An Uninvited Guest
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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.
39 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.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward 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. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It is fitting on the Sunday following Valentine’s Day that this should be our scripture reading. For the story of Jesus' feet being anointed with tears and perfume by a sinful woman is a love story, pure and simple. Not some cheap romance or soap opera love. A love much deeper and heart-felt than that, and one not infused with physical desire. But it is very much a love story.
An Invitation to Dinner
Jesus is invited for dinner by Simon, a Pharisee. Where we are not told, though presumably it is in Galilee where other events in this section took place. Invitation to dinner certainly implied respect for this new teacher and healer. Was he also a prophet? Simon wanted to learn more about Jesus, but it soon becomes obvious that you can't count Simon as a believer -- rather as a skeptic trying to be open-minded.
It was an honor to host the visiting teacher and his party, and Simon wanted to the honor of hosting this famous rabbi. We can assume that Simon is well-to-do -- most of the Pharisees seemed to be, and a dinner party of this scale required a larger home and money for food than the average person had at his disposal.
Hospitality is a very strong value in the Near East, with much fuss made over guests. For example, a basin would typically be provided so guests could wash the dust of the road from their feet. Scented olive oil was sometimes offered to anoint a guest's hair. And specially beloved guests would be greeted with a kiss. We see that Simon offered none of these marks of a gracious host. Such overflowing hospitality wasn't required; Simon wasn't being discourteous. The way he welcomed his guest was acceptable, but not especially warm or cordial.
No matter the warmth, Jesus accepts the dinner invitation. In vs. 34 he was criticized for dining with sinners. But he is no respecter of persons. He is willing to associate with the religious elite, as well.
A Sinful Woman Interrupts
The way homes were constructed back then is that in rich people’s homes there was a semi-public area of the house. There was a section for the public to stand on the street and look in and observe the conversation and dialogue. With all the commotion going on about Jesus, I’m sure a lot of people were looking and listening intently about what was being discussed at this dinner.
Knowing this, it is possible to see how this sinful woman enters the scene. She was probably standing in the public area and then breaks social protocol by interrupting the dinner. All we are told about this woman is that she was a woman of the city, who was a sinner. Usually, we assume this means she was a prostitute, or at least sexually promiscuous, but this may not be the case. Jesus is reclining at the table with his feet behind him. This woman comes up behind Jesus and begins washing his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair and kissing them.
What this woman was doing was socially taboo. Woman in the 1st century did not take down their hair. They kept it covered. The only time you took down your hair as a woman was in the bedroom. Washing Jesus’ feet with her hair and kissing them could be considered a sensual act. Then she anoints Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume which she has apparently brought for this very purpose. If no one had noticed her up to this point, once the perfume was opened she would have become the focus of everyone in the room.
The Heart of the Sinful Woman
What can we say about this woman? She did not know much about Jesus, but she knew that he was a friend of sinners. She might have heard him teach and his message of God’s love and forgiveness had ignited a spark of hope in her. Imagine the desperation that led this woman to do such an act of love and sacrifice that would expose her to so much ridicule? She had hit rock bottom and had nowhere else to turn. She throws herself at the feet of this rabbi showing love in the only way she knew how. This sinful woman is broken. She knows she is a sinner. Her memories haunted her. Her sin always before her. At the end of her rope, she had no one else to go to, nothing left to live for, so she throws herself at the only man she thinks she can trust. In her desperation, her shame, her guilt she falls at the feet of Jesus.
Jesus Doesn’t Stop the Woman
This woman’s actions are not the only surprising thing in this story. Jesus’ response is equally shocking and scandalous. Jesus doesn’t stop the woman, but allows her to continue groveling and weeping at his feet. Rather than kicking the woman off, rejecting her, Jesus allows her to continue to show him deeply sacrificial love.
This is what really throws off the dinner party guests. They can understand the woman barging in and doing this. She is a sinner, she doesn’t know any better, so they think. But Jesus allowing this to happen? That is unthinkable! How could a respected religious teacher and a man who claims to be a prophet allow such a thing to happen? This is the reaction of Simon, the dinner host.
We are told in verse 39 that Simon was thinking 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.” Not only is Simon disgusted by this woman who is a sinner, he is disgusted that Jesus would allow this. Simon then begins to question that Jesus is even a prophet. Men of God don’t allow this sort of thing to happen to them, so Simon thinks. However, Jesus is not just a man of God, he is God himself.
Jesus, knows Simon’s thoughts (because Jesus can do that, he is God), says, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” Simon says, “Tell me, teacher.” Jesus then tells a story of two debtors. Two men owe money. One owed 500 denarii the other 50. The lender cancels the debt of both men. Jesus looks to Simon and asks him, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answers, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
Simon answers Jesus’ question correctly. The one that was canceled the larger debt would love the lender more. Then rather than rebuking this woman, Jesus rebukes Simon.
Then he turned toward 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. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet” (Luke 7:44–46).
This sinful woman has shown more hospitality and love to Jesus than Simon did. Here Jesus begins to reveal to Simon his hardened heart. Simon didn’t really love Jesus, he was just using Jesus to increase his own reputation. Simon is far more concerned with his own prestige and reputation. Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee does not know what it means to love God, and Jesus gives us the answer why. Jesus sums up his point to Simon in verse 47:
“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Why does Simon not show extravagant love like this woman does? Why does this woman love Jesus’ so much more than Simon does? It is because Simon does not see himself as much of a sinner. As a Pharisee, he isn’t like her, he hadn’t sinned as she had. He was better than she was. He had kept the Law, he had been obedient to God. Simon does not have a need for a savior and doesn’t need forgiveness.
The Heart of a Pharisee
Think about how wretched is the heart of a Pharisee. They have blinded themselves to the depths of their own sin. Thinking they can earn God’s favor through their own obedience all the while neglecting their own hearts. They seem close to God outwardly but their hearts are desperately wicked. Like white-washed tombs clean and spotless on the outside, rotting and decaying on the inside. They are hypocrites. Self-Righteous in all their doings, obeying not out of love but to boost their own egos. They think they are sinless all the while ignoring one of the most condemnable of sins, the poison and detestableness of pride. Is Simon a little sinner? No, he is just as much of a sinner as this sinful woman, yet his own self-righteousness blinds him to the actual state of his soul.
Who Are We?
Who are we more like? Simon or the woman? I suggest that most of us, including myself, are much more like Simon. Many of us have grown up in the church attending Sunday School going to church every time the doors were open. Unfortunately for many of us our devotion has not been to Christ but to religious tradition. We struggle (at least, I hope we struggle) with feeling morally superior to everyone else who is not like us. Unfortunately for many of us our obedience has only been fuel for our self-righteousness. Rather than becoming aware of our need for Christ, we think we are so good we don’t need Jesus. Who are the Pharisees in our day? Unfortunately, they are found in churches scattered across our nation. Many of us, including myself, have a pharisaical heart.
We have become so captivated with tradition, ritual, and habit that we have ignored the world around us.
But this incident shows us that Christ came to seek and to save sinners. A woman who was considered a great sinner by her peers was forgiven by our Lord, while those who thought themselves righteous went away unforgiven. There is a strange attraction to Christ for those who will admit they are sinners, and who wish to turn from their sins. Jesus is never more approachable than He is to sinners.
In v. 50, Jesus tells the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” What was this woman’s faith? What did she believe? She believed that if she came to Jesus as a repentant sinner, he would not send her away.
If you have never come to Christ as this woman did -- come now. Come, trusting that He will receive you, that He will forgive you, that He will save. No one is more accessible to sinners than Christ. No one is more repulsive to the self-righteous than Christ. May each of us be like this woman, rather than like Simon the Pharisee.
Another lesson which we can learn from our text is to recognize the characteristics of self-righteousness as evident in the life of Simon the Pharisee. Simon was more interested in passing judgment on God than he was on God’s judgment of him. Simon felt that his home would be more righteous by keeping sinners, like this woman, out, than by inviting sinners in. Many churches feel the same way. Simon was inclined to see some sins as greater than others in the eyes of God. The grosser physical sins were unforgivable, but pride was acceptable.
Simon thought of religion as something to be preserved, protected – to build walls around; Jesus thought of true religion in terms of penetration. Simon wanted to keep sinners out, Jesus went out to sinners.
The Pharisee looked at sin something like the way we look at an communicable, incurable disease. The best course of action is to avoid all contact. But the gospel teaches that Jesus is the cure for sin. Jesus did not need to avoid sinners, He could seek them out. And we, who know the Cure, must not keep it from those who would benefit from it.
Simon and the other Pharisees of the New Testament found it difficult to be touched emotionally by those they would not touch. In all the New Testament, you will not find one incident in which a Pharisee was touched by the misery, the sin, the shame, the grief of another human being. Even though the Old Testament prophets spoke so often about mercy and compassion, I see none of it in the Pharisees in the gospel accounts. To have compassion obligates one to minister to others. To lack compassion allows one to use others for one’s own personal gain, at their expense. Jesus, who did not hesitate to touch or be touched by sinners, was constantly touched emotionally by them. May we be like him.
The painful reality is that our churches more often reflect the mood of Simon’s house than they do of Jesus himself. We ought to welcome sinners, if they acknowledge themselves as sinners, and seek to be saved from their sins. All too often however, sinners are shunned by the church more than they are sought by it.
While I was preparing this message this week, I thought of song by the group Casting Crowns – Jesus, Friend of Sinners. I think it speaks powerfully to this subject:
Jesus Friend of
sinners we have strayed so far away
But the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth's become so
hard to see
Oh, Jesus friend of sinners
May we learn from our Lord to be more like him and less like Simon.