Luke 7:36–50 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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 people 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 forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “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—as her great love has shown. But whoever 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.”
There’s just something about other people’s feet that makes us all a bit squeamish. Hands we’ll shake. But feet? Well – dealing with other people’s feet is really something altogether different. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that feels this way. In fact, the most memorable nickname of 2015 in Aiken County developed because of a guy who had totally inappropriate interactions with other people’s feet. Even news outlets in the area like WRDW and the Aiken Standard adopted the nickname filling their headlines with lines like this one: Convicted Toe Sucker Shares His Story. Talk about getting the heeby jeebies from a news headline. There’s just something about other people’s feet that makes everybody a bit squeamish.
And if you think this scene here in Luke’s Gospel is meant to feel entirely different, then Luke has you in for something. There are four full and opening verses here of just plain awkward. Or, really, it’s something more than awkward. I mean it’s one thing to picture this guy with a weird foot fetish in a Walmart. It’s another to show up at what we’d probably think of as a nice sit-down meal and have some lady show up and start mauling Jesus’ feet. And this wasn’t just some normal lady either. She was categorically sinful. And I do believe that that is the right term for her. We’re not sure if it was prostitution or swindling or what, but she was categorically sinful. In fact, it seems better to think of her not as someone who was guilty of one certain and regular sin, but really someone who was more like the anti-renaissance woman. In other words, she was bad and sinful at just about everything she did. That’s how Luke deals with her. He summarizes her entire life as, “a woman… who lived a sinful life.” (v. 37).
And in a way that shows up here in what she does. Because culturally this was very bad and incredibly inappropriate. She shows up to a dinner she certainly wasn’t invited to with an alabaster jar of perfume – a nice and relatively expensive jar. It was the kind of jar where you’d have to break the neck of it to get out the contents. And then she approaches Jesus from the rear and turns into the worst kind of hot mess you’d ever see in your life. It was bad. She was weeping like nobody’s business and raining her embarrassing tears right down onto his feet. It was seemingly over done, get-a-grip-on-yourself kind of behavior – and this was at what was supposed to be a nice meal! And then as if that weren’t bad enough, she made it even more awkward because, “She wiped them (Jesus’ feet) with her hair.” (v. 38) Which, you know, is awkward to picture even for people in our culture who aren’t quite as obsessed with what women do with their hair, but back then? No joke men back then would divorce their wives for that kind of flagrant behavior. In that time, a woman letting her hair down in front of a man suggested something a bit more than flirtation. I’m not saying that that’s what this woman was at all trying to communicate. She clearly wasn’t. What I am trying to point out is how emotionally toasted she was. She wasn’t thinking clearly at all. All she could see was the mess she had made of Jesus’ feet with her tears and she realized the only available towel was her hair.
So it’s no wonder that Simon, the dinner host, was reacting in his head to this over-done and totally inappropriate scene 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.” (v. 39) There was just no doubt that this categorically sinful woman was emotionally unravelling right before his eyes. There was just no doubt that it was awkward, and weird, and culturally inappropriate. There was just no doubt that if this woman had been in a more rational state that she would have said to herself, “You know? There’s probably a better time and place to express myself to Jesus.” But that’s just it. For her, this wasn’t about reason or following cultural mores or consulting with Ms. Manners to discover the best way to say thank you to Jesus. This woman rushed to Jesus and poured out everything she had to him in desperate thanksgiving. And, yes, she did pour out everything to Jesus. She poured out her tears, her best perfume, even her hair (which if she had stopped to think for a second she would’ve found to be far too suggestive). Truthfully, she would’ve poured out her very soul onto Jesus’ feet if she could’ve.
And you know what Jesus did about this? I’ll tell you what he didn’t do. He didn’t go after her. He didn’t say, “Ahem. Why don’t you real quick get a grip and come back? We can talk later.” He didn’t quietly whisper, “Thank you so much, but you’re really making a scene. It’s time for dinner.” You know what he did? He went after Simon, the dinner host. So much for being mannerly and polite to your dinner host, right? You can even tell how taken aback Simon is by this. Jesus tells this completely obvious story about two people who were both forgiven huge debts – one ten times as much as the other. And then he asks Simon to render a judgment on which one would have loved the forgiving lender more. And Simon starts out totally unpersuaded, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” (v. 43) And then Jesus does the unthinkable. You know what he does? He takes all of the sinful woman’s behavior and turns it against Simon. “You didn’t give me any water for my feet. She used her tears to wash them and wipe them with her hair. You didn’t kiss me. This woman hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t anoint my head (much easier and sanitary thing to do). She poured perform on my feet.”
Do you see what Jesus did? Jesus took the categorically sinful woman’s awkward and culturally inappropriate behavior and used it to say, “Simon, you’re even worse than her.” That’s what Jesus did. He used this overwhelmed, hot mess of a woman’s behavior, to say to Simon, “Do you see how much true spirituality and thankfulness and love you’re missing?” And then he even diagnosed for him exactly why those things were so profoundly missing in him, “Therefore, I tell you her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (v. 47) In other words, there is an inverse relationship between love of Jesus and love of self: The more you like yourself, the less you like Jesus AND the less you like yourself, the more you like Jesus. And why? The more categorically sinful you think you are the more you believe Jesus has done for you. And in the case of the categorically sinful woman she came to understand that Jesus had entered all the various categories of her life and made them all clean. And the hot mess that showed up to that nice dinner was the result. She loved him a lot because he had already forgiven her a lot.
You know what I think is the most stunning part of this story? It’s who Jesus thought his real work was. It’s who Jesus thought needed his attention the most. It wasn’t the woman who was deemed by herself and everybody else as categorically sinful. It was the guy who had no idea how sinful he was. In fact, Jesus makes no bones about the fact that the greatest irony of this whole situation was that this well-known sinner of a woman here outshines Simon. Here was this woman who in perhaps many categories of her life had displayed horrible behavior, but now in this moment when it counted the most – God was there at dinner – she finally got it right. And all the while Simon sits there like an emotional bump on a log failing to comprehend anything that’s really happening in the moment. There’s nothing worse than that. No spiritually worse condition than staring at Jesus like a cow might at a new gate. Nothing worse. Nothing poorer. Nothing more lost than a person who has no idea he’s lost. And so Jesus puts in his effort where his efforts are needed. “Simon, do you see how bad off you are? Do you get it? You’re a bigger sinner than this town’s biggest sinner. She’s better than you.”
She’s better than us too. I’m not sure any of us got up this morning with her kind of desperate thankfulness. I’m not sure we each grabbed the most readily available expensive gifts to empty them out before him. I’m not sure we each drove here spiritually overwhelmed like the hot messes we all are pouring out our tears, and even our souls at his feet if only we could. And Jesus knew that. You know which line in this story was for us today? The line that wasn’t spoken to that sinful woman or was meant only for Simon? This one: "Whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (v. 47) That’s what Jesus wants all of us thinking about. Jesus didn’t name Simon there. He said, “whoever.” He made a universal statement that’s for us all. Because we’re all afflicted with an inner Simon: we don’t clearly see how much forgiveness we need. We don’t. That’s exactly what’s happening when we get kinda smug and prideful and judgmental and we privately think, “Look at that mom. I’m better. Look at that spiritual wreck of a guy. I would never.” And make no mistake that’s what’s happening when we show up for church not exactly convinced that heaven and earth are going to have to be moved for me to be saved today. Maybe just a couple personal transitions would do the job. And that’s exactly what’s happening when we fail to realize that the worst part of our categorically sinful condition is our blindness to it.
You know what I want you to know though? Such is the grace of Jesus – such is his unfathomable grace – that here he deals with Simon. In fact, you know that whole idea that people pitch about Jesus – the one where they say that if Jesus was here today he would always be hanging out with prostitutes and sitting at bars that whole idea? – that idea can be overdone and pushed too far. Because, again, did you notice who Jesus cares about here? The sinful woman, yes. But he actually shows up for a nice dinner at Simon’s house – not hers. And Jesus aims most of his saving teaching at Simon – not her. Because that’s who Jesus always aims at: the biggest sinners. And sometimes the people who most need saving are the ones who don’t think they do. So here he works on Simon. And he teaches him. And he loves him. Just as he loves you. Notice what Jesus didn’t say to us. He didn’t say, “Whoever loves little is not forgiven at all.” And why not? Because Jesus’ forgiveness of us is not dependent one iota on our perfect and overwhelming response to it. Jesus’ forgiveness of us is purely dependent on his life, on his cross, and on his resurrection. And so even people like us who grapple with our inner Simon’s are forgiven and are loved and are taught.
In fact, I’ve said this before at Peace, but actually that’s the whole Christian journey. It’s a journey of little by little evicting our inner Simon’s. The deeper we get into a relationship with Jesus, the better we grasp how categorically sinful we are. We begin to see it’s not just our occasional potty mouth or our wrong sexual impulses that we feel, it’s worse. We find out our parenting wasn’t what we hoped it would be, our generosity not always so pure. And then there’s our spiritual pride, our seemingly daily little attempts at independence from him, and all those moments when we care way too much about what people think of us and way too little of what he thinks of us. It’s coming to see that in ourselves and as we do falling at his feet pouring out everything to him and knowing that before we ever did we were already forgiven in him. That’s what I love about the gospel. It’s always forgiving in new ways to each of us. Each new category of personal sin that opens up to us is another opportunity to see Jesus more clearly. “Oh, we say, I never knew Jesus had to forgive that about me too.”
And that’s how it works. Day by day and week by week and year by year our hearts are opened to him and we stare at his cross a little less mystified at what he carried there and ever more mystified that he carried it. And so our love for him grows and grows and grows and grows. It’s new every day. And in that process our inner Simon gets more and more evicted and a new tenant moves in – one called desperate thankfulness. That condition where you don’t mind touching another person’s feet as long as they’re Jesus’ feet. That condition where you find yourself sometimes crying those deep and strangely wonderful alligator tears of repentance and faith. That condition where your heart spontaneously pours out prayers and your voice sings songs of praise. That condition and that place where you pour out your best and your most expensive gifts to Jesus – even your soul if you could. And why? You’re just so desperately thankful to this Jesus. This Jesus who says to you and other people just like you, “Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.” Amen.