Creative Commons image by Go Ask Alice, on flickr
Dear Working Preacher,
I’ll just come out and say it: this is one of my absolute favorite stories in Luke’s Gospel – heck, in the whole New Testament. In order to get at why, I thought I’d explore the story in four moves. You might find a sermon in the sweep of the larger narrative or in any one of the parts. But no matter what you may decide to do in the pulpit this Sunday, I hope you come to love this story as well.
Setting the Scene
Let’s start by setting the scene: We are at a dinner thrown by a Pharisee, whose guests are likely as prominent in the community as he is. And at the center of this meal is Jesus, the young prophet about whom everyone is talking. Expectations, no doubt, are high. For this is more than simply a dinner; it is, in a sense, a salon, a gathering of the respected and respectable to discuss important matters.
And into this gathering comes this woman. Except she doesn’t just come into the gathering. She interrupts it. First by her mere presence. She is, as the narrative discloses, a sinner. We don’t know the precise nature of her sin. Given that “sinner” is used variously in Luke’s gospel – including when Peter says to Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish, “I am a sinner” (5:8) – let’s not, as Jeanine Brown reminds us, assume she’s a prostitute, as if that’s the only sin of which a first-century woman is capable. Instead, let us assume that whatever she has done, others – including this Pharisee – know about it.
But the disturbance she causes soon escalates from her mere presence to her behavior. For she lavishes attention upon Jesus, the guest of honor. She stands behind him weeping, and proceeds to clean his feet, washing them with her tears, drying them with her hair, finally applying ointment she has brought.
Boldness? More like outrageous audacity. The question isn’t whether people will say something, but what they will say. How does she think she can get away with this? What prompts such audacity? What causes her to offer such a public display of devotion?
The Crux of the Story, pt. 1
Jesus, apparently, has no doubt about what has prompted her display of extravagant hospitality and extreme devotion. To share his knowledge with the others, he asks Simon a brief question that takes the form of a short story or parable.
Who do you think would be more grateful, Jesus asks, a man whose debt of five hundred denarii was cancelled or the one forgiven fifty? A denarii was the value of about a day’s wages for labor, but for the point of this short parable that’s almost beside the point. All that’s required here is a basic understanding of math, as the first man is forgiven ten times the debt that the other is.
Simon knows how to count, and so answers that he supposes (“supposes”? – really, Simon, you only suppose?) it would be the man for whom the greater debt was cancelled.
The obvious analogy is to the woman who has been bathing his feet with tears. She apparently has been forgiven much, perhaps ten times what others have been forgiven. Which explains why she is devoting herself to Jesus, weeping as she does. She is overcome by gratitude, the kind of gratitude understood only by someone who has been given everything.
But is forgiveness really everything? Can it possibly be worth that much? Consider: forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.
So, yes, forgiveness is everything.
After his exchange with Simon, Jesus turns and addresses the woman directly, saying that, “your sins are forgiven.” I think we typically take such pronouncements in a present-tense kind of way, assuming that Jesus is offering forgiveness right in that moment, as a response to the woman’s devotion and, perhaps, supplication.
But in this case I don’t think that’s how it played out. I think Jesus had already met this woman, already forgiven her sins, and that she is now demonstrating her extreme gratitude, unable to hold back, unaware or uncaring of the surprise and stares and even disapproval of everyone else.
And, just to make sure she realizes that this new reality that has broken her heart with its beauty is real, Jesus says again, “your sins are forgiven.” Some things, you see, are so good it’s hard to believe they’re true. And so Jesus repeats the words of forgiveness that they may sink deep into her broken and reborn heart.
The Crux of the Story, Pt. 2
So this story is about forgiveness. And it’s about the gratitude that forgiveness creates. And it’s about the extravagant acts of love and devotion that gratitude prompts.
But it’s also about something else: it’s about hardness of heart as opposed to love, about judgment instead of forgiveness, and about a sense of entitlement instead of gratitude.
Notice that telling this short parable would have been enough. The parable explains why the woman is acting as she is: she is like one who has had five hundred denarii -- well over a year’s wages -- forgiven her. That would have been enough, but Jesus doesn’t stop there.
Instead, he compares her actions of extravagant hospitality with that of Simon’s. He changes his focus, that is, from her devotion to Simon’s neglect. It’s not that Simon would have been expected to wash Jesus feet with his tears. It’s that her extravagance only magnifies Simon’s utter lack of hospitality, not providing even the minimum of what a good host would normally offer a guest.
Why this change of focus? Because the truth Jesus points to cuts both ways. It’s not only that one who has been forgiven much loves much from gratitude, it’s that the one who is forgiven little loves little.
Which is interesting. You might have expected Jesus to continue the line of the conversation at this point by moving to an accusation or even threat: Watch out, Simon, because the one who loves little is forgiven little. But rather than render judgment, Jesus instead simply offers a description: Those who have been forgiven little love very little.
Or is it less that they have not been forgiven, but don’t notice it. Perhaps don’t even think they need it. Who knows – perhaps they even disdain forgiveness as something for others, for those like this woman who is clearly a sinner, clearly beneath them, and so clearly in need of forgiveness. But them? Need forgiveness? Hardly!
And so it goes. If we cannot admit our need, we cannot receive the remedy for our lack, will not experience the gratitude of those who have received, as we said before, everything, and so are unable to love with abandon.
This certainly seems to be Simon’s situation. He has invited Jesus over but shows him no hospitality – which makes one wonder whether he invited Jesus sincerely or more for sport. And rather than be taken aback by the woman’s show of love, he judges both her and Jesus. He is a man who has no sense of being forgiven – even of needing forgiveness – and so is trapped in a judgmental hardness of heart.
This story, then, tells both halves of the truth: the joyful truth that those who recognize their need receive their heart’s desire and live out of gratitude and love, and the tragic truth that those who believe themselves righteous or sufficient on their own never know the joy of receiving and so pursue truncated lives absent genuine gratitude or love.
Part joyful, part tragic, this whole story functions something as a parable for the peculiar but life-changing logic of the kingdom of God.
The Climax, but not the Conclusion
In some ways, I think this brief but powerful story is a microcosm of the larger gospel, as it explains, I believe, why Jesus was killed.
I mean, when you think about it, Jesus’ death is something of a puzzle. Up to this point, pretty much all Jesus does is preach and teach and heal and feed (well, I guess that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s coming). Which makes you wonder. Why would anyone want to get rid of a guy like that?
Until, that is, you get to a story like this. A story, that is, where Jesus forgives sin.
What’s so bad about forgiveness, you may be wondering.
Nothing … as long as you believe you need it.
There are two main characters in this story. To one, forgiveness is sheer blessing, something so beautiful and so important it breaks her heart and all she can do is express her gratitude.
Why? Because she knows she needs it.
The other character, Simon, is pretty sure he doesn’t need forgiveness. He is righteous. Obeys the law. Does what he should. And so not only does he not need forgiveness but the very mention of it is threatening, offensive.
Notice that after Jesus has assured this woman of her forgiveness, the crowds react in shock. “Who is this who forgives sin?” they ask, answering, perhaps, that no one other than God forgives sin.
In this scene, then, Jesus claims to forgive sin -- he asserts divine authority to set people who are bound by their past free. And those who know themselves to be captive rejoice, while those who labor under the belief that they are already free can only be offended.
And over time that offense will turn to anger and that anger to violence.
Forgiveness, it turns out, is one powerful word.
The Ongoing Story
It’s a great story, isn’t it. And here’s the thing. It’s not over.
I mean, it’s one thing to explore the narrative contours and dynamic, but it’s another to recognize that this story is being played out even as we read it. Because here’s the thing: most of us, while we’re reading, pick up pretty quickly that Simon is the bad guy here, the one who is judgmental and isn’t really into Jesus’ forgiveness. And so, quite naturally, we find ourselves judging Simon. And then, all of a sudden -- BAM -- we realize we are Simon, with the same penchant to go searching for the splinters in our neighbor’s eye rather than pull out the plank in our own.
And once that happens, we have to decide. I mean, up to this point, there’s not a lot we can do: we are who we are -- sinners … like this woman … and like Simon. But once that sin has been revealed yet again, then the choice is before us: rejoice or resent. Embrace our identity as sinners and as those beloved by God and forgiven all things, or reject our failings and with it God’s tender embrace. Which will it be.
That’s why I love this story so much, Working Preacher. It tells a parable … and it is a parable, drawing us into the heartbreaking two-fold truth of the gospel, that Jesus comes to forgive sin and that’s only good news to those who recognize their need and want it.
That’s why we preach, Working Preacher, not just to talk about grace, but to usher people into it, not just to mention forgiveness, but to extend it, not just to describe Jesus, but to invite people to know him … and through him to know the God who sent him. It’s not easy work, but it’s good work, and I’m grateful that you’ve given yourself over to it.
Blessings to you this week and always.
Yours in Christ,
PS: I think 8:1-3 are important as well and deserve their own Sunday. But since we don’t get that, if you want to preach on those verses, I’ve written a bit on them on my blog and would also direct you to Sarah Henrich’s commentary of three years ago or our Sermon Brainwave podcast this week.