Trouble at the Table
Wouldn't it be cool to have Jesus over for lunch? A first-century Pharisee thought so. Jesus was the not new rock-star rabbi on the block, and it would have been customary to invite the visiting new guy home for lunch after the synagogue service for a Sabbath-day meal. We read about this episode in Luke 7:36-50.
Pharisees were a prominent Jewish sect deeply devoted to following the law of God, but in their devotion, they went overboard by creating lots of additional laws not explicitly in scripture. Their reasoning was that if they could draw the line a bit further back it would please God even more. Whereas the Sadducees were more political and controlled the temple and its sacrifices in Jerusalem, the Pharisees had more influence in the synagogue system and were more grass-roots, locally based.
Part 1: An Awkward Scene (Luke 7:36-38)
Lunch was going great until an unwanted woman showed up. Luke calls her a 'sinner', and many New Testament commentators think it likely she was a prostitute. Though this is not explicitly stated, she obviously had a bad reputation.
With the guests reclining at table Greco-Roman style, the torsos would have been towards the table for easy food access with the legs and feet radiating away from the table. This type of lunch would have been public, with uninvited guests standing around the perimiter, hoping to overhear some good conversation.
When the woman approached Jesus, she was crying. As we read the rest of the story, it makes most sense that she had encountered Jesus prior to this and heard his message of forgiveness. The radical thought that she - even she - could be forgiven - was overwhelming to her. Her life was changed and she was deeply grateful. So these tears were tears of joy at being forgiven, or tears of remorse and repentance.
Either way, she gushed enough to get Jesus' feet wet and, not knowing what else to do, wiped them off with her hair, and then anointed them with oil. Usually one would have anointed heads with oil, but as she would have had access to his feet, not his head, she used the expensive, scented oil to anoint Jesus' feet.
For the woman, this was a beautiful demonstration of gratitude for forgiveness. For all the observers, this was a very awkward situation: the local woman with the bad reputation is touch Jesus' feet with hands and hair. It was just all too provocative.
Part 2: A Wrong Rumination (Luke 7.39)
Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus for lunch, was not pleased. Perhaps hoping to have some good theological back and forth with Jesus, or even to discover whether or not he was a real prophet, his mood shifted quickly when the woman approached Jesus in this clearly inappropriate way. He thought 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'.
Simon was wrong. As we're going to see, Jesus did know who she was and what kind of woman she was. But he also knew what Simon was thinking.
Part 3: A Real-life Story (Luke 7.40-43)
Jesus illustrates a point he is going to make by telling a story: one man owed about two months pay, and another man owed the equivalent of 18-month's pay to the same creditor. They were both forgiven, and Jesus asks Simon a simple question: who loved the creditor more after being forgiven? Simon answers correctly - the one who was forgiven more - and his answer becomes the point Jesus uses to drill home a new way of thinking about sinners.
Part 4: THE GOSPEL:
First, however, we note this simple but profound statement of the gospel: we owe a debt we cannot pay; he paid a did not owe. This is the good news. The two obvious ways to mess up the gospel are to suggest a) we don't owe a debt or b) Jesus didn't pay it. Both errors seek to obliterate the gospel, but the good news is that Jesus has paid our debt of sin we could never pay.
Part 5: A Powerful point (Luke 7.44-47)
Jesus contrasts the hospitality of Simon, which was very standard and appropriate, but with nothing extra, with the over-the-top care shown by the woman - foot washing, kisses, ointment. The point Jesus is making is simply that the one who has been overcome with gratitude at the goodness of God in forgiveness will go over the top in expressing love and thankfulness.
It's important to recognise that she is not forgiven because she loves, but she loves because she is forgiven. To flip the script misses the point of Jesus' story and turns salvation into a reward for human effort, and that's the exact opposite of the gospel.
Part 6: THE JESUS FORMULA
It helps us understand this text to recognise that there is no verb 'to thank' in Aramaic. So gratitude is deeply wrapped up in the love Jesus is describing. In his teaching genius, Jesus simplified the point he is making by describing a formula for love and forgiveness:
- Forgiven much = loves much
- Forgiven little = loves little
Part 7: A Decisive Declaration (Luke 7.48-50)
The story ends with three brief but intertwined episodes:
- Jesus confirms to the woman her sins are forgiven. This is something he has already done in Luke 5:20 and is a central dimension of his ministry.
- The people at table are confused - only God can forgive - so who dies this guy think he is?
- Jesus affirms to the woman that her faith in the gospel is how she is saved. To be saved means delivered from God's righteous judgment against sin, and this woman is delivered from that through her faith - believing God's promise of forgiveness.
So the story begins with a woman overwhelmed that a sinner such as she could be forgiven, and ends with Jesus affirming to her that she is in fact forgiven.
Part 8: How do we respond to Jesus?
In short, there are three ways we can respond to Jesus:
- Pharisees believe I don’t need Jesus to save me. This minimises the sinfulness of sin.
- Sinners believe Jesus can’t save me. This minimises the power of God.
- Disciples believe I need to be saved AND Jesus can save me. This is honest about sin and receptive to God's grace and forgiveness in Christ.
We all need salvation because we've all sinned; some of us, like Simon, think we're not as bad off as others. But we all need salvation, and the good news is that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who bore the full penalty for our sin, we can be completely forgiven. When we receive this and understand it, the words of Jesus to the woman echo in our hearts: