What love! - Luke 7:36-50

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 18th February 2007.

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A few years ago an Australian minister was invited to preach in a Russian women’s prison. As he was waiting in the warden’s office to meet his bilingual translator in walked a woman in her forties. She was nicely dressed and the minister asked her if she worked at the prison, ‘No,’ she replied. I am one of the inmates. ’ 'Oh' said the minister ‘Do you mind if I ask what you are in for? ’ ‘Not at all’ she said. ‘I am serving a sentence for murder.’ Well, he began to get a little nervous at this point, his eyes darting towards the door just in case he needed to make a quick exit. ’Oh really’ he mumbled. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘I came home late one night and found my husband in bed with his lover, and in a rage I killed them both.’ But then she told him about her personal transformation in prison. ‘Before I came into prison,’ she said, ‘I was not religious. But [once I came into prison] I began attending a Bible study and came to understand the Gospel and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I now know I am pardoned by God, in spite of my crime, through Jesus’ death on the cross, and it is a great pleasure and privilege to act as interpreter for your meeting today.’

There is a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon in which Shroeder is holding up a placard, which says confidently, ‘Christ is the Answer!’ And yet in the background there is another poster, held up by Snoopy, which simply says, “But what is the question?”

The author Kingsley Amis gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in the last week of his life. He wasn’t a Christian but this is what he said: “One of Christianity’s great advantages is that it offers an explanation for sin. I haven’t got one. Christianity’s got one enormous thing right – original sin. For one of the great benefits of organised religion is that you can be forgiven your sins which must be a wonderful thing.” Then the interviewer said he paused for a long time and bowed his head low.  Then he said, “I mean, I carry my sins around with me. There is nobody there to forgive them.”

If only more people in Britain were like Kingsley Amis then many more would understand why the offer of Jesus’ forgiveness is such wonderful news. It seems obvious to say that if we want to appreciate God’s offer of forgiveness then we need to understand the great problem we face without it. But let me say it anyway. If we have no idea of the problem we face then the solution will seem irrelevant to us. We can proclaim it all we like, with great passion and enthusiasm, that, “Jesus is the Answer. He is the one who provides forgiveness for our sins.” but if those we speak to have no appreciation of their sinfulness and of he serious consequences of unforgiven sin then is it any surprise that when we speak the look on their face says it all, “But what is the question?” Yes perhaps they might admit that forgiveness of sin is required for all the bad people in the world. People like that Russian prisoner I mentioned before. But for me? I’m not a bad person. In fact, I’m quite a decent person. So all this talk about sin and forgiveness makes no impression on me whatsoever.”

There used to be a woman who attended a church in Southampton and for many years she heard the vicar speak about sin and forgiveness. But for a long period of time it made no impression on her. And the reason was because every time he said he was a sinner and everyone else in the congregation was a sinner she would say to herself, “That’s a ridiculous idea. You’re a perfectly respectable man and I’m a perfectly respectable woman.” Now it took her years to appreciate the joy of forgiveness because it took her years to appreciate what her true standing was before God.

And so what a joy it is tonight to open up Luke 7 and to hear Jesus diagnose our true spiritual condition. Now you’ll see from your handout that three big questions emerge from this particular section of the Bible:

o Who needs forgiveness?
o How much forgiveness do we need?
o Where can we find this forgiveness?

Aim: to go through each question. Hear Jesus’ answer.

Goal: to appreciate our spiritual condition, to hear God’s wonderful remedy and as a result I want us to realize again (although some for the first time) how those who truly understand these things should respond to Jesus in their daily lives.

1. Who needs forgiveness? (Vs 36-43)

We’re told in vs 36 that one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to the Pharisees’ house and reclined at the table.

At this point in his public ministry Jesus had a reputation of only hanging out with the outcasts of society. Those who considered themselves morally superior, people like the Pharisees, were always looking down their nose at Jesus and muttering to themselves about the type of people who were frequently in his company. But it’s very clear as you read through the Gospels that Jesus would spend time with anyone. One of the big reasons he spend the majority of his time with the “sinners” of his day was because they were much more aware of their need for Jesus (and the forgiveness that he offered) than the so-called respectable people.  But what is clear from the Gospels is that Jesus did not restrict himself to the people on the margins of society. And so in Luke 7 when one of the Pharisees, one of the respectable members of the culture, invites him for dinner he gladly accepted the invitation.

Now in those days dinner parties were very much like student welcome parties today. The normal family meal would be very much like ours today, people would sit up and the doors would be closed to visitors. But dinner parties in those days had a very different format. The guests who had been invited would each recline on a couch and would face a central table where the food was placed. So imagine the scene. Everyone is lying down, on their elbows, munching away and talking about all the latest gossip and their feet are all pointing towards the walls.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, Lee, that doesn’t sound like any student welcome party I’ve ever been to. It sounds much to sophisticated for a Freshers celebration.” And I completely agree with you. But the reason I compare first century dinner parties with student welcome parties is not because of the level of sophistication but the openness of the party. You see first century parties were not private occasions. Just like student welcome parties strangers would often turn up. And when they did they would place themselves around the edge of the room to watch the people who had been invited, to listen to their conversation and perhaps even to receive a few leftovers from the table. It was very much like Big Brother except the people viewing the action were not sitting on their sofas at home but were actually in the house itself.

So can you imagine the scene? The dinner guests are reclining at the table and the party has begun. The food is great and the wine is flowing. And then out of the corner of your eye, who do you see coming through the door? Verse 37: “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating in 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.”

Now we’re not sure exactly why this woman is described as having lived a sinful life. It may be that she was a local prostitute or it may be that she had committed multiple adultery with a number of men in the town. We cannot say for sure. But what is certain is that this was a woman with a News of World past. So why, you might ask, was she in the middle of a very posh dinner party?

Well, listen again to verse 37. “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume.” So unlike the others who had gathered round the side of the room this woman was interested in much more than merely listening to the latest gossip from those in high-society. She came to do something for Jesus. It becomes clear later on that she and Jesus had met before and on the previous occasion Jesus had declared her many sins to be forgiven. And so when she heard that Jesus was back in town she pulled out all the stops and made sure she would have an opportunity to say thank-you.

It was a simple plan. Pick up the ancient equivalent of Channel Number 5 from the bath room cabinet, ignore the dagger looks from the passers-by as you walk down the street, sneak in the side door of Simon’s house, find out where the party is being held, stand behind Jesus, and then pour the perfume on his outstretched feet. And then perhaps even make a quick get away before anyone really noticed that she was in the room.

But what happened? She lost it. She lost control of her emotions. Have you ever tried to hold it together and then lose it in the emotion of the moment? You have reassured yourself that you are British, that your stiff-upper lip will not move a muscle but then when you least expect the tears begin to flow. Well, that’s what happened to this woman. So much for Plan A with the unobtrusive pouring and the James Bond getaway. She breaks down. The internal emotions are too much and she starts weeping uncontrollably. This is no Demi Moore whimper! It is like rain falling from the sky on Jesus’ feet. And then she wipes them with her hair, kisses them and then eventually pours the perfume all over them.

Now can you imagine this happening at one of your dinner parties? You’ve invited Melvin round for a slap-up meal and so far everything has gone according to plan. The food is great, the atmosphere is relaxed and the conversation is flowing. And then midway through the evening in walks a local prostitute, who makes her way directly to Melvin, bursts out crying and then precedes to pour a whole bottle of perfume over his feet. Well, that’s it isn’t it? At this point the party is over. You cannot continue as if nothing has happened. You cannot simply smile and offer people some more cheese. The party has been ruined. And the only question that remains is who will break the awkward silence?

Well, at this 1st century party it was Jesus who spoke first. But before we listen to what he actually said look with me at what we are told in verse 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.’” And then look what we are told in verse 40. “Jesus answered him.” Did you see that? Jesus answered him. But wait a minute, he had simply been thinking to himself. He had said nothing out loud. And yet we are told, Jesus answered him. The Pharisee may have doubted that Jesus was a prophet because of the company he was keeping but his reply to Simon’s internal thought processes demonstrates that he was no phony. He knew what this Pharisee was thinking!

With Jesus there is no pretending. He knows everything we think. There is nothing we can hide from him. So Jesus said to this Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” And no doubt rather nervously Simon responded, “Tell me, teacher.”

“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii [which is about 1.5 year’s wages] and the other fifty [which is about 2 months wages]. 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.” And then Jesus says, “Well done Simon, Top of the class. Have a gold star. You have judged correctly.”

Now it’s very obvious, isn’t it, who are the main characters in Jesus’ short story. The money lender stands for God and the two debtors represent the woman and the Pharisee. But here are the crucial points to notice.

First of all, Jesus said that two people owed money to a certain money-lender. So not just one person but two people were debtors. Now of course they owed different amounts and this is reflected in Jesus’ story but crucially none of them had the resources to pay back what they owed and so therefore they were in the same category - they were both debtors with no resources to pay. Do you see the image that Jesus is using here? He is comparing our sins to a financial debt that we cannot pay. It’s like we all have in our possession a moral credit card. And each time we sin, whether against God or against other people, the more we increase our spiritual debt to God. Now of course there are some people in the world who have amounted a greater balance than us on their moral credit card. The Adolf Hitlers, the Saddam Husseins, the Myra Hidleys, the 7th of July bombers. So Jesus is not saying that everyone has the same spiritual debt that needs to be paid. But what he is teaching us is that all of us have run up a spiritual debt and none us have the resources to pay. So here is the shocking truth from Jesus. It’s not that we’ve all run up the same spiritual debt as Adolf Hitler but we are nevertheless in the same category as Hitler because we, like him, have accumulated a spiritual debt problem that we cannot solve on our own.

Please notice what the money-lender in Jesus’ story does not do. He doesn’t call his clients into his office and say to them, “Well, let’s see if we can draw up a gradual repayment plan. I know you won’t be able to pay back everything all at once but perhaps over time we can arrange the details of your life so that eventually you will be able to repay me.” He doesn’t say this does he? Now admittedly that’s how many religious systems operate and unfortunately it’s often how many people view Christianity. So minus one for a sin and plus one for a good deed. And in the end the banker in the sky checks over the books and our final spiritual balance determines if we go up or down.

But that’s not how the God of the Bible operates. We get no credit for the good things that we do because these are the things we are expected to do anyway. So it’s not minus one and plus one and we’ll see what happens in the end. It is completely radical and it’s got nothing to do with us at all! Let me read verse 42 again. “Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.” Here is the ultimate Make Poverty History Campaign! The God of the universe promises to write off the debts of all repentant sinners. He promises to wipe the slate clean because of his overwhelming generosity.

Now can you imagine your bank manager doing this? It just doesn’t happen does it and I’m sure nothing would change even if we all send our local bank managers these verses to adopt as their New Year’s Resolution. But what we must understand is that this is exactly how things operate spiritually.

You might ask: What about the cost of our sin? The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death. So am I right in assuming that this story from Jesus teaches that our spiritual debt can simply be written off without any consequences? Be careful not to expect one story to tell us everything. Very much like the parable of the lost son in Luke 15 which does not mention the cross – but it was not the main point of the story. Instead it illustrates the love of the Father and the way of repentance.But even in this story there is a cost involved. Because although the debtors do not pay, they are let off scot-free, the money-lender himself bears the cost of the unpaid debts. And of course we when think about how things operate in the spiritual world this is the amazing truth of the Christian Gospel. That God himself pays the consequences of our sinful life. Doesn’t just forget it but God sent his only Son to endure the penalty of our sins so that we could be forgiven. So across every Christian’s spiritual ledger is written these life-changing words: the blood of Jesus Christ has paid for this spiritual debt. 

A few years ago the following advert appeared in the ‘Personal’ columns a country newspaper called The Evesham Advertiser: “Young man with 500 acres seeks relationship  with young lady with tractor. Please send photo of tractor.”

That’s conditional love, isn’t it? I will love you if you bring a tractor into my life. That’s the typical way human beings relate, isn’t it? I will love you if you sleep with me. I’ll love you if I keep on feeling the same way about you. I’ll love you if you love me. I’ll love you if you change. I’ll love you if…Most of our relationships are based on conditional love. 

But a relationship with God is not based on conditional love because we bring nothing to it. We bring no achievements of our own. We simply come with our record of sin and God says my only Son has dealt with your sin on the cross 2000 years ago. And let me assure you that when sin is dealt with it will never be dealt with again.

Who needs forgiveness? Every single one of us.

2. How much forgiveness do we need? (Vs 44-47)

Very easy to misunderstand what Jesus has just said in this short story. It is possible to conclude that there are some big sinners out there and some small sinners out there. And tough luck if you happen to be a small sinner because you will never know what it is to be forgiven of much. And I guess if we were thinking perversely we might even say, “Well, surely the best course of action would be to commit some of the really big sins in life so at least we can have more gratitude to God when he eventually does forgives us.” But it sounds absurd doesn’t it? You only have to say it out loud and it sounds absurd. So we are left asking the question: What does Jesus mean? Well, listen carefully to what he says to Simon in verse 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 — for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.””

We need to remember who these words were spoken to. Not the woman yet. He will speak to her in verse 48. But for the moment his attention is solely directed towards Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee, who is in great danger of minimising his own need of forgiveness.

Big question for a speaker: How do you expose someone’s spiritual condition? Not just tell them but get to the point when they say – Oh my goodness that’s where I stand? The girl I met in Oxford. With me for the first two questions in the spiritual health check. On the third she discovered she wasn’t a Christian.

I think this is what Jesus is doing with Simon. He needs to expose his self-righteousness for what it is. He has been playing the comparison game for so long that he has forgotten how great his own sin is. And so when Jesus says to him, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” he is not affirming that Simon is a small sinner in God’s world with little need of forgiveness but demonstrating that Simon’s actions towards Jesus reveal that this is exactly what he thinks of himself. And at this point I’m sure Simon had one of those “Oh my goodness that’s where I stand moments.”

The world is not divided into small sinners and big sinners but big sinners and bigger sinners. We may not all have been an Adolf Hitler but our sins are big because they have been committed against the God of the universe.

I’m sure all the Christians in church tonight believe this to be true in theory but here’s the big test: What does our current service for Jesus reveal? Link between our service and our gratitude. Think we are small sinners we won’t be active in service. But it’s when we realise that Jesus gave everything for us that we will give everything for him. Out of our way to serve him, his people and his interests in this world. We will make costly choices. Why? Because our heart is full of gratitude.

How much forgiveness do we need? We need big forgiveness because we are big sinners.

3. Where can we find this forgiveness? (Vs 48-50)

Well, listen to what we are told in verse 48: “Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

I wonder if you find what Jesus says shocking. Not the phrase “your sins are forgiven”, we expect that sort of thing from Jesus. “That’s his job,” we say. He’s in the forgiveness business. But what about the phrase, “Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” Jesus said to this woman, the breaker of how many marriages we do not know and the cause of how much pain we cannot imagine. Jesus said to her, your sins are forgiven.

As Jesus spoke to the Pharisee we are supposed to conclude that no one is too good to reject Jesus’ forgiveness but as he speaks to this woman we are supposed to conclude that no one is too bad to receive Jesus’ forgiveness.

About two years ago I spent a week in Plymouth working with a number of churches who were keen to share the good news of Jesus with their friends and family. On the first night a young man organized a party for his friends from the dock. All squeezed in. Who was in the room? The son of Harold Shipman. The question I had in my mind was this: Did the forgiveness of Jesus extend even to his father? And the answer. Yes it did. And we know this because this woman in Luke 7 reminds us that there is no one too bad to receive Jesus’ forgiveness.

A number of years ago a man called David Watson was speaking to a group of students about the Christian faith. Just before the meeting started the chairman said to him, “Do you see that girl over there? She’s the toughest girl in the university!” And the speaker thought to himself, “Poor thing to have a reputation like that!” Apparently this girl was well known on campus – involved in the drug scene, who slept with many boys, and looked pretty tough. And during his talk she never once looked in his direction, she had her feet up on the table in front of her, and smoked throughout the meeting. She was a tough cookie. And then towards the end of his talk David Watson encouraged anyone who wanted to become Christians to pray a short prayer of commitment to Jesus Christ. He then asked those who had prayed the prayer to come and speak with him afterwards. To his great surprise this girl came up, with the cigarette still dangling from her lower lip. David Watson confessed that he as not entirely convinced and yet the next evening he saw her again – and the change in her appearance was dramatic. Later over a cup of coffee she told him her story. Apparently for much of the day she had been crying because for years and years, and these are her very words, she said to him, “I have felt as guilty as hell.”

What do you do with your guilt? There is no one too good to reject Jesus’ forgiveness and there is no one too bad to receive Jesus’ forgiveness. So what do you do with your guilt? Do you take the past and put it in a room in the basement and never go there? Do we have a way of dealing with the guilt that we carry? Well, Jesus says come to me and I will forgive you.

At this point the other guests began to mutter to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And that’s a great question. Who does Jesus think he is to be in the forgiveness business? But when we see the answer it is truly wonderful. He is both the second member of the Trinity, one of the three persons who have sinned against, but also he is the one who went to the cross to bear the cost of our moral debt. And still today he is the one who has been appointed to be the forgiver of sins – no one else. Not a vague God but the risen Jesus who is longing to cancel the debts of anyone who surrenders their life to him.

Some here tonight who don’t know this forgiveness. What an offer? Come and take this booklet at the end.

But it’s the case that most of us in this room have already surrendered our life to Jesus, we have already become Christians, but we still need to hear those words of Jesus. The words of reassurance in verses 48 and 50.

Remember this woman had already been forgiven – need to keep on hearing them. The blood of Jesus has paid for every sin. Will God punish the same sins twice? No. The debt has already been paid by Jesus.

The picture is not – wipe the slate clean and then spoil it again. No, our life is completely clear and our spiritual debt for our entire life has bee completely dealt with. So tonight, whatever guilt you are carrying (open or secret – Jesus already knows) please hear and take to heart these comforting words of Jesus – read verses 48 and 50. Let’s pray.

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