Much forgiveness, much love. In today’s Gospel reading, the one who who is forgiven much and loves much is a “woman of the city,” a streetwalker, a prostitute who happens to crash in on a dinner party at the house of a prominent Pharisee named Simon.
He had invited Jesus, along with some of his other religious friends. You can safely assume that the table was populated by religious men, the pillars of the religious community. Leaders. Why he invited Jesus, we don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to impress Jesus, or pick his brain, or impress his friends. Here he was, hanging out with the new young rabbi who was making all the headlines.
The woman slipped in unnoticed at first. She crept quietly around the table until she was directly behind Jesus. Surely they noticed her by then. She bent down near His feet, ignoring all the hard stares of the religious men who were judging her. She knew what was going through their minds. She heard what they hissed behind her back. “Sinner,” they called her. Or worse. How dare she intrude on their nice little dinner party? How dare she even show herself in the company of these respectable men? There was certainly no place at their table for so much as a woman, much less a woman of her reputation.
These men at the table are all outcasts of the kingdom too, every bit as much as she is. But their religion prevents them for seeing their own sinfulness. And failing that, they fail to see Jesus for who He is – the Savior of sinners. The fact is, if you don’t think you are a sinner, if you think that God is just tickled blue over you for all the nice things you do, then you have no need for a crucified Savior.
That’s the danger of religion. It gives you a pretense of respectability, a thin veneer of piety, a mask. We call it our “Sunday best.” We wear it when we want others to see how religious we are, how we’ve made all the right choices, and hang out with all the right friends, and how you should do the same. Oh we wear it well, and sad to say, we’d be right at home at Simon’s table. We would like the company of these men who probably lamented the lack of morality in their culture and nodded soberly at the sorry state of affairs.
You can only imagine the harsh, judgmental stares of these men at this woman of the streets. Did they know her name? Did they know anything about her? Why did she have to sell her body to men who used her and discarded her? Had any of them been with her? Do you wonder about that? You know, the guilty always protest the loudest.
She has no mask behind which to hide. She has no pretensions of piety. There are only tears of shame that bathe Jesus’ feet. She anoints them with her perfume from a precious alabaster flask, likely the most precious thing she owned, perhaps a tool of her trade. When Jesus was little, the wise men from the East offered Him gold, incense, and myrrh. Now this woman of the street offers her perfume, hair, and tears . She gently massages the ointment into Jesus’ tired feet, and if this weren’t outrage enough, she lets down her hair (what no decent woman of her day would have done), and dries Jesus’ feet with it.
For her, Jesus is a man, perhaps the only man in the world, who understands her, who accepts her, who loves her, and most importantly who forgives her. She trusts that Jesus will not rebuke or shame her in front of these harsh, religious men. He came to seek and to save the lost. He came to rescue sinners. He came for her, and she believed it. And He is not ashamed to receive her acts of devotion, even though they tweak the sensibilities of the religiously proper.
You can only imagine the outrage at the table, the looks on those hardened faces as the perfume fills the air along with her sobbing. What kind of prophet is Jesus who would allow such a thing? How can this man claim to be the Messiah, the Holy One of God, and let such a woman touch Him?
That’s right. We say Jesus is a friend of sinners. “Jesus sinners doth receive.” We preach it. “Christ died to save sinners of whom I am chief.” Do we actually mean that? We confess we are sinners, yes, but do we see ourselves in solidarity with this woman of the streets? What if some genuine sinners showed up in our midst, could we handle it? What if genuinely broken people brought their actually broken lives to the only place where brokenness is a virtue, where sin is not judged but forgiven, where God comes to keep company with sinners? Would we welcome this woman into our midst or would be grumble with the religious over how outrageously good God’s free grace is? “If the pastor only knew what sort of person she was, he wouldn’t be communing her.”
“I have something to say to you, Simon.” And our Pharisaical friend Simon was all ears. What an honor! Jesus had something to say just for me. A parable. Oh oh. Watch out for the parables. They’re traps. They’ll catch you when you are least suspecting. Just ask David. He thought he’d gotten away with adultery and murder. He’d gotten the wife of Uriah pregnant and arranged for Uriah’s death in the battlefield so he could marry the widow and look like hero in the eyes of Israel. But God sent Nathan the prophet to David with a little parable. And the parable nailed him. “You are the man!” David was dead to rights. All he could do was say, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And all Nathan had to say was “The Lord has put away your sin.”
A certain money lender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii (a denarius is roughly a day’s wages for a day laborer); the other owed fifty. He forgave them both. Which one loved him more? Simon realizes he’s been caught. “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” Ah. The bigger the sinner, the greater the gratitude. “See, Simon, that’s why you gave me no water to wash my feet, no kiss of greeting when I walked through the door, no oil to anoint my head. You have no idea how great a sinner you are. You think you’re a little sinner in need of just a little forgiveness. And so your love is just as little. But this woman, she knows how great a sinner she is, and you keep reminding her so she doesn’t forget, and she knows how great a Savior of sinners I am, and so she washes my feet with her tears, and anoints them, and wipes them with her hair, and kisses them. She loves much because she has been forgiven much.
The fact is, those who think they have no sin, have no need for Jesus. Oh, they might try to use Him to win friends and influence people, perhaps. Make a name for themselves. Show off for their friends. But they had no need for why Jesus came – to forgive sins and justify sinners.
Only as we see ourselves in her position, not in Simon’s, do we get it, do we see who Jesus is for us. I find it interesting to look at the three women mentioned in this reading. Luke has a particular accent on the women who followed Jesus. A prostitute who anoints Jesus’ feet. Mary Magdalene who had seven demons chased from her by Jesus. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s chief of staff. A high ranking woman of considerable power and means. A demon distressed woman. And a woman of the street. And all three are forgiven much; all three love much. And, by the way, two out of those three are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and were among the first to go the tomb that morning.
“Your sins are forgiven you.” These the the first words Jesus speaks to the woman. Right in front of those men who would accuse and judge her, Jesus absolves her. Outrageous forgiveness. Does God have no sense of decency? He forgives David, an adulterer and a murderer? He forgives this woman? If her tears and hair and perfume and little foot massage weren’t bad enough, Jesus’ rubs salt into the religious wound. He publicly pronounces forgiveness? Who can forgive like this except…well…God?
That’s the faith point. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” She trusted Jesus – nothing else, nothing more. Faith is like that woman, risking everything including the scorn of religion, offering nothing except a broken, sinful life and tears and a humble offering that Jesus doesn’t need anyway but receives as the greatest gift of love there is. She was forgiven much, even before Jesus said those words to her. She knew it. She believed it. And because of that, she loved much and worshipped.
You are forgiven much too. More than you realize. The commandments will tally the size of the debt, and it isn’t a small one. We too are adulterers and murderers and thieves. We don’t want or like to think of ourselves as big sinners, and as a result we look in judgment on others. We would be very wrong. To know the greatness of your sin is also to know the greatness of your Savior. No matter how great the sin, no matter how messed up the life, Jesus is always greater. Greater than our sin, greater than our death, greater than the Law that condemns us.
There is a place at Jesus’ table for sinners – for David, for that woman of the streets, for troubled Mary Magdalene, for the religious and the unreligious, for the good and the bad, and for you. Bring nothing but your sin, and He will forgive. Bring nothing but your tears, and He will dry them. Bring nothing but your emptiness, and He will fill it. Bring nothing but your sorrow, and He will bring you joy. Bring nothing but a hunger and thirst for God, and He will satisfy it. Let His great forgiveness have its way with you, and there will be great love – for Him and for others.
In the name of Jesus,