Luke 7:36-50; 19:28-40
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the LORD, the King. Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity. (Ps 98:4-9)
Imagine the rocks and the trees, the rivers and oceans, the mountains and plains, the sun and moon and stars rising up in a chorus of praise to God. Every ounce of energy in creation bursting forth to acknowledge the source of their existence. While we sit silent, stone-faced, emotionless.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:37-40)
The Pharisees cringed when they heard the shouts of “Hosanna to the King!” ringing at the gates and in the courtyards of Jerusalem. Nothing about this was being done “decently and in order.” It was that very attitude Jesus had condemned in the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son had returned home – his father had thrown a party and the older son resented it in every fiber of his being. And you remember the father’s words, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” There’s not many things that God has to do – but Jesus said God has to celebrate when a lost sinner comes home. And the Pharisees resented it because they didn’t think the way God thinks.
And that’s why they resented the people celebrating the arrival of Jesus as King. They could not understand, they could never comprehend what all this celebrating was about, because they didn’t think the way God thinks.
But the truth is, we’re created to celebrate – to praise and worship our glorious God – to flat out come out of our shoes with excitement about what God is doing in our lives. We’re hard-wired for praise – and when we suppress it and deny it and withhold it – there’s just something not right. And what Jesus was saying was, “You can’t keep God’s people from praising God. They are doing exactly what God created them to do.”
And that’s why we are here this morning – to celebrate what God is doing among us. God is at work. We stand in awe of his glorious majesty – we stand amazed at his powerful works – we bow in humility before his throne of grace and mercy. How can we not celebrate that we are his? How could we possibly sit in stony silence while all creation around us sings his praises? There are times we have to celebrate.
And out of celebration flows thanksgiving. For most of us thanksgiving comes out of our abundance. God has blessed us with more than we need, and as we push ourselves back from the table this coming Thursday, we’ll acknowledge that God has been generous with us. But I’m not sure we can really understand thanksgiving unless it flows from the poverty of our soul. And that is the message of the story we find in Luke 7:
“Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and 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. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said 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.” (Luke 7:36-39)
This wasn’t just a dinner party – it was a soiree. It was black-tie, it was fancy, everybody who was anybody was there. They ate food with names nobody could pronounce, they had five forks and three spoons and two knives and just hoped nobody else knew which one you were supposed to use on what.
They were there to be seen – but they were also there to see Jesus. They had heard of the things he had been doing… and saying. Even if they despised him, they had to be fascinated by him. And besides, maybe he would do something tonight that would be controversial – kind of like inviting Mahatma Gandhi to speak at the NRA’s annual convention.
And Jesus didn’t disappoint them. They were reclining at the table, eating their fancy food, engaging in small talk – “Say, have you heard? Our synagogue is growing so rapidly because of my dynamic preaching we’re breaking ground next month on our new family life center.” / “Do tell! Our synagogue just had to add a fifth rabbi to handle all our new members – and I’ve been given a very generous raise.” / “Jesus - didn’t we hear that your little group added three new tax-collectors and two more prostitutes to your membership?”
They were half-way through the salad course when she appeared. Nobody saw her come in, or what door she snuck through – just all of a sudden she was there. They all recognized her – she was the type of woman everybody noticed, but nobody acknowledged. She was a woman of the street – a prostitute. Good people avoided her, religious people condemned her – everybody ignored her. But there she was – here in Simon’s house – and she was standing behind Jesus.
Now, this isn’t like your crazy aunt Harriet showing up tipsy at the family reunion – that’s just embarrassing. This woman didn’t belong – not even a little. They knew it, she knew it. She knew what kind of woman she was. She had slept with so many men for money, she had quit counting years ago. Some of those Pharisees at the dinner were probably ducking their heads, hoping she didn’t recognize them. She was ashamed and embarrassed, but she knew that her life had to change – she wanted better for herself. She had heard about Jesus – she had heard about his compassion and kindness. Everywhere else she had tried to see him the crowds were so thick around him she couldn’t squeeze through to get to him, but she had heard that he would be here tonight at Simon’s house – no crowds – she knew the back entrance and half the cooks – she could get in.
So here she was, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, holding an alabaster jar of perfume – it had cost her dearly. It was the most expensive thing she owned. She had planned a little speech – “Jesus, I’m a sinful woman, I’m ashamed of how I’ve lived and all the things I’ve done. I don’t deserve to even touch the hem of your garment…” – but now she was weeping – inconsolable sobbing – no words would come out. She fell to her knees at Jesus’ feet and as she wept, the tears began to fall on his feet and they created little rivulets of mud – she took her hair and began wiping the tears and mud from his feet. Then she began to kiss his feet and she broke the jar and poured the perfume on his feet.
By this time, nobody is eating, everybody is staring, and everybody is thinking exactly what Simon is saying 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.”
We come back the Pharisee’s basic problem with Jesus – he attracted the wrong kind of people. There were just some people that the Pharisees didn’t believe mattered to God – people like tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and lame, and sinners in general. And to associate with them was a credibility destroying contradiction. Simon’s assumption was that Jesus didn’t know what kind of woman she was or he wouldn’t have anything to do with her.
But that’s the irony of it – Jesus knew exactly what kind of woman she was, and that is precisely why he did have something to do with her. It wasn’t any secret. When they had criticized him for going to Levi’s party in ch. 5 with all the tax collectors and sinners, he replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
And so, with the woman weeping and washing his feet with her tears, Simon and all of the Pharisees looking on in utter disgust – Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” Simon said.
And Jesus tells him a story and asks him a question: “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42).
It’s not a complex story with a trick ending. It’s straightforward and directly to the point. Two men owe money to a moneylender. One owes fifty denarii (a denarius was about a day’s wage – so he owed about two month’s wages), the second owed five hundred denarii (about two years’ wages). It was an act of mercy to both of them, but for the second man, he has cancelled a debt that would have been nearly impossible to repay. The depth of gratitude would be enormous. Simon answered correctly, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”
Jesus approves his answer – “You have judged correctly.”
But Simon doesn’t get it. He’s thinking money, Jesus is talking sin. Simon is thinking in the abstract, Jesus is about to drive his meaning home.
“Then he 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. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47)
Jesus draws their attention to the very one everybody is trying to ignore. And yet her embarrassing behavior is the very behavior that demonstrates how filled with gratitude she is for God’s mercy. Simon has acted with intentional disregard for Jesus and shown his contempt for him, but this woman has grasped what Simon could never see.
Simon’s problem is that he doesn’t think he needs forgiveness. Not only does he not think he’s the man who has been forgiven the 500, he doesn’t realize he’s the man with 50. He doesn’t need forgiveness. This woman, in Simon’s eyes, not only doesn’t deserve forgiveness, her sins are beyond even the ability of God to forgive.
Simon cannot receive what he does not desire. Mercy is wasted on those who do not think they need it. But this woman’s broken-hearted admission of her need makes forgiveness the very thing God desires to give. It is the father running down the road to welcome the prodigal son home, it is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the one lost sheep. It is God’s greatest desire for his children to come home to him, and nothing draws God’s heart to a person quicker than a broken and contrite spirit.
And then, Jesus does what he has already done once before when the lame man was lowered through the roof. He looked with compassion on this weeping woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” If Jesus had said it to Simon, he would have been insulted, but even if he had allowed for the need, it would have been inconsequential. For this woman, he has given her her life back.
But of course, the issue for the Pharisees there wasn’t whether this woman needed or deserved forgiveness – it was the outrageousness of the idea that Jesus could confer forgiveness – “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The Pharisees thought they had God figured out – that’s why Jesus didn’t make any sense to them.
And it’s a lot to wrap your mind around. Let’s be fair to the Pharisees. They had asked the right question - “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But they couldn’t see past their own preconceptions. Jesus is a man – only God can forgive sins. Jesus is blaspheming because he is claiming to do what only God can do.
In a similar situation in the Gospel of John, Jesus is in a confrontation with the Pharisees and he says, “Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:36-38)
It is a crucial decision you have to make. If you believe the evidence, the miracles, the healings, the testimony of witnesses, the word of Jesus himself that he is indeed the Son of God – then, you will be able to accept that he can forgive sins. If you reject all that, then Jesus was a blasphemous fraud who was deluded or an ego-maniac.
I know what the woman’s conclusion was, because Jesus next looked at her and said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith was that everything she saw and heard led her to believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and that he could save her from her sin.
It’s a decision every one of us have to wrestle with. You can’t just take my word for it, or your parents’ word for it – you have to look at the evidence and listen to the testimony for yourself and decide, is Jesus who he claimed to be? Is Jesus the Son of God? If he isn’t then you are wasting your time here – Jesus was never just the good man or the great teacher the Pharisees had hoped he would be. His claims were too controversial, his demands too radical for that. But if you decide Jesus is the Son of God, there is nothing in your life that is too great for him to overcome. Just ask the prostitute who left her sins in a puddle of tears on the floor of Simon’s house and went away with a new life.
This week as you sit down for a Thanksgiving meal, let your thanksgiving flow, not from your abundance, but from the poverty of your soul that realizes the enormity of God’s gift in the forgiveness of your sin and the salvation of your soul.