Healing the Centurion’s Slave

7:1 After Jesus had finished teaching all this to the people, he entered Capernaum. 7:2 A centurion there had a slave who was highly regarded, but who was sick and at the point of death. 7:3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 7:4 When they came to Jesus, they urged him earnestly, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 7:5 because he loves our nation, and even built our synagogue.” 7:6 So Jesus went with them.
Lk 7:1–10 – cf. Mt 8:5–13

This account of the faith of the Centurion (note that it this, and not the healing of his servant, which comes to the fore in the way the story is told) is paralleled in Mt 8:5-13. The main difference is that Matthew has compressed the story by allowing us the impression that the Centurion speaks to Jesus directly, whereas Luke informs us that it is via his friends.

The relationship with John 4:46–54 is unclear: there are differences as well as similarities.  Edwards: ‘The two stories share several obvious similarities: both are set in Capernaum, both request healing for a servant/son near death, both attest to the faith of the petitioner, and both attest that Jesus healed the servant/son from a distance. There are as many differences, however. In Luke the petitioner is a centurion, in John a royal official; in Luke the victim is a servant, in John a son; John makes no mention of a delegation sent to Jesus or of a change of mind of the petitioner; and in John the malady is identified as fever. Furthermore, at 700 feet below sea level and adjacent to a large body of water, Capernaum was plagued by fevers, gastrointestinal disorders, and respiratory diseases such as dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, and esp. malaria. The proliferation of diseases with similar symptoms in a single locale raises the possibility that the Lukan and Johannine accounts are two different episodes.’

When Jesus had finished saying all this – The preached word will now be vindicated by the healing word, v7. With him there was perfect harmony between word and deed.

The previous chapter has ended on the need for a rock-like faith. In various ways, the present chapter explores the issue of faith. It demonstrates that faith involves humility, gratitude, and service.

‘Lk 7:1-10 and 11-17 (the raising of the widow’s son at Nain) have an evident parallelism (to the centurion corresponds the widow; to the precious slave, the son; at the point of death corresponds to having died; with the centurion’s recognition of the authority of Jesus is to be compared the crowd’s recognition of a visitation of God; in both incidents there is an attendant crowd), and both are offered by Luke as illustrations of the assertion to follow in v 22:”the dead are raised up.”‘ (Nolland)

Try to capture the essence of this story in a single (shortish!) sentence.

A centurion – The centurion who features in the story was a Gentile, not necessarily Roman, probably employed by Herod Antipas in his army modelled after the Roman fashion, Lk 3:14. His role could have been that of a tax soldier or policeman. Each of the centurions referred to by the NT is a man of character (Lk 23:47; Acts 10:22; 23:17,23; 24:23; 27:1,43).  But this centurion surpasses them all: we note his kindness (in respect of his servant, the Jews, and the synagogue); his humility (in respect of Jesus’ person); and his faith (in respect of Jesus’ power to heal).

‘The centurion thus represented the Roman-supported government of an unpopular Hellenistic ruler. His good relations with the local Jewish community (7:3–5) are an important counterbalance to the general impression of an oppressive Roman occupation of Palestine.’ (France)

This man had a slave who was highly regarded – or ‘was precious to him’. The centurion clearly had an unusual degree of regard and even affection for his servant. ‘He had a completely unusual attitude to his slave. He loved this slave and would go to any trouble to save him. In Roman law a slave was defined as a living tool; he had no rights; a master could ill-treat him and even kill him if he chose. A Roman writer on estate management recommends the farmer to examine his implements every year and to throw out those which are old and broken, and to do the same with his slaves. Normally when a slave was past his work he was thrown out to die. The attitude of this centurion to his slave was quite unusual.’ (DSB)

This servant was sick and at the point of death – According to Mt 8:6 he was suffering from debilitating paralysis and was suffering terribly.

Ryken reminds us of the terrible helplessness we all feel in such situations.  ‘The centurion desperately wanted to help the servant he loved. Presumably he had tried everything he could think of, but there seemed to be nothing he could do to help…This is a situation that we all encounter. We encounter it medically when the doctors say there is nothing else they can do for one of our family members. We encounter it relationally when we do not know how to bring people together. We encounter it financially when someone close to us is deep in debt. We encounter it spiritually when we share the gospel and people still do not want to know Jesus. What do you do when there is nothing else that you can do to help the people you love?’

The centurion hears of Jesus and his miracles: Jesus had already performed there the notable healing of the son of a royal official, John 4:46ff. Indeed, a conspicuous number of miracles seem to have been performed there, Mt 11:23. He sent some elders of the Jews to him, with whom, as we discover, he was on cordial terms. He seems sensitive to ethnic boundaries, but Luke shows that these are no barriers as far as Jesus is concerned. Although Jesus came first of all to the Jews, his ministry and message were destined to extend to all countries, all nations, all races, all classes, Lk 24:43-49; Eph 2:14-17; Gal 3:28.

He sent some Jewish elders to him – ‘A Gentile soldier seeking help from an Israelite prophet reminds us of Naaman the Syrian general who sought help from Elisha (2 Kgs 5:1–14; cf. Luke 4:27).’ (Luke Timothy Johnson)

Marshall says that these were probably civil leaders, not synagogue officials (who would no doubt have been less sympathetic).

‘The action is culturally sensitive: not knowing Jesus personally and recognizing that he is of Jewish heritage, the soldier sends representatives of Jesus’ own ethnic background to plead his case. There is no demand made of Jesus, only a request…This man had won respect across ethnic lines. The cultural sensitivity of his actions may well suggest why.’ (Bock, IVPNTC)

So far as Jesus’ observance of ethnic distinctions is concerned, ‘although [he] initially preached to the lost sheep of Israel, his ministry eventually extended to all after his postresurrection commission to the apostles (24:43–49; Eph 2:14–17).’ (Bock, IVPNTC)

Who asked Jesus for help?

Matthew (Mt 8:5-12) and Luke (Lk 7:1-10) both have an account of a Roman centurion whose servant Jesus healed.

Matthew 8:5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help.

Luke 7:3 ‘When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.’

So, did the centurion personally ask Jesus for help, or did he send others to do this on his behalf?

Writing on Peter Enns’ ‘Rethinking Biblical Christianity’ blog, Megan Defranza recounts (not quite an ‘Aha! moment’ but) the process by which she came to the conclusion that the Bible is not quite the ‘perfect’ book she had previously thought it to be.  She says that now sees the Bible as ‘imperfect, but wholly adequate’.  DeFranza cites the present account, in its Matthean and Lukan forms, as her first piece of ‘evidence’, because, although there is no problem with the main point, ‘the details… Well, let’s just say they didn’t match up as perfectly as I had expected.’

As Kostenberger remarks, the problem in this instance is with DeFranza’s expectations, rather than with the biblical text.  In ancient Jewish culture, there was a close connection between the sender of a message and those who carry that message, such that it would be no surprise to learn that Elijah (1 Kings 18:40), Pilate (Mark 15:15/Mt 27:26, and also Jn 19:19,22), Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:39, 40) did not personally carry out the actions attributed to them.

‘It may be that Matthew in his shorter version passes over the original contact and that Luke does not bother to say that the centurion went with his friends to meet Jesus just outside Capernaum.’ (Mounce)

So, from the case cited, there is no undermining either of the Bible’s complete adequacy or of its complete accuracy, ‘when the writers’ own genre, purposes, and intentions are taken into account, as they should be’ (Kostenberger).

(Ryle, while accepting the possibility of the above explanation, thinks it more likely that both accounts are literally true: ‘In all probability the Centurion first sent messengers to our Lord, and afterwards went to speak to Him in person. St. Matthew relates the personal interview, and St. Luke the message.’  This seems to be unduly speculative.)

There are, indeed, some serious questions to be faced about the Bible’s ‘perfections’ (and Enns himself has raised some of these).  But it’s plain silly to cite the present story, as told by Matthew and Luke, as a case in point.

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Asking him to come and heal his servant – Ryle quotes Bishop Hall: ‘Great variety of visitors resorted to Christ. One comes to Him for a son; another for a daughter; a third for himself. I see none come to Him for his servant but this one Centurion.’

‘We may now, by faithful and fervent prayer, apply ourselves to Christ in heaven, and ought to do so, when sickness is in our families; for Christ is still the great Physician.’ (M. Henry)

“He is worthy to have you do this for him” – The centurion is distinguished not only by his cultural sensitivity, but also for his noble character.

Edwards says that this reflects an original Latinism, indicating that the delegation has passed on the Centurion’s actual words.  But Edwards then has to work rather (too?) hard to explain why, in v6b, the man declares himself to be unworthy of Jesus’ attention.  It is better to contrast the envoys’ appeal to his worthiness with the Centurion’s sense of unworthiness.

Worthy or not?  It is not difficult to see why this Centurion would be thought of as especially worthy of Jesus’ attention.  How apt are we to think in the same kind of way?

“He loves our nation” – ‘He had an extremely unusual attitude to the Jews. If the Jews despised the gentiles, the gentiles hated the Jews. Anti-semitism is not a new thing. The Romans called the Jews a filthy race; they spoke of Judaism as a barbarous superstition; they spoke of the Jewish hatred of mankind; they accused the Jews of worshipping an ass’s head and annually sacrificing a gentile stranger to their God. True, many of the gentiles, weary of the many gods and loose morals of paganism, had accepted the Jewish doctrine of the one God and the austere Jewish ethic. But the whole atmosphere of this story implies a close bond of friendship between this centurion and the Jews.’ (DSB)

He could have been what Luke elsewhere calls a ‘God-fearer’, Acts 10:2: that is, one who worshiped the God of Israel but had declined to become a proselyte.

The view of Christian Zionists such as Hagee is that the appeal of the Jewish elders invokes the principle set out in Psa 122:6.  In other words, their logic is that ‘This Gentile deserves the blessing of G-d because he loves our nation and has done something practical to bless the Jewish people.’  But this is an unwarranted extrapolation (as well as a silly use of the English language).

The noble character of the centurion comes out in a number of ways: (a) in his caring concern for his slave; (b) in his generous attitude towards the Jewish people and their synagogue; (c) in his humble and thoughtful approach to Jesus.

“He…has built our synagogue” – If this is taken to mean the Capernaum at this time had but one synagogue, then this would have been the place where Jesus had already revealed his miracle-working power, Lk 4:31-37. This would make the appeal of the centurion still more poignant.

Edwards says that ‘the white limestone synagogue preserved today in Capernaum dates from the fourth century, although its black basalt foundation, still visible at ground level, belongs to the synagogue Jesus knew in Capernaum.’

‘He was clearly a deeply religious man. A man needs to be more than superficially interested before he will go the length of building a synagogue. It is true that the Romans encouraged religion from the cynical motive that it kept people in order. They regarded it as the opiate of the people. Augustus recommended the building of synagogues for that very reason. As Gibbon said in a famous sentence, “The various modes of religion which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” But this centurion was no administrative cynic; he was a sincerely religious man.’ (DSB)

‘The Jews had therefore good grounds for saying that, as a devout worshipper of God, he had claims on Christ for receiving such a favor. They discover, at the same time, a marvellous stupidity in admitting, by their own acknowledgment, that a Gentile possesses that grace of God which they despise and reject. If they consider Christ to be the minister and dispenser of the gifts of God, why do they not receive the grace offered to them before bringing foreigners to enjoy it? But hypocrites never fail to manifest such carelessness and presumption, as not to hesitate to look upon God as under some sort of obligations to them, and to dispose of his grace at their pleasure, as if it were in their own power; and then, when they are satisfied with it, or rather because they do not deign to taste it, they treat it as useless, and leave it to others.’ (Calvin)

Calvin calls it a miracle in itself, that ‘one who belonged to the military profession, and who had crossed the sea with a band of soldiers, for the purpose of accustoming the Jews to endure the yoke of Roman tyranny, submits willingly, and yields obedience to the God of Israel.’

‘Whereas Jesus in his dealing with this Gentile stays within the limits of Jewish propriety, in dealing with another centurion later Peter does not (Acts 10 and 11). The Jewish statement here is a quiet apologetic for the later gentile mission: as prompted by God, Peter was only following through to its consistent end the existing Jewish recognition that not all Gentiles were without value and entirely beyond the reach of God’s grace.’ (WBC)

Let not conscience make you linger.
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.

So Jesus went with them – even though the centurion had waited until his servant was almost dead, even though he was not a Jew, and even though his representatives appeal to Jesus on the basis of human merit. Marvel at the grace of the Saviour, which overlooks all these defects!

7:6b When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7:7 That is why I did not presume to come to you. Instead, say the word, and my servant must be healed. 7:8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion sent friends – ‘There is no record that Jesus ever entered a Gentile house (except under compulsion at his eventual trial). Compare Peter’s reluctance to do so in Acts 10:28–29 and the reaction in Acts 11:3. The centurion, with remarkable ethnic sensitivity, wants to spare Jesus that dilemma.’ (France)

Matthew, in his version of the miracle, represents the Centurion as coming himself. It is possible that Matthew, in condensing the story, has spoken of the Centurion doing himself what he in fact got his friends to do. This would be a perfectly acceptable and usual use of language.

The second wave of representatives appears. “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” – They relay the humility of the Centurion. But who is worthy before Jesus? – See 5:8; 15:19; 18:13. He considered himself unworthy on both national and personal grounds. He knew that Jews were not allowed to enter the houses of Gentiles.

How did the centurion acquire this lofty view of Christ? We may suppose that he was already well acquainted with Jesus’ words and deeds. Moreover, he had reflected upon the scriptures and concluded that Jesus was a man sent from God.

“I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – The whole episode shows him to be a man of unusual personal humility.  There is also cultural sensitivity as well: for he knew that a Jew could not enter the ‘unclean’ house of a Gentile.  (In fact, there is no record of Jesus ever having done so).

Ryken notes ‘the absolute contrast between the apparent worthiness and the actual unworthiness of a man who seems to lead a good life. Everyone else thought the centurion deserved whatever help he needed. He was a good man. He cared for his servants. He gave a lot of money to the local congregation. Surely such a man was entitled to some kind of special consideration! But by the grace of God, the centurion saw himself as he really was. He knew that he was not worthy at all—not compared to Jesus. He was not even worthy to be under the same roof!’

“Say the word, and my servant must be healed” – How did the centurion know that Jesus could heal at a distance?  In John 4:46-53 is an account of the healing of a nobleman’s son.  This remote healing would have been noted in Capernaum, where the present healing took place.

‘He may not have known that Jesus was God the Son. Presumably he could not define the doctrine of the Trinity, or explain how the words of the Son were backed by the full authority of the Father. But the centurion knew that Jesus had power over the physical needs of the human body. As far as he was concerned, the miracles of Jesus proved that he spoke with almighty authority. All Jesus had to do was say the word, and his wish was creation’s command.’ (Ryken)

In this verse and the next, the Centurion shows a profound understanding of the authority of Jesus. Would that we all fully believed in the ability of Jesus to just say the word and the deed will be done. The ability to thus speak and accomplish is a divine ability, Gen 1; Ps 148:5.

The word translated ‘servant’ here is ‘pais‘, ‘boy’.  This person is referred to in v2 as a ‘doulos‘, ‘slave’.

Son? Servant? Male lover?

Matthew 8:5 When [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 8:6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 8:7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

Pais‘ (‘boy’) here may mean one of three things:-

  1. ‘Son’.  The Gk word ‘pais‘ can mean ‘son’ (and so it does in Jn 4:41).  However, this is not a common meaning, it is only the putative parallel with the passage in John that would suggest this.  Hagner supports this translation, although he thinks that ‘slave’ is ‘far from impossible’.  Bruner supports it also. The actual parallel in Luke 7 (which has ‘doulos‘, slave, in v2 and ‘pais‘, boy in v7) counts heavily against it.  Gagnon adopts this view, dismissing the Laken identification of ‘doulos’ as ‘the product of later Lukan redaction’.
  2. ‘Servant’.   Elsewhere in the NT it usually means ‘servant, and this is confirmed by Lk, who calls him a ‘doulos‘, servant.  France says that ‘we may reasonably suppose that the pais was a soldier detailed to act as personal aide to the commanding officer (a “batman” in the military sense, not that of popular fiction), though the term could also cover a domestic slave.’  Morris, Osborne, and others support this reading.
  3. ‘Male lover’.  It has been argued that this ‘pais‘ was a servant who was the centurion’s male lover.  Luke makes it clear that he was an ‘honoured’ (entimos) servant.  In Matthew’s account the centurion distinguishes between this servant and his others (who are referred to by the usual term ‘doulos‘).  Moreover, the lengths to which the centurion went on behalf of his ‘pais‘ suggests an unusually close relationship with him.  Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., and Tat-Siong Benny Liew offer support for this view, although D. B. Saddington (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 125, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 140-142) has criticised their proposal on various grounds.  Among the criticisms offered by Gagnon the following are especially pertinent:
    1. Sex with male slaves not a universal phenomenon.  In Luke’s account the centurion is portrayed as ‘a paradigmatic “God-fearer.”’
    2. Jesus would have had to have been endorsing rape in this case. The sex in such a case would have been abusive and exploitative.  ‘By the reasoning of those who put a pro-homosex spin on the story, we would have to conclude that Jesus had no problem with this particularly exploitative form of same-sex intercourse inasmuch as he did not explicitly tell the centurion to stop doing it.’
    3. Jesus’ fraternization with tax collectors and sexual sinners does not suggest support for their behavior. Jesus reached out to corrupt tax collectors.  ‘Yet he certainly was not commending their well-deserved reputation for collecting more taxes from their own people than they had a right to collect.’  He also reached out to sexual sinners, ‘yet, given his clear statements on divorce/remarriage, he certainly was not condoning their sexual activity. Why should we conclude that Jesus’ silence about the centurion’s sexual life communicates approval?’
    4. The Jewish elders in Luke 7 could not have supported a homosexual relationship. Luke adds the motif that Jewish elders interceded on the centurion’s behalf (7:3-5). Should we argue that these Jewish elders had no problem with same-sex intercourse, when every piece of evidence that we have about Jewish views of same-sex intercourse in the Second Temple period and beyond is unremittingly hostile to such behavior?  ‘

Conclusion: it is indisputable that this centurion was very fond of his ‘pais‘/’doulos‘.  In view of the additional information given by Luke, it is likely that he was the Centurion’s servant, rather than son.  However, it is going well beyond anything the text says to assert, or even suggest, a homosexual relationship.

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“Say the word”

Ryle quotes the Portuguese Commentator, Barradius, on this expression of the Centurion’s: “This is a peculiar attribute of God’s, to be able to do all things by a word and a command. ‘He spake and they were made:’ ‘He commanded and they were created.’ (Ps 148:5) Read the book of Genesis. You will see the world created by the word of God: ‘God said, Let there be light, and there was light.’ God said, Let there be a firmament,’ and a firmament was made,” &c. He then shows by a quotation from Augustine, how all the created being in existence, whether kings, or angels, or seraphims, cannot create so much as an ant. But when God says, “Let the world be made,” at once it is made by a word. And he concludes, “Well therefore does the Centurion say, ‘say in a word only, and my servant shall be healed.'”

If this centurion can trust in a Christ who is not physically present to just “just say the word,” and the miracle will be performed, can not we?

“I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” – Ryken illustrates this kind of authority by observing King David’s idle wish, “Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!’ ” (2 Sam. 23:15)” and its treatment as a royal command, ‘the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David’ (2 Sam. 23:16).’

The Centurion draws a profound parallel between his role and that of Jesus. Just as the Centurion can command his soldiers at a distance, so Jesus can command diseases. The parallel becomes even more striking when we note that the word ‘also’ occurs in the first part of this statement, demonstrating his understanding that both he and the Saviour work under a higher authority.

‘He illustrates this faith of his by a comparison taken from his own profession, and is confident that Christ can as easily command away the distemper as he can command any of his soldiers, can as easily send an angel with commission to cure this servant of his as he can send a soldier on an errand, Lk 7:8. Christ has a sovereign power over all the creatures and all their actions, and can change the course of nature as he pleases, can rectify its disorders and repair its decays in human bodies; for all power is given to him.’ (M. Henry)

For a remarkable parallel example of a Gentile appeal to Christ, see Mt 15:22-28.

How do you see Jesus, and how do you see yourself?

‘The two questions are connected, because when we see Jesus as he really is—in all his splendor—we also see our true spiritual need. The first and most important thing we need to see about ourselves is that we are sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. And when we see ourselves as we really are—the way that God sees us, in all the unworthiness of our sin—we see the supreme worthiness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the worthy Son of God. He is the beginning and the end, the Creator of the universe, the one by whom and for whom all things were made. He is the mighty and supreme ruler of heaven and earth, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the holy Lamb of God, who was slain for our sins on the cross, who was raised from the dead for our justification, and who now deserves all honor, blessing, glory, and power.’

(Ryken)

7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him. He turned and said to the crowd that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!” 7:10 So when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.

He was amazed – Cf. Mk 6:6, where Jesus is astonished at lack of faith. Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith, and shares his amazement with the crowd that such a Gentile should surpass any Jew in the matter of faith. In the Gospels, we rarely find Jesus commending people’s faith. That he does so here is a reminder that people from very different backgrounds and from unexpected quarters respond to the message of Jesus. And so must not assume that those who rejoice in labels such as ‘evangelical’ and ‘reformed’ have necessarily greater faith than some from very different traditions and backgrounds.

What, then, was so remarkable about this man’s faith? First, it was based on what must have been a slender acquaintance with who Christ was. ‘It was no small matter to declare, in such lofty terms, the power of God, of which a few rays only were yet visible in Christ.’ (Calvin) Second, he trusted Jesus to heal with a mere word.

Ryken says of this man’s ‘amazing’ faith: ‘Many things about the centurion’s faith were amazing. It was amazing for such a mighty man to see that he needed help. It was amazing for such a good man to see his unworthiness. It was amazing to find someone who was willing to take Jesus at his word, with complete confidence in the power of his command. But it was totally amazing to find all this in a Gentile—someone outside the covenant community. It was hard enough to find an Israelite who trusted in Christ. But here was a Gentile—a Roman soldier, no less—with surpassing faith in the word of Christ.’

‘Let this amazement of Christ’s teach us to place our admiration where Christ placed his. Let us be more affected with the least measure of grace in a good man, than with all the gaities and glories of a great man.’ Ryle, who quotes the foregoing from Burkitt, adds, ‘Our Lord, be it remembered, did not marvel at the gorgeous and beautiful buildings of the Jewish temple. But he did marvel at faith.’

‘If this Roman, with very little spiritual instruction, had that kind of faith in Gods Word, how much greater our faith ought to be! We have an entire Bible to read and study, as well as nearly 2,000 years of church history to encourage us, and yet we are guilty of no faith (Mk 4:40) or little faith. (Mt 14:31) our prayer ought to be, Lord3, increase our faith!’ (Lk 17:5) (Wiersbe)

‘Jesus’ response is one of admiration. In Israel Jesus had found faith, but this was something extraordinary-and coming from a Gentile! In the later church the report of such a Gentile’s faith would have found use as an argument against the exclusion of Gentiles on principle from the Christian fellowship. Luke is not unaware of the usefulness of such an argument (cf. Acts 10 and 11).’ (WBC)

‘There are two occasions where it is recorded that our Lord Jesus Christ “marvelled,” once in this history, and once in Mark 6:6. It is remarkable that in one case He is described as marvelling at “faith,” and in the other as marvelling at “unbelief.” Bishop Hall, and Burkitt after him, both observe, “What can be more wonderful than to see Christ wonder?”’ (Ryle)

See Mt 8:11 for further and important detail on the spread of faith to the Gentile nations.

I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith! – ‘This is not spoken absolutely, but in a particular point of view. For, if we consider all the properties of faith, we must conclude that the faith of Mary was greater, in believing that she would be with child by the Holy Ghost, and would bring forth the only-begotten Son of God, and in acknowledging the son whom she had borne to be her God, and the Creator of the whole world, and her only Redeemer.’ (Calvin)

They found the servant well – Luke the doctor is speaking here, using a technical medical term for ‘sound in wind and limb’. On this occasion, the miracle itself is almost incidental. The most striking feature of the story is the response of faith by the centurion, vv8f.

Of course, the whole episode underscores the fact the Christ is the Saviour of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews, Rom 3:29.

Wilkins notes that this account is ‘less a miracle story and more a character study’, even though the major figure – the centurion – never actually makes an appearance!

Edwards remarks that the narrative highlights the Centurion’s faith more than it does the slave’s healing.  ‘Faith—the combination of humility (“Lord, I am not worthy”) and confidence (“Say the word and make my servant well”) exhibited by the centurion—is a greater miracle than even physical healing. Faith is found in unexpected quarters—in Gentile centurions, in alien Samaritans (Lk 17:18), in desolate widows (Lk 18:8). But wherever it is found, it results in the joy of the incarnation…The miracle of 7:1–10 is not simply that Jesus healed the servant at a spatial distance; he has spanned a greater cultural distance in bringing a Gentile to faith.’

Question: Why did Jesus heal the sick?

Gospel truth

As Ryken says:

‘[This] story shows the dying and desperate need of lost humanity. It shows the contrast between the apparent worthiness and the actual unworthiness of a person who seems to lead a good life. And it shows the only basis for salvation, which is faith in Jesus Christ.’

One who had Faith, Luke 7:1-10

Jesus’ words are backed up by actions

(a) The centurion

  • his kindness – towards his servant
  • his humility – in respect of Jesus’ person.  “I do not deserve…” v6.  But who does?
  • his faith
    • tired of pagan polytheism
    • attracted by the pure and lofty monotheism of the Jews
    • now he has heard about Jesus
    • he has, no doubt reflected on the Scriptures
    • he concludes that Jesus can “just say the word”

(b) Jesus

  • his amazement, cf. Mk 6:6.
    • based on such a slender acquaintance with Jesus
    • he trusted Jesus to heal with a mere word
  • he answers the cry for help

(c) Us

  • the inclusion of the Gentiles
  • faith
    • no faith (Mk 4:40)
    • little faith (Mt 14:31)
    • great faith
    • increase our faith! (Lk 17:5)
  • The key thing is not the faith itself, but the object of faith

Raising a Widow’s Son

7:11 Soon afterward Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 7:12 As he approached the town gate, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother (who was a widow), and a large crowd from the town was with her.

This account is peculiar to Luke.  Edwards remarks that Luke regularly arranges his narratives in pairs – often male/female pairs, as here.

Lk 7:11–16 = 1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:32–37; Mk 5:21–24,35–43; Jn 11:1–44

The miracle (which is unique to Luke) which is about to be recounted was one of just three occasions that we know of when Jesus raised the dead. It is therefore one of the greatest of his miracles. It demonstrates to a remarkable degree his pity mixed with power. No-one had performed a miracle like this since the days of Elisha, some 900 years before, 1 Kings 17:8-24.

In fact, as a number of commentators have pointed out, there are many echoes of the mighty works of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17–24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32–37) in this episode.  Evans summarises:

  1. the setting in Nain (Luke 7:11), which may be an allusion to the ancient city of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8);
  2. arrival at the town gate (Luke 7:12; 1 Kings 17:10);
  3. a grieving widow (Luke 7:12; 1 Kings 17:9, 17);
  4. the death of the only son (Luke 7:12; 1 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 4:32);
  5. the speaking or crying out of the resuscitated son (Luke 7:15; 1 Kings 17:22);
  6. the expression, borrowed verbatim from the LXX, “he gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:15; 1 Kings 17:23);
  7. the recognition that “a great prophet has appeared among us” (Luke 7:16; 1 Kings 17:24).

No wonder the crowd would hail Jesus as a prophet (v16)!

Despite these parallels (writes Bock) there is a major difference.  Elijah must pray to God and stretch himself out three times on the dead boy before he revives, whereas Jesus one has to speak a work – and that at a distance.

The little town of Nain is believed to have lain in southern Galilee, 6 miles SE of Nazareth, some 25 miles from Capernaum. ‘There is a small village still bearing this name in the Plain of Jezreel, a few miles S of Nazareth, at the edge of Little Hermon, and it is generally accepted as the scene of the Gospel narrative…A problem is raised, however, by the reference to the city gate; (Lk 7:12) for the village today called Nain was never fortified, and so would never have had a gate in the proper sense of the word. But the word ‘gate’ may be used loosely, to indicate the place where the road entered between the houses of Nain.’ (NBD)

Near the city gate a funeral procession was in process. The son – the only son of a widow – had probably died earlier that same day, since Jewish custom was to bury the dead promptly in order to avoid ceremonial uncleanness.

Try to catch something of the pathos of the situation: the funeral procession headed by a band of professional mourners; the din of the pipes and cymbals and the shrill cries of grief. Then there is ‘all the ageless sorrow of the world in the austere and simple sentence, “He was his mother’s only son and she was a widow.”‘ (DSB) Each day brings its measure of sorrow; we live in a world of broken hearts.

The dead body was being carried out because burials were not allowed within the cities.

Mourning would commence as soon as it was certain that death had occurred. Family members would wail and rend their clothes. There would also be professional mourners (usually women) with flutes and cymbals. The body would be anointed to prevent deterioration, and placed in an open coffin for all to see. Death is always sad, and funerals are always mournful. Death is an alien; it was not present at the beginning; it entered the world because of human sin. But there can have been few deaths sadder and few funerals more mournful that this one. With the death of this son the woman’s last hope of support and protection had gone. Moreover, the hope of perpetuating the family line had also perished.

7:13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 7:14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and those who carried it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 7:15 So the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother

The Lord – ‘For the first time in the Gospel Jesus is here called “the Lord” as in later Christian usage. Luke has prepared for this by the earlier uses of the vocative “Lord” (Lk 5:8, 12; 6:46; 7:6), and these indicate that Luke thinks particularly of the authority of Jesus when he uses this designation.’ (WBC)

Jesus came across this sad scene, and he did not wait to be asked to help. What was there left to ask? When he saw the woman who had lost both her husband and her son, his heart went out to her. ‘There is no stronger word in the Greek language for sympathy and again and again in the gospel story it is used of Jesus.’ (Mt 14:14 Mt 15:32 Mt 20:34 Mk 1:41; 8:2) (DSB).  We should not lose sight of the sheer compassion of the Lord as a motivation for his healing miracles. He knows that this world is a vale of tears, and he knew that this woman had suffered a grievous double blow. Let the knowledge of Christ’s compassion comfort us when we are in distress, cf Isa 63:9.

According to Murray Harris (cited by Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p134f), it is interesting that Jesus speaks to the mother before going up to the coffin.  This accords with local custom, which was for the women in Galilean funeral processions to walk in front of the coffin (in contrast to Judean practice, where they walked behind).  A fictional account would probably not have been based in little-known Nain, but would probably have given more details about the young man after his life was restored (Luke’s account is remarkably restrained in this regard).

‘The noblest faith in antiquity was Stoicism. The Stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was apathy, incapability of feeling. This was their argument. If someone can make another sad or sorry, glad or joyful, it means that, at least for the moment, he can influence that other person. If he can influence him that means that, at least for the moment, he is greater than he. Now, no one can be greater than God; therefore, no one can influence God; therefore, in the nature of things, God must be incapable of feeling.’ (DSB)

Ryle quotes Poole as saying: “It is observable that our Saviour wrought his healing miracles,

  1. sometimes at the motion and desire of the parties to be healed;
  2. sometimes at the desire of others on their behalf;
  3. sometimes of his own free motion, neither themselves, nor others soliciting him for any such mercies toward them.” The leper was healed (Lk 5:12) in reply to his own personal application; the centurion’s servant, (Lk 7:1) in reply to the prayer of his master; the widow’s son was raised without any one interceding on his behalf.

‘The reason which induced Christ to restore the young man to life was, that he saw the widow bereft of her only son, and had compassion on her: for he did not withhold his favor till some one requested it, as he did on other occasions; but anticipated the prayers of all, and restored the son to his mother, by whom nothing of this sort was expected.’ (Calvin)

“Don’t cry” – What a difference there is between our often pointless plea to a grieving person not to cry and Jesus’ comment here. She will shortly discover why he said it (“Don’t cry, because…”). Although this is of course a special case, Christians would do well to reflect that they have good reason not to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope, 1 Thess 4:13. See also Mt 11:28; Heb 2:14,15.

Bier – a litter or bed upon which a body was placed before burial. They were portable. (2 Sam 3:31; Lk 7:14) Often, wicker baskets were used. Biers in biblical times have been compared to the wooden boards used in Muslim funerals to carry bodies today.

When Jesus touched the coffin, he was rendering himself ceremonially unclean, Nu 19:11,16: this is a measure of his compassion and independence of mind. It was a silent indication for the funeral procession to stop.

Those carrying it stood still – As Wilcock remarks, there is a wealth of symbolism in the act of Jesus stopping the tragic procession to the grave.

“Get up!”  Lit. “Be raised (by God)”.  From anyone else, this would have been an act of black humour, tragic misunderstanding, or sheer insanity. But Jesus has power to command death itself. He claims as his own what death had already seized as its prey.

Note the differences between the different ways that Jesus performed his own miracles, and the differences between his miracles and those of the prophets and apostles. Euthymius remarks, “Of old time indeed the prophet Elijah raised again the son of the widow of Sarepta, but by humbling himself before God, and supplication to him. (1 Kings 27:20-21) So also the prophet Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman, but only after having stretched himself out upon his body. (2 Kings 4:34-35) But Jesus only by touching and commanding, at once raised the dead person.”

Jesus speaks to a cold corpse, and life returns. The lungs fill with air, the heart begins to beat, the eyes open – and the dead man sat up and began to talk. Jesus hands the man back to his mother.

Resuscitation, not resurrection

‘When Jesus raised people from the dead in the Gospels, they returned to normal human existence (resuscitations). Jesus’s resurrection, by contrast, as well as our future resurrection, will be to an immortal, eternal existence. These resuscitations, like Jesus’s healings and exorcisms, are merely snapshots that foreshadow the full restoration of creation that will one day be completed through Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.’

Jesus gave him back to his mother – What compassion!

Rather characteristically, Barclay (DSB) weakens the force of this miracle: ‘It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with those keen eyes of his saw that the lad was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine. It does not matter; the fact remains that Jesus claimed for life a lad who had been marked for death.’ This is a lamentable denial of both the power and integrity of Jesus.

This scene, astonishing as it is, is still only a tiny picture of the general resurrection. The same Jesus who gave a son back to his mother, will raise all of humanity on the last day, Jn 5:25,28,29. ‘When the trumpet sounds and Christ commands, there can be no refusal or escape. All must appear before his bar in their bodies.’ (Ryle)

7:16 Fear seized them all, and they began to glorify God, saying, “A great prophet has appeared among us!” and “God has come to help his people!” 7:17 This report about Jesus circulated throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There was a double crowd present: those who had thronged after Jesus, v11, and those who had been accompanying the funeral procession. There was a combination of terror, amazement, and joy at the sight of this astonishing miracle. They were perhaps getting used to the idea that Jesus could heal a diseased body, but certainly not that he could raise to life a dead body.

If this was the response to the raising of one person, with what awe should we contemplate the events of the last day? The unconverted should tremble at the prospect; but the believer has nothing to fear. ‘He may lay him down and sleep peacefully in his grave. In Christ he is complete and safe, and when he rises again he shall see God’s face in peace.’ (Ryle)

“A great prophet has appeared among us” – no doubt they were thinking of similar miracles by Elijah, 1 Kings 17:17-24; and Elisha, 2 Kings 4:32-37. By referring to Jesus in this way, they may be thinking of him as the great eschatological prophet who was to appear at the end of the age (i.e. the Messiah); this point will come to the surface in the next section.

Clearly, the crowd is mightily impressed.  And yet their recognition of Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ is inadequate, as was the similar view of the two on the road to Emmaus, Lk 24:13–35.

In Luke 9:18-20 Jesus will raise the question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  What other assessments of Jesus were made then, and what assessments of him are made today?

“God has come to help his people” – Again, this is a point which Luke himself is keen to bring forward, Lk 1:68,78; 19:41-44; Acts 15:14.

Edwards emphasis the link with the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-78): ‘The Greek word for “come to help” (episkeptesthai) was the first (Lk 1:68) and last word (Lk 1:78) of Zechariah’s song in the infancy narrative. Its subject is God—not a distant and uninvolved God—but the God who visits, even intrudes into, his creation in grace in order to “redeem” (Lk 1:68) and raise up a “horn of salvation” (Lk 1:69) for his people “from heaven” (v1:78).’

‘This expression should be compared with Lk 1:68, and Lk 1:78, and with many places in the Old Testament – such as Ru 1:6; 1 Sam 2:21; Job 35:15; Jer 6:6. It appears to signify any remarkable divine interposition, either in the way of mercy or of judgement, and does not necessarily signify, in this place, a personal visitation. That “God was manifest in the flesh,” when Christ became man for us, is an undeniable truth of Scripture. But it cannot be proved that it is taught in this text.’ (Ryle)

‘I understand this to refer not to every kind of visitation, but to that which would restore them to their original condition. Not only were the affairs of Judea in a depressed state, but they had sunk under a wretched and frightful slavery, as if God were not looking at them. The only remaining hope was, that God had promised to be their Redeemer, after they had endured very heavy calamities. I have no doubt, therefore, that they were excited by the miracle to expect an approaching restoration to prosperity: only they fall into a mistake as to the nature of the visitation. Though they acknowledge and celebrate the unwonted grace of God in this respect, that a great Prophet hath risen up among us, yet this eulogium comes very far short of the dignity and glory of the promised Messiah. Hence it appears that the faith of that people was, at this time, exceedingly confused, and involved in many unfounded imaginations.’ (Calvin)

The fame of Jesus was spreading far and wide. Various opinions were being formed about him, some positive and others negative. What shall our opinion of him be? Upon what shall we base that opinion? How should we react to what we know and understand concerning Jesus Christ, the one who here shows that he has compassion for the bereaved and power over death?

“The people here saw his divine power manifestly exerted; for the keys of the clouds, the womb, and the grave, are those keys which their teachers had taught them were kept in God’s hand alone.” (Poole)

Jesus and John the Baptist

7:18 John’s disciples informed him about all these things. So John called two of his disciples 7:19 and sent them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Lk 7:18–35 = Mt 11:2–19

John’s disciples told him about all these things – John, a man used to an independent, outdoor life, had now been languishing in prison for some months, Lk 3:19-20. His continuing influence is reflected in Lk 5:33.  There is some irony in the pronouncement of Jesus that he came to set the prisoners free, Lk 4:18, for this did not seem to apply to him! John might well have argued, as many troubled souls argue today: “IF there is a loving God, THEN why am I in such trouble?” “IF Jesus is the Messiah, THEN why does he not seem to be doing the things we expected the Messiah to do?” Jesus, after all, had been occupied with acts of mercy, whereas John had prophesied of acts of judgement, Lk 3:16-17. John did not know that judgement is reserved largely until the end of the age, but that grace is the great characteristic of the present time.

Doubt and uncertainty seem to be leading characteristics for many spiritual leaders, as with Moses, Nu 11:10-15; Elijah, 1 Kings 19 Jeremiah,20:7-9,14-18. But doubt and uncertainty are not the same as unbelief. ‘Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.’ (John Drummond) It must have been very difficult, from John’s perspective, to be sure about who Jesus was and what he was doing. Where was this kingdom that John had been proclaiming so fearlessly? But let us not judge John too harshly, for the prophets of old were puzzled and perplexed by the revelations which were given to them, 1 Pet 1:10.

Calling two of them – ‘Luke, alert to the need for all things to stand the scrutiny of the OT law, makes it clear that John receives a legally adequate witness (a true witness) concerning Jesus by speaking in terms of two messengers.’ (cf. Deut 19:15) (WBC)

Are you the one who was to come? – This is not a usual term for the Messiah, and yet that is doubtless what John means. John was a number of faithful souls who looked patiently and expectantly for the coming of the Christ, Lk 2:38. Yet the signs were not at all clear: many were looking for a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans.  Others expected a more apocalyptic judgement on God’s (and Israel’s) enemies.  John himself had predicted that someone ‘more powerful’ would come after him and execute wrath and judgment (Lk 3:7, 9, 16–17).  Was Jesus, perhaps, too gentle, too joyful?  Moreover, the Jewish leaders had not acknowledged Jesus; and his mission and ministry were very far from what had been expected.

“Should we look for another?” – Someone more like John himself, perhaps?

Others who doubted

  1. Moses, Num 11:10-15
  2. Elijah, 1 Kings 19
  3. Jeremiah, Jer 20:7-9, 14-18

John’s question about ‘the coming one’ is reminiscent of Gen 49:10 and Hab 2:3 (and also Dan 7:13; Zec 9:9; Ps 118:26) and has overtones of eschatological hope.

Why did John send this message to Jesus? The simplest explanation is probably the best: John needed reassurance that Jesus was the Messiah. Like many other saints in the Bible, he had his moments of weakness, and that his imprisonment, together with the fact that our Lord did nothing to deliver him, had made him begin to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah.

‘Jesus is not as John expected: grace has a priority in the purposes of God to a degree not foreseen by the stern prophet of repentance; and the eschatological events which mark the ministry of Jesus are dramatic enough, but do not occur on a cataclysmic scale.’ (WBC)

‘The only attribute of the messianic mission about which John could harbor doubts is the absence of the element of judgment in Jesus’ early Galilean ministry. In the inaugural sermon at Nazareth Jesus omitted reference to “the day of the Lord’s vengeance” (4:18–19; Isa 61:1–2), and in the epitome of Jesus’ ministry delivered to John in v. 22—an epitome woven together from a collage of Isaiah texts —there is no reference to cutting down evildoers (Isa 29:20) and punishing sinners (Isa 26:20). John’s graphic wilderness warnings of divine reckoning—winnowing forks, clearing of threshing floors, burning of chaff with unquenchable fire (3:17)—attest that judgment of evildoers was a constituent element of his messianic understanding. The silence of Jesus on the matter of judgment could account for the apparent reservations that John harbors about Jesus.’ (Edwards.  I’m not convinced that the lack of a message of judgment at this early stage in Jesus’ ministry was the only reason for John’s doubts)

‘John is another example of a Lukan irony, that even those directly involved in the divine economy must struggle with faith—first the pious priest Zechariah (1:20), then the Virgin Mary (1:29), now John, the divinely ordained forerunner of the Messiah.’ (Edwards)

Question: What doubts about Jesus do we sometimes entertain?

7:20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ ” 7:21 At that very time Jesus cured many people of diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and granted sight to many who were blind. 7:22 So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 7:23 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

At that very time Jesus cured many – That is, in very answer to the question asked by John through his disciples.

Gave sight – What a gift to receive!

“Go back and report to John” – This weakens the assertion of some (e.g. Ryle) that John was not enquiring about Jesus’ Messiahship on his own behalf, but on behalf of his disciples.

“What you have seen and heard” – ‘Jesus responds not with a propositional answer but with a resume of his own life’ (Edwards).  These two aspects of Jesus’ ministry will be immediately expanded.

‘Note the proof that Jesus offered. He pointed at the facts. The sick and the suffering and the humble poor were experiencing the power and hearing the word of the Good News. Here is a point which is seldom realized-this is not the answer John expected. If Jesus was God’s anointed one, John would have expected him to say, “My armies are massing. Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman government, is about to fall. The sinners are being obliterated. And judgment has begun.” He would have expected Jesus to say, “The wrath of God is on the march.” but Jesus said, “The mercy of God is here.”‘ (DSB)

Jesus did not give the messengers a profound lecture: he let his own works of power and compassion speak for him. Cf Mt 7:16. His deeds confirm his commission, and also interpret it: he came not to establish an earthly kingdom with might, but to bring light and life, joy and peace. These were precisely the credentials that the prophets had spoken of (the blind, Isa 35:5; the lame, Isa 35:6; the deaf, Isa 35:5; the poor, Isa 61:1. See also Isa 29:18-19; 42:1-7). The Messiah was destined to heal the sick and preach good news to the poor, rather than conquer the Roman armies with force.

‘Some of the items on the list in v 22 are provided for in v 21 by means of a general statement about healings performed right then and there. For other items in the list Luke is content for his reader to reach back into earlier sections (for “the lame walk” cf. Lk 5:17-26; for “lepers are cleansed” cf. Lk 5:12-16; for good news to the poor cf. Lk 4:18-21 and Lk 6:20-23), and even in one case (the deaf hearing) he overlooks the fact that he has provided no account of the healing of a deaf person (closest is the restoration of Zechariah cf. at Lk 1:20 in the John the Baptist infancy account; in Lk 11:14 it is just possible that * means both deaf and mute).’ (Nolland)

“The dead are raised” – Only three such cases are recorded in the Gospels, and only one of those had occurred by this time (the raising of the son of the widow of Nain). On the ground that the Gospels make no attempt to chronicle all the miracles of Christ, we may suppose that he may have raised others to life, but we cannot be certain about this.

“The good news is preached to the poor” – ‘That this was a sign of Messiah’s times appears plain from the words of Isaiah: “In that day the poor among men shall rejoice in the holy one of Israel.” (Isa 34:19) Contempt for the poor, as ignorant and despicable, appears to have been very common in the times of the Gospel. (Jn 7:49; 9:34, and Jas 2:24) Concern and tender interest about the souls of the poor, as souls which would live as long as the souls of rich men, was a distinguishing feature of our Lord’s ministry, and of that of his apostles.’ (Ryle) This raises the question whether we in today’s church are followers of Christ in this respect.

In what sense does this response provide an answer to John’s question? John had been expecting ‘the Coming one’ to bring vengeance, rather than grace. ‘But the end-time events which Jesus brings find their focus in the graciousness of God and not in the vengeance of God. The vengeance statements which in Isaiah are closely linked with the texts echoed by Jesus’ words are quite passed over. (Isa 29:20; 35:5; 61:2) It is not that the motif of judgment is absent from Jesus’ ministry (see Lk 6:24-26; 10:13-15). Jesus’ role in the judgment of God will come later on, (Ac 10:42; 17:31) but there is more graciousness in God’s purposes than John dreamed of, and on this Jesus would focus John’s attention.’ (WBC)

Blomberg confirms that ‘at least some Jews saw Isaiah 35:5–6 as messianic (see 4Q521). Thus, when Jesus instructs John the Baptist’s disciples to tell their master that the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, and the lame walk (Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:22), as his answer to John’s question about whether or not he is the Coming One, his listeners should have recognized the affirmative implications of his reply.’ (in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, p678)

“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” – These words are in the singular, and seem to have John in mind, at least in the first instance.

‘Offense’ (‘stumble’, ‘fall away’) ‘derives from the trapping of birds, and refers to the action that depresses the baitstick and so triggers off the trap. It is a colourful way of referring to the causing of trouble.’ (Morris)

Christ is the great divider of men: those who are not for him are against him. His coming into people’s lives always forces a response. Some will look at him, and see only his humble birth and lowly appearance, and retreat into unbelief and despair, Isa 53:1. Others will see him is the Light of the World, and the only hope of heaven, and will embrace him as Lord and Saviour and King. Blessed indeed are the latter.

‘We are here in a state of trial and probation; and it is agreeable to such a state that, as there are sufficient arguments to confirm the truth to those that are honest and impartial in searching after it, and have their minds prepared to receive it, so there should be also objections, to cloud the truth to those that are careless, worldly, and sensual. Christ’s education at Nazareth, his residence at Galilee, the meanness of his family and relations, his poverty, and the despicableness of his followers – these and the like were stumbling-blocks to many, which all the miracles he wrought could not help them over. He is blessed, for he is wise, humble, and well disposed, that is not overcome by these prejudices. It is a sign that God has blessed him, for it is by his grace that he is helped over these stumbling-stones; and he shall be blessed indeed, blessed in Christ.’ (M.Henry)

‘There are many people today who criticize the church for not changing the world and solving the economic, political, and social problems of society. What they forget is that God changes his world by changing individual people. History shows that the church has often led the way in humanitarian service and reform, but the church’s main job is to bring lost sinners to the Saviour. Everything else is a by-product of that. Proclaiming the Gospel must always be the church’s first priority.’ (Wiersbe)

‘The final beatitude (v 23) takes us back to the original question and calls on John, and on us, to answer the question for ourselves. It is a positive answer that is needed but there are difficulties. One can stumble over Jesus in the light of the expectations engendered by John (Jn 3:16-17). What is happening in Jesus is impressive enough, but it lacks the comprehensive scope which would seem to be necessary for the end-time intervention of God. The shift in focus from judgement to grace could also be a stumbling block. Jonah too was scandalized by the action of God which followed his preaching of judgement. (Jon 4:1) But mercy triumphs over judgement (Jas 2:13) and beyond John’s message of divine vengeance stands Jesus’ message of love for enemies (Jn 6:27-36).’ (WBC)

7:24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 7:25 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes and live in luxury are in kings’ courts! 7:26 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

After John’s messengers left – In this section (24-30), Jesus makes it clear that in his reply to John’s disciples he is by no means intending to rebuke John or contradict his ministry. On the contrary, he asserts John’s greatness as a prophet of God. The forthright words of Jesus here are not directed at John, but at those who had attended his ministry.

We are never told of John’s response.

“What did you go out into the desert to see?” – Jesus addresses the crowd with biting satire. He offers two impossible answers the the question.  Did the go to view the scenery?  To see a fashion show?

Reeds are found in the wilderness but attract no crowds. Men dressed in fine clothes attract crowds but are not found in the wilderness.

“A reed swayed by the wind” – This was a proverbial expression for a common sight. Was John such a man as you might see every day? Was he a compliant, inconsistent moral weakling? (cf Eph 4:14) If so, he could have enjoyed unbridled popularity and could also have escaped the wrath of Herod. But John was not a trembling reed, but a sturdy oak.

“A man dressed in fine clothes?” – Was John a glamorous celebrity, a lover of ease and comfort? No, he lived in the wilderness and survived on the crude essentials of life, Mt 3:4; Mk 1:6. He was a man of great self-denial.

“Those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces” – But because John had not shrunk from rebuking royalty he now found himself in a dungeon.

“More than a prophet” – John was born a priest, but his prophetic ministry eclipsed his priestly activities. He was more than a prophet, in the sense that the OT seers spoke of Christ at a great distance, whereas John welcomed him at the door. John was the eschatological herald of Mal 3:1.

7:27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 7:28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.”

John was not only the forerunner of the Messiah, but was himself prophesied in the OT, Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1. And how did John announce the Messiah? – With the pomp of a military commander, or the razzamatazz of TV presenter? No – he prepared the way for Christ by preaching repentance. Morris quotes Manson as saying that this not only indicates the greatness of John, but ‘presupposes on Jesus’ part…a consciousness of the finality of his own mission to Israel.’

= Mt 11:11

“No one greater than John” – Unlike Moses or Elijah, John had (it seems) worked no miracles.  He was now languishing in prison, confused and apparently defeated. But Jesus knew and asserted his true worth.  Greater than Abraham, Moses, or David?  Great indeed, then!

What were the characteristics of John’s greatness?

  1. His insight: he recognised and announced the arrival of the Messiah, identifying the nature of his ministry, Jn 1:29.
  2. His forthrightness: he emphasised the importance of repentance and conversion, Mt 3:2.
  3. His humility: he called attention away from himself and towards the Messiah, Jn 3:30.

Note, a land may not realise the value of some of its best people. It is one thing to be great in the eyes of men, and another to be highly esteemed by the Lord.

The supreme position ascribed to John is immediately eclipsed.

“The one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” – Why so? Not because John’s faith seems to have wavered momentarily. But it was because John was the last of the old dispensation, which led up to Christ. ‘t was not that. It was because John marked a dividing line in history. Since John’s proclamation had been made, Jesus had come; eternity had invaded time; heaven had invaded earth; God had arrived in Jesus; life could never be the same again. We date all time as before Christ and after Christ-B.C. and A.D. Jesus is the dividing line. Therefore, all who come after him and who receive him are of necessity granted a greater blessing than all who went before. The entry of Jesus into the world divided all time into two; and it divided all life in two. If any man be in Christ he is a new creation.’ (2 Cor 5:17) (DSB)

F.F. Bruce: ‘He was not referring to personal character, or self-sacrificing devotion, for in those respects he bore witness to John as unsurpassed by any born of women.  But while John stood on the threshold of the new age and announced its advent, those who by faith in Christ have entered into the kingdom of God in this life have great advantages over John – not by what they do for God, but by what God does for them.’ (Answers to questions, p46)

The meanest of those who come after Christ have the honour of ministering the fullness of the gospel. Theirs is a superiority, not of character, but of privilege and position. John did not live to witness the death and resurrection of Jesus, nor experience the Pentecostal fulness of the Spirit. He belonged to the period of preparation; we belong to the time of fulfilment. John was a herald of the kingdom; Christians today are children of the kingdom, cf Jn 15:15. They have great privileges, Lk 10:23-24; but they thereby have more to answer for. If Christ puts such value on membership of the kingdom, should we not hold it in similar estimation?

‘Jesus is indicating how great the difference is between the old era of the prophets of promise and the new era of the kingdom tied to Jesus. The greatest of the old era cannot touch the position of the lowest in the new! How great it is to share in the blessing Jesus brings. Even prophets sit at the feet of those who share in the blessing of the kingdom. Jesus’ point reinforces the idea that the time of fulfillment has begun. Humanity has never seen a time like this. That is why Jesus said earlier that one should not be offended in him (v. 23). Other New Testament texts argue that the prophets and the angels longed for these days (Mt 13:17; 1 Pet 1:10–12). The kingdom’s presence elevates everyone who shares in it to a new status. Those who know Jesus are greater than the prophets.’ (Bock, IVPNTC)

The difference between John and ‘the least in the kingdom of God’ is like that between an announcer at a railway station heralding the arrival of the train, and the young child who boards it.

Our privileges

‘Believers under the new covenant have vastly superior privileges to those under the old.  Jesus commends John’s grace and gifts but contrasts his privileges with those of later believers (Luke 7.28).  The weakest believer understands things, with the teaching of Paul this side of Calvary, that John the Baptist could never have explained.  Truths which were seen through a glass, darkly, and now as plain as noon-day.  The child who knows the story of the cross possesses a key to religious knowledge which patriarchs and prophets never enjoyed.  Let us learn to be thankful for our privileges.’

(J.C. Ryle)

Jesus held a special place in his kingdom for the little ones, Mt 10:42; 18:10,14; Mk 9:42; Lk 9:48, as well as for the sick, the poor and the outcasts.

‘There is something very beautiful and comforting to true Christians in this testimony which our Lord bears to John the Baptist. It shows us the tender interest which our great Head feels in the lives and characters of all his members; it shows us what honour he is ready to put on the work and labour that they go through in his name. It is a sweet foretaste of the confession which he will make of them before the assembled world, when he presents them faultless before his Father’s throne.

Do we know what it is to work for Christ? Have we ever felt cast down and dispirited, as if we were doing no good, and no one cared for us? Are we ever tempted to feel, when laid aside by sickness, or withdrawn by providence, “I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for naught?” – Let us meet such thoughts by the recollection of this passage. Let us remember, there is one who daily records all we do for him, and sees more beauty in his servants’ work that his servants do themselves. The same tongue which bore testimony to John in prison, will bear testimony to all his people at the last day: he will say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”.’ (Mt 25:34) (J.C. Ryle)

7:29 (Now all the people who heard this, even the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 7:30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)

…when they heard Jesus’ words… – This is an interpretative gloss, turning vv29-30 into a Lukan parenthesis. The original only has ‘when they heard’, the object being absent. So it could equally be a continuation of Jesus’ speech, the reference being to John’s teaching.

It was the ordinary people, and the despised, who had embraced John’s message and now embraced Christ’s.

The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves – But the well-to-do, the civil and religious leaders, were too proud to acknowledge their need, and too stubborn to accept that they might be in the wrong. They had too much vested in their current life-style, and they refused to change. They were interested in the minutiae of the law, but not in its essential message. Note, it is no argument against the truth of the Christian faith, that the wealthy, educated and influential in society refuse to believe or follow it. Note also that religion is not itself a good thing: indeed, it can prove the greatest of barriers to true and living faith.

They had not been baptized by John – because in their complacency and self-righteousness they found nothing to repent of.  They rejected God’s gracious offer of repentance and forgiveness, which John the Baptist had brought.

Undesigned coincidence?  Mt 3:7-10 provides important background to this statement.  According to that passage, John had refused to baptise the Pharisees, referring to them as ‘a brood of vipers’.  Here, then, are two independent but complementary accounts, best explained by considering them as recording real events.

7:31 “To what then should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 7:32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance;
we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’

“This generation” – In the light of the distinction made in vv29f, it is particularly the Jewish leaders who are referred to here.

What illustration is absurd enough to describe these people?

“They are like children sitting in the marketplace” – They are playing make-believe games of weddings and funerals. One group offer a piping tune, expecting the other group to imitate a wedding dance. They then engage in a funeral dirge, expecting dramatic imitations of grief. But the second group will not play either version of the game.’

This is the ruin of multitudes, they can never persuade themselves to be serious in the concerns of their souls. Old men, sitting in the sanhedrim, were but as children sitting in the market-place, and no more affected with the things that belonged to their everlasting peace than people are with children’s play. O the amazing stupidity and vanity of the blind and ungodly world! The Lord awaken them out of their security.’ (M. Henry)

The people of this generation, say Jesus, will not be satisfied either way. See on next verse.

7:33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ 7:34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 7:35 But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

John the Baptist came as an austere man, living in solitude and denying himself the finer things of life. But he was thought of as one who was wild, unbalanced, even demon-possessed. And he was rejected too by the multitude.

‘The description of John’s self-denial may owe something to Deut 29:5 (and cf. Lk 1:15), in which case there will be an evocation of the idea of Nazirite abstention, and of God’s sustaining in the wilderness. John’s ascetic self-denial was a sign of the pressing need to prepare in repentance for the eschatological intervention of God, but instead John’s strangeness was dismissed as the deranged behavior of a demoniac.’ (cf. Jn 10:20) (WBC)

“A friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners'” – ‘Among all the traditional designations of Jesus, probably none is more heartwarming than “the friend of sinners.” But this designation was first given to him by way of criticism: “a glutton and a drunkard,” they said, “a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners'” (Lk 7:34) -tax collectors occupying the lowest rung on the ladder of respectability, matched only by harlots. It was not that he tolerated such people, as though he did them a favor by taking notice of them in a condescending way, but he gave the impression that he liked their company, that he even preferred it; he did not condemn them but encouraged them to feel at home with him. “This man welcomes sinners,” the scribes said by way of complaint; and more than that, he actually “eats with them.” (Lk 15:2) To accept invitations to a meal in the homes of such people, to enjoy table-fellowship with them-that was the most emphatic way of declaring his unity with them. No wonder this gave offense to those who, sometimes with considerable painstaking, had kept to the path of sound morality. If a man is known by the company he keeps, Jesus was simply asking to be known as the friend of the ne’er-do-wells, the dregs of society. And would not many religious people today react in exactly the same way?’ (HSB)

Jesus himself came as one who welcomed the company of others, and frequently attended dinners and other social activities. But the people generally were no more satisfied with him than they had been with John the Baptist.

But the differences between John and Jesus were not merely differences of personality. ‘Jesus seemed to behave as though there was continually something to celebrate (cf. Lk 5:33-34), and he drew into this celebration tax collectors and sinners-people known to be unsavory types who lived beyond the edge of respectable society (cf. at Mt 5:30). In this way Jesus signaled the in-breaking of the eschatological time of salvation: his meals with sinners were a foreshadowing of the eschatological banquet (cf. at 13:29) of those who have received God’s grace and forgiveness.’ (WBC)

‘Jesus has performed a comedy—in the true sense of a story that ends well—and John a tragedy, but the audience is pleased with neither. Had Jesus and John performed similar routines, the audience could legitimately complain that a different act might please them. The routines of Jesus and John are as different as night and day, however, thus raising the legitimate question whether “the people of this generation” will be pleased with anything.’ (Edwards)

Varieties of gifts and ministries

‘By this it appears that the ministers of Christ may be of very different tempers and dispositions, very different ways of preaching and living, and yet all good and useful; diversity of gifts, but each given to profit withal. Therefore none must make themselves a standard to all others, nor judge hardly of those that do not do just as they do. John Baptist bore witness to Christ, and Christ applauded John Baptist, though they were the reverse of each other in their way of living. But the common enemies of them both reproached them both. The very same men that had represented John as crazed in his intellects, because he came neither eating nor drinking, represented our Lord Jesus as corrupt in his morals, because he came eating and drinking; he is a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber. Ill-will never speaks well. See the malice of wicked people, and how they put the worst construction upon every thing they meet with in the gospel, and in the preachers and professors of it; and hereby they think to depreciate them, but really destroy themselves.’

(M.Henry)

“Wisdom is proved right by all her children” – In the OT, wisdom was sometimes personified, as here, Pr 1:20-23; 8:1-9:6.  The meaning here is that both John and Jesus, though very different, represent God’s wisdom, and will be accepted by those who are guided by wisdom, if though the majority reject them.

Jesus’ Anointing

The other three Gospels also have a story about a woman who anoints Jesus with oil (see also Matt 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; John 12:1–8).  The present passage probably represents a different episode.

7:36 Now one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 7:37 Then when a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. 7:38 As she stood behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.

Our Lord has just been drawing attention to the self-righteous Pharisees, v30, and announcing that he is the friend of tax-collectors and ‘sinners’, v34. The present passage illustrates both these points. Wisdom will be justified by one of its children, v35.

The precise time that this happened is not clear. This is consistent with Luke’s approach, which is to provide fewer time markers than the other Evangelists (although those he does provide are very precise). This narrative is given only by Luke.

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him – Food is a popular theme in this Gospel! (Lk 5:29; 7:36; 9:16; 11:37; 14:1; 22:14; 24:30)

This dinner may have taken place after a synagogue service. Although the Pharisees as a group were by now turning against Jesus (see Lk 5:17, 21, 30, 33; 6:2, 7), some of their number were more favourably disposed to him: Nicodemus was one of them. This man obviously had a certain respect for Jesus, and was thinking that perhaps he was truly a prophet. He invited Jesus to dinner, therefore, in order to scrutinise him more closely. However, as we shall see, he failed to observe even the ordinary courtesies normally shown to a guest. Perhaps he thought that it was a sufficient privilege for Jesus to share a meal with him, and that further civilities were unnecessary. The honour was in him for giving the invitation, not in Jesus for accepting it.

The Pharisee belonged to the class of people who had not submitted to John’s baptism, v30. The woman we are about to hear of had, perhaps, already been prepared by that baptism.

Why this man should invite a ‘glutton and a drunk’, v34 into his home is unclear.  Simon seems to be ambivalent: he shares the usual Pharisaic suspicion towards Jesus, yet he is curious to want to find out for himself.

Note, it is possible to adopt a friendly attitude towards Christ, and yet to remain in ignorance about the way of salvation.  Not every interest in the Saviour is a healthy interest.

Jesus was happy to associate both with tax-collectors, Lk 5:29, and with Pharisees, as here. This passage could be cited in favour of Christians keeping up social contacts of various kinds with unbelievers. However, it should be borne in mind that our Lord, in attending this banquet, did not set aside his work of ministry. He exposed the Pharisee’s error, and expounded the nature of true forgiveness and the secret of love to himself. ‘If Christians who argue in favour of intimacy with unconverted people, will visit their houses in the spirit of the Lord, and speak and behave as he did, let them by all means continue the practice. But do they speak and behave at the tables of their unconverted acquaintances, as Jesus did at Simon’s table?’ (J.C. Ryle)

He…took his place at the table – Lit. ‘he reclined’ – as was usual on more formal occasions.  The scene is readily pictured: the guests reclining on couches, their heads near to the table, and their unsandalled feet stretching behind, while the body rested on the left side and elbow. Around the outside of the room others, who had heard of the banquet, would sit and listen to the conversation. A 19th century book on Eastern travel records the following account by Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray McCheyne, ‘At dinner at the consul’s house at Damietta, we were much interested in observing a custom of the country. In the room where we were received, besides the divan on which we sat, there were seats all round the walls. Many came in, and took their places on these side seats, uninvited and yet unchallenged. They spoke to those at table, on business, or the news of the day; and our host spoke freely to them.’

Lk 7:37–39 = Mt 26:6–13; Mk 14:3–9; Jn 12:1–8
Lk 7:41,42 = Mt 18:23–34

A woman of that town – It was not out of the ordinary for uninvited guests, such as this woman, to turn up at a banquet. This was particularly so, because houses were quite open, because of the hot climate. She seems to have been well-known as a prostitute. It has often been assumed that this woman was Mary Magdalene, (cf Lk 8:2 Mk 16:9) but this is mere conjecture. It is also unlikely that the account here given by Luke is of the same event which took place at Bethany, Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8.

As Edwards remarks, Simon and this woman occupy opposite ends of the social spectrum.

‘A tradition, especially prevalent in western Christianity from about A.D. 500 onward, identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Lk 7:36-50. The text gives no reason for such an association, as the introduction of Mary in Luke 8 is quite removed topically from Lk 7:36. To confuse the interpretative tradition further, the sinful woman in the anointing scene of Lk 7:36-50 is often identified incorrectly with another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. On all accounts, no evidence exists that the sinful woman of Luke 7 should be identified as Mary.’ (Holman)

‘I hear no name of either the city or the woman: she was too well known in her time. How much better is it to be obscure than infamous! Herein I doubt not God meant to spare the reputation of a penitent convert. He who hates not the person, but the sin, cares only to mention the sin, not the person. It is justice to prosecure the cive: it is mercy to spare the offender. How injurious a presumption is it for any man to name her whom God would have concealed, and to cast this aspersion on those whom God hath noted for holiness?’ (Bishop Hall)

Who was a sinner – presumably, right up to the time that this event took place, or nearly so. As noted, she was probably a prostitute.  Michael Bird agrees that ‘the woman most likely was known as a local prostitute, given the description of her as a “woman having been sinful in the city” and her access to expensive perfume.’ (DJG, 2nd ed., art. ‘Sin, Sinner’).  Edwards, however, thinks that we should not be too ready to identify her as a prostitute; certainly (he urges) we should not read too much into the description in v38.

Commentators tell us that the Gk. expression can scarcely be taken to mean that she ‘used, formerly, to live a sinful life’. Still, we may assume that there is an unrecorded history underlying her approach to Jesus on this occasion. She had probably submitted to John’s baptism. Probably she had met Jesus before. Probably she had heard him utter words of grace, and performs acts of mercy. If Luke has inserted this account in its chronological place, then the conversion of the immoral woman may have been in response to his call, (Mt 11:28-30) “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Or, perhaps she simply perceived in him a moral perfection which made her feel wretched over her own immoral life, and yet strangely attracted by his purity to seek cleansing and forgiveness.

She brought an alabaster jar of perfume – The jar was of white, or off-white, gypsum, with a long neck which had to be broken to empty the contents. Inside was costly perfume (not just olive oil), cf Jn 12:5. Was this purchased with the proceeds of her immoral earnings? In any case, it is now brought, broken, and emptied in tribute to the Master.

The intrusion itself is not surprising, since Jewish life, including meal-times, was a much more public affair than our own. But the Pharisee was scandalised by the intrusion of this woman, and by Jesus’ failure to repel her advances.

She stood behind him at his feet – explained by the fact that the custom was to recline, rather than sit, around the table. The perfume itself was suitable for anointing Jesus’ head. But she could not reached his head and, unwilling to cause undue disturbance, anointed his feet instead.

‘[Her] tears were more precious to Christ than her ointment.’

(Thomas Watson)

Weeping – Tears of sorrow mixed, no doubt, with those of grateful affection.

She began to wet his feet with her tears – Not intentionally. But, noticing what she had done, and finding no cloth nearby, she wiped them with her hair. Then she kissed his feet: as v45 indicates, she did this repeatedly.

She kissed them, and anointed – According to Garland, imperfect verbs are used, indicate continuous action – ‘she kept kissing and anointing them’.  This is supported by v45 – “She has not stopped…”

The woman began to anoint Jesus with perfume, but could not continue because of tears. Her actions no doubt caused frowning and consternation, but she was too upset to care what anyone else thought of her. It was against social custom for a woman to loosen her hair in this way. Note, no words are recorded, yet her actions spoke volumes.

Edwards notes eight verbs that attest to this woman’s determination and devotion:

  1. She learned (where Jesus was)
  2. She brought (a jar of ointment; this suggests that her action was premeditated)
  3. She stood (behind his feet)
  4. She wept
  5. She washed his feet with tears)
  6. She wiped them with her hair
  7. She kissed them
  8. She anointed them with perfume

Simon, on the other hand, has simply invited Jesus, v39, and done little else by way of friendship or respect, v44f.

7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

The Pharisee was both disturbed and puzzled: disturbed because of the woman’s unseemly behaviour, and puzzled because he felt that if Jesus was truly a prophet, and had the prophetic gift of discernment, he would have realised that he was being touched by a woman who was ‘unclean’. He had invited Jesus to his house to find out whether he was a real prophet; and now he seemed to have his answer.

“He would know…” – It was commonly assumed that Messiah would possess such special knowledge. Cf. Jn 1:49 4:29. See also the taunt recorded in Lk 22:64. Simon did not really understand Jesus, or the woman, or himself.

Actually Jesus did know what kind of woman she was, v47.  He also knew all about Simon was (vv40ff)!

“She is a sinner” – How easy it is to see the sin in others, and how difficult to see it in ourselves! And how readily we condemn notorious, public sin and ignore secret, dispositional sins!

Two hearts, two responses

‘Simon the Pharisee fails to honor the non-prestigious Jesus with even basic hospitality (vv. 45–46), while also condemning in his heart a humble and sinful woman in need of compassion (v. 39). Meanwhile the “sinner” of this story, the broken prostitute, responds with a great and open love for Jesus that overrides any fear of man.’ (Gospel Transformation Bible)

7:40 So Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 7:41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. 7:42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 7:43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

“Simon, I have something to say to you” – Note the skilful way in which Jesus secures Simon’s attention.  Then, rather than give the Pharisee a ticking off, the ever-wise Teacher offers a little parable, which extracts an accurate if grudging answer from Simon (v43).

As Osborne says, in connection with Jesus’ teaching method here: ‘Jesus does not immediately condemn Simon for being a self-righteous bigot but wishes to lead him to self-awareness through a simple parable. Parables are indirect and can more easily persuade than a direct rebuke.’

Strange that Jesus doesn’t seem to know who the woman is, and yet knows exactly what Simon the Pharisee is thinking! Jesus turns out to be more of a prophet than Simon bargained for. Although Jesus wishes to correct Simon, he does so with tact and courtesy. ‘As Nathan with David, our Lord conceals his telling point under the veil of a parable and makes his host himself pronounce a verdict on the case.’ (NCB)

‘Ironically, Jesus, aware both of the woman’s condition and of Simon’s state of mind, fulfills precisely Simon’s conception of prophetic awareness. ‘ (WBC)

A denarius was an average day’s wage for a labourer.

Note the use of teaching method here: Jesus makes Simon think for himself, and work out the problem for himself.

Simon no doubt suspects a trap, ‘but agrees that the debtor whose debt was ten times as large will have the greatest measure of affectionate gratitude when in the event of inability to pay the debts are remitted without penalty or further obligation. The challenge to Simon is, “Do you not recognize in this woman’s behavior the love of one who has been forgiven much?”‘ (WBC)

The point of Jesus’ parable is clear: love is the evidence that a person has been forgiven; those who have been forgiven most will love most. Or we may go further: in the parable, the creditor is Jesus, and the two debtors are the Pharisee and the woman. Both are hopelessly bankrupt. Both are offered full forgiveness. Assuming that both accept the offer, Simon is right in perceiving that the one who will love the creditor most is the one who was forgiven most.

See then the relationship between love and forgiveness: love springs from forgiveness. ‘The heart which has experienced the pardoning love of Christ, is the heart which loves Christ, and strives to glorify him.’ (J.C. Ryle)

7:44 Then, turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house. You gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 7:45 You gave me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing my feet. 7:46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil.

“Do you see this woman?” – As if to say, “Look at her. Do not avert your gaze from her. For she, a woman notorious for her immoral life, is nearer to the kingdom of God than you, a respected religious leader.”

‘Of course, he sees her; but he does not see her as Jesus sees her. Simon judged “rightly” (ὀρθῶς), but his prejudgment of Jesus and this woman was wrong. Can Simon the Pharisee accept the implications of unmerited favor for others and for himself? The problem is not figuring out the point of the parable but applying it to life, the human scene before him.’ (Garland)

“I entered your house. You gave me no water for my feet…You gave me no kiss of greeting…You did not anoint my head with oil”

Lead-in question: what courtesies are we expected to extend in our own day, when we invite someone to dinner?

Garland comments on the nature and importance of hospitality in New Testament times.  ‘In Jesus’ world, hospitality was not simply a matter of entertaining family and friends. Hospitality had to do with the process of “receiving” outsiders and changing them from strangers to guests. Showing hospitality to strangers served as a means of attaining and preserving honor. All guests were to be treated with deference. The host was to refrain from insulting the guest in any way or to show any signs of hostility or rivalry. The host was to protect the honor of the guest, show concern for their needs, and grant them precedence. The stranger who comes as a guest never leaves with the same status as when he entered. He departs either as an enemy who will get revenge (3 John) or as a friend who will sing the praises of the host, as Paul so often did (Phil 4:15; 1 Thess 1:9).’

Jesus points out that Simon had not accorded him even the the usual courtesies a host would offer a guest, such as the provision of water for foot-washing, Gen 18:4; Jud 19:21. This woman had washed Jesus’ feet with her own tears – expressive of her repentance. ‘As a host Simon has not been rude. Throughout, his behavior has been correct, but only correct. By contrast the woman has shown those marks of thoughtfulness and honor which would mark the hospitality of a host who owed a debt of affectionate gratitude to his guest. It is precisely in that which goes beyond the immediate polite demands of respectability that the true attitude comes to expression.’ (WBC)

Nor had Simon welcomed the Lord with a kiss, Gen 29:13; 45:15; Ex 18:7. (The usual kiss of greeting would be on the hand, or, between equals, on the cheek).  The woman had smothered Jesus’ feet with kisses.

And Simon had failed to anoint his guest’s head even with olive oil (which was cheap), Ps 23:5; 141:5. But this woman had anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. Although not the main point of this account, we may note that the Christian faith does not exclude courtesy, hospitality, and other social graces. Some professing Christians need to be reminded of this.

In short, it was this ‘sinful’ woman who showed courtesy and hospitality to Jesus, and not his host!

“Her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much” – Not, of course, that she was forgiven because she loved, but that she loved because she was forgiven.

7:47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.” 7:48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 7:49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 7:50 He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

“Her sins, which were many, are forgiven” – We should interpret her actions, therefore, either as connected with the seeking of forgiveness, or the expression of gratitude for forgiveness already received.

“She loved much” – Grammatically, this could possibly mean that she was forgiven because she loved much.  But this would be contrary to the tenor both of this passage and of the gospel message generally.  We ought, therefore, to understand this is meaning that her love is the consequence of his forgiveness. (So Stein and others)

And this is the secret of all service to Christ. ‘The fear of punishment, the desire of reward, the sense of duty, are all useful argument, in their way, to persuade men to holiness. But they are all weak and powerless, until a man loves Christ. Once let that mighty principle get hold of a man, and you will see his whole life changed.’ (J.C. Ryle)

We must not think that she was forgiven because she loved much. Scripture never teaches that we are saved by love. But love is both the result and the evidence of forgiveness. See Gal 5:6.

“He who has been forgiven little loves little”

“Your sins are forgiven” – By this Jesus shows himself to be not less than a prophet, as Simon had thought, but more than a prophet. For who can forgive sins but God alone?

This episode demonstrates strikingly our Lord’s attitude to immoral people. He was happy to come into close contact with them; he did not condone their sin; he offered forgiveness; he accepted their love.

Of all of Christ’s works recorded in this chapter, this pronouncement of forgiveness is incomparably the greatest. To heal the sick, even to raise the dead, are temporary, for we must all die eventually. But divine forgiveness lasts for ever.

“Who is this who even forgives sins?” – raising the same dilemma as in Lk 5:21.  ‘If Jesus’ reception of the sinner is a problem, his declaration of the forgiveness of sins is a massive problem! Only God forgives sin.’ (Bock, IVPNTC)

Stein suggests that this question, for Luke, is key, not only in the present narrative, but in all that has led up to it.  ‘This Jesus is one who has unusual power, for he can heal the sick (7:1–10) and even raise the dead (7:11–17). He is the Coming One for whom Israel awaited and hoped (7:18–35). He is indeed a prophet but more than a prophet, for he has the authority to forgive sins (7:36–50). To this can be added earlier statements about his being the Son of the Most High, Lord, Christ, Son of David, Son of Man, and Savior of the world.’ (Stein)

“Your faith has saved you” – your faith, not your tears. Not what you have given, but what you have received.

‘Faith’ was highlighted in the healing of the Centurion’s servant (v9); now it is highlighted again.

Saved by faith

‘Let it be observed, that it is not said, “thy love hath saved thee.” Here, as in every other part of the New Testament, faith is put forward as the key to salvation. By faith, the woman received our Lord’s invitation, “come unto me and I will give you rest.” By faith, she embraced that invitation, and embracing it, cast off the sins under which she had been so long labouring and heavy-laden. By faith, she boldly came to the Pharisee’s house, and confessed by her conduct that she had found rest in Christ. Her faith worked by love, and bore precious fruit. But it was not love but faith that saved her soul.’ (Ryle)

“Go in peace” – She leaves a whole and rescued creature.

The slur is indeed true: Jesus is a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners’! (v34)

‘The woman is not a welcomed guest in Simon’s home and will need to leave, so Jesus sends her away in peace.’ (Garland)

So, we know the outcome for the woman.  What about Simon?

What became of Simon?

Was he left fuming at such outrageous behaviour in his own house.  Or did he seek and find repentance himself?  We don’t know.  But, as Edwards says, there are some hopeful hints:

‘In the present story there are at least hopeful signs. Simon’s correct interpretation of the parable of Two Debtors is an initial positive step. The inclusion of his name is perhaps also significant, for names of persons who joined the Christian movement were remembered and recorded—especially in a Gospel based on “eyewitnesses” (1:2). Above all, Luke knows one Pharisee—Paul—far more antagonistic than Simon, who surrendered to grace. Paul’s salvation is a harbinger of hope for Simon and the Elder Brother and “all Israel”. (Rom 11:26).’

Concluding remarks:-

1. All sinners, of whatever type and degree, are encouraged to go to Christ for full and free forgiveness. This is the message which flows from the account of his meeting with the woman of Samaria, and his encounter with the woman who had been taken in the very act of sin. Those who are rejected by the world are welcomed by Christ, not that they may continue sinning, but that they might forsake their sin and live a new life.

2. If we would be successful in reaching the fallen and the unloved, we must be willing, like Christ, to touch them and be touched by them. He allowed this woman to touch him. He touched the leper. This is the very story of the incarnation: that the Son of God took upon himself our own nature, in order that he might elevate us to heaven.

3. If we would increase our love to God, let us think of what we have been delivered from, and what we owe to him. Low views of sin and light views of forgiveness will inevitably lead to little love for God.

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