How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
“What are we going to do with this sinner?” Everybody’s got an opinion, but only one person was ready to express his out loud. “What are we going to do with this sinner?” That was the unstated question on everybody’s mind at the dinner party we heard about in our gospel lesson. A woman like that showing up in a place like this?! And there’s Jesus in the middle of it all, doing what he seems to do quite often: hanging out with all the wrong kinds of people!
Read through the gospels and you don’t get the impression that Jesus declined an invitation to a dinner party all that often. He accepted invitations to eat with tax collectors and women of ill repute. At the same time, he eagerly RSVP’ed to dine with the Pharisees and the other religious elites of Israel. On this particular day, Jesus accepted an invitation to dine at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Luke’s gospel account tells us two things about Simon the Pharisee. First, his name was Simon. Second, that he was a Pharisee. He was a religious professional, dedicated to his life of religious obedience and observance. We don’t know what city Simon lived in. We don’t know when he invited Jesus over, how many were on the guest list, or what was on the menu. We can take a good guess as to what Simon’s motives were. It is likely that he was more interested in finding fault with Jesus than in feeding him, with questioning him rather than quenching his thirst. There is much that we don’t know about that dinner in the home of Simon the Pharisee. There is one detail, however, that Luke emphasizes - someone who wasn’t on the guest list showed up and crashed this picturesque, pristine, Pharisaic party. 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. 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.
So how about that for a dinner party? The guests we’re told about are – a Pharisee, a well-known sinner in town (most likely a tactful way of saying she was a prostitute), and this Jesus guy. Simon’s reaction to the uninvited guest is pure Pharisee. This woman is a sinner! Everybody, I mean everybody, knows it! What does she think she’s doing in my home—unasked, uninvited, and certainly unappreciated! Persona non grata, would be putting it mildly. This was disgusting. The dinner party at Simon’s house presumably had some of the other religious big-wigs in attendance, and if we know anything from the gospels about Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel was their insistence on ceremonial cleanliness. They wouldn’t touch their food without first giving their hands a ceremonial washing…and here’s this sinner clutching Jesus’ feet with her dirty sinner hands. The Pharisees fixed their eyes on the Torah, the Law of God, and wouldn’t be caught dead at an R-rated movie…and here’s this sinner crying tears from eyes that have seen things to make even the most immodest people blush. Simon must’ve been thinking, It’s bad enough that a person like this even exists out there in the world; it’s worse that she’s crashed my party; and it’s utterly unthinkable that she’s contaminating this space with her uncleanness. And what about this Jesus guy? I know he’s been performing some unexplainable miracles and saying some provocative things, but there is no way that he can be a true prophet if he can’t recognize that a walking moral train wreck is kissing his feet! Finally, Simon must’ve been thinking, “What are we going to do with this sinner?” His unstated answer is pretty clear – get rid of her!
Jesus’ reaction to the uninvited guest is pure grace. He told a parable of two people who owed debts to a moneylender, and neither of them was able to pay. One debt was ten times the size of the other debt, but again, it didn’t really matter, because neither could pony up the cash. Unexpectedly and undeservedly, the moneylender had a change of heart. He canceled the debts of both! And then came Jesus’ probing question: “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon unwittingly floundered into proving Jesus’ gracious point: “‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.” So what’s the point? The way you see Jesus has a lot to do with how you view yourself. Simon the Pharisee looked at the woman who had snuck her way into his dinner party and would’ve seen absolutely zero similarity between himself and her. He was one of the good ones, after all. She was the prostitute. He kept the Torah. She probably didn’t even know what that was. He was good. She was bad. It was as plain as day for any objective observer to see – there were absolutely zero similarities between this sinful woman and this pious looking Pharisee. But Jesus saw differently, didn’t he? Looking past the outward manifestation of sin, Jesus saw to the heart of the issue and, more importantly, to the hearts of both. There was one striking similarity between this woman and this Pharisee. Both the woman and Simon had a debt of sin before a holy God that neither of them could hope to pay. One realized this, repented of her sins, and was overcome with gratitude at the undeserved love of God that could wipe away a debt like hers; the other refused this, thought his bill wasn’t so high, and therefore had no reason to shower the Son of God with gratitude.
The way you see Jesus has a lot to do with how you view yourself. In this motley crew of a dinner party, where do I see myself? Am I the Pharisee or the prostitute? The Simon or the sinner? Am I the proud and pious Pharisee, bottling up judgment at the head of the table, or am I the penitent prostitute pouring out tears of thanks on Jesus’ feet? The truth is I’m both. At one and the same time, I see my sin – you remember what you confessed at the beginning of the service – and immediately I want to start comparing my debt with someone else’s. I can say it and mean it – I confess that I am by nature sinful, and that I have sinned against you in my thoughts, words, and actions…but not as much as she has. Or again, I deserve only your wrath and punishment…but maybe I deserve it just a little bit less than those who couldn’t be bothered to show up to church today! What’s my reaction when the ugliness of the world’s sin stumbles onto my doorstep or, perish the thought, shows up when I look in the mirror? The way you see Jesus has a lot to do with how you view yourself. When the law of God is proclaimed, do I nod my head in sanctified silence and think, Man, if only these people would shape up a little and start to look more like, well, me! Or do I hear the demands of a holy God and stand in the corner and beat my chest. I can’t lift my eyes, and I can’t even open my mouth to make an excuse, but only let my tears do the talking? The mind races, but the mouth is mute. I know that I deserve only God’s wrath and punishment. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!
Then [Jesus] 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. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. “What are we going to do with this sinner?” Well, it depends whom you ask. The smug and self-righteous will cry, “Get rid of her!” But the Son of God has a different answer. Other than her gender, we’re told only one thing about her. She was a sinner, and she realized it. But then Jesus shows up, and what does he have to say about this woman? She wore her repentant heart on her sleeve. Her tears welled up in thanksgiving for the mercy that Jesus gave. Her tears, her hair, her kisses, her perfume, all a thank-offering for the forgiveness that Jesus freely gave her. And then, to make publicly known what had been so abundantly clear to this woman, Jesus just came out and said it, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And the reaction? Pure shock! The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus, don’t you know what you’re supposed to do with a sinner? You’re supposed to look down your nose; you’re supposed to cast sideways glances if they dare to come too close; you’re supposed to go and wash your hands after they shake your hand. “What are we going to do with this sinner?” How does God answer that question? Knowing what we do about the sins of sinners (from experience) and knowing what God has told us about the holiness of a holy God, the answer seems predictable. What should God do with these sinners called humans? Squash them with perfect justice and send them forever to the hell they deserve. But that’s not how God responded, is it? “What are we going to do with these sinners called humans?” What does God have to say? Go forth, my Son. Take their place under my law. Take their sins and un-sin them. Give your perfect life for their sinful lives. Love them. Die for them and rise again. Take their lives of shame and leave them with only my forgiveness. In Christ, this is what God does with repentant sinners – to those who have a debt (whether comparatively bigger or smaller doesn’t matter), they have a debt they cannot hope to pay, and God declares that debt paid in full in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. This same Jesus who spoke the word of Absolution to that sinful woman is the same Jesus who comes to you today through the promise of the gospel spoken into your ears and planted in your hearts. You heard his words before, didn’t you? I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, your sins don’t exist. Jesus has taken your sin away from you, and since Jesus has taken your sin away from you, you don’t have it anymore. The Son of God himself proclaims from the cross, “It is finished.” In others words, “Those sins that weigh you down with shame from your past, shackle you with guilt in the present, and cause you fear for the future, well, those sins are mine now, you can’t have them back.” What an absurd thing! Who could believe it?! Except God has promised it!
This woman believed it. By God’s grace, the message of repentance and forgiveness Jesus preached had worked on her. So there she was, ready to crack open the jar of perfume and lovingly serve the one who had so lavishly saved her. She left the street corner and rejoiced to sit at her Savior’s feet. Jesus’ forgiveness had changed her life. Her many sins had been forgiven, so she loved much. Our many sins have been forgiven in Christ, and the love he has freely shown to us compels us. Jesus’ love and forgiveness have changed our lives. Now our faith which has received this unfathomable gift itches to express itself through love. Do you see how this happens? The human sees a church building and an offering plate – a place everyone will tell you just wants your time and your money. The Christian sees it as a special place to meet with a God who makes me a promise and keeps it in Christ; and affords me the unique opportunity to be generous in sharing that good news with others. The human sees the person next to him as a drain on his time and resources. The Christian sees this person as my neighbor and the sole object of my loving service. The human looks at something as taxing and tiring as early childhood education as, at best, a community service, and at worst, a profit hungry business. The Christian looks at this and sees an opportunity for little lambs to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd. Jesus’ forgiveness changes absolutely everything. It changes our status before God from condemned sinner to forgiven saint. Jesus’ forgiveness changes the way I see the world around me – not as a turnip from which I’m trying to squeeze a drop of blood, but into a planet-earth sized arena for love and service to those who need to know that the blood of Jesus has paid for their sins, too.
What are we going to do with this sinner? Well, that all depends whom you ask. The Pharisees have an idea. The sinners have a dream. But only the Son of God has a promise. In Christ, God’s answer to that question is clear. What are we going to do with these repentant sinners? Forgive them. Set them free. Turn them loose into the world to love much because they have been forgiven fully. That’s what we’re going to do!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen
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