by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are in the middle of our Lenten Sermon Series: Outcasts, The Friends of Jesus, and we have been learning about the crazy kind of love that God has for everyone, not just the poor, but anyone who is lost, both the people who know that they’re lost and the ones that that haven’t realized it yet. Jesus is concerned for the powerless as well as the powerful who have wandered far from God, and there is great rejoicing, great partying for every single person who is found, who is brought back into relationship with God. It’s exciting. It’s inspiring.
This week our passage begins in Luke 7 at verse 36, and we are at another dinner party. This one is being held at the home of Simon the Pharisee. It is amazing how often Jesus is eating and drinking with all kinds of people. The church sure hasn’t moved far away from Jesus’ example with that! We hear about a portion of that evening when it got a little awkward due to an uninvited guest.
Luke 7:36-50 NIV
36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Imagine that we are at this dinner party at Simon’s house. How do we imagine the room? Is it with a big long table with chairs all around, like in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper? (Except, of course, people would be seated around the whole table.) So, we would get this picture of a woman sitting on the floor, beneath all these men, crying on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, putting on the ointment. It would seem to be a rather complicated procedure, especially contending with all of those chair legs. But there’s a problem with that picture. In verse 36, it says that Jesus, “reclined at the table,” and in verse 37 it says that the woman stood behind Jesus. So, if we want to get an accurate idea of what is going on here, we have to replace that picture in our minds.
At this point in time, Jewish people had adopted the Roman custom laying on couches, often about 18 inches off the floor, with their heads towards the table leaning on their left arms while they ate with their right. Their feet and legs would be pointed away from the table. So, Jesus is reclined at the table and the woman has come in and is standing behind him.
But, how did this woman get in in the first place? Now, it would seem rather rude to just intrude on someone’s dinner party, especially if you didn’t know the person. Even if it was a backyard barbeque, it would seem strange to crash unless it was an open house. However, in first century Palestine, dinner parties were more of an open house. It was quite common to leave the doors open for people to come in and maybe even eat what the guests did not want. If there was a special guest, people may come in to listen to the discussion. So, it was not so strange for this person to be there, that is until she stood behind Jesus and began weeping. Then, it became awkward for everyone, except for maybe Jesus, who knew who she was and why she was there. Then, she realizes that her tears are dripping all over Jesus’ feet and perhaps in her panic, she begins to try to dry them with her hair.
We are told that this woman has lived a sinful life, but what is her sin? We are not told. It could be a number of things. How does Simon identify her as a sinner? He hasn’t seen her at the synagogue. Maybe she cheated at cards. She could overcharge when doing people’s laundry. She could be a known gossip. It could be that she did work on the Sabbath. Is she known as a sinner around town? Not necessarily so. At some point interpreters presumed that she was a prostitute, as if that is the only way that woman could be a sinner. If only that were true! There is nothing in the text to suggest that.
Simon’s presumption that she is a sinner may be entirely due to the fact that she was willing to use her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. “Respectable” women did not let down their hair in public and especially not in front of a man to whom she was not married! So, this woman, who is so overcome by being near Jesus that she is weeping, is making a spectacle of herself, perhaps the last thing she wanted to do. Then, trying to make things better, she seemingly makes them worse by taking down her hair and wiping his feet with it.
Many have said that this story encapsulates, summarizes, the gospel, the good news. It is said that this woman, despised by Simon and used by him to condemn Jesus, that without uttering a word, simply through her actions, preaches the good news. But Simon is not able to hear it.
So, like many parables that Jesus told, he began to explain her sermon with a story. Simon understands the story. The one forgiven the greater debt has a greater love for the creditor, but he doesn’t see it being played out in real life before his eyes.
Then Jesus ask Simon, “Do you see this woman?” What a strange question? There’s a woman weeping in his dining room, wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair, and putting perfume on them. Does he see this woman? How could he help it? But does he really see her? “Do you see this woman?”
Do we really see people? Do we see past the convenient label or designation that we have for them? The other day I was in La Grande, and I stopped McDonald’s before heading back to Joseph. The gentleman taking the money had tattoos all over his arms and hands, his neck, even on his fingers. They looked like the ones I’ve seen on TV or in movies on characters who are prison inmates. One of them that gave me particular pause was a stylized swastika. As he got my change, many thoughts flooded through my mind.
Is this someone I should be afraid of? Had he, in fact, been in prison? Did he get those just to survive in prison, a very dangerous place, or does he really subscribe to these ideas that he has permanently etched on his body? Why is he working at McDonald’s? Is he trying to build a new life?
Then, he smiled at me as he made sure that I received the last penny of my change that had stuck to his hand. And, I see this person. I see him doing the best that he can. Trying to do a good job, and we part with kind words.
No matter what his choices may have been in the past, and I don’t know what they were. Maybe the worst choice has been letting a cousin with a bad sense of humor practice on him with his new tattoo gun. I don’t know. No matter what, he is been made in the image of God.
Every person we see is someone made in the image of God. We may not have the opportunity to hear everyone’s story, but that doesn’t give us license to dismiss them. That day Jesus asked me, “Cherie, do you see this man?”
So why has this woman come to Jesus this day? There can be some confusion in our English translations. Has she come because she thinks Jesus will forgive her, or in love and gratitude for forgiveness she has already received? While there can be some doubt depending on the translation you read, in our NIV Pew Bible, it says, “Her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown.” In other words, her love is a response to forgiveness. But if we weren’t sure, Jesus has already told us with his story; the one forgiven the bigger debt loves more.
So this forgiveness has already happened for this woman. Perhaps, Jesus has encountered her previously. The gospels are not like a video capturing every moment of his life. He had encounters with many that are not mentioned. The Gospel of John ends with these words, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them was written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
Perhaps, this woman who Simon calls “Sinner,” heard Jesus when he said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
So now, she has an opportunity to show Jesus the love and gratitude that she feels because she has been given new life. This woman is preaching to everyone in the room. This is what love looks like. It isn’t concerned with appearances. This is what it looks like to be devoted.
And that is why Jesus came, took on our nature, the Word Made Flesh. She was able to feel that she was in physical contact with God’s mercy. We may not be able to be in physical contact with Jesus at the present time, but to know that Jesus lived his life here on Earth interacting with real people who have real problems and making a difference. It can seem so distant. We can think of God the parent, creator of Heaven and Earth, so much bigger than us, or the Holy Spirit, which may be around us and in us, but how do you relate to an amorphous spirit? But, Jesus, a person, who got tired during the day, had to get up in the morning and put on clothes, maybe had a headache and was grouchy, like the day that he went in and cleared up the Temple of the money changers. (Luke 19:45-46) I imagine he was probably pretty grouchy that day, I’m just saying. But he could also be the embodiment of God’s love, grace, and mercy.
Imagine yourself being in the room, with Jesus and the other guests reclining on their couches, and the servants walking around, with this woman now kneeling behind him. Jesus still speaking to Simon when he turns to the woman, looks lovingly at her as he describes the ways she is ministering to him, saying again to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” Jesus publicly gives her a new name. Her name is no longer Sinner. Now, it is Forgiven.
Through all of this, Jesus is teaching. Simon, while a man of his generation and position, still seems open to teaching. When Jesus says to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” He replies, “Tell me, teacher.” (Luke 7:40)
One of the things Jesus is teaching Simon is to look at, to see the people around him. Not only for her sake, but also for his. Jesus is teaching him the depths of God’s love and compassion, something that Simon has some trouble with. Jesus is also showing the powerful effect that this love and compassion can have to change lives, rather than the shunning, condemnation, and avoidance that Simon the Pharisee thought was best. If Simon can see the woman in a new way, perhaps he can draw closer to God himself.
How can we be more God-like, more Christ-like? How can we see as God sees and love as God loves? That is one of the things going on here. How can we absorb this sermon that the woman is preaching?
Jesus never says that Simon has much to be forgiven for. Jesus story in fact implies that Simon had the smaller debt. However, Simon may have thought that he had no need for forgiveness at all. He was so careful. The worst thing in his life is that this woman has come into his house who was likely ritually unclean, passing it on, infecting as it were, his whole household.
As Simon felt self-sufficient and not in need of God’s forgiveness, he misses out on God’s grace. That contrasts with the woman who had no doubt that she had need of God’s help, and so she was able to reach out when it was offered.
I wonder. Could that be why people in today’s American culture feel separated or feel no need or at least less need of God. In the religion of Western European culture and to a much greater extent in its descendent, the U.S. culture, there is a high regard for independence and self-reliance. One of the tenants of that religion is “God helps those who help themselves,” which is not in the Bible as many suppose, but was said by Benjamin Franklin.
The point is who needs God when you can depend on yourself? It’s perhaps understandable and a country where people lived in isolated circumstances. In colonial times they lived far from the governing authority, so they made their own. That’s why they resented it so much when Britain reasserted its authority over the Colonies. Then there were the people that moved out over the continent on farms and ranches. They were very isolated. There weren’t a lot of resources to get help from.
In fact, admitting that you need help could be considered a sign of weakness. Be available to help other people, but don’t admit that you need help yourself. With this rationale, admitting that you need God – for help, God’s forgiveness, God’s love – is interpreted as failure.
The thing is that it is not failure. It is part of our human condition. We try to fill it up with things, activities, or hobbies. None of those are bad in themselves. They only become bad when we use them to try to fill the hole in our lives that only God can fill.
Until we recognize in ourselves the thing that this anonymous woman in our story recognized, that we cannot do it on our own, that we need the forgiveness of a loving God that longs for us to turn to God, we will continue in our lost state, a state that we may not even realize we are in until we examine it. We may think that we are living the Christian Life when we are actually participating in the religion of America.
The Bible is clear. God does not help those who help themselves. God helps those who call on the name of the Lord, the ones who depend on the Lord, the ones who have faith in the Lord.
When we do that God will tell us what he tells this restored woman called Forgiven. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”