Luke 7:36-50 (NRSV)
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Let's say that you are invited to dinner at my house and as we are sitting around making small talk the doorbell rings and it is the biggest crook in Lake County --- they are notorious for flaunting their sins.
· How do you react when they walk into the room?
· Do you wish to confront them or to leave them to somebody else?
Think about this for a second ----
Is their sinfulness so much an issue that you cannot even see the person?
In an account that is somewhat unique to Luke, a sinful woman visits Jesus while at the gathering she anoints Jesus.
She is not recorded saying anything ---- but her actions speak a thousand words.
Everyone at the dinner seemed to be bothered by what the woman does.
Luke tells us that during a meal at the home of a Pharisee, a well-known sinful woman enters and seeks out Jesus to anoint his feet.
Nowhere are we told what her sin was.
Traditionally she has been called a prostitute, but the text is not so specific.
Unfortunately for Mary Magdalene --- Pope Gregory in a sermon in the sixth century, decided to link the sinner (and assumed prostitute) with Mary --- a reputation she has had a hard time overcoming.
But it is not likely to be Mary Magdalene, who is introduced as a new figure in the following story in 8:1-3.
Luke 8:1-3 (NRSV)
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.
Whatever this woman's sin, her reputation precedes her.
For us reading the story today it seems odd that she was able to "crash the party" and find Jesus.
But in the Judea in the First Century it was common to allow people to come and stand quietly and listen when a respected teaching or other important person was present.
Nobody is surprised that she is there.
What surprises them is that she had the temerity to go to Jesus and maybe even more significantly --- that Jesus has allowed it.
As long as the riff - raff stayed back and out of the way --- it was not a breach of etiquette.
But when she approaches Jesus --- all kinds of alarms would have gone off.
Jesus, since he was at a meal, would have been reclining in the Roman style.
Lying with their heads at the low tables and their feet out --- the guests would have formed a pattern like a big star.
Luke tells us some interesting things that most of us would not recognize.
Luke tells us that she went to great sacrifice to perform this act on Jesus.
She brought with her costly perfume in an alabaster jar.
He doesn't tell us what kind of perfume it was ---
(but if it was nard --- a pound of nard cost the average persons' annual wage)
This kind of perfume was used to purify priest or prepare someone for burial
Approaching a reclining Jesus, she anoints his feet as tears of joy and appreciation pour out upon him.
Luke makes mention that she uses her hair to dry Jesus feet.
The undoing of her hair is culturally shocking.
Her kissing of Jesus' feet also expresses an intimacy shunned in this culture.
Everything about her action is offensive.
Imagine the nerve of the woman, who surely realizes how others are viewing her.
The strength of her love has caused her to be bold in expressing appreciation to Jesus.
But Jesus does not appear to be offended.
The Pharisee --- the host of this party --- reacts first, and what does he do??
He quickly blames Jesus.
The woman's contact with Jesus is outrageous and intolerable.
He seems to be 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.
It is clear in the way the Greek is written that the Pharisee does not believe that Jesus is a prophet.
The Pharisee is operating with the cultural view of his time that pious people (like a prophet) would never have anything to do with a sinner.
If a prophet wanted to keep pure --- they kept away from dirty, sinful people.
Jesus, as he often did, when he wanted to rebuke somebody and make a point told a story.
The story he tells is pretty simple ----
There are these two guys who owe quite a bit of money. One has a debt ten times that of the other.
Using the analogy Jesus used ----
One man owed about two months worth of salary
The other owed about 20 months or 2 1/2 years worth of salary
The person who was owed the money decided to forgive BOTH people.
Jesus asks: Which one is going to love him more?
The emotion of the story is crucial.
Jesus is saying, in effect --- Imagine the appreciation and love that flow from the one who has been forgiven a great debt.
Jesus is comparing the forgiveness of sins to economic forgiveness.
The implication is that these people who owe the money have no bargaining position.
The only way the debt is being forgive is by grace and grace alone
So Jesus asks: Which one is going to love him more?
You got to love the Pharisees answer since it was so obvious.
“I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Jesus point is pretty obvious and is the heart of Jesus' relational ethic
great forgiveness provides the opportunity for great love.
Unlike the Pharisee who can only dwell on the "tainted" womans sinful past --- Jesus prefers to see the potential that love and forgiveness posses for changing a persons heart.
When God forgives a notorious sinner for much sin, the realization of such bountiful forgiveness means the potential for great love.
To understand Jesus' point --- the story he told and the comments he made need to be looked at together.
According to the parable --- the basis of love is a previously extended forgiveness that produces a response of love.
Jesus indicates that the woman's actions are a reflection of his forgiveness of her.
But there is also a warning to the Pharisee (and us?) when we see ourselves as "little sinners".
Jesus seems to be saying:
Your love may not be great because you have not appreciated the depth of forgiveness that God has made available to you.
Simon seemed to know everything about religion
the torah (the law)
He knew all about the things of God but somehow he seemed to miss the essence of it --- which our sinful woman in the story seemed to understand completely.
She knew how sinful she was!
Simon's problem was that he thought he was better than he was and he misunderstood the nature of a God who is the giver of unconditional love!
That is the essence --- that is the heart --- that is the core of the Gospel.
Agape --- the Greek word for the unconditional --- undeserved --- complete love of God.
Our love is always to some extent conditional.
God goes first and loves us first --- and God's love is not dependent on our response --- it is unconditional for us.
Through Jesus, God is saying that he loves us just the way we are RIGHT NOW.
There is NOTHING you can do that will make God love you more that God does right now!
What God offers, is if we accept God's love --- then God will work with us to transform us from the inside out to become what God dreamed for us to be.
But, IF WE CHOOSE NOT TO ACCEPT GOD'S LOVE --- God still won't leave us.
God will keep the door open and the light on and God's love will NEVER END.
Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern College, tells the story of his visit to Honolulu for a Christian Conference.
On his first night there, he awoke sometime after three (a six hour time difference had confused his sleep pattern) and left the hotel in search of a place to get something to eat. Eventually he found a tiny coffee shop.
He walked in and sat down. Here is his description of the events:
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, "What do you want?"
I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door suddenly opened, swung wide and to my discomfort in marched 8 or 9 provocative and rather boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me.
Their talk was garrulous, loud and crude. I felt completely out of place. I was just about to make my getaway when I heard the woman sitting next to me say,
"You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I'm going to be 39."
Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone, "So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want?
Do you want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"
Come on," the women sitting next to me said, "why do you have to be so mean? I'm just telling you that's all.
Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you that it is my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"
Tony Campolo goes on; "When I heard that," he said, "I made a decision. I sat and waited until the woman left and then I called over to the counter to the fat guy and asked him, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me", I asked, "does she come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?"
"Because," I replied, "I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say we do something special for her? What do you think about throwing a birthday party for her, right here in the diner?"
A cute kind of smile crept over that fat man's chubby cheeks. He answered with measured delight,
"That's a great idea. I like it. That's great. Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind. I don't think anybody has ever done anything nice and kind for her."
"Well, look" I told him, "if it is OK with you, I'll be back here tomorrow morning at 2:30. I'll decorate the place. I'll even get a birthday cake for her."
"No way," he retorted, "the birthday cake, that's my thing. I'll bake the birthday cake."
Two-thirty the next morning, Tony Campolo reports, I was back at that diner. I picked up some crepe paper and other decorations at the store, and made a sign of big pieces of cardboard that read, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!"
I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had that diner really looking great. The word must have gotten out on the street because by 3:15 that next morning every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place.
There was wall-to-wall prostitutes - and me.
At 3:30 on the dot the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready; after all, I was sort of the informal master of ceremonies of this whole affair. It was my idea, so when they came in we all jumped up and screamed and we sang, "Happy birthday, Agnes!"
And you know, I've never seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, her friend had to offer her arm to steady her, and I noticed she had started to cry.
When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she just lost it. She started sobbing.
Harry, the fat guy, behind the counter he gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes, blow out the candles."
Then he handed her a knife, and he ordered, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake."
Agnes looked down at that cake, and then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said,
"Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I, I mean, if I don't, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"
Harry shrugged and answered, "Sure, Agnes, that's fine, you want to keep the cake, keep the cake, take it home if you want."
"Oh, could I?" she asked.
Looking at me she said, "I live just down the street a couple doors; I want to take the cake home, is that OK? I'll be right back, honest."
She got off her stool, she picked up that cake, and she carried it out of that diner like it was the Holy Grail. She walked slowly toward the door, and we all stood there just speechless.
When the door closed behind her, there was stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying,
"What do you say we pray together?"
Looking back on it now, it seems more than a little strange that a sociologist from eastern PA would be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.
And when I finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice he said,
"Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?"
In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."
Harry thought a moment, and then almost sneered as he answered, "No you don't; there is no church like that.
In fact," he concluded, "if there was, I'd join it."
Our story ends this morning with Simon the Pharisee perplexed --- he cannot imagine a God who forgives unconditionally --- can you?