Return to Sermon Archive
For She Loved Much
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke chapter 7 and follow along with me as I read verses 36-50. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat.
37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
39 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.
40 And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.
41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?
43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
44 And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
45 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
46 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Year of Jubilee
There is an interesting concept in the Old Testament called the Year of Jubilee. We read about it in Leviticus 25:10: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
a Jubilee Year was proclaimed every fifty years, and all outstanding debts were canceled. Now since April 15 has just passed, and we have all paid our taxes, I hope, we might be thinking, I could really use a Year of Jubilee. Actually, I could have used one before April 15. But like a lot of things that sound good, the year of Jubilee never worked. It was a part of the Mosaic law that was never, so far as we know, actually implemented. No evidence indicates that a debt-forgiving jubilee year was ever celebrated in ancient Israel.
With human nature as it is, that is not surprising. For example, if we knew that all debt was going to be forgiven at the end of this year, most people would run out and borrow to the limit before the end of the year. After all, if our debts are going to be canceled, does it not make sense to be in hock up to our noses, instead of just owing a few bills here and there? How much more would we have to celebrate in a Jubilee Year if the debt we were released from was an enormous crippling weight, instead of just a monthly annoyance? The larger the debt forgiven the more we would appreciate it.
The Parable of the Cancelled Debts
That is the idea that Jesus is mulling over in the parable in Luke 7.
We are told that Simeon the Pharisee invited Jesus to a sit-down dinner, a formal banquet. There seems to be some tension between Jesus and this Pharisee; nevertheless, the setting is a formal dinner, which provides a proper, refined atmosphere for the discussion of deep and difficult topics.
All this is interrupted in an inappropriate way by an inappropriate woman. Her behavior is as unexpected and outlandish as her presence. She is obviously an uninvited guest. The fact that she was unescorted and her immodest behavior suggest she was a prostitute.
However, she is not poor. She brings with her a costly "alabaster jar of ointment." Her behavior suggests she has faced some emotional trauma, for at the sight of Jesus she begins to weep, bathing his feet, in fact, with her tears. She follows this emotional display by drying Jesus' feet with her hair, while continuing to apply tears and the expensive ointment in liberal quantities.
If we want to draw a theological meaning from this, it must be that we cannot truly perceive how precious Christ is, until we are broken-hearted for our sins. When we are thoroughly disgusted with ourselves and our works, then we appreciate our great lord and savior.
Simon the Pharisee does not appreciate Jesus because Simon thinks he is self-sufficient. Simon does not think he needs Jesus, so instead of thinking about how wonderful Jesus is, Simon spends his time thinking the worst of this woman.
The woman did not act in what would be called a suitable or seemly way. According to the laws of the Pharisees, by simply touching Jesus, she has ritually defiled him. She is present where she ought not be. She has uncovered her hair in public. She has acted on her own outside any family connections. Any and all of these constitute shameful, impure, scandalous behavior for a first-century Jewish woman. Simon thinks that this woman is offering herself to Jesus and Jesus does not have sense enough to know it. Now Jesus knows that there is nothing sexual or lewd in the woman’s behavior; however, he responds to what Simon is thinking with the parable of the canceled debts.
Jesus says, there were two people who owed another some money. One owed five hundred dollars, and the other fifty dollars. Neither could pay the debt, so the creditor forgave them both. Then Jesus asks Simon a question: “Which of them will love him most,” which of the two debtors will feel most grateful for the forgiven debt? Simon makes the obvious answer, saying, the one who was forgiven the most, and Jesus tells Simon that he is correct.
We should note in passing that the parable shows love both ways. Those who are forgiven love the creditor, but the creditor obviously loved them also because he forgave their debt. The creditor probably represents God. The two debtors are Simon and the woman. Simon, who knew the law of Moses and was an upright, God-fearing Pharisee might be considered as the debtor who owed only fifty denarii. The woman may be considered as the debtor who owed five hundred denarii. When both are compared, Simon’s debt to God appears to be much less; however both are insolvent. Simon the Pharisee can no more pay his fifty to God than this woman of ill repute can pay her five hundred; and, if both were not freely forgiven by Divine mercy, both must finally perish. But God in his love forgave them both.
In our scripture, after the parable, Jesus then does a comparison between Simon and the woman whom Simon despises, saying, “I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet.” The custom of that day since people wore sandals and walked dusty roads was to have a slave wash the guest’s feet when they entered the house, but Simon has not offered this common courtesy. In contrast, Jesus says of the woman “But she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.”
Again Jesus says, “Thou gavest me no kiss.” The Mediterranean form of greeting was to kiss each other on the cheek, but Simon had not properly welcomed Jesus. In comparison, Jesus says the woman “since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.”
Lastly, Jesus says, “My head with oil thou didst not anoint.” This was another mark of a gracious welcome to a guest, which Simon had omitted, probably because he did not much like Jesus anyway. Jesus adds, “but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.”
So three times Jesus says, that though it is Simon’s house, the woman has acted as host not Simon. The woman has made obvious her love and concern for Jesus. Simon has equally made it plain that he has neither love not concern for Jesus.
Are we Simon?
So when we apply this passage of scripture, who are we? Are we Simon, or the unnamed woman? I suspect that we want to identify with the woman. We know that we should be kneeling at the feet of our savior, offering him whatever we have. We know that we should be a loving people. Thus we easily identify with the woman, but what about Simon? Are we Simon the Pharisee, Simon the judgmental, Simon the disapproving, Simon who could not even show the common courtesy of a welcoming kiss, but who still believed that he was better than this repentant woman.
The problem is, if we are like Simon, we are not apt to know it, for the Simons of the world are usually blind to their need for forgiveness. Notice though that Jesus has not given up on Simon. The parable of the canceled debts and the three comparisons between Simon and the woman are addressed to Simon. Jesus loves Simon and he wants to rescue Simon from himself, so he confronts Simon with an unlovely part of Simon’s personality.
Let us say what good we can of Simon. He is a decent law-abiding person. He believes in God and good works and morality. He judges this woman by the strict morality of the Pharisees and finds her guilty, and since Jesus has apparently accepted her, he finds Jesus guilty also. Simon’s problem is that he has only part of a religion, and sometimes part of a religion is worse than none at all.
To illustrate, If you put flour and water together, you have glue. If you add butter and eggs and sugar and some other stuff and bake it right, you have a cake. Question then: Where did the glue go? It is still there in the cake, but it has been transformed by the other ingredients so that now it tastes great.
That is the way religion is. If you put faith and good works together, you get a self-righteous, sticky mess. If you add love and forgiveness, you have the makings of a true Christian. Simon was the sticky mess. He had faith in God and he had good works, and it all comes out as harsh and unlovely and mean—because he has left out the main ingredient of a Christian life.
In 1 Corinthians 13:1, the apostle Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” People of partial religion are always noisy. They are filled with judgements and censorships and ugliness. They remind me of the way a truck driver described an empty eighteen wheeler. He said that an empty truck makes all kinds of noises and bounces all over the place and is difficult to control. He added that if you load it down then everything quiets down and the truck operates the way it is supposed to. So it is with us. When we have a religion without love, we make a great noise because there is nothing in us. A load of Love quiets us down and makes us operate the way we are supposed to.
Again, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that if we have great intelligence and understanding and if we have all sorts of education, and do not have love, we are still nothing. That is what Simon had. He was intelligent. He was educated in the law. And it came to nothing, because he had no love. In I Cor. 13, Paul concludes by saying that there are three great spiritual gifts: faith, hope, and love, and he adds that Love is the greatest of all. Love is an essential ingredient for the Christian life.
Love and Faith
But what about faith? In our passage from Luke, Jesus does not speak to the woman until v48, when he says to her, “Thy sins are forgiven.” And again he says to her in v50 “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” Now you might say, wait a minute. We have just been talking about how love is essential to Christianity. And Jesus said in v47, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much”—which certainly seems to tie love and forgiveness together. So, how can Jesus say at the end the passage, you are forgiven because of your faith?
Because love and faith and forgiveness are so tied together that they form one bundle of the Christian life. The woman already fervently believes in Jesus or she would never have had the temerity to barge into the banquet uninvited in the first place. She loves Jesus because she believes in Jesus, and she demonstrates her faith and love by anointing his feet. Here is the point: Real love and real faith are always bound together. Simon had a kind of faith. He believed in God, but there was not much love in his faith, so he had not much faith, and consequently had not much forgiveness.
The woman loved much and believed much, consequently she is forgiven much. Or we can argue the other way. If we want to put this in good Presbyterian predestinarian fashion, we could say that she was already forgiven, she was already chosen by God, and she demonstrated her forgiven state, her chosen state, by her love and her belief and her works. Notice that the woman never says a word in this whole passage of scripture; nevertheless, she demonstrates her repentance and her love by her actions.
Now as we read this passage, we regard this woman in a favorable light, but clearly she would not have been viewed that way by most people in the first century. She is a woman, that was one strike against her. She was probably a prostitute. She was a disruptive party-crasher. Her brazen and emotional behavior would have made a bad impression on most of those gathered at that banquet. Simon, on the other hand is very respectable, and, outwardly at least, the host of the banquet. But he is not the host. The woman comes in and acts as the host. She can do this because she has what Simon lacks: forgiveness and love. So ultimately what Jesus is saying to us is: Who would you rather be? Would you rather be Simon: respectable, unforgiven, and loveless? Or, would you rather be the woman: a sinner, forgiven and full of love?
Forgiven and forgiving
The choice is obvious, we certainly would rather be the woman. We want to kneel at the savior’s feet and receive the savior’s forgiveness, but part of the lesson here is that people who receive the savior’s forgiveness and love are a people who are trying to be forgiving and loving. Or, to put it another way, the mark of forgiven persons is their love for God and their fellow human beings. The mark of forgiven persons is that they are forgiving persons.
This is the hard part of Christianity. We all want to hear that we are forgiven of our sins, but we are not eager to forgive others who have sinned against us. We want God to love us; it is in loving others that we have a problem. We may even find that we can easily love humankind in general. The difficulty is in loving specific human beings, loving my coworker, my neighbor, my family member. The difficulty is in loving cranky, fallible, unlovely human beings.
This is not something that we instantly know how to do. We learn love. It is a lifelong process to learn love, and sometimes we get promoted to the next grade and sometimes we do not, but every day, we go to the school of love. Every day we learn more about bringing out the alabaster jar of ointment and pouring the oil of love upon those around us. Every day we learn more about what it means to be a person of much love because we are a person who has received much forgiveness. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04