Sinful Women and Pharisees
We all know that you just can’t make some people happy. In the previous story Jesus commented on the fact that you just can’t make some people happy–notably the Pharisees. Luke 7:33-34 tells us that John didn’t drink wine and fasted all the time, and he was accused of being demon possessed. Jesus came eating and drinking, and the Pharisees said he was a glutton, drunkard, and a friend to the worst kinds of sinners. In this story we see how Jesus is a friend to the worst kind of sinners.
Simon, a Pharisee is throwing a big, fancy dinner party, and he invites Jesus. I’m not sure that was a good move on his part, but he did it anyway. Normally when a big party like this was thrown the house was left open, and those who hadn’t been invited to the dinner itself could wander in through the courtyard and listen to the discussion going on. After the party the left-over food was given to those in the courtyard, so the poor were fed, the host didn’t have a lot of food spoiling, and everyone was happy. This is why the woman–this sinful woman–could get in. All of this lively dinnertime discussion is going on when, this woman comes in, (I imagine a dead silence coming over the room at this point) this sinful woman walks up to Jesus and kneels at his feet. Crying, she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. We’re never told what sins this woman committed that brand her as a sinful woman. I like that. It leaves it open-ended for us, and any kind of sin that we need to ask forgiveness for. May be that’s why Luke didn’t elaborate–that way his readers could fill in the blank with their sin and know that Jesus forgave them just as he forgave this woman.
Simon is not happy that his party has been crashed by this sinful woman. He’s even more appalled that Jesus is not rebuking her. Now we find out why he invited Jesus in the first place: he thought Jesus might be a prophet. Now he thinks differently: if Jesus were a prophet, he would know this woman is sinner, and that by touching her, Jesus has made himself ritually unclean. Of course, Jesus proves him wrong by reading his mind. He tells Simon a little parable about two debtors: one owed a creditor 2 years worth of wages, and the second owed 2 months worth of wages. The creditor forgives both debts–neither has to pay what they owe. Then Jesus asks “Which of the two will love this creditor more?” At this time I imagine that Simon has that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach because he knows Jesus is about to nail him. But to give the guy credit–he did give the right answer: The one who had been forgiven the bigger debt.
Jesus then explains how the woman and Simon are the two debtors in the story. The woman showed Jesus a lot of love; this woman who went far above and beyond the rules of hospitality to show her gratitude and showed by her actions how much she’d been forgiven. The loving attention she lavished on Jesus showed how much she owed Him for forgiving her many sins. Simon on the other hand didn’t even give Jesus the minimum show of hospitality: no water for his feet, no oil for his head, no welcoming kiss. He showed by his indifference that he didn’t even know he needed to be forgiven much less asking for it.
After telling the parable, Jesus turns and speaks directly to the woman: “Your sins are forgiven.” This causes another uproar as everyone around the table wanted to know what kind of man had the gall to forgive someone when only God could forgive sins. Jesus tells the woman to go in peace–her offering of thankfulness and love has been accepted.
The woman knew she was a sinner, and she knew she could find forgiveness with Jesus. After He forgave her, she wanted to find a way to let Him know how much she loved Him. In a very public place, where she could have been humiliated, she thanked Jesus with tears, oil, and her hair. Jesus accepted her gift of love, and gave her the peace that had alluded her all of her life. On the other hand, Simon never realized his need for forgiveness. He was just a curious onlooker who wanted to know about this vagabond who might be a prophet. Although Simon invited Jesus into his home as his guest, he didn’t even offer Jesus the minimum refreshment normally given to guests. Today’s equivalent would be inviting someone to your home and not taking their coat and shaking their hand. They wouldn’t feel very welcome at dinner still wearing their coat. Simon had Godde under his roof and never knew it.
Normally this story is left with an either/or ending: Either you’re the woman or you’re the Pharisee! I think we should look at it with a both/and perspective. Instead of leaving this hanging with an either/or proclamation: You’re either the woman or the Pharisee, I have a both/and question for you. Did you start out as the woman, and have you become Simon? Did you start out as the woman? When you started this walk with Godde, this relationship with Jesus, did you show the same kind of love and joy and thankfulness that this woman showed? Is that where you started: with this woman at Jesus’ feet overwhelmed at his grace and mercy love? Did you start out as the woman? Have you become the Simon? Somewhere along the way did you start taking Godde’s mercy and grace forgranted? Did you forget the debt you once owed? Did you forget the forgiveness that you received? Have you become like the “good people” I read in a modern version of this story who “seem to talk a lot about forgiveness” but don’t seem to live it? Have you lost the realization that God lives under your roof? Have you become Simon?
Now onto the matter of the difference in the two debts–the lesser versus the greater debt. One commentary I read made the point that the amount of these two debts is irrelevant–the point is neither debtor can pay the debt. The same is true for the Simon and the sinful woman–neither can pay the debt they owe to Godde. Simon’s sin might have been cutting corners on his tax return, and the woman’s sin might well have been prostitution, or she could have humiliated her husband in public and beat her kids. It doesn’t matter: neither one could ever work their way out of the debt they owed Godde. They both needed forgiveness, grace and mercy. They both needed a Savior who was a friend to the worst kinds of sinner.
In the end I think that is why this is one of my favorite stories. This story shows Jesus hanging out with the worst kinds of sinners. Jesus is a friend to the arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee, and He’s a friend to the sinful woman that everyone looks down their noses at. The woman saw her need and received forgiveness. The Pharisee didn’t. We need to make sure that once we’ve received forgiveness, we do not forget about the grace that has changed our lives and slowly become the Pharisee.
So this week look at your life. Are you living like the woman–grateful for the forgiveness, grace, and love you received and the new life you’ve been given? Remember after this woman received forgiveness–she was no longer a sinner. In fact, an interesting note is when the story introduces her it says, “she was a sinful woman”–past tense. When she came to Jesus the old had passed–she was a new creation–she was a child of Godde. Is that how you’re living? Is that how you’re serving Jesus? Or is Simon a little closer to how things are? Forgiveness is something you pray for because you’re supposed to—forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us–and that’s the end of it?
Have you forgotten the grace and forgiveness that made you a new creation? If you have, remember, Jesus is a friend to the worst kinds of sinners. Even those who somewhere along the way forgot how much they had been forgiven and became Simon. Come back. Remember what Jesus told the church in Ephesus: “Look how far you have fallen from your first love! Turn back to me again and work as you did at first.” Remember your first love and come back to Him because He’s still a friend to the worst kinds of sinners, “and work as you did at first.” Receive the same peace he gave to this now godly woman, and that He first gave you and “work as you did before,” as the women who are mentioned in the last few verses of our gospel passage did.
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources (Luke 8:1-3).
I always wonder when I read these verses if the woman who just anointed Jesus’ feet was one of the “many others” mentioned in verse 3? Like Mary, Joanna, and Susanna, once she was set free did she leave her old life behind and follow Jesus and support him as these women did? We’ll never know, but it is a reminder that, in addition, to worship and thanksgiving, another appropriate response to the forgiveness and grace we’ve received is service: feeding the hungry, teaching, clothing the naked, or working for justice for those who can’t get it for themselves. Just like these women we are to continue the work we did at first when we first fell in love with Christ. Because there is an entire world around us that needs to know Jesus is a friend to the worst kinds of sinners.
This sermon was originally posted on June 17, 2007. I preached it this last Sunday at Chicago Grace Episcopal Church. (In front of my in-laws, no less!)