Responsive love - Luke 7:36-50

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 12th October 2003.

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One of the most successful musicals of recent years is Les Miserables. It's based on the book by Victor Hugo, and one of the book's characters is a man called Jean Valjean. After serving 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is released, but he is a bitter and twisted man, feared by everyone. He finds it impossible to get work or shelter because of his reputation, and no-one wants anything to do with him. But finally a kindly bishop takes him in and gives him food and shelter for the night. However, Valjean betrays the bishop's trust and in the middle of the night, he steals some of the family silver, bashes the bishop on the head and disappears. Well the next morning Valjean is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop's house. The bishop has the perfect opportunity to incriminate Valjean and send him back to prison. But instead he says: 'Ah, Valjean, there you are! I'm delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I had given you the candlesticks as well. They're silver like the rest and they'll fetch a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?' So the police let him go. Then the bishop gave Valjean the candlesticks and spoke to him: 'Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use this money to make yourself an honest man.' And Valjean is so moved by the kindness shown to him by the bishop that he is completely transformed. But that's only the beginning of the story. Because from that point, Valjean is a new man and he rises in the town to become mayor. But some time later a new police chief is appointed called Javert who was one of the guards at the labour camp where Valjean was. He recognises Valjean and vows to pursue him. And most of the rest of the story is taken up with this ongoing chase between the two men. Well the chase eventually takes the two to the streets of Paris. And Valjean and Javert find themselves together alone, and Valjean has a gun. Javert says to him: 'Go on do it! You know if you don't I'll pursue you for the rest of your life.' But Valjean refuses to shoot Javert, and Javert wants to know why. So Valjean replies: 'You are already dead.' And he walks away. And the result for Javert is that he is so shattered by Valjean's act of mercy compared to his own unbending principles of justice, that he throws himself into the river and drowns.

It's a remarkable story of two men who hold two different views of the world. One is a view of life where there is forgiveness and where forgiveness changes people. The other is a view of life where there is no forgiveness, but simply laws which must be followed, where people are people and they don't change. The law must be upheld. One view leads to new life and transformation. The other leads to a living death, and a life eaten up by bitterness, pride, jealously and hatred.

And when we come to Luke 7, which is our passage for this morning, we find that we are dealing with two more men, but who hold those two same views of the world. One is Simon the Pharisee. Law fills his vision. There can be no forgiveness. If you sin, then you are out of God's favour. You need to receive God's just punishment. But if you are good and righteous, then you're going to heaven. But the other man is Jesus. In his world view, there is forgiveness, even for the worst sinner. With him there is always the possibility of new life and a fresh start, and when forgiveness is given, lives are transformed. You see this is a passage about forgiveness, about true love as shown by Jesus for a poor, social outcast of a woman. And again and again we need to come to passage like this and see what forgiveness is all about. Because whilst we may have been Christians for many years, yet it is so easy to fall back in the mindset of Simon the Pharisee, to look down our noses at others and think that the Christian life is about rules rather than grace. And when we make that mistake, we become eaten up by guilt and our relationship with God becomes dry and distant. We forget the need to be totally dependant on God's grace every day of our lives. And for others, you will need to hear, perhaps for the first time, that whatever you have done, Jesus has the power to forgive you and to transform your life so you can live life the way God intended, and life of freedom from guilt and of love for your Saviour.

So let's turn to this beautiful story and learn three things from Jesus about what forgiveness is all about.

1) The Need for Forgiveness (Vv 36-43)

And the first thing we see is the need for forgiveness. Let's pick up Luke's story in verse 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. 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, 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.' So the scene is a dinner party. And this is no ordinary party. We're at the house of one of the Pharisees, a man called Simon. It's interesting that Jesus is happy to go anywhere and meet anyone, whether rich or poor, reputable or disreputable. It completely rebuts the criticism by some in verse 34 that Jesus just dined with the social outcasts. No, he's with the Pharisees this time. And they are just tucking into their salmon en croute and sipping their expensive red wine, when a woman comes into the house and begins to make a bit of a scene. Now in those days, having dinner parties was a spectator sport. The locals would come and watch, and it was all the more interesting when a famous rabbi was in town. But this woman was no spectator. She was right at the heart of the action.

Luke tells in verse 37 that this woman had lived a sinful life in this town, that's short hand for saying she was a prostitute. Now we need to get out of our minds the nice romantic feel good factor of the Hollywood block buster Pretty Woman. This is no make believe fantasy world. This is real life. This woman had no doubt been on the streets since she was a teenager. Her life was one of being abused and degraded by men for money. Her self esteem would be rock bottom and her social standing less than nil. In her own eyes and in the eyes of society, she was a nobody. But not to Jesus.

And that's why she does what she does. In those days, meals were taken not sat at a table, but lying on your side, propped up on one arm, so that your feet pointed away from the table. So in comes this woman and she stands behind Jesus at his feet. And every action she takes is shocking to those watching. She begins to cry, making a scene of herself. She undoes her hair, deeply shocking in the ancient world, the equivalent in today's society of a woman going topless in public. She kisses his feet, a degrading act, as only slaves would touch feet; and she finally pours expensive oil on Jesus' feet, surely a waste of money in anyone's books.

And what does the host think? Verse 37: '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.'' You can almost hear his sneering attitude to her can't you? It's as if he's found something nasty on his shoe! 'She's a sinner, he's thinking. What's she doing here? And why is Jesus not doing something? Why doesn't he push her away? Some prophet he is, if he cannot even tell a sinner when he sees one!' That's what the Pharisee was thinking. He's scandalised isn't he? He's utterly outraged.

And that's the thing about God's grace isn't it? It is totally offensive. It is scandalous! That Jesus should accept even this woman who has totally mucked up her life and ruined everything! Surely you couldn't sink any lower could you? Surely if God was going to shut the door on anyone he'd do it to this woman wouldn't he? A prostitute, a woman of the streets? And if God was going to accept anyone, then it would be Simon and all his nice religious friends wouldn't it? The guys who've done their best, who've never cheated on their wives, who've always gone to the church and their collection in the plate. God's surely going to let them in isn't he? But Simon has completely misunderstood. And if we think that our entry into heaven depends on how well or poorly we've done in this life, we couldn't have it more wrong. Because Jesus is about to put a bomb under our pride. And Jesus' bomb is this: There is no difference between this wealthy, upstanding, church going Pharisee, and this common harlot. Yes, Simon has got much to commend him. He reads his Bible, he tries to obey God. He's very disciplined in spiritual affairs. And yes, this woman had probably committed every sin in the book. In one sense they were worlds apart. But there is one very important thing they have in common. Both are moral debtors. Both have defaulted on their payments to God. Both are guilty before God.

See how Jesus gets Simon to see it with own story in verse 41: ''Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both.' Actually Jesus puts it even more clearly in the original since he begins by saying 'two debtors'. Simon couldn't have failed to see the implication. Both he and the woman were debtors to God. Both needed to be forgiven. In the story, the debtors owe different amounts. One owes a massive five hundred denarii. That's about 2 years wages. The other owes 50, about two months wages. Yes, there is a great difference between them. But that's irrelevant. For both are incapable of paying. Both need the mercy and forgiveness of the debt collector.

And that's the sobering first point of this passage. That each and every one of us needs forgiveness from God. It's doesn't matter whether we think we are better than anyone else. That's irrelevant. We may well be in the world's eyes, and in our eyes. But what counts with God is that we are all debtors, because we have all fallen short of his perfect standards. And that is bomb that blows apart our pride. And it is deeply offensive to so many of us isn't it? And it's often a barrier for some to come to Christ and receive forgiveness.

It was certainly a barrier for one woman who was invited to come and hear George Whitefield preach, the great preacher of the 18th century. She was invited by a very prominent lady of the 18th century, a friend of George III's no less, a lady called the Countess of Huntingdon. When the Countess' friend heard Whitefield preach, she said: 'It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder why your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.' Well we might not put it in such pompous language, but don't we think the same? So often we compare ourselves to others and think: 'Well at least I'm not as bad as him, or her. At least I've got that part of my life in order!' I guess that's why we love to see people exposed in the tabloids for some misdemeanour isn't it? We raise our eyebrows and tut, and think 'Oh, I would never do that.' Has that not gone through your head as more footballers are questioned over allegations of rape? But that's the Pharisee in us, isn't it! Thinking ourselves better than others. When in fact, we've probably done exactly the same sin in our hearts, if not in actual reality.

As I was preparing for this talk, I listened to a tape by a friend of mine who was speaking on this passage. And he said that when once he was speaking on this subject at his home church, a prison warden at a local prison had come up to him after the service and said: 'Do you know, it's very interesting that you should say that. Because even the sex offenders in my prison have a pecking order for how bad their crimes are. So they can say to themselves, 'I may have offended, but at least I'm not as bad as him.'' We compare ourselves, in order to make ourselves feel better. But Jesus said to Simon at that posh party that there were two debtors. And he'd say the same to us. We need to swallow our pride and admit we need Jesus' forgiveness. Doctor or drug addict, priest or prostitute, we're all in the same boat. We're all debtors to God. We all need his forgiveness.

2) The Response to Forgiveness (Vv 44-47)

And praise God that is exactly what Jesus offers, as the next part of the story shows, the response to forgiveness. Because it becomes clear from Jesus' story and the actions of the woman that she has met Jesus before. Her extravagant actions are the response of a woman who knows she's forgiven and who has a heart full of love for her Saviour. Let's go back to Jesus' story. Verse 41: ''Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?' Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.' 'You have judged correctly,' Jesus said.' The point of the story was obvious. The one who had the bigger debt loves more. Simon himself said it. And the spiritual point Jesus is making becomes clear when we see the actions of the woman. Here is a woman who knows what it means to be forgiven. Here is a woman who was on the bottom rung of the ladder and then fell off. Her life was a catalogue of disasters. And yet Jesus forgave her and her life was transformed. How do we know? Well see what happens in verse 44.

'Then [Jesus] 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. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.'' It's not that Simon hadn't seen her! You couldn't have failed to notice this weeping woman at Jesus' feet. But Jesus wanted Simon to get the point. There was a huge contrast between this woman's actions towards Jesus and Simon's. Common hospitality dictated that when a guest came to your home you kissed him on the cheek, washed his feet, all dirty from the dusty and mucky roads, and then put oil on his head. Simon hadn't even shown Jesus basic courtesy. It would be like opening the door to an invited special guest and then just walking off leaving them to shut the door, hang up their coat and make themselves something to eat. It was more than rude. It was unloving and offensive. And it showed where Simon's heart was. It was cold and had not received Jesus' forgiveness. For the simple reason that Simon refused to admit his sin. He was far more concerned to point out the sin in others as opposed to recognising it in his own life. And his actions towards Jesus proved it. As Jesus said, he who has been forgiven little, loves little.

But not this woman. She gave Jesus all the attention she believed he deserved. Instead of washing his feet, she wept on his feet. You can almost feel the enormous relief of the burden of shame and guilt being lifted from this poor woman's heart. She weeps with joy and love for her new Lord and master. Instead of kiss on the cheek at the door, she constantly kisses Jesus' feet, a sign of great humility. And instead of putting a dab of olive oil on his head, she pours the richest perfume she can find on his feet. That's how much she loved him. For she knew how much she had been forgiven. And she loved Jesus for it. It was not that her love had earned that forgiveness. Far from it. Her love was a response to that forgiveness. 'Therefore, I tell you, said Jesus, her many sins have been forgiven.'

And the wonderful news of this passage is that our sins can be forgiven. We can be washed clean. We can be transformed from being people loaded down with guilt and shame, to being people freed and relieved of that intolerable burden. And whilst we might think that the things we have done rule us out of God's heaven, yet God says that's simply not true. What's interesting in this story is that it is most likely that this woman has been healed and forgiven for sexual sin. And perhaps many of us like her feel deep shame for the things we have said or thought or done in the past. We may have things within our hearts which we would hate for others to see. Sexual sin often leaves deep wounds and guilt. And yet forgiveness and healing is available even for those sins we are most ashamed about. That's what this woman discovered she could receive from Jesus.

Let me tell you about one young man who plumbed the depths of sexual sin and yet was plucked out of them by God's grace. His name was Augustine. He lived in the 4th century and his teenage years and young adult years were ones of terrible sexual indulgence. 'As I grew to manhood, he wrote, I was inflamed with desire for an abundance of hell's pleasures. My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I learn how to give a good speechMy father made no effort to see whether I was chaste or notAnd when he left home he plunged himself into as he puts it 'a hissing cauldron of lust.' He ended up living with a woman who was not his wife and fathering a son by her. But remarkably, years later he came to see that there was a God who was interested in him and who would forgive him and give him a fresh start. And after his conversion he said these words: 'During all those years of rebellion, where was my free will? How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose. You drove them from me, [O God], you who are the true one, the sovereign joywho are sweeter than all pleasure.'

Christian, do you love your Lord like Augustine and this woman in Luke 7? Do you love the Lord Jesus like this? It's only we when come to a deep realisation of our own sin, that we will respond with deep love for our Saviour who has forgiven us. It's not that we need to plumb the depths of depravity before we can love like this. I guess many of us will be like Simon. We'll be upright and moral people, those who respect God's laws and try and do what is right. But even if we have not acted like Augustine and this woman, yet Jesus reminds us who we too are debtors. Our hearts are just as evil. No, we may not have actually done the sin, but we've certainly thought it, which Jesus says is just as bad. We too have sinned greatly. So again we ask, do you love him? Have you recognised your sin and come to him? It's perfectly possible to know about God's forgiveness, to be orthodox and doctrinally sound, even to be doing wonderful deeds for the Lord, but to have forgotten that first love. Do you love him? How did this woman show her love. In a public act of service. Love is seen in action. And love springs from the knowledge that we are forgiven. That's the response to forgiveness.

3) The Assurance of Forgiveness (Vv 48-50)

Then thirdly, the assurance of forgiveness. Because we might be tempted at this point to ask, 'Well how can we be sure we are forgiven? How was that woman sure she was forgiven?' For one very simple reason. The person who said the words. Verse 48: 'Then Jesus said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven.' The other guests began to say among themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?'' And that's the key to how you and I can be forgiven. Only God can forgive sins, and that is what Luke teaches us again and again in his gospel. Jesus is God in the flesh come to forgive sins. And in order to forgive us, a huge price has to be paid. For it cost Jesus his own life as he died in our place on the cross. It was as if this woman had run up a huge bill on a credit card. Every time she sinned the card would go through the machine. More debts to pay, again and again. It's the same for us. Each day the bills mount up. The card gets used and our moral debt gets larger and larger. But when we accept Jesus' forgiveness for us, it's as if Jesus says, 'That bill is paid for'. The debts have been wiped off. How? Swept under the carpet? The files erased. If only it was that easy. No, because of God's justice, the bills have to be paid. And the price was the death of Jesus himself on the cross. Jesus says I will pay the bill for you. It cost the cross to deal with that woman's sexual sin. It cost the cross to deal with Simon's hard heartedness, if only he knew. It cost the cross to deal with everything you and I have ever done or will do. Your sins are forgiven! What wonderful words.

But has it struck you why Jesus said those words? Why did he need to bother if she knew she was forgiven? We've already said that she knew she was forgiven because she showed it in her dramatic display of affection to Jesus at the dinner party. Why did he need to tell her if she knew? Is it not that she needed reminding there as much as anywhere that she was forgiven? Because the truth is we need to keep trusting the cross not just as the start of our Christian lives, but all the way through. How many of us have had that feeling that we have let the Lord down again this day, this week? Have you ever thought to yourself: 'Will God forgive me this time? Surely he's getting fed up forgiving me for the same old sin time and again?'

A few years ago, a friend of mine sold his 20 year old Astra estate. He realised the time had come to get a new car and with great sadness he went to the auction to part with his beloved. Well at the auction, he was asked to write on a sheet all that was wrong with the car and had ever gone wrong. Being an honest clergyman, he had to go back for a second piece of paper. And he thought that no-one would ever buy it. But sure enough, even before the auction had started, there was a sign on the car saying 'Sold'. Curious as to which madman would want such a heap, my friend investigated. And he discovered that the buyer was an Astra Estate collector. He took on old Astras and did them up. And he knew exactly what he was getting. He said he knew what had happened to the car in the past, and was aware of its present faults. And yet he was still willing to pay. And he said that he was still willing to pay knowing what fault were likely to occur in the future. And that is what the cross says. Jesus takes us on knowing our past, present and future failings. And he has paid for them all. His blood shed on the cross works backwards and forwards. And that is why we need to keep trusting the cross throughout our lives. We have been saved by God's grace, his free gift of Jesus, and we live by grace every day. And we need that constant assurance by looking to the cross that we are forgiven like this woman, and that however poorly we have performed each day, yet his grace is sufficient for us.

So are you trusting the cross today? Or do you think that you can live your Christian life in your own strength? It's very easy to slip into thinking that our Christians lives are lived in order to pay God back for what he's done. Many of us are driven by guilt because we fear we have not done enough to keep in God's good books today. We've not done this or that. We need to do more. Is so easy to become like Simon the Pharisee as a Christian and to think we can manage on our own. Our natural pride tells us to be self reliant, to try and repay God for what's done. But friends, we cannot ever repay God's favour. It is simply impossible. Even our best deeds for him are works of his grace in our lives. Who is that enables us to keep trusting him day by day? God. Who is that stops us falling off into some terrible sin or temptation? God. Who is that gives us the gifts to serve him and live for him? God alone. And that is why we need hear Jesus' assurance of forgiveness again and again. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace, says Jesus. We need to hear that it is God who saves. And his grace is sufficient for us every day. Don't ever think that you are too good for God's grace. A honest glance at your heart will reveal the folly of that thought. And don't ever think you are too bad for God's grace. Just look at the cross and remember that Jesus died for every sin, past, present and future. Keep trusting the cross, today, tomorrow, always. It's by grace we are saved, and by God's grace we continue. What was it John Newton wrote? 'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.' So keep trusting the cross. And like this woman, leave with those words of assurance ringing in your ears. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. For Jesus assures us every day. You are forgiven.

So two visions of life. One where forgiveness is possible, where forgiveness changes lives for the good. The other where there is simply law, and there is no possibility of change. Well where do you stand? Humble enough to accept your sin and receive that forgiveness. Or too proud and self reliant to admit your sin and come to Christ? Jesus gives us these three lessons this morning and asks us three questions. The need for forgiveness. Have you admitted your sin? The response to forgiveness. Do you love your Saviour? The assurance of forgiveness. Will you keep trusting the cross?

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