What is it about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, that sets it apart from every other endeavor, every other ideology or philosophy, every other “truth” or belief system in the world? Dr. James Montgomery Boice told a story once that I believe answers the question.
Dr. H.A. Ironside, was the pastor of Moody Bible Church in Chicago for 20 years. He was walking in San Francisco one evening when he came upon some Salvation Army workers. They recognized him and asked if he would be willing to give his testimony to those gathered inside? Dr. Ironside stood before the people that evening and told how God had saved him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There was a man, dressed in a nice suit, and writing on a card while Dr. Ironside spoke. After he finished the man came up to him and handed him the card. The card read, “Sir, I challenge you to debate with me the question, ‘Agnosticism versus Christianity’ in the Academy of Science Hall next Sunday afternoon at four o’clock. I will pay all expenses.”
Dr. Ironside read the card and responded to the man. He said, “I’d be glad to debate you if you can agree to the following condition: You must bring with you one man who for years was what we call a ‘down-and-outer.’ I am not particular as to the exact nature of the sins that had wrecked his life and made him an outcast from society. Bring the down-and-outer who entered one of your meetings and heard the glorious message of agnosticism and the denunciation of the Bible and Christianity, and whose heart and mind were so deeply stirred that he went away from that meeting saying, ‘From now on, I too am an agnostic!’ And from that day forward his life was changed, he found a new power at work in his life. The sins he once loved he now hated, and righteousness and goodness became the new ideals of his life. He became a new man, an entirely new man, and an asset to society–all because he is an agnostic.”
Dr. Ironside turned to the Salvation Army captain and said, “Captain, do you have any who have had their life changed by the gospel that could go with me to the meeting?” She said with enthusiasm, “We can give you forty at least, just from our corps, and we will give you a brass band to lead the procession.” Dr. Ironside said the agnostic man must have had some sense of humor because he smiled wryly and waved his hand as if to say, “Nothing doing.”
When I first came to Oklahoma City I met an old pastor named Wilburn Bruner who had a deep, booming voice. I heard him say again and again: “Education informs, religion conforms, prisons reform, but only the Gospel can transform a human life.” And my friend is right.
This truth is the heart of our parable for this morning. Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee for dinner. Things did not go according to plan. Let’s read our Scripture, found in Luke 7, and we’ll see what we can learn.
36 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. 37 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, 38 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. 39 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.” 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 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?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 44 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. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven– for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50 NIVO)
Just a few weeks ago we took a look at another of Jesus’ parables, “The Parable of the Great Wedding Banquet.” Jesus told the parable in the home of a prominent Pharisee whose intent was more nefarious than Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner in Luke 7. What the two parables have in common is that neither turned out well for either host.
Some of you might be familiar with another story about a woman who anointed Jesus, in the home of a man named Simon. That’s not this story. The other story is told in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. It takes place down south, in Judea. The story we are looking at this morning takes place in the Galilee and is found only in Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s story takes place in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. The other story took place in the home of Simon the leper. We don’t know the name of the woman in Luke’s story, but John tells us Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon the leper’s house. Jesus told the people at Simon the leper’s house that Mary had anointed Him, preparing Him for burial. The woman who came to Simon the Pharisee’s house, poured out her perfume and tears as a testimony to her gratitude to Jesus.
When they gathered at Simon’s house, we read that they “reclined at the table.” That has to catch your attention. When was the last time you were invited to a dinner party and you reclined at the table? This was the custom in Jesus’ day. Low lying couches with no back or long padded cushions on the floor. The people would rest on their left elbow so they could eat with their right hand. This helps us understand how the woman gained access to Jesus’ feet. She didn’t climb under the table, Jesus’ feet were positioned right behind Him as He was lying by the table eating dinner.
Here’s another question you might be thinking: How did she get into the house in the first place if she wasn’t invited? Houses in Jesus’ day weren’t like our houses today. They were small, only a few rooms at the most. Oftentimes, the meal would be served in a courtyard, an area right outside of the house. Those who passed by could come and sit in on the conversation, listen to the guest of honor, and share in the evening even if they weren’t invited to share in the meal. It’s almost certain that the woman wasn’t the only uninvited guest there that day.
Jesus was surrounded by Simon the Pharisee and his friends. Men of righteousness, at least in their own eyes. Men who were pillars of the community. Men of the cloth, religious leaders. And in walks a woman who is described by Luke as “a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town.” The Greek word used to describe her is “?????????” (hamartolos), which means “devoted to sin, a sinner, pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked.” There’s nothing in the story that tells us she was a notorious prostitute, but that is what most everyone believes. She was known as a woman of the night, a street walker whose reputation preceded her.
We are told that she brought an alabaster jar of perfume with her. She was a woman on a mission. She didn’t wander around the table, check out what was on the menu, or take note of the prominent men of the town who had gathered there: She went to Jesus. She moved behind Jesus, at His feet, weeping to the point that her tears were dropping onto Jesus’ feet. She then let down her hair, something that no virtuous woman would ever do in public, and she began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. She clung to Jesus’ feet. She wouldn’t stop kissing them over and over and over again as she poured her perfume on Jesus’ feet.
Simon was taking it all in. He was disgusted. It was a disgrace to have a sinful woman touch you. He would never allow it and then there was Jesus! Simon had had questions about Jesus. He knew what people had been saying about Jesus. “The man’s a prophet. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can teach like Jesus. He healed the sick. He restored sight to the blind man. Could He be the Messiah?” Simon had heard it all, but when he saw Jesus allowing the sinful woman to touch Him, Simon knew there’s no way it could be true. Why would Jesus allowing the sinful woman to touch Him, disqualify Him from being a prophet? That’s a great question.
We find prophets in the Old Testament and many times they knew the future. They knew and spoke about things that the average person just didn’t know. Nathan knew things about king David that David thought no one knew. Prophets spoke to Kings about what was getting ready to take place in the days or months to come. Elijah stood up to king Ahab and told him,
…As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word. (1 Kings 17:1 NIVO)
In 1 Kings 22, king Ahab wanted Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to go to war with him against the king of Aram. King Jehoshaphat told Ahab he must go to the Lord for counsel first. There were lots of prophets in the land, but there was one particular prophet Ahab didn’t like, Micaiah, the son of Imlah. The reason he didn’t like him was because he didn’t tell the king what he wanted to hear. Jehoshaphat didn’t want to hear from Ahab’s “yes men,” he wanted to hear from God. When Micaiah was brought in to give Ahab and Jehoshaphat God’s Word about attacking the king of Aram, he said,
17 Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.'” 18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?” (1 Kings 22:17-18 NIVO)
If Jesus was truly a prophet He would have known who it was that was touching Him and He would have never allowed it. Simon wouldn’t say it out loud, but he was 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.” Here’s our first indication that it was Simon who really didn’t “know.” Simon said Jesus would know what “kind of woman she is…” Jesus knew what she once was, but He knew even better what she had become. The irony of the story is that Simon was thinking to himself that Jesus would know about her if He was truly a prophet. Jesus not only knew about the woman, but He knew what was running through Simon’s mind as well. Jesus told him a story.
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 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 7:40-42 NIVO)
This has to be the most simple of all of Jesus’ parables for us to understand. We can sit down in Children’s Church this morning, read this parable to our kids, ask them to tell us the answer, and I’m betting they all get it right. One man owed a year and a half of his wages to the man who loaned him money. Another man owed a month and a half of his wages to a man who loaned him money. Both men were forgiven their debt. Which man will be more grateful? Which man will love the one who forgave their debt more? You don’t have to have a degree in mathematics or pull out a calculator to know the answer. Here’s Simon’s answer: “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “I suppose? I suppose?” Really? Jesus was much more kind and forgiving so He simply said, “You have judged correctly.”
Luke tells us that Jesus then turned to the woman and said, “Do you see this woman?” Simon had most certainly seen her. He had watched her every move. He saw her approach his house. He was embarrassed that a woman like her would have the nerve to come to his dinner party. He was shocked. He knew who she was, what she had done. You better believe Simon saw her. But Simon had only seen what he had wanted to see. He had not seen her like Jesus saw her.
Jesus told Simon that when He arrived at his house Simon never offered Him water to clean His feet. Simon didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss. Simon didn’t offer Jesus any oil for His head. These were all common customs of the day. People didn’t wear Nikes, Adidas, TOMS, or Tony Lamas. They basically wore a piece of leather with straps to hold it on their feet. The roads were dusty and dirty, not asphalt or concrete. When you arrived at someone’s house you needed to clean your feet. Those who were wealthy had servants to do the job, but those who didn’t have servants at least had a tub of water and a towel. Neither was offered to Jesus.
On the other hand, this woman, this “sinful woman” as Simon knew her, she wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her own hair. Jesus said that even though Simon didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss this woman hadn’t stopped kissing His feet. Even though Simon didn’t offer common olive oil for Jesus’ head, this woman poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. And then Jesus drove home the greatest difference between Simon and “this woman:” She had been forgiven much so she loved much! He who has been forgiven little loves little. Pastor Ray Pritchard writes,
Your love for the Lord is directly related to your estimate of how greatly you have sinned and how much he has forgiven you. It’s not how much you sin, but how deeply you feel it that matters. If you figure that you are a “little sinner,” then all you need is a “little Savior.” If you are a “moderate sinner,” then what you need is a “moderate Savior.” But if you are “big sinner,” you need a “big Savior.” And those who have a “little Savior,” will love him very little. But those who have a “big Savior” will love him greatly. Many of us who were raised in the church struggle precisely at this point. We don’t love Christ very much because we have forgotten what we were and what we would have been if Christ had not found us. When our sin seems small, our love cannot be very great. (Ray Pritchard, The Host Who Forgot His Manners: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Spiritual Pride.)
I want to show us something this morning that I pray will expand, deepen, and enlarge our understanding of our own sinfulness, our utter inability to prove worthy in any way of God’s grace and mercy so that it might increase our gratitude. Let me take you back to the parable. Remember the two men? Both owed a debt. One was very large and one was relatively small. Regardless of the size of the debt, both men were unable to pay their debt. They were destined for debtors prison if it were not for one thing. Jesus says the man “cancelled their debts.” Other translations say, “he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debt” (NLT) or “he freely forgave them both” (NKJV) or “he graciously forgave them both” (NAS). No long sermon about being financially responsible. No payment plan implemented. He graciously forgave them both.
Let’s think about this. What if you got a call from OG&E. They reminded you that you hadn’t paid your bill in three months. You say, “I know. I got laid off from work and I’ve fallen behind. I promise I’ll pay it back.” The lady on the other end of the phone says, “That’s not why I was calling. I wanted to let you know not to worry about it. We’ve forgiven your debt. It’s paid in full.” What are the chances of that happening? Or, let’s ramp it up. Let’s say you get a call from BOK Mortgage. You saw the name on your caller ID and broke out in a sweat. The man on the phone said he wanted to check on you because he noticed you hadn’t paid your mortgage in six months. You tell the man your wife has been sick and is on Hospice. You had to quit your job to take care of her. She’s not expected to live much longer. You promise to get caught up after she passes away and you can get back to work. The man says, “I’m so sorry to hear about your wife. I was calling to tell you that we’ve taken care of all of your missed payments. We’ll also cover your payments until we hear from you that you are back to work.” Once again, what’s the chance of that ever happening?
You see when a debt is forgiven someone has to pay. OG&E will absorb the costs, the mortgage company will pay the debt, but you need to know that it just doesn’t go away. It must be paid. Your debt is transferred to someone else. And so it is with our sin.
I know the word “sin” is no longer used in our society. We use poor judgment, we have missteps, make mistakes, but we no longer sin. That’s too harsh. It might trigger someone. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that we are all sinners. Not only do we sin, but we are sinners. Our sin separates us from God. We owe a great debt and it is a debt that none of us can ever repay. What are we to do? What are we to do? Rather than try to do better, rather than work really hard to clean up our act, we are to look to the One who has paid our debt. Isaiah wrote,
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6 NIVO)
God has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Who is “him?” You already know. Jesus came to take your sin, my sin, to the cross. He came to pay the price that we are unable, absolutely unable to pay, and He did it willingly. It was His will, His desire, His passion to lay down His life as payment for your redemption. Paul wrote,
4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2:4 NLT)
He has graciously forgiven all who will turn to Him. Will you turn to Him this morning?
In July of 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22 year old student at Elon College when a man broke into her apartment and brutally raped her. She said as horrible as the experience was she was totally focused on paying attention to every detail so she could describe him to the police and get justice one day. There was another rape that happened the same night.
In a photo line-up she chose Ronald Cotton as her assailant. Then she sat before a live line-up of eight men. Once again she chose Ronald Cotton. When asked if she was sure, Jennifer said, “100%!”
In January 1985, Cotton was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of burglary. In a second trial, in November 1987, Cotton was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty-four years.
Let me fast forward. Ronald Cotton heard about a man in the same prison who had confessed to the rape. Also, the advent of DNA evidence was a game changer. Ronald was proven innocent through DNA evidence and after 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit he was released from prison.
Jennifer says over the next year she began to suffocate from guilt and shame. She thought to herself, “Ronald must want to kill me. He must hate me.” Fast forward to April 4, 1997. In a little church Ronald Cotton met Jennifer Thompson for the first time. Jennifer says,
I just started to sob. I looked at him and I said, ‘If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, can you ever forgive me?’ And Ronald Cotton, with all the grace and mercy and love and kindness and humility in the world, took my hands, and with tears in his eyes, said “I forgave you years ago. I’m not angry at you. I want you to be happy, and I want to be happy. And I want you to live a good life, and I want to live a good life. And don’t look over your shoulders thinking I’m going to be there to hurt you. It will not be me.”
The two today are best friends. They travel across the United States speaking to audiences about wrongful convictions and justice reform. Jennifer owed a debt to Ronald she could never repay. He took her hands with tears in his eyes and said, “I forgave you years ago.” Ronald’s forgiveness has changed Jennifer’s life.
Ronald could forgive Jennifer for the sin she committed against him, but he couldn’t forgive her for every other sin Jennifer has ever committed. I want you to meet the One who can forgive you for all of your sins. The One who freely will forgive, graciously forgive. His forgiveness has the power to change our lives my friend.
March 3, 2019