Jesus and the Sinner

Forgiveness, Grace, Evangelism

A.W. Tozer has written,

Perhaps the most serious charge that can be brought against modern Christians is that we are not sufficiently in love with Christ. The Christ of fundamentalism is strong but hardly beautiful. It is rarely that we find anyone aglow with personal love for Christ.[1]

These words sound harsh but I do not think they are off target. One of the Biblical passages that underscores this indictment is found in Luke 7:36-50. In this account we read about a Pharisee by the name of Simon who invited Jesus to come to a party.

We don’t know much about this guy. We don’t know where he lived. We also don’t know why Simon invited Jesus to his home. It could have been because Simon was curious about the teaching of Jesus and wanted to hear more. It could have been that Simon was a man who liked rubbing elbows with celebrities. He may have invited Jesus because of his ego. Or Simon may have invited Jesus to his home in the hope of exposing Him as a fraud. We don’t know why he invited Jesus to dinner.

In the time of Jesus you welcomed your guests by giving them water to wash off their dusty feet (if the person was an “honored guest” the host would pour the water himself). You would often greet your guest (especially an honored Rabbi) with a kiss (on the cheek) and you might put a drop of oil on their head to refresh them from the hot drying sun. Simon did none of these things when Jesus came to his home.

Imagine being invited over to someone’s home and when you arrive the door is open so you knock and enter and everyone is watching TV and doesn’t even seem to notice you. No one shakes your hand, offers to take your coat or makes room for you to sit down. Would you feel welcomed? You might stand there for awhile but if you still received no response you probably would turn around and leave. Jesus did not do this. He overlooked the offense and joined the dinner party.

In those days homes were often very open due to the heat of the area. It was common for homes to have an open dining area that was accessible to the public. Often when dignitaries came to town the townspeople would come and stand on the rim of the dining area so they could eavesdrop on the discussion of those in attendance.

The guests did not sit at tables with chairs as we do today. We are told Jesus reclined at the table. The guests would eat from a very short table and instead of sitting in chairs each person would lie on his side facing the table. Their feet would extend back from the table (pointing toward any onlookers.) This is the setting for what happens next.

The Scandal

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. [Luke 7:37-38]

We know nothing of the identity of this woman. We don’t know whether she had heard Jesus once before and been transformed by His teaching (which is why she sought to hear Him now) or whether something Jesus said during the dinner impacted her. I suspect she had heard and been moved by Jesus at another time. I can’t help but wonder if the woman had witnessed the lack of respect that was shown to Jesus. As she stood in the crowd did she decide to show him the honor that had been denied Him? We don’t know.

What she did was considered to be inappropriate by those in attendance for several reasons.

1.      We are told the woman had lived a sinful life. In other words she had a reputation in town and it wasn’t a good reputation. It is reasonable to think she could have been an immoral woman, perhaps a prostitute.

2.      The oral tradition (the Law which the teachers had added to the Law of God) said that anyone who was touched by a “sinner” became unclean himself. So, some considered Jesus to be defiling himself by allowing this woman to even touch Him.

3.      She let down her hair in public. In the Talmud it said a woman could be divorced for letting her hair down in front of another man. The rabbi’s put loosening hair or disrobing in front of another man as being equally scandalous.

4.      Her display of emotion was uncomfortable. No one likes to be around someone who is crying and this woman was sobbing. She was crying so hard that she got the feet of Jesus wet and dried them with her hair. Only expensive perfume was kept in an alabaster vase. Her pouring of the perfume on the feet of Jesus was an uncomfortable extravagance.

To put this into terms you might understand imagine that we had an Open House over at our home. While everyone was gathered suppose someone who was known as a prostitute wearing a skin tight overly revealing dress came into our home, gave me a big hug, and then began weeping as she clung to me.  Suppose she then gave me a Rolex watch as a gift. Would that cause you to question the relationship and wonder why I was friends with such a person? Sure it would. I would question things if it happened to you. That’s what is happening here.

Criticism

The host of the party, Simon doesn’t actually say anything. We are told however what he was thinking,

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.” [v. 39]

Simon concluded that Jesus could not be a true prophet if He was allowing this sinful woman to touch Him. It is interesting that this “man who certainly wasn’t a prophet” knew exactly what Simon was thinking!

Don’t rush past this point. Don’t we sometimes do the same thing as Simon? We see someone being friendly with a person who has a bad reputation and we shake our head in disapproval. We see a man talking with a woman who is not his wife and we assume the worst. We see someone being friendly to someone who is dishonest in business and we assume the person somehow condones the dishonesty. We see someone talking to one who is a known drug user and we begin to wonder if our friend is “using”.  We are quick to make disapproving comments to our friends. Even if we do give the benefit of the doubt we conclude that our Christian friend should be more concerned about the “appearance of evil.”

What this Pharisee didn’t understand was that some people would consider the fact that Jesus went to his home to be in bad taste! Simon believed he was worthy of Jesus and the woman was not. Simon did not see himself clearly.

The lesson is that it is impossible to reach people with the gospel if we refuse to associate with them! Of course we need to be careful! We must remember that it is easier to pull someone down than it is to lift them up. However, the people most open to the message of grace are actually those who are most aware of their sin. This is the point that Jesus wants to make to Simon.

Rebuke

Jesus told Simon a story. Let’s put it in contemporary terms. There were two men. One had a debt of $500 dollars, the other a debt of $5000.00. They both owed money to a loan shark and didn’t have the funds to repay the loan. Instead of breaking their legs or adding on an obscene interest rate the loan shark canceled the debt. Which of the two people would be the most grateful?

Simon answered the same as we would: “Probably the guy who was forgiven the greater debt.” Jesus said to Simon, “Very good! That’s the correct answer.”

Jesus then made his point. He drew a contrast between Simon’s actions and the actions of the woman. Simon may have invited Jesus to dinner but he had treated Jesus like he really didn’t want him to be there. The woman on the other hand honored Him by washing his feet with her tears. She anointed his feet with very expensive perfume. She further honored Him not by merely kissing him on the cheek, but by kissing his feet!

Jesus then gives us the principle: Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. [v. 47]

If you go to the Doctor and are cured of a minor ailment you pay your bill and go on your way and consider things “even”. However, if you were on the brink of death and were brought back by the extraordinary work of a surgeon and the staff . . . you would continue to be grateful long after you paid your bill. You would feel that you could never repay the gift of new life which the Doctor had given to you. As a result you might buy the Doctor a gift. You would talk about them positively to everyone you meet. You would break out in a big smile every time you saw them. You would feel a gratitude that could not be contained.

The problem with most of us is this: we think our sin problem is a minor ailment. We believe we have somehow repaid God for His grace because we put money in the offering plate, or attend worship, or serve on a committee, or try to live a good life. We think of ourselves as “even”. By such thoughts we show that we do not appreciate the eternal and life-threatening magnitude of our illness. We do not understand how close to Hell we actually were. Jesus says: if we understood, we would respond more like the woman than Simon.

Max Lucado draws us a great picture,

What one discovery has she made that Simon hasn’t? What one treasure does she cherish that Simon doesn’t? Simple. God’s love. We don’t know when she received it. We aren’t told how she heard about it. Did she overhear Jesus’ words “Your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 ESV)? Was she nearby when Jesus had compassion on the widow of Nain? Did someone tell her how Jesus touched lepers and turned tax collectors into disciples? We don’t know. But we know this. She came thirsty. Thirsty from guilt. Thirsty from regret. Thirsty from countless nights of making love and finding none. She came thirsty.

And when Jesus hands her the goblet of grace, she drinks. She doesn’t just taste or nip. She doesn’t dip her finger and lick it or take the cup and sip it. She lifts the liquid to her lips and drinks, gulping and swallowing like the parched pilgrim she is. She drinks until the mercy flows down her chin and onto her neck and chest. She drinks until every inch of her soul is moist and soft. She comes thirsty and she drinks. She drinks deeply.

Simon, on the other hand, doesn’t even know he is thirsty. People like Simon don’t need grace; they analyze it. They don’t request mercy; they debate and prorate it. It wasn’t that Simon couldn’t be forgiven; he just never asks to be.

So while she drinks up, he puffs up. While she has ample love to give, he has no love to offer.[2]

Grace Extended

The story doesn’t end here.

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.” [Luke 7:48-50]

There are two things to notice here. First, note that Jesus grants forgiveness. By doing so note that Jesus is claiming the authority of God. He is declaring himself to be divine. The people at the dinner do not miss the significance of His words. Most people would have considered Jesus to be speaking blasphemy.

Second, there is a caution. Jesus is not saying that this woman has earned salvation because of her faith. What He is saying is that her faith is evidence of her forgiveness. Her actions reveal that she is truly sorry for her sin and is sincerely turning to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Faith does not bring forgiveness (you can have faith in lots of things that can’t save you), it is the object of faith that brings salvation. This woman had placed her faith rightly in Christ and therefore she was saved.

Simon however had faith in his own goodness. The woman went home saved. Simon however just went home ticked off.

Applications

First, Jesus gives us an example to follow in relating to unbelievers.  The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law were suspicious of Jesus. Many of them already didn’t like Him. Yet, when invited, Jesus went to their home. Jesus is not telling us that we should try to get everyone to like us. He is not implying that we should engage in all the sinful deeds the world embraces in order to prove our relevance. The message is: if we are going to reach non-believers with the message of hope; if we are going to be obedient to God’s command to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”, then we must be willing to go where these people are. We must be willing to build a relationship . . . even with our enemies.

Our purpose in building the relationship is not to conform to their patterns of behavior, it is to win the right to them about the One who loves them even though they may not love themselves.

Ask yourself some questions: Are you pushing someone away simply because of their reputation? Their income level (high or low)? Their criminal record? Their religious beliefs? The way they have treated you in the past? If so, repent and look for ways to build bridges rather than barriers. A good question to ask is: Where would I be if Jesus treated me in this way?

Second, there is a warning: We can show outward regard for Christ and still be unconverted.  Simon was a religious man. He knew the Scriptures. He was active in the synagogue. He was well respected in the community. However, Simon did not know God!  The “sinful woman” was closer to God than the religious leader.

Like Simon, we tend to look at our lives and say: “I’m a good family man.” “I live a more moral life than others.” “I work harder than my co-workers”. “I don’t use foul language.” And when we say these things we tend to think that somehow we are more entitled to grace than others.

When we think this way we show that we do not understand sin at all. Sin is a state of mind even more than it is a behavior. It is a delusion that makes us think that we can earn God’s favor on our own.

Simon serves as a warning to all of us. It is possible to feel right with God and yet be far from Him. It is good to ask ourselves: Why do I believe I am going to Heaven when I die? Is it because you have lived a pretty good life? Is so, you are following the path of Simon.

That path leads to destruction. However, if you believe you will go to Heaven because you have put your trust in what Jesus has done for you and you are willing to trust Him with your life (and your eternity). . . you are headed in the same direction as this woman.

Finally, this story is a picture of the effects of true conversion. The person who understands God’s grace is eager to show love to Christ. Look carefully at your heart. Is it true for you, as it is for me, that much of the “good we do” is not really a gift of love to the Lord who has saved us? Much of the good we do is really designed to promote us before others! We want to look good, feel good, advance our cause, promote our projects, or enhance our image as a spiritual person. Much of what we do in our lives is no different from the media consultants who look for photo ops and spin every story to benefit their client.

True love for Christ involves things such as

  • Doing what is right not because it is the easiest thing to do but because it is what He has commanded us to do.
  • Serving in the shadows where no one sees what we are doing and telling no one
  • Choosing to honor Him (perhaps by helping someone else sacrificially) rather than indulging ourselves.
  • Letting go of a hurt not because the other person deserves it but because Jesus has forgiven us.
  • Making significant and quality time for Him in our busy schedules.

Our challenge is to take a sober look at our lives. Our desire should be to show love to the One who has shown us undeserved mercy and grace.

When we see ourselves clearly (as sinful rebels) and see God’s mercy clearly (as an undeserved gift) then we will want to spend the rest of our lives showing our love and honor to the Lord. We will serve Him without complaint. We will gladly serve Him and follow Him without reservation. And when we begin to honor Him in this way we will then have begun to sufficiently love Him as He deserves to be loved.

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Scripture:

Luke 7:36-50