People either love surprises or hate them. In many cases it depends on the nature of the surprise. I remember coming home from school with a friend and my mother telling me that I needed to cut the grass right then. I was not happy about that as I wanted to hang out with my friend but my mother insisted I take the lawn mower out of the shed right then. When I opened the doors to shed, I discovered that my parents had bought me a motorized go-kart. That was a very good surprise.
But there was another one that I did not enjoy so much. I was a pastor at a church but had been talking to another church about joining their staff. The search committee had informed me that they were going to visit our church to hear me preach. That was fine. As I was beginning my sermon, I saw a hand rise from someone in our congregation. I was hoping that it was a yawn and a stretch, but the arm began to wave frantically. Someone wanted to ask a question during my sermon. And they were sitting in the same row as the search committee! It did not help that the person had trouble articulating what they wanted to say. This was not how I had planned my Sunday morning. The search committee ended up being impressed with how I thought on my feet. The lady who raised her hand actually helped me in getting that job.
In the passage we are looking at today, we see what happens when the unexpected takes place. A Pharisee has a meal with Jesus, probably having a pretty good idea of what that would look like only to have a woman, of whom he doesn’t approve, show up. How would Jesus deal with this unexpected activity at what should have been a normal dinner party? Simon was in for more surprises than he had expected. Let’s see what happened and what we can learn from their experience.
A Pharisee and a Sinner
The difficulty we have in reading stories like this one is that we have been trained to think of Pharisees as the bad guys. We even teach our children to not be Pharisees because “they’r not fair you see.” In church-talk, a Pharisee is a synonym for hypocrite. But we should not bring that judgment to our reading, we should let the story fold out naturally. While Jesus did have conflicts with the Pharisees, theologically he was closer to them than any of the other groups. And when you read the Gospels carefully, you see it that it was the priests and not the Pharisees who were active in bringing Jesus to death.
There is no reason to question Simon’s motives for having Jesus over for dinner. This was not a trap, as some other religious leaders attempted to do. It is likely that Simon really wanted to spend time with Jesus and hear from him. This was not exactly a private party. The ancient world had events such a symposiums, where interested people would gather for a meal, discuss certain subjects or hear from a special speaker. Simon may have invited other people to come and hear their conversation. Everything was looking like it was going to be a stimulating and educational event.
And then she came in. We don’t know exactly who this woman was. Unlike Simon, her name is not recorded. She is simply described as “a sinful woman.” Many assume that she was a prostitute, some even suggesting she was Mary Magdalene. There is no reason to think she was Mary, nor does the Bible say that Mary was a prostitute. What we do know is that the reputation of this woman was obvious to all and Simon was not happy to see her.
Of course Simon may have hoped that Jesus would use her as an object lesson. Here was the perfect example of a sinner that Jesus could use to illustrate the importance of holy living. Simon would get his wish, but not the way he expected.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone is acting in a socially inappropriate way and it is very awkward. People look at each other, wondering what to do, shocked that someone would do this in public. That is what was happening at this dinner. Not only did the woman come to the house uninvited, she washed Jesus feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair and pouring perfume on them. Simon and Jesus were reclining at the table, that is they were resting on cushions in front of the short table. None of this was happening privately under a table. Everyone saw what was happening.
If Jesus was a prophet, he would have known. If he was a prophet. Jesus was a prophet and Jesus did know who this woman was and what had she had done. Jesus knew that this woman had sinned. But Jesus knew that she had also been forgiven and that her response was a love much purer than those who had the respectable reputations.
Simon may have been looking for some deep theological conversation but what he got was a parable that was put in the simplest of terms. So simple it was almost insulting. If there are two people who owe money, one who owes much and the other who owes little, who will be more thankful when the debts are cancelled? The answer is obvious.
But this is more than theory. this is the story of the sinful woman. Yes she had done some bad things, she had gone against God’s will for her life. But she had repented and sought forgiveness and in grace that forgiveness was granted to her. She understood that in a way deeper than any theology Simon had reflected on. This moved the woman to put herself in an embarrassing and humiliating situation. But it did not matter. It was through Jesus that she had been forgiven and it was to Jesus that she was going lavish her devotion. She poured out her love in the only way she knew how. This was the lesson Simon needed to learn. It is also the lesson we need to learn.
What is Our Motivation?
I must confess to you that there is a temptation for me to take the easy way out at this point. What I want to do and what I need to do is motivate you to act on your faith in a real and practical way. The easy path for me would be to load you with guilt. I could paint a very graphic picture of Jesus dying on the cross. I could describe in detail the nails piercing his hands and feet, the crown of thorns cutting through his skin. I could speak about the terrible agony that our Lord went through and then challenge us all on how we don’t like to be made uncomfortable in the least way.
The trouble with guilt trips is that although they produce an immediate and powerful emotional reaction, they do not tend to last long. Guilt is not something strong enough or healthy enough to build a Christian life on. We know this because it has been tried many times before.Guilt is not something strong enough or healthy enough to build a Christian life on. Click To Tweet
Not only does guilt not work, it is not the motivation of the woman in our story. I’m sure she did feel bad for her sins, but what motivated her to worship Jesus was her thankfulness and not her guilt.
Our starting place should be thankfulness and not guilt. Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” I like the way the Message Bible translates this, “Enter with the password: “Thank you!” Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him.” The password for God’s presence is “Thank you.” Paul tells us, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17) Our motivation should be our thankfulness to God.Enter with the password: 'Thank you!' Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him. (Psalm 100:4) Click To Tweet
But what are we thankful for? It is good for us to look to the cross, but not for the purpose of heaping guilt on ourselves. In fact, the whole purpose of the cross was to remove that burden. In the Old Testament there were sin offerings and guilt offerings. One was for paying the price of sin and the other was removing the guilt from the sinner. Both come together in the cross of Christ.
All of the alienation, all of the obstacles and walls that separated us from a real and vibrant relationship with God have been removed. Not by our good deeds or religious rituals, but by the greatest act of love ever taken in human history. Just let that sink in. How can we not be thankful?
That should be enough to motivate us but there is more. Being a Christian is not just about one moment of receiving that incredible forgiveness. Jesus is not finished with us the moment we believe or are baptized. He continues to work in our lives and interact with us. The blessings we receive should again motivate us to thankfulness. Are our eyes and ears open to what God is doing in our lives? God is doing things in our personal life and he is doing something in this church. How thankful are we?
I don’t think I need to emphasize that thankfulness should be the fuel that powers our Christian life. But what should this lead to? The sinful woman didn’t just feel thankful, she acted on that thankfulness. She put herself in a very uncomfortable position so that she could show her love to Jesus. What should we do?
It is not very complicated. There are two components to the Christian life: loving God and loving people. So if we are truly thankful, it should motivate us to worship God. What do I mean by worshiping God? I don’t just mean singing lyrics of songs or saying words of prayers. Worshiping can take place in those activities but it must come from the heart. It doesn’t mean we have to be overly emotional. Each of us is built differently and we shouldn’t be expected to worship in the same way. The point is that it must be sincere. Do we mean what we say, sing or pray? Are the outward forms reflecting on what is going on in the inside? We are all going to have hard days when worship doesn’t come easy. Don’t condemn yourself, but begin to reflect on what God has done and let that thankfulness begin to replenish your strength.
The other part is about loving people. Jesus never gives us a purely heavenward faith. Our relationship with God is always supposed to be expressed in how we treat other people. the problem is that the people around us don’t always seem to deserve being treated nicely. That is okay because what we do is not based on thankfulness toward them but rather thankfulness toward God. When we deeply meditate on all God has done for us, the little things that people have done against us do not seem so serious.
Here we are in this place and at this time. We are here to worship and serve God. But what is our motivation? Is it our tradition? Is it because this is what our family has always done? Is it because it feels respectable and appropriate? Is it because we feel guilty and we hope if we show up for church that God might look on us a bit more kindle?
The sinful woman at Simon’s dinner party has shown us the way. It is to be thankfulness that motivates us to live this Christian life. It is a reflection on where we have been and where we would have been if Jesus had not come into our life. It is a meditation on the cross and the immensity of the love of Christ. Isaac Watts in his hymn reminds us, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” That is the kind of worship that the woman offered Jesus. That is the kind of worship we can offer Jesus as well.