Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/1/94
Luke 7:36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting him to dine with him. And he entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought and alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and, standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and kept wiping them with the hair of her head and kissing his feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now, when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of person this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner." 40 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he replied, "Say it, Teacher." 41 "A certain moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him more?" 43 Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And he said to him, "You have judged correctly." 44 And turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but since the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." 48 And he said to her, "You sins have been forgiven." 49 And those who had been reclining at the table with him began to say to themselves, "Who is this man who even forgives sins?" 50 And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."
Certainly one of the chief things that believers in Christ have to be thankful for is the forgiveness of their sins. This anonymous woman is possibly the outstanding example in all of history of such gratitude. The best way to understand her example is to look at the way this incident functions in the context and the flow of Luke's narrative. So let us think about the Setting of the Scene, the Scene itself, and the Significance of the Scene for understanding Jesus and our own relationship to him.
Why is this story placed right here in Luke's unfolding of the narrative of Jesus's ministry? You say, "Well, it happened next. Duh!" A simple, common sense response. This is where it happened: between the encounter with John the Baptist's disciples and the preaching tour of chapter eight. And I do not doubt that, as far as it goes, this answer is true. But we must remember John's observation that if everything Jesus did and said had been written down, the whole world could not have contained the books. Lots of things happened or got said after last week's passage and before next week's. So why put any of them in this spot? And if we include something, why this story? I don't think Luke made any of these decisions by accident. When anything shows up, it is usually a testimony to two things: first, the Gospel writer's estimation of its importance, and, second, the fact that it advances or develops a theme he is working with, either throughout his narrative as a whole or in this particular section of it. Our passage today does this both in the larger context of Luke's Gospel and in the immediate context as well.
First, the idea of forgiveness is important to all the Gospel writers, because Jesus was the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, and he came to give his life a ransom for many. So each Gospel devotes about half of its space to Passion Week and the Resurrection--as much as to the other thirty years of Jesus's life all put together! But they also include particular episodes throughout the whole period of Jesus's ministry in which forgiveness itself, or people's attitudes toward forgiveness, get highlighted. Sometimes, as with the Paralytic Let Down through the Roof, Jesus goes out of his way to inject the topic into a scene where everyone else was thinking of something else. Before he heals this paralytic, out of the blue, as it were, he up and forgives his sins. Sometimes there is a Parable, such as the Prodigal Son, which brings out the Father's forgiveness and the Elder Brother's problem with it. Sometimes, as with the Woman Taken in Adultery, Jesus turns the tables, bringing forgiveness where condemnation was expected. Here, as the Woman breaks the Alabaster Jar, Jesus takes the opportunity to make sure we (and Simon the Pharisee) do not miss what this whole scene is about: being forgiven, appreciating that forgiveness, and being able to forgive.
In the immediate context, this incident follows the discourse about John the Baptist in Luke 7:24-35. One theme of that conversation was the contrast between those who justify God (i.e., declare him righteous), and those who justify themselves (vs. 29-30). To justify God is to condemn yourself, and ironically to be justified by God. To justify yourself is to reject God, and therefore to be condemned by God. What follows in our passage today is an extended example of these very two kinds of people: the Woman, who justifies God, and the Pharisee, who justifies himself.
We can divide the Scene into two parts: the Characters and the Complications.
The cast includes one of the few Pharisees whose name is actually remembered: Simon. He thought himself a religious and pious man. As was typical of his sect, he was zealous for the Law to the point of legalism that bled over into self righteousness, as legalism tends to do. His party was at loggerheads with Jesus over a number of issues, the proper manner of keeping the Sabbath and the proper attitude toward sinners being among the chief. Why he had invited Jesus to dinner is not clear. Was it out of curiosity and an open mind? Or was it a trap all along, the kind of opportunity for Jesus to put his foot in his mouth that the Pharisees were always arranging and being disappointed by? At any rate he was a poor host, omitting many of the basic courtesies toward guests that were standard in that day. If he was trying to trap Jesus, he must have thought the sinful woman wandering in was just the break he was looking for--which may explain why she gained entrance so easily.
Then there is the Woman. Though it does not use the word, the phrase "woman who was a sinner" was a common Greek euphemism for a prostitute. She was apparently well known as such in that town. She was probably a very recent convert--certainly no one had yet had any opportunity to notice a change in her lifestyle. Jesus may well not have even known she had become a follower of his until she showed up. This was a woman who had long ago "gotten over" any sense of shame she had ever had. But now God was transforming that vice into a virtue: she was not the least bit embarrassed or ashamed to show her love for Christ.
And that leads us to our Lord himself. He appears as we have already come to know him: compassionate toward repentant sinners, sharp and aware of what is going on and what people are thinking, able to think quickly on his feet and turn any wrinkle in events to spiritual advantage. If we didn't know him, we might think, "Here's a controversial outsider being given an opportunity by the Establishment to gain some respectability; surely he will take full advantage of it." But we do know him, and therefore we know he will do no such thing. He will tell the truth and do the truth as he sees it, and if the Establishment is offended by that, so be it.
The "Complications" that cause the drama come from the simple act of bringing these characters together. The custom at this time was to "recline" at the table. You would lean on benches on one elbow, with the other hand free to reach for the food as you faced the table with your feet stuck out behind. [At this point Dr. Williams demonstrates the posture on a bench conveniently placed next to the pulpit.] That's how the Woman was able to come up behind Jesus and anoint his feet: they were not stuck under the table as they would be today. Well, she is bawling, kissing his feet as she anoints them with both tears and perfume, and wiping them with her hair, loose and let down--a fact that would have had even stronger connotations then than it does today. She was making a scene indeed! There was nothing dignified about it. She had, to put it mildly, not yet learned how to act in public, much less in church. I suspect this would be embarrassing enough to you if anyone was carrying on like that over you in the middle of a meal--but a Streetwalker! Oh, my.
I think we have to have at least a little bit of sympathy for poor Simon. Let's be honest: would you be completely comfortable with this happening in your home? You've invited the preacher over for Sunday dinner and a known Lady of the Evening barges into your house and starts carrying on in such a fashion over me, for example. And you're not even a Pharisee! Simon must have been near apoplexy. But he makes a fatal assumption about the meaning of it all. "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of person this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner." It is supremely ironic: Simon thinks Jesus can't see the obvious about this woman, and that it proves he is not even a prophet, much less the Messiah. But Jesus's response shows that he sees beyond the obvious to the secret thoughts of Simon's heart. His prophetic credentials are actually affirmed by the very thing that seems to threaten them. Meanwhile, the woman continues with her embarrassing attentions--the verbs in vs. 38 are present participles, which indicate ongoing action--and Jesus is not the least bit embarrassed. He lets her continue while he asks Simon one of his patented innocent-sounding questions that turns everything upside down. And that leads us inexorably to the point of it all.
Jesus leads off with one of his classic parables. Two men owe money, and both are forgiven their debts. Which one, he asks then, will appreciate it more? Simon has the sinking feeling that he has just painted himself into a corner. We can hear it in the grudging concession in the word "suppose." "I suppose the one who was forgiven more." And now the trap is ready to spring, but its jaws will not close on the one Simon had in mind.
The parable is first of all a wonderful picture of salvation by grace through faith apart from works. Neither of the men paid any of their debt. Their freedom from it was all owing to the graciousness of the lender. But the emphasis is not on the forgiveness so much as on their response to it. Who will love more? The one forgiven more. He is not forgiven because he loves; he loves because he was forgiven. His love is the sign of his forgiveness, a response that flows naturally from it. The Woman then is not forgiven much because her love for Jesus is so great. Rather, she has such great, expressive love because she has been forgiven an awful lot, and she knows it. Simon does not forfeit forgiveness because he does not love Jesus. He feels no love because he does not think he needs very much (if any) forgiveness.
The point is in the contrast. The Woman justifies God, agreeing with his standard of holiness that condemns her, and therefore receives an astonishing forgiveness, and therefore shows that she is aware of this in her outpouring of extravagant love. Simon justifies himself, thinks he needs no forgiveness, and so sees no reason even to give Jesus the customary water to wash his feet or oil to anoint his head. Note that it is not the actual number or seriousness of sins forgiven that determines how much a person loves Jesus, but rather the person's own estimation of how many and how serious they were. I don't think Jesus is actually agreeing that Simon is less sinful than the Woman. He is just taking Simon's own estimation of the situation as true for the sake of argument. The point is that, whatever their relative level of sinfulness, the Woman enters into the joys of the Kingdom on a profound level because she justifies God and condemns herself in her own mind. Because he justifies himself in his own mind, Simon refuses God's purpose for him and the joys of the Kingdom pass him by.
I wonder if we do not have many Simons in the Church today? Way too ready to condemn others whose sinfulness is less respectable than theirs than anyone conscious of his own forgiveness has any right to be, incapable of understanding the need to be demonstrative about one's love of Jesus. It is as if they thought that maybe Christ had to die on the Cross for other people's sins, but for theirs all he would have needed to do was to get a splinter from the Cross in his finger. The sobering thing about this encounter with Simon and the Woman is that they emerge as people who show no evidence of having been forgiven at all. "Gnothi seauton," the ancient Greeks advised us, "Know thyself." If you do not know yourself as a sinner, you do not know yourself at all. We therefore need to pursue a certain amount of meditation on our own sinfulness, about how much we are forgiven, not in order to put ourselves down, but so that we may better and more adequately exalt the Savior who has forgiven us so much so freely, to exalt him in the unimaginable riches of his Grace. This is the motivational engine that drives truly vibrant Christianity! Is that engine running in your life?
I am not suggesting that we become undignified for the sake of indignity, as many of our Charismatic brethren seem to do. But better to lose our dignity than our joy--or our souls. How is it that this Woman was not embarrassed to show that she loved Jesus, to act in such a way in front of other people? I don't think she was aware of the other people at all. I think that in the light of how much she had been forgiven, all she saw was Jesus. But here is an even more astounding thing. If she was not embarrassed to give such effusive a demonstration of love, Jesus was not embarrassed to receive it. Think about that! Jesus is not embarrassed to be your Savior. He ought to be, but he isn't. And that is one of the best definitions of Grace you will ever hear. We serve Jesus, not Simon! When we tap into this dynamic, we are no longer thinking about such excuses as whether we have any talent or training that the Lord can use. We are no longer asking, "Who am I to speak to others about the love of Jesus?" When you know you have been forgiven of this much, you have to show your love for him somehow. This is the motivational engine that drives truly vibrant Christianity! Is that engine running in your life? Let it run, if you have been forgiven.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams