Sermon preached on Luke 7:36-50 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/28/2021 in Novato, CA.
We come today to as passage that is a memorable, remarkable, even startling, display of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. And Jesus gives this short but fitting parable to help interpret this whole interchange between Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, and this sinner of a woman. In this parable, Jesus envisions a moneylender who cancels the debts of two people who couldn’t pay their bills. One owed fifty denarii but the other five hundred. A denarii was approximately a day’s wage back then, so both debts were significant, but one far worse. Jesus teaches that the one who had a much bigger debt forgiven will naturally be more full of love toward the lender. Jesus speaks here of the gratitude and appreciation one person has for another who shows them such kindness and mercy. This parable then teaches something about all the parties in this passage.
Let us then begin by considering who is this sinner of a woman. That’s how she is described in verse 37. Jesus is the guest of this Simon the Pharisee. Jesus is there reclining at the table which was a common posture in such a setting. And herein enters this woman described as a sinner and she proceeds to anoint Jesus and shower him in acts of love. Let us begin in thinking about this woman by saying that we should resist the proposal of some to identify her as Mary of Bethany. That’s the Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We find, for example, her mentioned by name as anointing Jesus with oil in John 12. There are two similar accounts in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. While Mary of Bethany is not mentioned by name in those Matthew and Mark accounts, they are so similar, and can be more easily harmonized, and so likely are all the same event. Taking those three passages together, apart from today’s passage, there, we see Jesus anointed by Mary at Simon the leper’s house in Bethany. Judas Iscariot then complains that such expensive ointment should have been sold and given to the poor instead of wasting it on Jesus. Jesus then defends and commends Mary’s action. So then, there have been some who have claimed our passage for today is another parallel account to that. However, while there are some similarities, the differences suggest this is a different occasion. Yes, the host’s home in both accounts was named Simon – yet that was such a common name. Yes, there was an alabaster jar of ointment – but if you were going to store ointment for anointing, an alabaster jar would have been common enough. Mary’s anointing was at Bethany in Judea, the context here suggests our passage’s anointing happened in Galilee. The three accounts for Mary of Bethany all deal with the very different concern about the ointment being wasted, versus our passage showing this hostile Simon being concerned about an unclean sinner touching Jesus. That’s not a concern you’d expect him to have if he himself was also a leper. In Mary’s accounts, she doesn’t seem to be an uninvited guest. And everything we know about Mary of Bethany speaks of high character, in contrast to this passage’s sinner of a woman. So, there is seems there is a much stronger case to be made against seeing this passage as a parallel of Mary of Bethany’s anointing.
So then, we should also say that that there is not sufficient evidence to identify this sinner of a woman with Mary Magdalene. While Mary Magdalene has also been proposed as the identity of this sinful woman, and while acknowledging that she is mentioned in the very next chapter, there is absolutely no textual reason to draw that conclusion.
So then, we are left with this woman being an otherwise unknown person to us, with no parallel passage to give us further information. So then, we will deal with her as we read here. It seems clear that she was an uninvited guest, though that she came over uninvited in this setting might not be as culturally strange as it would seem today. But what was more out of place was that she, a so-called sinner, would could to the home and table of this apparently distinguished Pharisee’s home. And then that she as some unclean sinner would come and so touch Jesus like this, was apparently shocking to the sensibilities of this Simon the Pharisee. You see, for her to be described as a sinner, she would have been someone who had lived in some sort of publicly notorious sin. In this case, it’s typically assumed she had been living as a prostitute.
So then what do else do we learn about this woman here? We learn that she found mercy from God and forgiveness of her many sins in Jesus Christ. That’s what Jesus’ parable explains. She is likened to the person who was forgiven of larger monetary debt and has great love and gratitude for her forgiver.
Put yourself in her shoes. She is this notorious sinner. She is aware of her sin. And she is somehow aware of Jesus and his message of mercy for sinners. And so, she makes this bold move to come over uninvited like this when she learns Jesus will be there. Imagine how scared she probably was doing this, knowing how people will think of her like they do. Imagine as she came there before Jesus how much shame and sorrow she had over being such a sinner. No, see it. You can see it here. All her tears. I’m sure her plan wasn’t, “I’m going to go see Jesus so I can cry all over him.” No, she came to show love and gratitude by anointing him with this ointment. But she gets there and surely just burst into tears all over his feet and ends up wiping them up with her hair, probably in embarrassment. And notice even that in humility she anoints not Jesus’s head but his feet. All of her actions toward Jesus show this wonderful mixture of emotions. In repentance, she comes in her humility and sorrow and shame for her sin. And in the joy of knowing mercy and forgiveness, she shows such love in gratitude towards Jesus her savior.
At this point, I’d like to address one other possible misunderstanding here. We see that Jesus pronounces her forgiveness of sins to her after she shows such love to Jesus. On a superficial reading, you might mistakenly think that her act of love in anointing Jesus somehow caused Jesus to forgive her. But that would be to miss the whole point that Jesus makes here. Jesus’ parable makes it absolutely clear that her acts of love were gratitude for being forgiven, not in order to be forgiven. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t offer forgiveness through some works we do but offers forgiveness as a free gift through faith in Jesus. In fact, Jesus commends her faith when he declares that she is forgiven, verse 47. How then does that relate to the timing that exists in this passage? There are various ways to harmonize this if we start with Jesus’ point that her actions were love prompted by forgiveness. Maybe she had already been hearing Jesus’ preaching and teaching and had previously come to believe that she had found forgiveness by his name. Or maybe what is more likely is that her acts of love here were done in advance of her being officially granted forgiveness by Jesus, because in faith she trusted that Jesus would indeed forgive her as he came to her. So, however, the details worked out for this woman, Jesus says that it’s his forgiveness of her many sins that prompted her response of love in this anointing of him.
Let us now turn to ask who is this Simon the Pharisee? In the New Testament, Pharisees generally are stereotyped as thinking very highly of their own keeping of the law in comparison to others who didn’t measure up so well in their judgment. They stereotypically looked down on those whom they labeled “sinners and tax collectors” as well as the unclean Gentile heathens. This Simon the Pharisee seems to match the stereotype well. He clearly looks down on this sinner of a woman in typical Pharisaical fashion. His thoughts in verse 39 shows that he puts her in a category of sinner that he surely doesn’t put himself. He also then uses the occasion to look down upon Jesus in his heart, saying that Jesus must not be a prophet because he must not know that this woman is such a sinner, otherwise he wouldn’t be letting her touch him like this. Apparently, he thought true prophets must look down on sinners like the Pharisees did.
Yet, Jesus would typically confront the Pharisees that they were not nearly as righteous as they thought they were. While they had a certain measure of external and formal adherence to the law, their full and complete obedience from the heart was far from perfect. It’s like Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, that we need a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, Matthew 5:20. And we see Jesus confront Simon in such a way here too. By the way, notice how Jesus goes about confronting him. Simon had thought in his heart, not said out loud, that Jesus must not be a real prophet. His thinking was that there was some important information about this woman that Jesus didn’t know, and surely prophets are supposed to have special knowledge. Well, Jesus shows his special knowledge when he shows that he knows what Simon has been thinking!
So then, Jesus confronts Simon’s flawed attitude in his parable. The most damning point might be one that Jesus only barely draws out. In explaining the parable, he clearly applies the two forgiven debtors to Simon and the woman, with the woman being the one with the larger debt forgiven. But you see, that means Jesus has just called Simon a sinner too. Simon didn’t want to think of himself a sinner. Yes, Jesus acknowledges how many this women’s sins have been in comparison. Yet, like how the lessor debtor still had a significant debt, so too was Simon a sinner with a significant debt of sin, even if less in comparison to the woman. And remember what the parable said about these two debtors. Neither could pay off the debt. Remember that other somewhat similar parable Jesus gave in Matthew 18 about the unmerciful servant. When he wouldn’t forgive someone who owed him a debt, the person he owed a much larger debt to had him thrown in prison until he could pay off the debt. Well, apply that penal approach to this parable. Yes, the two debtors in this parable have wildly different amounts they owe. But if neither could pay and in fact never could pay it off, then they could both just end up in prison the rest of their lives. Simon’s sins were not as many as this woman’s but he was a sinner and he would never be able pay off the debt that his sin has incurred. Jesus doesn’t dwell on that much but it is very much an important point implied here. Who is this Simon? He is not only the Pharisee that looks down on sinners. He is also a sinner himself who is in need of God’s forgiveness.
But Jesus continues to confront Simon by comparing him with the woman in terms of her love for Jesus that comes from her gratitude. In verse 42, Jesus gets Simon, seemingly grudgingly, to acknowledge that the one in the parable who was forgiven of the larger debt would love the moneylender more. Jesus then shows it was the sinful women who demonstrates this, specifically in contrast to Simon. Jesus describes her actions towards him in terms of hospitality, something that Simon himself as the host should have shown. Jesus even points this out when in verse 44 when Jesus points out to Simon that he had come into Simon’s house. Jesus then goes on to compare his lacking acts of customary hospitality in his own home versus her beyond the norm acts of hospitality when it wasn’t even her home.
Simon hadn’t provided any water for Jesus’ feet to be washed, a very common act of hospitality given that people’s feet in their sandals would get very dirty when walking about the dusty roads and so it was customary to provide for your guests feet washing in some capacity. Often it was a servant of the host or maybe the wife of the host who would wash the guest’s feet, yet Simon not only didn’t provide for that, but he didn’t even provide any water so Jesus could have at least washed his own feet. Jesus contrasts this with this sinner of a woman who effectively washed his feet with her tears and hair – obviously an act of great humility on her part. Simon also hadn’t greeted him with a kiss, which was a common gesture of welcome, whereas she hadn’t stopped kissing him. And she had been kissing him on the feet, versus on the cheek or forehead which would have been more customary – her kissing of his feet was her humbling herself before Jesus. Lastly, Jesus points out that Simon hadn’t anointed him with oil. Yes, anointing with oil is sometimes a religious act, but that’s not what Jesus has in mind here. Anointing a guest with oil was a widespread feature of hospitality throughout the area as a way to honor your guest. Often these oils would be scented too and used almost like a perfume. It was sort of a way to help the guest “freshen up” after their travels and as they now come into your home. And so, this sinner of a woman again not only anointed Jesus with oil, but anointed his feet, which again shows her posture of humility before Jesus which at the same time honors Jesus above herself.
So then, Jesus shows how this woman went above and beyond normal hospitality when it wouldn’t even have been her duty, whereas Simon failed to show even normal hospitality when it was his duty. Understand that in their culture, hospitality was a very important thing, even ethically. Understand that in the Bible, hospitality, is a commanded thing. Cultural details of how hospitality is commonly expressed aside, the Bible commands us to be people that show hospitality, to show love and reception and welcome to guests. Jesus says that for this woman, her prodigious hospitality shows how she’s been forgiven of her so many sins. That’s why her love has been so great for Jesus. But Jesus’ is again silent on a point of comparison when it comes back to Simon. Has Simon’s sins, which are less in comparison, been forgiven? No assurance of such is given to Simon by Jesus. Given how he failed even to show lesser degrees of love, it seems implied that he has not yet known the forgiveness of his sins. We do not see Simon having any gratitude for Jesus in terms of his sins being forgiven, for surely Simon didn’t think he needed such forgiveness. Yet, surely his sins of omission in the hospitality category are just further debts he has just accrued. Who is this Simon here in this passage? A sinner who has contempt for the one on whom he should actually look to in faith for the forgiveness of his sins.
Who is that one on whom he should look to in faith? That’s the conclusion we need to come to after studying this passage. It’s how this passage ends in verse 49. Jesus declares that this women’s sins are forgiven, and that sets everyone there in awe and wonder. They ask, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man, has the authority to forgive sins. This is not the first time that Luke has drawn this truth to our attention. Back in chapter 5, Luke recorded how Jesus proved such authority in his healing of a paralytic. Jesus claims again such authority to forgive sins. When he does this, he applies the parable to himself as well. He’s akin to the moneylender who mercifully cancels debts, big and small.
Realize, this is the question our passage is raising. Who is this Jesus? We said its how the passage ends, with the people there asking that question, without really having a full answer. It was the question in Simon’s mind, who despite outwardly calling Jesus a teacher in verse 40, actually in his heart didn’t believe Jesus to be even a prophet (verse 39), let alone anything more than that. It was the right answer to this question that this woman believed, that she had a great debt to Jesus that he forgave. And it is this question that we each must know the answer to if we are to be forgiven by God of all our sins. We must know and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. And that also means then that we must acknowledge that we are a sinner who needs such forgiveness.
So then, I give you three closing applications today. The first one is to realize that you are a sinner. May we never look down on others and think that they are sinners and we aren’t. Even if some people are so called worse sinners than we are, we ourselves still have a debt to pay to God that we can’t repay. We are all sinners who need forgiveness, and that is found only in the name of Jesus who died on the cross so he could cancel the debt of sin to whomever comes to him in faith.
The second application is that if you have come to Jesus in faith, then he declares to you what he declared to this woman. Your sins are forgiven. That was a blessing for her to receive, in all her sorrows and shame to know that she has found mercy and grace and love in Jesus. This is what you have found if you have put your faith in Jesus. It’s why this is declared to you each week during worship because we need to be reminded of. Jesus tells his people again today, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The third application is let us love Jesus much for Jesus has forgiven us much. Yes, Jesus is not here in front of us for us to shower with love the way this woman did. But we can certainly still show our love for Jesus. Let us be thoughtful and intentional in finding ways to express our love for our Lord who has love us so much to give his life for us. We are debtors to his mercy, and are so thankful for our Lord’s love. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.