Forgiven Sinners Love Jesus Christ (vv. 36-39)
Jesus Dines with a Smug Pharisee
Here is an instance of the “Son of man eating and drinking,” and what happened one day when he dined with a Pharisee. It is one of the most beautiful episodes in the gospel, for it shows us there is hope for the foulest sinners who casts himself upon the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The scene also rebukes the cold-hearted Pharisees among us, who either forget mercy or refuse to write their name in the place of this unnamed woman who loved Jesus so fervently and tenderly. And why did she love him so? Because she believed that God had forgiven her many sins. Simon, on the other hand, seems to have invited Jesus to his house for curiosity, perhaps even to prove to himself that Jesus was not whom he claimed to be – the promised Messiah. Believe it or not, some people come to church for the same reason – not to worship God and anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears, but to satisfy their curiosity or fulfill earthly obligations, perhaps even to be able to say to themselves and others, “I went to church, and nothing happened. That preacher drones on about nothing, for God never did anything for me.”
A Sinful Woman Tenderly Loves Jesus
While Jesus reclined at the table with Simon – the usual posture was leaning on the elbow, with legs either stretched out to the side or behind – a sinful woman approached Jesus. This was not Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister; that anointing that took place in the final week of our Lord’s life. It is unlikely that this is Mary Magdalene, from whom the Lord cast our seven devils. She is unnamed because her name is unimportant – she is really any of our names, all of us, the way each one of us should respond to what God has done for us. Her sin – some have thought her a prostitute – is also unnamed. Perhaps she had been an adulteress. We do not know, but she was known in the town and thus prohibited from a welcome entrance to the best company and salons of the worthy. But in a public feast, the townspeople might enter and stand against the walls to hear the conversation and beg a scrap or two. She heard that Jesus was there, may have entered with him and his company or a little after.
She stood behind him, her heart bursting with emotion. Had she met Jesus previously? She certainly believed his gospel that he preached to poor sinners, and now thought her opportunity to show love for him. Beyond this, we know nothing else about her, and it spoils the moment and point to speculate. She stood there weeping. This reclaimed but still despised sinner knows and sees more than Simon and his holy entourage. She has brought with her an alabaster flask of perfume. She reached out and began to anoint Jesus’ feet, but her freely flowing tears require her to loosen her hair so she can wipe his feet. It is quite a scene of personal love, tenderness, with the claims of propriety not flaunted but forgotten. The redeemed soul must reach out to its Lover and returned his love. She kissed his feet repeatedly. I dare say that some of you feel embarrassed thinking upon this scene. Such emotionalism! I might shake Jesus’ hand heartily or even give him a hug, but a public display like this? Just remember that every repentant sinner’s heart will one day be melted like this. You may not yet be able to cry with love for Jesus, for the tear ducts of the soul can become clogged with disappointment, regret, bitterness, and coldness, but something will happen to you, now or later, and Jesus will remove the clogs, and you will cry. Yes, you will cry just like this woman – tears of love and adoration, kisses of gratitude, your soul reaching out to your blessed Redeemer from sin, death, and hell. Every believer will return his love.
Simon Thinks Jesus a Fraud
But Simon looks on aghast. He thinks not of sin forgiven; his heart is not bursting with love. He is thinking that Jesus must be a fraud. If he were a prophet, he would know who this woman is and rebuke her for touching him. He would not be moved by her love, but disgusted. Simon’s – and we would not know his thoughts unless the Holy Spirit who knows the secrets of every heart, exposed Simon’s heart to us – was the cold disgust of self-righteousness. He had heard at least of Jesus’ words and seen some of his works, but he could not think out of his tidy box of life – who is worthy and clean, who is not; who has something to offer and who does not. He cannot imagine that Jesus would rub shoulders with the hoi polloi in this fashion, for any reason. He did not understand his own heart, and his need for God’s mercy, and therefore, as Jesus’ parable will explain, he loves but little, if at all. Remember, however, that he was the respected host of this party, the one into whose presence the sinful woman was very hesitant to appear, for his opinion counted to everyone around him. He was an impressive individual, in the eyes of men. But his heart was cold and silent as the grave. The woman’s love found no echo in his heart – only disdain. He likely congratulated himself that any lingering doubt he had about Jesus – might he, after all, be the Christ? – could be put to rest. No holy man would allow himself to be touched and kissed by such a wicked woman.
He Who is Forgiven Much Loves Much (vv. 40-46)
God, Two Debtors, and Forgiveness
Although Luke almost passes over this, this parable is Jesus reading Simon’s inmost thoughts, and then replying to them out loud. Did Simon sense that Jesus was carrying on a conversation with his soul? Do we? We often get a little upset if the preacher seems to be preaching at us, but perhaps it is really the Lord preaching at us – just like he did here to Simon – telling us who we are, what he thinks of our thoughts and lives. Jesus knows our thoughts as clearly as if we told him out loud, and actually better, for he knows us well, and we know ourselves barely at all. The parable – similar to one found in Matthew, but shorter and more pointed to the present need – sets forth God as the creditor, with two debtors. One debtor owes him $85 dollars, 500 pence, and the other $8.50, or 50 pence. The difference is tenfold – not the 10,000 talents, exponential difference in Matthew – but still a tenfold and therefore notable difference. Neither could repay the debt; the creditor forgave each debtor. The main point is not that some men sin more than others or that some sins are more grievous than others. This is true, but whatever one’s personal indebtedness to God, he is merciful and forgives.
Who Will Love God Most?
How shall we respond to his mercy? This is the question Jesus asks Simon. Who will love more – the one who has been forgiven more or less? We have to be careful here, or we shall turn the parable on its head. Clearly, it is an indictment of Simon. He loves so little because he is not conscious of having been forgiven much. This, of course, means that he was unconscious of having sinned much, else mercy would have been much more precious to him. The sinful woman loves much, shows her love, and risked public opinion to love Jesus, because she was deeply conscious of having sinned much, and therefore of having been forgiven much. And this is the point of the parable. Those love the Lord most who know what great sinners they are and what a great debt of justice and wrath has been forgiven them. Is Jesus leveling the sinful woman with Simon? Is he saying that all sins are the same?
At a basic level, I think he is simply rebuking Simon for condemning the woman’s love. However much Simon needs to deal with the self-righteousness that prevents him from deep gratitude and love to God for his mercy, the more immediate issue is that Simon would quench this woman’s love with his cold heart. And there are certainly times in which we have felt this from other believers. We have been in a season of wonder at God’s love and mercy, or our Savior’s sufferings, but we have been met with cold stares when we have tried to express that love. Or the tables are flipped – we cannot always sustain that warmth of affection and gratitude that we shall enjoy when we see the Lord. But at least we should try to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, repent of quenching the Spirit in our midst, or condemning others for loving Jesus more tenderly and devotedly than we do.
The Lesson Driven Home to Simon
Simon felt a bit entrapped. When Jesus asked the question, he began his answer with, “I suppose” – which expressed a bit of flippancy or at least a non-committal response that refuses to go with Jesus more deeply. So Jesus takes Simon there against his will. When I came into your house, the Lord recounts the scene, you gave me no water for my feet – a common if not absolutely required courtesy on the part of the host – no kiss – not even a friendly one – and no oil to refresh me. Here we see the Lord putting his finger upon Simon not as the careless or poor host but Simon as the smug Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house not to investigate truly his claims but for curiosity or even condemnation. You do not care much for me at all, Simon; you have no sense of your sinfulness and of your need of my mercy. Remember that Jesus was the Son of God against whom Simon was a condemned criminal just as much as against the Father and Spirit. But this woman, whom you are so quick to condemn, she washed my feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, has not stopped kissing my feet, and anointed me with refreshing oil. So tell me, Simon, our Lord implies, who loves most? Who is most appreciative for mercy received? Whose heart has been touched by God’s goodness? The answer – not yours, Simon.
Jesus Christ Forgives Sinners (vv. 47-50)
Mercy Received, Love Shown
Was the woman still at Jesus’ feet when he spoke these next words? Luke does not say that she has arisen -- like the servants of the Lord whom he will commend at the last day for the cups of water, prison visits, and other acts of love for him, she was likely unaware of what was distinctly passing between Jesus and Simon. She thought only of her Savior, of what he had done for her, and she was little concerned with what others thought of her. Love thinks more upon the Lord than upon man, pleasing him, not gaining man’s approval. But Jesus continues – her sins are many – she is the woman who owed the 500 pence – we do God’s grace little justice and sinners little incentive to come to Jesus when we act as if all sins are of the same magnitude and offense against God’s majesty. They are not. But her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much – with the missing middle premise – that she looked to me for her cleansing. It is not that love merited mercy, but that mercy prompted love. And then the general and rather astounding remark: the one who is forgiven little, loves little.
It is hard to know what to do this with this, for Jesus is clearly not implying in his words or the preceding parable that everyone sins the same. All are born in abominable filth, to be sure, corrupt in every part, but that corruption does not come to the same evil fruit, intensively or extensively. Some sins are more publicly notorious, as this woman’s apparently were. Nor should we take his words to mean that only those who have been great sinners can love Jesus deeply and fervently, for we know this is not the case. It is the case, however, that those who have been notoriously guilty of many sins and lived profligate lives, when God saves them, they are often very zealous for the honor of God and overflowing in love for Jesus Christ. Their affection for him – in word and deed – is often embarrassing to us who do not feel the same weight of mercy’s glory. This is not to say that we cannot grow in our apprehension of God’s mercy even if we were born in a Christian home, grew up believing the gospel, and seem never to have strayed very far from the course. What we have to guard against is Simon’s disease – cold hearts that forget our true corruption, tend to undervalue our guilt, therefore undervalue mercy and overvalue our purity and self-worth.
Your Sins Are Forgiven
Enough of Simon – Jesus turns to the woman. Your sins are forgiven – because of her anointing and tears? Are the Roman Catholic interpreters correct? Of course not. Jesus is expressing to a repentant soul that God has indeed put away her sins. “Forgive” means release, dismiss, send so far away that even God cannot find them, for he buries them in the sea of satisfied justice (Mic. 7:18). It is not her works that saved her, but her faith – not that faith as a man-created virtue is salvific. Technically speaking, faith does not save, but Christ saves through faith. And this is exactly what we see here, for faith is synonymous with her clinging to Jesus. Faith brought her to him, believed his promise of mercy, led her to lay all at his feet, and renewed her heart so that instead of loving her sins for which she was infamous she could not stop loving Jesus. Faith made her a committed lover of Jesus Christ, as all true faith does, whether it has been forgiven few or many sins.
Your Faith Has Saved You…Go in Peace
We should take seriously our Lord’s “your faith has saved you,” for it must in the final analysis do the same for us. Church membership does not save us. Being Protestant and Presbyterian, though I shall die in those communions, will not save you. Nor will being a devoted attendee upon the sacraments and worship of the church. Church tradition will not save you, nor the longest line of saints you can create. Nothing will save you but faith in the Son of God. Beginning with those who have sinned much, like this woman, if you will come to Jesus Christ with all your sins, recognize them for being the evil that they are, and look to his cross, God will extend mercy to you. And since with that mercy comes a new heart to receive it, you can become the most attached disciple of Jesus Christ, so that however bad your past life and works, you can now spend your life washing his feet with your tears and kissing him – as you tell your family about the great things he has done for you, do your daily work with his pleasure in mind, and worship him with your people. By believing God’s promise in this way, faith lays hold of Jesus Christ, and finds in him all the cleansing, righteousness, hope, and peace requires to be restored to new life in him. Do not delay. Would you keep your sighing heart that weeps over its sins, regrets, lost health and happiness? You will find no way through the maze of unbelief except to come to Jesus Christ in faith.
But let us say that you really have sinned less by comparison. Faith is required no less in your case, for if we have sinned against even one of God’s commandments, we have broken the whole law. The challenge for outwardly righteous men, like Simon, is that the magnitude of heart sins before God’s majesty is often lost upon us. This is especially true in evil times when wickedness goes public and open, for there is truly a difference between men whom God has given over to sin and those who are preserved from worse crimes by his grace. But you should not feel one whit less devotion to Jesus Christ, even if you lack a dramatic testimony or conversion experience. Have you never thought that the only reason you do not have one, that you have not languished in the gutter of sin for months and years, superstition, or barbarism, is that God showed you a particular kind of mercy that should set you singing, weeping, and washing his feet no less than the vilest sinner who ever lived. Our common song is God’s mercy, and his mercy does not come to all in the same way or after the same life. But we are all saved by faith that apprehends God’s mercy in Christ. It is our unifying theme, or should be.
Do We Love Little or Much
Guard against Pharisee Coldness
Simon was what we would call a “churched” man: outwardly good and righteous, careful to keep from the taint of bad company, and virtuous, at an outward level. But he had a cold heart senseless to his need of mercy. Perhaps we once felt the thrill of mercy received, but living among so many bad men while laboring to keep ourselves unspotted by the world (Jam. 1:27), our love for Christ was cooled and our hearts chilled with religious pride. We easily forget the wonder of mercy and heaven’s singing when any sinner repents, even us. While we must praise God for his grace that makes us differ from the world of sinful men (1 Cor. 4:7), let us not forget that it is only his grace and mercy that makes that difference in our lives. And we can tell if our hearts are cold – can we rejoice in the most public expressions and deeds of love for Jesus from those rescued from sin? They do not always know as much as some who have been believers for many years and fed upon God’s word, and they need to grow. But they may know the sweetness of mercy more than we do, and we should not fault them or quench their joy, but perhaps have ours rekindled a bit by listening to their accounts of Jesus’ redeeming love for them.
Gain the Highest Possible Conviction of God’s Mercy
The Lord has to open our heart to the wonders of his mercy, but there are mercy quenchers, if you will, sins that insulate the heart against mercy. The obvious sins are pride and self-righteousness. Immersion in the world will likewise freeze the heart, for love of God and love of the world cannot exist in the same soul. But there are also more subtle sins – bitterness at wrongs received, real or imagined; regrets that paralyze and focus the mind so much on loss that little room remains to consider our gain in Christ; relationship sins and issues that are so all-consuming that they become the emotional reality – rather than what God in Christ has done for us. To fight against these, we must consider, first, God’s great holiness and righteousness, and never tire of considering how wondrous he is in his holiness (Ex. 15:3). Then, we must often consider the person and work of Jesus Christ, for his coming into the world is due solely to the Father’s decision to save his elect. There was no other way open than for him to “lay upon his Son the iniquity of us all “(Isa. 53:6). Too little familiarity with Calvary, and by this I mean too little focused thinking upon the meaning of the cross, its cost to our Savior and impact upon him as recorded in the Gospels, and its effects for us. We cannot consider these things, we cannot consider Jesus and not grow in our sense of thankfulness and love for the great mercy shown to us.
Give Your Heart and Show Your Love to Jesus Christ
And since this is so, we must endeavor to be like this unnamed woman rather than Simon – in our willingness to give our heart to Jesus Christ and show our love for him. He has told us the way – read Matthew 25:35-40. Here we see what kind of love Jesus likes best – when we love his brothers and sisters, especially poor believers who need compassion from us. But if we find ourselves surrounded with plenty, then we must not allow abundance to become a disease so that we always become overly sensitive to our own preferences, overly critical at the foibles and failings of others, and unwilling to resolve difficulties or forget them so that fervent love may rule among us. Brotherly love is the main way that we kiss Jesus’ feet, weep tears of thankfulness, and anoint him. And if we remember that he has made us his brothers and sisters at the cost of his blood, then we shall more readily and willingly forgive the lesser offenses that inevitably arise between those of like precious faith. Let us love Jesus and forgive them for his sake, because we love him for his dying love for us.