and had tee-shirts made with their message. Thus addiopizzo was formed – goodbye to the pizzo.

In May 2006 they organized a "pizzo-free" festival in one of Palermo's main squares. In 2007 they had 210 business members and over 9,000 consumers committed to shop only at places that didn’t pay the protection money. The local police agreed to look after the member shops. They organized programs in more than 90 schools and places of education. In 2008 they launched a supermarket, which got them international press coverage. [1]

Today we have two stories of mafia bosses of the ancient world trying to intimidate those weaker than themselves. And Nathan and Jesus have the courage to stand up to them and defend the vulnerable from their predatory hunting.

In the first, we see Nathan confronting David for his violent corruption. The background is that King David got his army commander’s wife pregnant. When he couldn’t cover it up, he arranged for him to be killed. Nathan tells him the story about a rich citizen who stole his neighbour’s only lamb. David is enraged – ‘that man shall die’ – and Nathan then reveals the reality – ‘you are that man’.

In the second, Jesus has gone to dinner with Simon, a mafia boss, a leading Pharisee. A woman comes weeping and covering his feet with her tears and with ointment. And Simon wants to belittle and exclude her. But Jesus speaks up in her defence.

We might say that standing up to the mafia is dangerous. And, yes, it is. People have died as a result of doing so. Indeed, Jesus ends up dying precisely for doing so. After many episodes in which he challenges the power of the first century mafia, the gospels tell us that they went away and plotted to kill him.

But Nathan and Jesus both know that staying ‘safe’ but living with oppression is belittling, saps the spirit, and robs us of humanity. Sometimes standing up to the powerful, in support of the weak is important.

But Nathan and Jesus are both wise in how they do this. They tell stories – parables really – stories that draw David and Simon in to their way of thinking. The result is that David has already condemned himself without knowing. ‘The man who did this shall die’, he says. Nathan says, ‘It was you…’

And Jesus makes sure that he raises the woman, the victim of Simon’s prejudice, to a place of dignity. Simon will only talk about her. Jesus leaves off talking to Simon in order to speak to the woman. ‘Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you… Go in peace.’ In the Gospels, whilst Jesus is never afraid to stand up to the powerful who exploit and oppress others, he is unfailingly compassionate to their victims – giving them back their humanity, honouring them, reintegrating them into community.

In our muddled lives we will at times be in each of these three positions: sometimes the victim of others prejudice or control; sometimes controlling others subtly or overtly, but nonetheless robbing them of power and dignity; sometimes called to speak truth to power even at the risk of provoking opposition. One of the hardest things is being honest about which of these positions we’re really in. Our resentful nature will want to believe we’re the victim. Or our self-righteous nature will want to play the defender of others, when really we’re just venting our rage or playing ‘genius to idiot’: ‘I’m so clever, let me tell stupid you how it is’. Or we’re blind to the ways we exploit our influence, portraying it as ‘service’ of others to give it a holy sheen, when it’s merely self-serving.

I think that in Jesus we see someone who’s stayed close enough to God, to remain free from self-deception about these things. For most of us, coming to that point means coming through lots of humiliating failures. That’s particularly true of David. He has to feel the shame of his contemptible action, to feel ‘undone’, learns the grace of forgiveness, before he is able to grow in wisdom and compassion. It’s also true of the woman; as Jesus says, ‘it’s because she’s been forgiven much that she can love much.’

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, says that he’s long prayed for a daily humiliation. It might be a failure – something that gone wrong - or a fault we need to say sorry for, or something that makes him a point of mockery. He invites these because it’s in being unmade that we are remade. It is the pattern of death and resurrection that we see in Jesus – not only in his eventual literal death, but in his humility and self-effacement throughout his life.

Today we baptise Alexandra.  Baptism is entering this dying and rising pattern of Jesus’ life. We say that in baptism it’s as if we are buried with Christ, so that we can rise to God’s resurrection life with him.  For Alexandra to be a Christian is for her to enter into this story, this dynamic, as the one that gives meaning to our existence. As she grows up it is the responsibility of our whole community – and especially her parents and godparents – to encourage her in growing in this faith and commitment. And the best way of doing this isn’t by adopting an attitude of telling her what to do, but humbly living this life of being undone and remade ourselves for her to observe

So my prayer today – for Alexandra and all of us – is that we will stay close enough to God that we have the humility to embrace this pattern of dying and rising with Jesus each day.