A Case Study In Thanksgiving

If you were to stop various people on the street and ask, “What does Thanksgiving mean to you?” I suspect you would receive a variety of answers,

  • It means good food and family
  • It means taking time to count our blessings
  • It’s means food and football
  • It means a bunch of work. You cook all day, the food is eaten in 15 minutes, and you spend the rest of the day cleaning up the mess.

Perhaps you have some Thanksgiving traditions that are special in your home. For a number of years our family went bowling on Thanksgiving morning (I never understood why). For some, it is a special dish or the practice of sharing around the table or something else that makes it “Thanksgiving”. This morning we are going to look at a case study in Thanksgiving. This isn’t a Thanksgiving Day celebration but it was a big meal and gratitude was certainly involved. I invite you to turn with me to Luke 7:36-50.

36Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37When 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, 38and 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.

The scene is a dinner party which was hosted by a Pharisee named Simon (cf. v.40). There is a similar story in Matthew 26 where the host is identified as “Simon the Leper” but I believe these are two distinct accounts and two different men names Simon.

We don’t know why this Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. Since the Pharisee was somewhat rude to Jesus (as we’ll see later), he was not a follower. So he must have invited Him either to “check him out”, or because it was a social coup to have this popular Rabbi at his home.

Nice homes in Simon’s day were often built around a courtyard that sometimes had a garden or fountain. The guests would eat outside during warm weather and reclined either on pillows or couches. They would be leaning toward the table and their feet would extend away from the table.

It was the custom that when someone noteworthy came to a dinner, others would be allowed to stand and hear the wisdom of the honored guest. The “sinful woman” would have been one of the onlookers.


All we are told about the woman was that she “had lived a sinful life in that town.” Apparently this was a woman who had a well known record of sinful behavior. She may have been a prostitute but that isn’t stated.

There is a stark contrast in the story between this “sinful woman” and Simon. Simon, a Pharisee, had lived his life seeking to adhere to the Law of God. He was respected as a man of God. The woman, on the other hand, possibly spent her life living in the shadows and facing the rejection of others.

The difference between this woman and Simon was that the woman understood her need for forgiveness and mercy; Simon did not. The woman recognized that Jesus was the One who could make her new; Simon concluded that Jesus was a false prophet. It makes you wonder: who was really the greater sinner?

Think about it, which person has the bigger problem: the one who is an alcoholic and admits it and is seeking help? Or the person who is a heavy drinker but won’t denies there is a problem? Who is at greater physical risk, the one who has an illness and goes to see the Doctor or the one who has an illness but insists they are “OK”? A similar question would be: who is really closer to God: the religious professional who feels self-sufficient, or the blatant sinner who comes to Jesus for forgiveness and new life?

In Matthew 11:21-24 Jesus warned some of the Jewish towns of Karazin and Bethsaida that they would actually be judged more harshly than Sodom (and Gommorah) because they professed to be right with God but rejected the Messiah. The sinful woman had a stained past but she was willing to receive God’s grace. Simon thought he was doing just fine on his own.


You wonder why this woman came to the dinner. I believe she had heard about Jesus. At some point she may have heard Jesus saying something like, “come unto me you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, 29) or “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). When this woman heard Jesus’ words, she believed Him. She took Him at His word and believed that He could and would forgive a sinful woman like herself. John Ortberg captures this well.

No one ever grows up thinking they will become a prostitute.

Once this woman had been someone’s little baby—the object of a mother’s hope and dreams. Maybe her husband had rejected her, and this was the only way she could survive economically. Maybe her heart had hardened, and this was simply the easiest way she could get the most money. One thing is certain: This woman knows what it means to be despised, unwelcome. Prostitutes were usually slaves who had either been captured in war or abandoned as infants and then raised to be part of the sex trade. She carries in her heart the enormous wound of rejection. No decent person will speak to her, welcome her, or acknowledge her. Doors open for her only at night, in secret and in shame.

When the woman hears Jesus teach, the thought occurs to her that she—right there in her life, her sin—is loved by God. He thinks of her and longs for her as if she were his daughter. She is valued. It’s not too late—even for her. [1]

Isn’t this the hardest part for most of us? When we see our sin clearly we are so repulsed by our sin that it is hard for us to believe that anyone could ever truly love and forgive us. I’ve often heard people say, “I know God has forgiven me, but I cannot forgive myself.” We have a hard time believing that the sin is really washed away.

Think about a pilot. One of the things a pilot needs to learn to do is to trust his instruments. There may be times when you are in a cloud that you feel you are holding level but you are really descending. There may be times when your senses tell you one thing but the instruments tell you another. To be a successful pilot you need to learn to trust your instruments. They have an objectivity your senses do not have.

It is the same way when it comes to our past. We may feel we don’t deserve forgiveness. We may say, “I can’t forgive myself”, but we need to learn to trust the Lord. True faith is being willing to stand on His Word rather than be enslaved by your feelings. It means putting aside our reservations and actually trusting Him to actually give you new life. The sinful woman dared to believe Jesus. Will you?


What made this woman stand out was how she demonstrated her gratitude. She washed the feet of Jesus with her tears (either from regret or gratitude) and then dried his feet with her hair (something that a Jewish woman would not do. On her wedding day a Jewish woman would bind up her hair and never appeared again in public with her hair down). Then she most likely broke the flask around her neck that contained expensive perfume and put it on his feet. It was a public and an extravagant act.

The crowd was disgusted by her actions. They were disgusted that such a woman should be allowed to interact with Jesus. They may have been embarrassed that she was even at the dinner. She was making a scene and they didn’t’ like it.

Jesus, knowing what everyone was thinking said to Simon.

“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii (a denarii was a days wage), and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Both debts are forgiven and wiped clean. Jesus asked Simon, “Which of these people do you think would be more grateful?” The answer was obvious: the one who had been forgiven more.

Jesus drew a contrast between the response of Simon and the response of the woman. Simon ignored common courtesies when Jesus entered his home: a kiss on the cheek, the washing the dust off the feet of the traveler and the drop of fragrant oil on the head of the guest. These were all common signs of honor. None had been given to Jesus. It is very possible that these oversights were not oversights but deliberate omissions designed to “put down” the Lord. It is like when someone walks into a room and says “hi” to everyone but you.

It’s possible that this woman saw the lack of respect paid to Jesus. Perhaps she did not intend to make a scene but what she observed bothered her. Maybe this is what prompted her actions. Her actions were an expression of extravagant love and gratitude.

People who feel they deserve something do not feel grateful when they receive it. Most of us do not take our paycheck and say, “Oh thank you for your kind generosity.” We don’t say that because we have worked for that money, it is a wage. However, when someone gives us an unexpected gift we are stunned and filled with gratitude. Sometimes we even feel entitled to the gifts we receive.

We see this in children don’t we? Kids that have lots of stuff tend to believe that their parents are supposed to give them lots of stuff. They expect their parents to buy them new clothes, get them a new car, and keep them furnished with the latest gadgets. They are not grateful, and they are insulted if you don’t give them “enough”.

On the other hand, the child who realizes how hard a parent has to work and the sacrifices they make to provide them with nice things: tends not to complain. They find satisfaction with much less and they appreciate and take care of what they have been given.

The person who feels that God “owes them” will find it difficult to be grateful. They will tend to celebrate their personal goodness rather than God’s amazing grace.


It is interesting that as the story ends we read that the woman left with the assurance that her sins were forgiven . . . not because of her actions but because of her faith – she believed God. Meanwhile the religious folk at the dinner were merely annoyed, and perhaps a little insulted. The woman left blessed by God; the Pharisees left more distant from God. That’s the way it is in life. The people who learn to be grateful spend more time celebrating what they have than complaining about what they wish they had.

So, here are some ideas on how we can be more like the sinful woman than like Simon, the Pharisee.

Repent of your pride As long as we are comparing ourselves to others we will have a diminished sense of gratitude. As long as we think we are better than others, we are going to feel entitled to the blessing and love of God. When we begin to measure ourselves by God’s standards we will come to see even our pride as an offense against a holy God and we will begin to understand the incredible and undeserved nature of God’s mercy. Then we will bow before Him in humble gratitude.

Turn to Him for Forgiveness The Lord has offered salvation and new life to anyone who will turn to Him in faith. He doesn’t say only the “good people” are invited . . . because there are no good people. He doesn’t say “everyone but those who commit certain sins that are shunned in our society (a number that is shrinking rapidly) is invited to experience my forgiveness.” The invitation is to any who will believe and follow Him.

So here’s the question: Are you willing to believe His promise? Will you dare to look into His eyes and see the love that He has for you? Are you willing to let Him love you are you really are . . . stains and all?

Develop an outlook of Gratitude. Gratitude is not something you turn on and off. Gratitude is a lifestyle. I encourage you to learn to see yourself as one who has been richly blessed rather than as a victim. Learn to celebrate blessings instead of complaining about disappointments. Look for reasons to say “Thank you” to: a family member, the waitress in the restaurant, the person who waits on you in the store, the teacher who takes extra time with you, the person who shows you something you didn’t know before, the child who responds as you requested, the parent who gives you a gift.   Look for even the smallest things: the person who holds the door, the friend who buys lunch, the shopper who lets you go before them in a line. Instead of taking these things for granted, make it a point to say “Thank you”.

Once you start learning to do this, apply it to your relationship with God. Thank Him when you see something beautiful. Thank Him when you meet a challenge. Thank Him for life, for taste buds, for eyes that see, for the sounds of life, for the joy of children, for His Word that brings life. Thank Him for a new perspective, an undeserved grace, and an eternal hope. True Gratitude is a way of life.

Express Your Gratitude in a Tangible Way  If you talk to those who have had a near death experience many of them will tell you that it alters the way you live. Things you used to think were important are now seen to be empty. Things that used to keep you up nights are now shrugged off as unimportant in the “scheme of things”. Things that used to be a burden (like family and friends sometimes) are now seen as the treasure they really are. We suddenly find the time for the things we “didn’t have time for” before.

We are people who have been snatched from the jaws of spiritual death. We should be filled with a gratitude that “needs to come out” in some tangible way. Here are some beginning suggestions,

  • Sing a song with gusto as unto the Lord Himself
  • Give a sacrificial gift to the Lord (support a ministry or outreach or underwrite a special project). Have you ever really splurged and bought something extravagant for your mate? Why did you do it? Because you had to? I hope not. Hopefully you did something bold because you wanted your mate to know how much you love them. Why not dare to do something extravagant and big for God? Reach beyond the norm.  Think big! Why do we always have to be “sensible” in the way we serve Him? Every once in a while we need to be extravagant just because we love Him and are grateful.
  • Give yourself (sometimes we admit that our most valuable commodity is our time) in service to the Lord. Volunteer at a hospital, a Nursing home, get training to help with hospice, deliberately “make time” to visit with a friend, work to be a friend to someone who is cast away by others. Invite someone to be a part of “your family” for Thanksgiving. Show God your love by giving of yourself to others.
  • Look for a way to share the message of hope with another. Show God your gratitude by being willing to get out of your comfort zone to share the words of hope with someone who is beaten down by life.

Here’s the question for you this Thanksgiving: Will you be more like Simon or the woman who washed the feet of Jesus?   Will you applaud yourself or will you applaud the Lord? Will you surround yourself with those who tell you how good you are or will you seek the Lord, who alone is worthy to be called good? Will Thanksgiving be one day on your calendar or will it be the orientation of your life?

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