Luke 7:36-50 “Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said. Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’”
The three personalities of this incident are all found in the first couple of sentences. There was first of all a Pharisee whose name we later learn was Simon. We mustn’t think of the Pharisees as full time religious workers such as today’s Roman Catholic priests, rather they were a large group of religious adherents functioning rather like today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. They worked at different trades, had families, but were card-carrying Pharisees who believed in righteous living, structuring their lives by a host of rules and regulations. They were supposed to tithe their income, fast weekly, repeat prayers three times a day and keep the Sabbath. They had been in existence for a couple of hundred years and they had built up an influential national network dominating in particular the synagogues of the land; they also ran the supreme court, the Sanhedrin. They considered themselves to be the upholders of morality, and custodians of the religious traditions of the nation. There were fanatical Pharisees, and there were also easy-going Pharisees, just like today’s Muslims have the same range of dedication, and Simon appears to have been one of the latter.
Simon was curious about Jesus, prepared to invite this young rabbi-healer from Nazareth, Jesus the carpenter’s son, to his house for dinner. Simon was the sort of man who liked to rub shoulders with the upwardly mobile. He’d made no commitment to Jesus; this was a social invitation, formal, low key, no big deal, without any risk of rocking the Pharisaic boat and losing friends. Simon was urbane, adaptable, an observer of the game of life, diplomatic to a fault, a man of the world, someone who wont get backed into a corner; he would fit into Welsh politics today, a classic-middle-of-the-road man. Simon set aside even common courtesies when Jesus entered his house, providing no water to wash the dirt off his feet, no kiss of welcome, and no aromatic oil to rub in his forehead where the sun had caught it on his journey to the house. So that is Simon.
Then there was the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, the virgin-born Redeemer, the extraordinary teacher – no man have ever spoken like him. He had remarkable powers over creation, over the devil and his works, over disease and death. His personal life was meek and approachable. He described his mission like this, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” His invitations were, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart and ye shall find rest unto your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Hundreds flocked to him wherever he went, on a mountain, on a boat, in a home, preaching in a synagogue. The common people heard him gladly. Compared to the legalism of the Pharisees and their message of digging yourself out of the hole you’d got into, here was the Messenger of abounding grace and forgiveness to all who’d come to him.
Finally, there was the “woman who had lived a sinful life in that town” (v.37). I suppose that must mean she’d been a prostitute, rather than a gossip, or a drunkard. She had been a sinner rather than a criminal. The community wouldn’t have tolerated a thief. We are told in verse 37 that this is how she “had been” but two verses later Simon says, “she is a sinner” (v.39). So we are not to think of her as an old woman who had a misspent youth, still sadly carrying around a reputation of long ago, but someone who until recently had been a sex-worker, a woman of the street. She was continually in the company of men; Jews and Gentiles, civilians and soldiers; she’d heard every come-on, every cover-up, every promise, every kind of wickedness and violence; she’d been abused, betrayed, cheated and defiled.
At the time of our Lord formal dinner parties took place in an open courtyard. They were semi-public events at which neighbours felt free to stand around the sides of the courtyard observing what was going on. They weren’t guests, but they weren’t intruders; they were the curious onlookers. There would have been in the middle of the courtyard a low table with the guests in a U-shape surrounding the table, allowing the servants to enter with the various courses, while the guests – maybe twenty people – reclined on couches with their legs facing outwards. That is the scene Luke is setting for us.
HOW THE WOMAN BEHAVED.
i] She had heard of the Lord Jesus. Many have not! Think of the plight of women in the Hindu and Muslim and Buddhist world who toil every day of their lives, and are abused by their husbands, wives given AIDS by the immorality of their men-folk, poor widows with no social security network and tempted daily by evil men, but worst of all never having heard of Jesus, never hearing of the friend of the widow, the one who promises that he won’t leave us or forsake us, the one who will keep us, and pardon our sins and supply all our needs. There are millions of women in the world today who have never heard of Jesus, but this woman had! She had lived an indescribable tawdry drudgery of a life. We need not go there, but then she heard of Jesus.
ii] Her life had been transformed by Jesus’ grace and compassion. He had been proclaiming the kingdom of God and had opened wide its gates not to the righteous but to sinners who turned from their sin in repentance. He said that they were the very ones he had come looking for. “He came to look for me?” this lost sheep said to herself. “He came all the way from heaven to seek a worthless piece of trash like me?” I read in the Times this week an interview with one of the nation’s most famous TV producers. His name is John Lloyd, and he is the 56 year-old man who was responsible for such shows as Spitting Image and Blackadder. He has fame, wealth and power, and yet speaking to a journalist he acknowledged that his own personal life and relationships have been a failure. He said that when he looked within himself, “A manhole cover opens up and you look down and think, ‘I’m awful. I’m terrible. I’m so selfish. I’m fantastically lazy. I’ve got no patience. I’m cross nearly all the time.’” (The Times, 23 Sep. 2008). I was so glad to read that. He wasn’t a man who thought he’d got his act all together. There was a woman speaking on TV recently and she was counseling the watching millions, and this was her advice; “All you need to do is to say to yourself three times, ‘I feel good about myself. I feel good about myself. I feel good about myself.’” How different was this woman who gatecrashed Simon’s party. She had looked at herself as she was; “I’m awful. I’m terrible. No hope for me,” and then she heard Jesus for the first time and thence as often as she could, and through our Lord she had been born again to a living hope. She felt loved in his presence. She understood what many living in a country which has been influenced by Christianity have still not understood, that he is the heaven-sent Saviour who will receive all who come to him.
Just as I am and waiting not
To cleanse my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God, I come!
Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone
O Lamb of God I come! (Charlotte Elliot 1789-1871).
iii] She came to confess him before men. She stood in the darkness surrounding the courtyard where the couches had been set out around the table, and she saw the Lord Christ taking his seat and she asks for courage and strength to go right up to him, and suddenly she finds herself walking away from darkness into the light, from anonymity to publicity. She joins the diners, but comes up behind him where his feet protrude over the edge of the reclining couch and tears well up in her eyes and flood down her face. She sobs and sobs and her tears cascade down on Jesus’ feet. She cannot look at his face. Her shoulders heave and Jesus’ feet are wet. She undoes her hair and kneels down and wipes his feet with her hair and then with each wipe she caresses his feet.
She begins by standing to honour the Lord from heaven. She weeps, overwhelmed in sorrow for her dark wasted years. She wipes his feet with her hair as a sign of deep humility, and she kisses his feet as a gesture of affection and gratitude. And every time she kisses them her tears fall more profusely and she wipes the water away with her locks of hair, and she sobs some more and his feet are wet again. She dries them and kisses them and weeps more. She weeps and wipes and kisses his feet; she weeps and wipes and kisses his feet, with everyone looking on. But she had yet one more action. She has brought with her “an alabaster jar of perfume” (v.37). This was something women would not carry around with them, rather such perfume would be something they would keep hidden in a safe place, under lock and key at home. This would be the first thing you would pick up if your house caught fire. She has brought her most expensive possession worth, perhaps a year’s salary – 15,000 pounds. She has taken it with her to Simon’s house and she takes the stopper out and she pours it all over his feet. 15,000 pounds worth of perfume flow all over the feet of our Lord.
She did it out of devotion to Jesus. She did it because she loved him. Her heart was full of affection and devotion to him. She understood who he was. He was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. He was going to give his life for such a worthless trashy woman as herself, and in fact this was the only anointing he would ever get. On Good Friday the two men had packed spices around Christ’s body preparing him for the anointing that would take place on the Sunday morning after the Sabbath was over, but when the women came to the tomb to anoint him the body wasn’t there. So this is the only anointing he ever got, and she was the one person in all the world who had the honour of anointing his body, not Mary his mother, not the apostles, it was this anonymous woman.
The question is, do you understand what this woman was doing? Do you know anything about this? Do you realise what it was that motivated this woman to fall at his feet, weeping, kissing, drying with her hair and pouring out this costly perfume? Is there anything in your heart that sympathizes with her? Do you understand what Charles Wesley once wrote,
“O that I could for ever sit
With Mary at the Master’s feet!
Be this my happy choice
* * * * *
I thirst, I faint, I die to prove
The greatness of redeeming love,
The love of Christ to me.” (Charles Wesley, 1707-1788).
HOW SIMON THE PHARISEE RESPONDED.
We are told, “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.’” (v.39). Simon thought he knew about religion. He thought he could spot a man who was sent from God. If you are religious you keep away from notorious sinners and you don’t let them near you, because religion is another word for morality. Jesus had chosen to let himself be defiled and made unclean for a week by contact with such a woman. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached a sermon on this incident in September 1934 to a packed and attentive congregation in Sandfields Forward Movement in Aberavon, and he compared Simon’s involvement in this meeting with Jesus to the woman’s; “Simon himself as such wasn’t involved in the meeting at all. It was only a part of him. Don’t you feel as you read the account that there is a strange detachment about him? How calm and cool and collected he appears to be. He is entirely master of himself. No doubt he was appropriately polite and charming and appeared to be engrossed in the conversation at the table, and yet the whole time he was thinking his own thoughts and drawing his own conclusions and proceeding with his own intellectual analysis of his guest. The whole thing was outside him, outside his true self. It was merely his head that was engaged. Not for one moment does he give the impression that this meeting is the most vital and momentous occasion in his life, that here and now he may obtain something which will make an eternal difference to him. No! there is no thrill, no excitement, no tension. He is calm and detached.
“How different is the woman! Her whole personality is involved, she is anxious and quivering with excitement and thrilled with the thought of approaching Jesus Christ. It is not merely a part of her personality that is involved. Far from being detached and controlled, she cannot restrain herself. The tears flow down her cheeks – she is moved to the very depth of her being. How have you approached Jesus Christ? How do you approach Him and His religion? Are these things merely problems to you? Are you interested in them merely from the intellectual standpoint? Is Jesus Christ merely an historical person to you, merely a man, better than all others perhaps and greater, but still only a man who did certain things and who propounded a certain view and philosophy of life? And are you interested in all this merely as a problem for your mind? Have you realized that Jesus Christ and His religion are not merely to concern your mind or a certain part of you, but you yourself, your life and all you are and hope to be? When you consider Him and His gospel to what extent are you yourself involved?” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Evangelistic Sermons, Banner of Truth, 1983, p.210). I think of Simon the Pharisee as someone who has decided to do attend an Alpha course in Christianity. His affections are uninvolved; detached, prepared to give it a try, but plainly uncommitted, while the woman has met someone she loves more than anyone else in the world.
When a woman named Mary did the same thing for Jesus on another occasion the whole of the courtyard was full of indignation that she has poured out such precious perfume – the savings of her life – all over the feet of this rabbi-healer. The onlookers and guests were all saying, “Shame . . . shame,” scolding her. They were angry at what occurred, and they said, “What a waste! What a terrible, terrible waste of all that precious perfume!” Over thirty years ago a student named Derek Thomas graduated in mathematics at the university and a couple of days afterwards he told his father, “God is calling me into the ministry; I am going to become a minister.” Derek knew it; he was sure and certain about this vocation. His father looked at him, and then responded, “What a waste.” His father had no interest in the Christian faith, and so such a response as his educated son’s – becoming a preacher – was quite irrational. Such people would want to say to this woman, “Next time you have one of these urges let’s talk about it. Let’s find another way of saying, ‘Jesus, I love you.’”
We can understand that response can’t we? We may have experienced it ourselves. We have families who are not Christians and they’re afraid that we’ve become ‘extreme.’ Derek Thomas not only had his family opposing him but his vicar too. This minister replied when Derek told him he’d been converted, “No you haven’t.” Then he added, “You know, too much religion is a bad thing.” How can you have too much of Jesus? In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom, knowledge and love. This womanlonged for him; she wanted to spend her life close to him.
HOW THE LORD JESUS RESPONDED.
He spoke up for her! That is the first thing you notice; he defends her, and that is what we love about our Lord. We can be the target of a lot of disinformation from some church members, our colleagues in the ministry and even our own family, but Jesus takes the fight to the enemy. “Simon I have something to say to you,” (v.40). This woman is long dead and buried, and any mark of where her grave lies has long disappeared; everything is obscured until the day of resurrection. But if there’d been a marker the best obituary for her would have been, “A woman who loved Jesus.” Will they speak like that about you after your days, not about your education and social graces and family commitment, but first and foremost that you loved the Lord Jesus Christ? Remember what is the greatest commandment, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Our Lord speaks up for the woman by telling a parable and usually when Jesus does that then someone is being set up. Here Simon is being set up, and maybe you are being set up today by Jesus. “Simon I have something to tell you,” said Jesus, and maybe he has something to tell you in particular. Here is his story; two men owed money to a moneylender. One owed 500 denarii, and the other fifty. A denarius was what an average man would earn in a day, and so one man owed a year and a half’s wages, let’s say over 20,000 pounds. The other owed a few hundred pounds, but neither had a penny to pay. The money-lender looks at them both. They know that if he is weak towards them then everyone will take advantage of him and his business is ruined, and he knows that too, but he is still moved with compassion. He knows about their circumstances, illness, loss, the consequence for their families of months or years in a debtor’s prison, and he mutters, “Your debt is cancelled.” “Pardon!” “I’m canceling your debt. Get out!”
What is obvious about these two men? What do they share in common? Their debt. They were both in debt. Both were unable to pay, and if you can’t repay you can’t repay. Which person is in bigger trouble, the man drowning in 50 feet of water or the man drowning in 500 feet of water? They are equally lost men. It would be ridiculous for the man in 50 feet of water to take any comfort from the fact that someone else was drowning in 500 feet, or for the guy in 500 feet of water to dream that if he were only in 50 feet of water he would be okay. They are both as good as dead. Both are going to pay the wages of sin.
Then Jesus nails Simon with this question, “Which of them will love him the most?” (v.42). The light is beginning to dawn in the Pharisee’s mind and reluctantly he answers this question for he is aware that Jesus is hanging him out to dry. “I suppose,” he says. “I suppose . . . I suppose?” A man has had a vast debt cancelled, one that would take his lifetime to repay and years in prison, and Simon reluctantly acknowledges, “I suppose the man with the vast debt loves him more than the one who owes an insignificant sum.” Jesus tells him that that’s right, and then he turned to the woman kneeling on the floor with her tear-stained red face and her disordered hair, an empty bottle of perfume lying in the dust at her side – what a mess she’s in – and he says this to Simon so that she can hear.
“‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet,[down goes Simon] but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair [up goes the woman]. You did not give me a kiss [down goes Simon], but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet [up goes the woman]. You did not put oil on my head [down goes Simon], but she has poured perfume on my feet [up goes the woman] (vv.44-46). Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Four holy cheers for grace that is greater than all our sins. Grace reaches down and down and down and raises sinners up and up and up! Now on a higher plane she dwells and with her soul I know it’s well. Her tears and the pouring out of the costly perfume were a response to the wonderful grace that had lifted her up and forgiven her. She had experienced forgiveness and she showed her profound gratitude. She could have said that the love that she’d received from Christ, so amazing and so divine, demanded her life, her soul, her all. Simon had kept Jesus at arm’s length, but she was not ashamed of him. Simon hadn’t even bothered to show him minimal courtesy, but she had lavished her love on him. Simon knew about religion, the temple, the sacrifices and the law. She knew none of that. Simon missed the whole point. She got it. Three things to close:
i] Let us all grasp the gospel.
This incident is about the gospel. Jesus is enfleshing his message of good news. This whole story is about the gospel. You are a decent young woman who’s worked hard all your life and you’ve been going to church for years, but there is another woman who is a layabout. She has even been on the streets to pay for her drug habit. Jesus is saying that both of you are in debt, and neither of you can pay, and your only hope is the mercy of God through the work of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that offensive to some of you? The Simons of the world will always think that grace is so unfair. “You mean that I can live a decent righteous life for seventy years, and rejecting Jesus Christ I go to hell, while this prostitute and druggie can put her trust in Christ – he is all her hope of mercy from God – and a week later she dies of Aids from infected needles and she goes to heaven?” Yes! “It’s not fair!” says the Pharisee, because he has no idea of the sin in his own heart. Everything he has done has been affected by it.
Jesus’ love is not a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who think themselves to be failures; ‘There, there, Jesus loves you.’ That’s not the gospel. That’s certainly not the gospel! We need to think of the human heart. We need to think of ourselves as depraved rather than deprived. John Owen says people who have slight thoughts of sin never have great thoughts of God. That is the distinction of this woman, that she had great thoughts of the Lord Christ. They overwhelmed her. They engulfed her in emotion as she thought of everything that the Lord Jesus Christ was to do for her. She couldn’t help it. She just broke down in tears. She looked down the open manhole cover of her life and asked God for mercy, but Simon refused to look. Spurgeon said, “He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope around his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.”
Do you notice in verse 47 when Jesus is speaking to Simon what he says? “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven.” The Lord said she had many sins. He did not say, “There, there.” She needed forgiveness for many sins. Do you see that the way to justification, the way to an appreciation of God’s mercy, is not to play down our native sinfulness. Her sins were many. Her sins were great, said Jesus, and the gospel is not a scheme for making us feel good about our sinning selves. The gospel says that we can feel good about ourselves only – only – when we are united by faith to Jesus Christ, the one who gave himself for our sins, and rose again for our justification. There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, and to them alone
Derek Thomas says, “You know we sometimes hear the phrase, ‘unconditional love’ and forgive me in advance, if I don’t warm with a wondrous glow when I hear that phrase, because I’m never quite sure what it means. In one sense it’s true, but in another sense, my friends, it is not true because Jesus wasn’t saying “I accept this woman unconditionally.” That’s not the gospel. He would accept her, yes, but because of one reason, that he would lay down his life for her. He would bear in his own body upon the tree the unmitigated wrath of his holy Father in heaven for this woman. For this woman to be forgiven there was that one condition! Yes, a condition to God’s love, wrought in the heat of Golgotha. Believe me, there were conditions written into the covenant that the Mediator had entered into with his Father in heaven.” There has to be the shedding of blood, for without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins. When we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and when we have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God, and when we acknowledge that we are namely hell-deserving sinners, then, and only then, does the necessity of wondrous Golgotha, glorious Calvary, the amazing crucifixion of the Son of God, become so obvious to us. As the primitive believing native said to the missionary a century and a half ago, “He . . . die . . . me . . . no die.” We are astonished that we never saw it before. We need to understand the gospel.
ii] May all our lives be praise.
The Lord Jesus says these words, and please don’t get them wrong, in verses 47-48, “‘Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (vv. 47&48). At this juncture Jesus finally speaks to the woman; he says three things to her; “Your sins are forgiven” (v.48); then that takes care of all her past. “Your faith has saved you” (v.50); then that takes care of the present. “Go in peace,” (v.50); then that takes care of the future. Please don’t imagine that Jesus is saying that she is forgiven because she loves. I am saying, don’t think that the basis of her forgiveness is the fact that she loved. That’s turning the gospel on its head. Love is the response of her heart to the gospel that she has experienced. When this woman understood that the Lamb of God was going to take away her sins, even hers, she whom men had used and abused, and decent society had scorned, and whose heart was desperately wicked, she couldn’t but respond in a torrent of gratitude and thankfulness that this wonderful Saviour had forgiven her. I can say it today because it’s true today, but it is true every day, that there’s salvation for prostitutes and there’s salvation for terrorists and for the worst men and women. We have even had one man guilty of manslaughter preaching a couple of times here in our church.
May all our lives be praise. I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. Jesus has given his life, shed his blood, and endured the agony of the cross for me. Simon didn’t get it, you see. He was a moral and religious man but he had lost the plot. Morality and religion is not the gospel. There was no place for sinners in the Pharisees’ kingdom, but every single individual in the kingdom of God is a sinner saved by grace.
iii] The ultimate end of worship and preaching is to realise anew how great is Jesus Christ.
If you figure that you are a ‘little sinner’ then all you need is a ‘little Saviour.’ If you think you are a ‘moderate sinner’ then what you’ll need is a ‘moderate Saviour.’ But if you are a ‘big sinner’ you’ll need a ‘big Saviour.’ Those who have a little Saviour will love him little, while those who have a big Saviour will love him greatly. In the end that’s what this story is all about. It’s not about this woman: we don’t even know what her name was. It’s not about Simon the Pharisee, though we know his name. It’s about the Lord Jesus. What kind of Saviour are we offering sinners today? I tell you that he’s the kind of Jesus who goes into a prison and meets criminals, both men and women, and he brings them into his kingdom. That’s the Jesus we find in this passage today. He’s the kind of Jesus who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, and yet made himself of no reputation, and became a friend of sinners. The birds of the air have their nests and the foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. He humbled himself for terribly depraved men and woman like you and me. We can go through the routine of Sunday services, we can go about our lives day by day, we can go about our public professions of being the Lord’s people, and we can lose sight of the Son of God. We can lose the gospel, and we can lose sight of the need for a praising heart and mouth. If you are discouraged today, it’s because you have lost sight of Jesus. May God by his Spirit so grant to each one of us a fresh glimpse of the sheer beauty and wonder of Jesus, and that we might – yes, for a moment or two – even lose our composure at such wondrous love. We say, less will never satisfy; more than Jesus we don’t desire.
28th September 2008 GEOFF THOMAS