Text: Luke 7:36-50
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. Here is a story which illustrates both these points.
A Pharisee had invited Jesus to have dinner with him. Picture the scene. Now consider the actions and reactions of the three people involved.
1. The woman’s love
Who this woman was, we do not know.
She was well known for her immorality. Presumably, she had been until very recently, a prostitute.
Was there some unrecorded background? Had the woman heard Jesus utter words of grace, and perform 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.
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). 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 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.
2. The Pharisee’s hypocrisy
We can readily discern why Simon invited Jesus into his home. Jesus was becoming well known for his miracles and his teaching. The Pharisees as a body were turning against him. Simon hadn’t yet made up his mind, and so decided to have a closer look at Jesus. “Surely, he will say or do something that will give the game away!” Simon didn’t have to wait long.
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.
“She is a sinner.” – Here is the root of Simon’s problem. In typical Pharisaic manner, he categorised people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘we’ who are upright and godly, and ‘they’ who are sinful and detestable. He didn’t realise that sin takes many different guises, and open, notorious immorality is not the only one. There are, indeed, sins of the flesh, such as sexual immorality. But there are also sins of the heart, such as pride and hypocrisy. The woman’s sins were in the public domain. Simon’s were secret. But both were known to Jesus.
3. The Saviour’s forgiveness
Simon concludes that Jesus cannot know what the woman is, and therefore cannot be a prophet. Yet in fact, Jesus turns out to be more of a prophet than Simon bargained for, for he knows exactly what Simon is thinking! 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)
The parable is short and simple. Two men owe money to a creditor. One owes a lot; the other owes a little. The creditor forgives them both. Making Simon think for himself, Jesus asks the question, “Who will love him the most?” 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. Having made Simon see the point of the parable for himself, Jesus now applies it with uncompromising directness to Simon. 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. Where are the signs of love in each? Simon did not accord Jesus even the common courtesies of the day: the provision of water for foot-washing, the greeting with a kiss, the anointing of the head with oil. She, on the other hand, has washed my feet with her tears, has smothered my feet with kisses, and has anointed me with perfume.
“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. 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 forgivness. See Gal 5:6, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ 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)
“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 raises the same dilemma for the onlookers as in Lk 5:21. 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.
And so the Saviour concludes: “Your faith has saved you” – Your faith, not your tears. Not what you have given, but what you have received.
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.