The Religion of Love


Luke 7:36-50

Text Comment

v.36     We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that not all the Pharisees were overtly hostile to the Lord. In fact to the very end there would be a few who would be among his followers. At this point some were still curious if not positively drawn to him on account of his teaching and his miracles. And the Lord was always willing to respond to invitations from those who might be thought his enemies.

v.37     As you might imagine, there has been through the ages all manner of speculation about this woman’s identity. Many have thought she was Mary Magdalene. But the text doesn’t say and we don’t know. To call such a woman “a sinner” probably means she was a prostitute. And the fact that Simon knew who she was his was not a large town after all – indicates that she had, as we say, “a reputation.” She had obviously had some previous contact with Jesus – whether personal contact or simply as a member of the crowds that heard his teaching – and she obviously felt she owed some great debt to him. Had he healed her or one of her loved ones or had his teaching liberated her and set her conscience free? As we will see, forgiveness of sins seems to have been for her the great gift he had given her.

            Don’t think of “ointment” as some application with healing properties. This was liquid perfume, contained in a globe fitted with a long neck that was broken off when the contents were needed. [Morris, 166]

v.38     As you remember, formal meals were taken with the host and guests reclining on low couches, leaning on the left arm, with the head toward the table and the body stretched out away from it. Sandals were removed beforehand, so the Lord’s feet were accessible to her.

            The description of her behavior is meant to indicate that she was utterly oblivious to decorum or to anyone else in the room. Jewish women did not unbind their hair in public, much less use it as a towel in front of other people. Kissing feet was not unheard of, but it was hardly common.

v.39     Now we know why the Pharisee was so interested in having Jesus in his home. He thought he might be a prophet of God, which, we have learned earlier in the chapter (7:16), is what many were saying he was. After all, he had done what Elijah and Elisha had done: raised the dead! And he preached like a prophet with the authority of a prophet. But according to Simon’s lights, a true prophet would not receive the ministrations of this woman as Jesus was receiving them. He certainly didn’t get that idea from the Bible; Elijah and Elisha were always ministering to outsiders and to the sort of people Israelites in their day as well would have considered unwashed. This is a subtle but powerful indication of how different the worldview of the Pharisee was from the worldview actually taught in the Word of God.

v.40     Jesus knew his man. He had only to watch the man’s face to know what he was thinking.

v.41     Remember, the denarius was the daily wage of a laborer.

v.42     Get the point: the reason the debt was cancelled was that the debtor couldn’t pay. He was facing prison for non-payment and the lender simply cancelled the debt. Lenders don’t usually do that! Unless they’ve loaned money to Greece and don’t have any choice!

v.43     Simon’s “I suppose” is somewhat grudging. Some commentators think that Simon’s reply indicates that he realizes he has been caught in the Lord’s trap. But the Lord simply gives him credit for the right answer. [Bock, i, 700]

v.46     There is some debate as to whether Jesus is actually calling Simon rude for his failure to do such things for his guest or, as seems to me much more likely, these were things that might have been done but were by no means expected to be done for a guest. In which case the contrast is between Simon’s ordinary courtesy in inviting Jesus to dinner and the actions of this woman who went far beyond the norm to demonstrate her devotion to Jesus.

v.47     Now it takes some sophistication to get the Lord’s point right. He doesn’t minimize her sins – “they are many” he says – but says that they are forgiven. He doesn’t mean that they are forgiven because she loved much, but, following the point of his little parable, her love demonstrates that she knows her many sins had been forgiven. Her great debt had been cancelled. She was loving much because she had been forgiven much. The perfect tense of the verb “forgiven” also indicates that she was already in a state of forgiveness. It is a point of Greek grammar, but an uncontroversial one.

            Then, again, “he who is forgiven little…” should not be pressed to mean that there are people so righteous that there is little for which they need forgiveness. It belongs to that class of texts, actually a quite large class of texts in the Gospels, in which the Lord distinguishes between two classes of people according to their own conception of themselves. Just as Simon was among those who didn’t need a physician – that is, didn’t think he needed a physician –, just as he was among the 99 sheep that weren’t lost – that is, didn’t think himself lost – so Simon didn’t imagine he needed much in the way of forgiveness either.

v.48     Again, the perfect tense of the Greek verb translated “are forgiven” again indicates that the woman is not receiving forgiveness for the first time, but has it already. That the state of forgiveness began for at some point in the past and continues into the present is the idea.

v.49     As was usually the case, so here the incident is drawn to a close with people marveling, not over the woman but over Jesus and wondering: “Who is this man?” If you remember his claiming authority to forgive sins brought accusations of blasphemy from the Pharisees at the time of the healing of the paralyzed man in chapter 5. Here, he doesn’t explicitly say that he forgave the woman’s sins, but she obviously thought that he was the source of her blessing.

v.50     The verb “has saved” is again a perfect: it is not at this moment that she was saved; she was saved before. He is reassuring her.

            None of the Gospel writers, even Luke, who was an associate of the Apostle Paul, puts the message of the forgiveness of sins in the very same terms we find in Paul’s letters. But to say that this woman was forgiven or saved by her faith and to say that she was justified by faith, as Paul might have put it, is to say the same thing with different words and any reader of the Bible soon learns that the same thing can be said, and perhaps needs to be said, in many different ways. “Faith,” of course, means confidence in another; trust in or reliance upon another. The woman’s faith was her confidence that Jesus could forgive her debt when she could not discharge it herself.

The beautiful text we have read fairly bristles with great truth and fabulously important implications. It confirms that faith in Jesus Christ is the way of salvation. It beautifully reminds us that no human being can sin himself or herself past the forgiveness of God, if only he or she will believe. It reminds us of how difficult it is for people to accept that they really are great sinners , that they too have a debt that they cannot pay and are in desperate need of a great forgiveness. The whole great story of human life – its tragedy and the hope of its salvation – is found here. But, surely, for most of us, as we read this famous passage, the greatest impression – drawn to our attention by the Lord’s parable – is made by this dear woman’s love and devotion to the Lord.

She is here very obviously a role model. We are to see ourselves in her; she serves here as an exemplar of the true disciple of Jesus Christ. When the Lord compliments a person, draws attention to what she has done, and then tells us at the end of the paragraph that she is saved, we should want to be like that person. Obviously she is modeling for us first and foremost the love and the devotion that ought to mark the life of anyone who has received forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is impossible to know for sure, of course, but careful students of the Gospels have long noticed that this passage in Luke – which is not found in the other Gospels – comes after the account of the question sent to Jesus by John the Baptist and the Lord’s remarks about John. That same account – John’s question and the Lord’s reply – is found in Matthew 11. But Matthew 11 ends with that grandest of all gospel invitations:

“Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matt. 11:28-29]

Had this woman been present when Jesus spoke those words and had it been in hearing them that her heart had been drawn to the savior and her heart had found peace? If there is anything to be said for the chronological arrangement we find in Matthew and Luke, dinner at Simon’s house might have followed soon after the Lord had uttered that gospel invitation. But if it were not those words, it was words like them that she heard Jesus say and that had brought light and peace and love into her heart. She knew she was a sinner, everybody else did too, and now she knew God had forgiven her. Her life had begun again. She faced the day an utterly new person with an utterly different future. And, understandably, her heart was full!

She simply had to tell the Lord what had happened to her and how much he now meant to her and how grateful she was. So, throwing caution to the wind, she entered a rich man’s house uninvited – we would say today that she crashed the party – and perhaps lost herself among the servants until she could make her way to the dinner table and find Jesus. We wonder how she knew he was to be there that night. Had she overheard someone talking about the soiree that night at Simon’s home? Perhaps the better heeled members of the town were all going. At any rate, she learned that Jesus would be there and determined to take advantage of the opportunity.

And boy did she! She walked into that dining room, found Jesus among the guests, and began to weep – perhaps the depth of her emotion at the sight of the Lord caught even her by surprise – and, forgetting that this was not what decent women do, began wiping her tears from his feet with her hair. And while the guests looked on in various states of horror and disgust at this unseemly display of emotion, she poured the perfume she had brought for the purpose over the Lord’s feet. See her there, still weeping, her head down, tending to the Lord’s feet, surrounded by strangers she must have known despised her – perhaps by an embarrassed former customer or two – and see Simon looking upon the scene appalled.

In his reply to Simon, as he often did in such situations, the Lord exposed the timeless truth revealed in what was happening. Simon had utterly missed the point. He didn’t understand sin, especially the full measure of his own sin; he didn’t understand God’s grace and mercy; he didn’t understand who Jesus was or what he had come to do; and the proof of it was that his affections, his emotions were untouched. What Simon lacked was what this woman had in spades: the love and devotion that is the inevitable fruit of the grace of God in a sinner’s heart and life.

When Jesus said that this woman’s sins were forgiven for she loved much, he was as much as saying that Simon’s sins were not forgiven because he hadn’t loved Jesus at all. The reason we know Simon had no faith is that he had no love. As Paul would later write, “faith works through love.” If he had faith, he would have love, and having love he would have seen himself in that woman that night at his house. He would have understood exactly what she was doing, he would have run to her and thanked her for coming without an invitation, and he would have loved her for the devotion she was showing to the Savior. He would have introduced her to his friends as his spiritual sister and asked her to give her testimony in hopes that others at his table that night might be drawn to Jesus as he and she had been.

The Christian faith, in other words, is not a message that can be understood and accepted with nonchalance, composure, or indifference. The human condition is high tragedy – sin is ugly and its penalty is eternal death and judgment –, God’s intervention to save us is the most thrilling adventure in the history of the world, and lying behind it all is a mighty love willing to endure terrible suffering for our sakes. Someone who gets this, someone who knows himself or herself the beneficiary of all of this, someone who knows himself or herself a sinner before God and knows that his great debt has been cancelled because he couldn’t pay it, I say such people know how great, how marvelous, how heart-breaking, how stunning all of this is. For such people the forgiveness of their sins is almost beyond belief.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

It was not so for Simon. Salvation was a calculation, something predictable. You did what you had to do and, to be honest, even for a Pharisee, it wasn’t that much. There was no savior in Pharisaism. There was no mighty love, no divine sacrifice, no terrible self-giving on God’s part. And so they didn’t greet Jesus with tears and with expensive gifts somehow, in some way to express their gratitude.

In the Bible and throughout church history believers are found to be people whose faith in God and Christ was certainly a matter of knowledge, conviction, and obedience, but it was also and always as well a deep inner experience, tender feeling, and powerful emotion. As Augustine famously put it, they came to God; Christians have always come to God, as this woman did not on their feet but upon their affections.

Whenever the Christian faith has been revived in an individual heart or in the whole church this emotional element has always been a prominent feature of that renewal. Why? Because love is involved! A great love has brought us salvation and with a great love in our hearts we have received it. And love as you know from your own experience is always mixed up together with other strong emotions; it never comes by itself. There is always joy, always peace, always a certain kind of sorrow as well, a very pure kind of sorrow.

From Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux, from Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Avila, from Luther and Calvin to John Owen and John Bunyan, from Wesley and Whitefield to Jonathan Edwards this woman’s heartbreaking love has been the mark of real Christian faith and the deeper the love the stronger the faith. You will never understand a life like that of St. Francis, for example, if you don’t understand that Francis loved Jesus Christ. He really loved him. He thought of himself as a troubadour, a singer of love songs, and the love of which he sang was his love for Christ. That love, like this woman’s love for Jesus, defined his life and made it what it was. The greatness of his life stemmed from the greatness of his love.

Don’t take this for granted, brothers and sisters. There is nothing like this in the other religions and philosophies of life. God’s love and our love for him in return do not play great roles in Islam, they are not key features of Hinduism or Buddhism, and, of course, more secular philosophies of life have no such divine love to offer and cannot produce such love in the hearts of their adherents. Without the triune God of loving persons, without the cross – the supreme self-giving of God in love to needy human beings – without a personal and immediate love on God’s part for individual human lives, there can be no such love as lies at the center of salvation in our Christian faith.  There is no “For God so loved the world…” anywhere else in the world. Nor is there any “we love him because he first loved us.” No other religious system knows the love that the Christian Scriptures affirm: God’s love has been poured into our hearts…For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:5-6). Only in the Word of God is faith in God and love for God the same thing! And only in Holy Scripture is love, deep and heart-felt love for God, the primary motivation for obedience to God’s commandments.

I had occasion recently to think again of Helen Roseveare. Perhaps you remember something about her. I have mentioned her to you before, though it was years ago now and I didn’t know then as much as I know now. She is still alive; Someone from the 8:15 service came up to me after the service with her “smart” phone and showed me her list of contacts. She scrolled down to Helen Rosevearse. She is now in her upper 80s and still sharp and quite spry. In fact, last year she gave an extensive interview to a Scottish pastor by the name of David Meredith. If you have time this Sunday afternoon, google that interview and listen to it. You will be glad that you did, I promise you.  Dr. Roseveare has through the years spoken three times at the famous Urbana Missions Conference sponsored by Inter-Varsity and has written a number of books including her autobiography.

Helen grew up in England as a determined and disciplined girl. She was a teenager during the Second World War and then after the war a medical student at Cambridge University. A church-going girl, like so many of her peers she had no living faith in Christ when she went to university; but she found Christ there. Through the witness of Christian girls, fellow students, she heard that Jesus Christ had died for her sins and, as she puts it still today, she “fell in love with Jesus.”  Medical school at Cambridge was no easy road for a young woman in those days. There were twenty-five women among the two-hundred-fifty med students and both the lecturers and many of the male students patronized the girls and did their best to make them feel foolish or out of place. Of the twenty-five, thirteen eventually withdrew from the course. Helen remembers sitting in lectures among the Christian fellows as a kind of defense mechanism.   

She was so enamored of Jesus after her conversion that rather than do what most freshly-minted doctors do – viz. accumulate experience in a fellowship or hospital assignment – she went directly to missionary training school. She wanted to tell others about Christ and use her medical training to create the opportunity. But she was something of a pistol. A Cambridge grad, she was more self-assured than many of her fellow missionary candidates, tended to speak her mind in ways that seemed arrogant to others, didn’t take criticism too well, and almost washed out of the program.

But, upon graduation, she headed to what was then called the Belgian Congo under World Evangelistic Crusade as a missionary doctor-evangelist. She built first one hospital and then, transferred to another place, built another. Both were the first hospitals to be built in their respective areas. With little in the way of modern equipment, she practiced medicine, performed minor surgeries, and delivered thousands of babies. She was the only doctor for an enormous region and handled everything from obstetrics to geriatrics. She remained single through it all, saying that once she had met the Lord he seemed enough for her and that had she had a family she would not have been able to devote herself to her work as she did. Like many western missionaries, she learned to love the people among whom she lived and eventually to respect their abilities, though the latter, she confesses to her shame, came only with time. Throughout those years of productive labor, she was also working on her autobiography, what she hoped would be the great testament of her life.

In the early and mid-1960s the Congo was embroiled in a deadly civil war, referred to nowadays as the Congo Crisis – one of those proxy wars fought between the West and the Soviet Union –  a brutal conflict that would eventually cost some 100,000 lives. Eventually the rebels came to her hospital. She and her assistants were beaten – three of her teeth knocked out by the blow of a rubber truncheon – and then she was kept a captive for five months. She was frequently beaten, repeatedly raped, and the only copy of her journal, her autobiography-to-be, was burned before her eyes.

She says that what became clear to her during those dark and terrifying times was that the Lord, who loved her, was trusting her. She realized that, loving her as he did, he could have removed her from the conflict, spared her the indignity, the terror, the physical pain, the psychological trauma of physical and sexual assault, the despair of seeing so much of what she had created reduced to ruins. But as she had trusted him, he was now trusting her to endure something very great for his sake. She was being granted the privilege of sharing in his sufferings, which is simply another way of saying sharing in his love for her and for others. She says now to people who are undergoing great trials, who have sorrows that are very hard to bear, “The Lord must trust you greatly to entrust you with the privilege of suffering for his sake, of sharing in his sufferings.”

How does a woman come through an experience of devastating trauma like that so healthy, so spiritually whole, cheerful and happy, and still in a condition to be a great blessing to countless others for the rest of her life? Love is what saved her. Her confidence in Christ’s great love for her and her love for Jesus in return. Love is more powerful than anything in life; it will enable you to do things you would never imagine yourself able to do. Love is more pure and purifying than anything in life, and God’s pure love, poured into our hearts, literally makes anything possible and anything endurable. There was a great love in this woman’s life. She had felt it first as a college student and then gave her life over to that love and the one from whom it came. Still today she talks about how much Jesus loved her and loves her and how she loves him and still today the question she asks of others is always this: “Do you love Jesus?” She says that she was overwhelmed by his love. It sent her to Africa and to great suffering, that love did, just as it sent this woman in Luke 7 to Simon’s house to risk the contempt of others if only she might show the Lord Jesus how much she loved him.

This is our Christian faith, brothers and sisters: so beautiful, so noble, so pure in its deep emotion and deathless devotion. Sometimes the Bible tells us what it means to believe in Jesus. Sometimes it shows us, as it does here. It means to love the Lord with a great love because he has cancelled the debt we could not pay.

The Apostle Paul didn’t include narratives like these in his letters. He was more of the theologian in his explanation of the faith. But it was Paul who said at the end of one of his great letters:

“Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.”

Which is the same thing as saying, if you are a Christian, you will love the Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. That must be, surely, that is true of all of us! Give yourselves over to that great love with which you have been loved and let your love for him in return control your daily life. If you do, I guarantee you that you will do remarkable things. The greater your love for him, the more the Lord will entrust you with opportunities to serve him. Then you will become, I promise you, you will become more and more always what you are now when you are at your very best!