A grateful heart - Luke 7:36-50
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
When we come to a passage like this one in Luke 7, it is not always that easy to come up with a title which does full justice to the main meaning of the text. The title, ‘A grateful heart’ for example is good in that it underscores one of the things Jesus is at pains to point out in relation to the mysterious woman who is present- gratitude for sins forgiven is measured by the love expressed. But the woman is not the only character in the drama, there is also Simon the Pharisee- he plays a major part not only by what he does but by what he doesn’t do. And then of course there is Jesus who lies at the centre of it all and whose words both cut and console, rebuke and reassure. And so perhaps the title we should go with is: The Pharisee, the Prostitute and the Preacher.
So let’s turn to this remarkable episode in the life of Jesus and look at it under three headings: A calculated insult, a compassionate response and a cautionary tale.
First, a calculated insult-v 36-37: ‘When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.’
There is the story of Sir Winston Churchill who was at a well heeled dinner party when he was accosted by a lady by the name of Bessie Braddock. She rounded on Churchill and said in a tone of acid disapproval, “Sir, you are drunk”. To which Churchill replied, ‘Madam, you are ugly, but in the morning I shall be sober”! Just how do you deal with an insult? By hitting back with another insult? In fact, although it may not be all that obvious to us because we operate with different social conventions, this story opens with Jesus being given one mighty slap in the face. It is what we don’t read happening which is the shocking thing- or at least would have been to Luke’s original readers.
We must understand that this is what is called a ‘shame culture’. There are cultures, especially oriental and Middle Eastern ones, where matters of position and shame are hugely important. For someone to bring shame on their family is worse than dying. Indeed, to be shamed is, in some cases the worst thing that could ever happen and death would be a welcomed alternative. Sometimes, shaming someone is deliberate. For example in Paris after the liberation from the Nazis, many of the young women who had been consorting with young German soldiers, as either their girlfriends or mistresses, were dragged out onto the streets, sat down in a chair and had their heads shaved, and sometimes a swastika was daubed on their forehead in black paint. And as this was going on people jeered and hurled insults. What was the point of that? It was to bring them bitter shame, so that all those they came into contact knew what they had done. Some, I believe were driven to commit suicide because of this. So sometimes shaming is intentional- designed to wound and humiliate.
Something like that was going on here. Proper hospitality in the Middle East is a vitally important thing. It is not just a matter of showing good manners, the whole social fabric was woven around following carefully laid down conventions. This story is introduced on a note of heightened tension because all the normal, expected courtesies are deliberately cast to one side. Usually when an invited guest arrived, he would be greeted with a kiss to the face, then he would be shown a seat, usually given a place of honour especially if he were a distinguished guest such as a rabbi. The people would sit on stools around a U-shaped dining couch (triclinium), and water and olive oil would be brought for the washing of hands and feet. Only when all of this had taken place would thanksgiving to God be offered for the food. Then the guests would recline on couches and the food would be served. This would be a given, an absolute minimum requirement.
But do you notice what happens when Jesus arrives at Simon the Pharisees house- and remember the Pharisees were the most scrupulous observers of tradition, etiquette and the law, so they know what they are doing? Or rather did you notice what didn’t happen? None of these conventions are to be seen at all. That is what is behind Jesus rebuke in the three, ‘you did not’s’, which we shall come to again later in verse 44, ‘I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet…You did not give me a kiss…You did not put oil on my head.’ Do you see? This was not some mere social faux pax like passing the port from right to left instead of left to right in an Oxford college dining hall. This is a deliberate set up designed to denigrate Jesus, it is the big social put down, having a laugh at his expense. And that this is a calculated insult is underscored by what the religious elite around the time thought about the honour of having a rabbi to a meal-it was like having royalty, so one piece of writing says, ‘If one partakes of a meal at which a scholar is present, it is as if he feasted on the effulgence of the Divine Presence’. The fact that Simon addresses Jesus as ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’ in v40 shows that he is aware of Jesus status, so this is not a mere oversight on his part, it is a snide and cynical attempt not only to make Jesus look small, but to make Jesus squirm!
Imagine that you receive an invitation to an old school reunion. It looks fun; meeting people you have not seen for years. There is going to be a meal, some dancing with music from the 70’s or 80’s if you are that old, or from the earlier part of the 21st century- yes time is going by! And so you turn up, you have been looking forward to this for ages, you have bought a new dress or suit for the occasion, and gone out of you way to look good. When you arrive, to your astonishment, your old school friends tell you that you are have been made the guest of honour and they have reserved a special place for you at the top table. Naturally you feel proud-‘Why me’, you ask? Well, you are soon to find out. You may have forgotten that some of the people at your school were not all that nice- in fact a pernicious clique has colluded with all the others to have a bit of fun with you. And so they project onto a screen some pictures of you from your earlier days which frankly are acutely embarrassing- You turn crimson and wonder: ‘Did I really look like that?’ They start relating events and things that happened to you which you had long pushed to the back of your memory because they are so painful. Now the party is really getting going! People start laughing as the nick names they used to call you from behind your back are rehearsed over and over again. And then they let you know they have put a good dollop of laxative in your drink for the ultimate giggle. How do you think you would feel? What would that tell you about your ex-school mates? It would tell you that they are a pretty rotten bunch having gone out of their way to do this to you. Well, that is the ‘Carrie’ experience that Jesus is undergoing here. It is callous and cruel and being carried out by religious, morally upright people would you believe?
Of course, the demeaning of Jesus still goes on today. You don’t have to read that much contemporary theological literature or go to some of the churches in our country before you come across portrayals of Jesus deigned to make him look small-maybe as a deluded first century mystic- rather than God incarnate; that Jesus is no more than a prophet alongside other religious leaders such as Mohammed or Gautama Buddha and you can take your pick from amongst them as your guide to God, although Jesus claimed exclusivity in this regard- ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ he said, ‘No one comes to the father except by me’. As Thomas Carlyle once wrote, ‘If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it.’ You can almost imagine the sneers and the smirks of the Pharisees, especially Simon, as Jesus enters the room, knowing he is going to be deeply humiliated-they have been planning this for some time and at last here is the day-the day they denigrate Deity.
But there was one person in that room who didn’t smile- she sobbed- and you see her standing there in the shadows, too afraid, too ashamed to show her face-that is until she saw the trap being sprung on this kindest of men- and she is a prostitute in whom we see a compassionate response- v 37, ‘ A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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.’
Every culture has its euphemisms, delicate and polite ways of talking about indelicate and impolite things. We may speak of ‘a lady of the night’; here it is a ‘woman of the town who lived a sinful life’. It means the same thing- a call girl, someone on the game. So what is she doing here? Well, we know that she has been in the house from the very moment Jesus arrived because according to v 45 she has seen the whole sorry plan to humiliate Jesus unfold- ‘this woman from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.’ So it would seem that she had heard that Jesus was in town and as a result of hearing where he was dining-v37- probably after asking after him- she rushes home, collects what is probably a family heirloom, or something she may have been storing up for her retirement, ready to sell, a costly alabaster jar of perfume and makes a straight line to the house. It would have been a hive of activity, and houses were more open than ours, and so sneaking in amongst the crowd would not have been that difficult. The implication is that she had at least heard of or met Jesus sometime before, that is why she is there with the perfume to show her appreciation. How can we be sure, well in verse 47, Jesus says that this woman’s sins which were many have been forgiven (perfect tense), not that they are now forgiven on the basis of what she has just done. No, she came in the house with her sins forgiven and that is why she showed appreciation by what she did. It has to be like that otherwise the parable Jesus tells doesn’t work. She is forgiven, that is why she loves Jesus so much because in him she has already found forgiveness, do you see?
But as she stands there she is mortified by what they are doing to Jesus. She knows shame, she knows how dreadful it is to live with the sneer and the put down-she has suffered that all her adult life as a prostitute, but maybe she has learned to live with that. But why should Jesus be subject to that from these men of all people? She is standing behind Jesus, with his feet stretched out as he is reclining for his meal, and she is weeping. Not because of her sins, they have already been forgiven, but because of the appalling treatment of Jesus. They may be tears of rage; they may be tears of pity; but they are no less than tears of love. Other men have scorned her and used her, but this man has pitied her and forgiven her. She has heard his message of friendship with God, of the slate being wiped clean, of a fresh start which he offers-this ‘friend of sinners’ -and she has embraced it- her life has been turned around. And now watching this public humiliation of Jesus, she somehow wants to protect him, maybe somehow compensating for the lack of hospitality; but how is she going to wash Jesus feet, something which should have happened as soon as he walked through the doors? She hasn’t any water, and these guardians of morality certainly won’t give her any even if she asked. Then she realises what she can do, wet his feet with her tears- after all there were plenty of them. That is when she takes an enormous risk- she let’s down her hair and gently starts to wipe his feet with it. Two social taboos are broken straight away. First, she let down her hair in public. If a wife had done that it would have been grounds for divorce under rabbinic law, because a woman’s hair was considered to be sexually provocative (Song of Solomon 4:1) - she may as well have taken off her skirt, it was that offensive. In fact in this kind of society, a bride on her wedding night lets down her hair and allows it to be seen by her husband for the first time. So this not only has sexual connotations, but speaks of covenant loyalty-that is what she is offering to Jesus- she is willing to stand by him, even be humiliated with him and for him if necessary. But then she ‘touched’ him- social taboo number two. At that point there would have been a sharp intake of breath and a lot of ‘tut tutting’-v 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.”’
Now do you see what the woman is doing? She is trying in the only way she knows how, to ease Jesus pain caused by this contemptuous treatment of the Pharisees. Maybe she had seen Jesus wince as he was snubbed, she certainly didn’t miss what was intended-the public humiliation of Jesus-treating him in a way they wouldn’t treat a dog. At least that was Jesus interpretation of what was going on-v44ff. But in so doing, she is risking being shamed herself- the claim that she hasn’t changed that much, that she is still sexually provocative- whatever ‘forgiveness’ she might think she has. She is still sneeringly called ‘a sinner’-v39 and you can be pretty sure that that put down would not have been whispered and Jesus heard it. Don’t you find this moving? This woman is willing to pay the price of further social ridicule and estrangement, being thought of badly, because she just wants to do right by Jesus, when these men have just done him wrong.
Let me tell you that standing by Jesus can be very costly- especially today when a new wave of what is paraded as ‘tolerance’ is decidedly intolerant of anyone who questions its idea of a moral free for all. One of the most striking examples of this is the case of Carrie Prejean at the 2009 Miss USA pageant. Prejean was asked by pageant judge Perez Hilton, who is a gay activist, whether she believed every US state should legalize same-sex marriage. She replied, ‘Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And, you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that, I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.’ Hilton’s response was that she was ‘A dumb bitch with half a brain’. It is generally agreed that her honest, and modest answer, cost her the crown. Prejean stated that she was told by Miss California USA pageant officials that she "need[ed] to not talk about" her faith and was pressured to apologize for her statement.’ She was publically booed and humiliated at that ceremony. Friends, in some way or another we are all called to identify with Christ and suffer for him. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Prejean to have given an evasive answer? But her faith wouldn’t let her. Wouldn’t it have been easier for this prostitute to remain in the shadows, but she stepped forward. Love for Christ makes you do such way- out things.
And Jesus captures this truth in a cautionary tale, 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said: “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 forgiven.” “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.”
Remember, Simon was a Pharisee, he was an expert in handling the Scriptures and engaging in theological arguments- he knew what Jesus was doing here, and it was quite subversive. First of all, talk about having debts cancelled and having sins forgiven tended to overlap, so in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, Jesus speaks of ‘forgiving us our debts.’ That is really what the story is about-the forgiveness of sins. Secondly, given that this is so then the moneylender in the story clearly parallels God before whom we have all built up a whole load of unrepayable debt because of our sin. And yet, who in verse 48 is said to have forgiven the woman’s sins? It is Jesus. There is the shocking thing-Jesus is claiming a role for himself which is the unique prerogative of God- the forgiving of sins -hence the question by the stunned onlookers-‘Who is this that forgives sins.’ That means that if we or anyone else wants our sins forgiven we must come to Jesus and no other. Thirdly, by speaking of someone who owed much and someone who owed little, Jesus is reminding Simon that he is in this story too-not just the woman who ‘owed much’ (which Simon would have agreed with-after all she is a prostitute for goodness sake!)- he is also up to his neck in debt, not least because of the premeditated act of humiliating Jesus. And Simon, like the woman is in no position to cancel the debt himself. The irony is that he needs the one he has deliberately insulted and denigrated to do the cancelling..
Now here’s the thing, when Jesus says that the ‘woman’s many sins have been forgiven because she loved much’, he doesn’t mean that her forgiveness was a consequence of her love, but that her love was a result of her forgiveness. By way of contrast, Simon didn’t show love, but contempt and so he was nowhere in the forgiveness game. She is saved, Simon is condemned. She has peace, Simon has guilt.
You are here tonight as a Christian and maybe you are wondering why you don’t love Christ all that much if the truth be known. Yes, there is love there, but it feels so paltry, so poorly expressed. Could the reason be that you just don’t know how much you have been forgiven? Maybe you are here tonight and you feel fine, all this talk of debts and sins and forgiveness means very little to you, you don’t feel the need for a Saviour any more than Simon did, because you too have very little idea of what you sin means to God. So where do you go to see how much you have been forgiven? Where do you look to see how much you need to be forgiven? Well, you go on a few pages further in Luke’s Gospel to a place called, ‘The Skull’, a place of the most appalling suffering, humiliation and shame. There you will see this same man, stripped naked, flesh hanging from his body, as he is hoist up, nailed to a scaffold becoming the repository for the filth and sin of the whole world-with your sins and mine-poured into him, as he is punished in our place. You want to know the cost of forgiveness, then you go to the cross. You want to know how much you need forgiving, then go to the same cross and like this woman-weep, because nothing less will do.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.