A Debt of Love

A Debt of Love

TEXT: Luke 7:36-50

In today’s story we will see two people responding to Jesus’ presence in significantly different ways. And there is a marked contrast there. The first and apparent contrast is in their station in life – their appearance and reputation. But as the story unfolds and Jesus teaches, we see that the important contrast has to do with how and what each person has done in response to the presence of Jesus. There is a lot going on in terms of the historical context. Let me walk through that and then we’ll look at the contrast of behavior and how we might be challenged in our own lives before God.

A Lot Going on Here (vv.36-40)

In today’s text, a Pharisee named Simon asks Jesus to come eat at his house. We read the detail that the guests ‘reclined’ at the table. This clue answers several questions we would have of this story. For one, it indicates a certain kind of dinner – a certain social kind of dinner – where the house was open to outsiders. Particularly with Jesus being treated as a Teacher or Rabbi, the custom would have been for the poor or interested to come quietly listen to whatever he might say, though they would not have had a place at the table. That explains how it was that a woman such as the one in the story might come into a dinner party.

The style of meal also explains some of her actions. She brought the alabaster jar of perfume with her, most likely to anoint Jesus head in recognition of him as King, or perhaps as a prophet. Because the dinner guests were reclining – lying down toward the table, with feet away from it, she only had access to his feet. You heard what happened next. She began weeping – we’ll come back to why in a moment – and as her tears fell on his feet, she wiped them with her hair.

That is probably the strangest part of the story for us, right? But it is not without precedent. You may have heard about the washing of feet. It is something a host would provide for a guest. With sandals and lots of dirt, people’s feet quickly became dirty. In a household of means, a servant would wash a guest’s feet, either with a towel (as Jesus did to his disciples before the Last Supper), or if a female servant, sometimes with her hair. It was a startling gesture, to be sure. That her hair was down and showing indicated she was not a woman of standing. That she used it to wash Jesus’ feet indicated a servant attitude toward one of greater importance. But those two facts were what was startling, not the use of her hair for this purpose (which is the odd thing to us).

And then, having washed Jesus’ feet, she anointed them with the perfume as she kissed his feet. Again, we can be confused or draw the wrong conclusions from the kissing. There was nothing romantic; in that culture it was a kiss of greeting, respect, and honor. Basically, her anointing and kissing Jesus’ feet were both actions honoring someone of high standing or reputation. She didn’t have access to Jesus’ head at the table so she washed, anointed, and kissed his feet, which only served to accent her respect of him.

Now, why was she weeping? On one hand, we can only guess. But the context – from Jesus talking right before this passage about the repentance signified in John’s baptism, to his explanation about the woman’s debt, to his acknowledgment of her faith and forgiven sins, to the opportunity to honor him as prophet and King – suggests that she is repentant, believing, and grateful… that these are tears of sorrow and joy mixed together in the presence of the one in whom she has found peace.

A Story? A Riddle? (vv.41-43)

Simon seems put off by the woman’s presence; in fact, he seems even more put off by Jesus accepting her attention. I’m not sure if he mutters this under his breath or the look on his face was clear enough to understand it, but Luke records that he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet he would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” (v.39) Picking up on this, Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

I wouldn’t call this a parable. In those the meaning is a little more obscured for those without ears to hear. Sometimes parables could protect Jesus from those out to do him harm. This is more like a sermon illustration or perhaps a riddle. In any case, Jesus wanted Simon to get the point:

41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 “When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?”

And Simon did get the point, though his ‘supposedly’ makes it seem like he really didn’t want to.

43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have judged correctly.”

Special Reserve or a Bare Minimum (vv.44-47)

Jesus’ “explanation” is in verses 44 and following. It is there that the startling contrast between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman come to light.

At first glance one thing is going on: Simon, a Pharisee and man of some standing, is publicly hosting an up-and-coming popular Rabbi in his home. It seems to be a social event meant to be seen and heard, though only by the “right sort” of people. The woman’s intrusion is disruptive in a number of ways and seems to be anything but a thoughtful offering. It is perceived as rude, messy, unnecessary, and anything but respectable.

But the real contrast is between their responses to Jesus! Jesus allows the whole thing to play out, only turning toward the woman in verse 44, after allowing all her actions toward him AND after having the exchange with Simon about debts and gratitude. But it is when he turns to her in verse 44 that he speaks to Simon (turned away from him) and interprets her actions in front of Simon, the woman, and everyone else in the room.

And Jesus doesn’t just interpret her actions, but does so by contrasting Simon’s actions (or lack of them).

I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. (v. 44)

You [Simon] gave me no kiss [of welcome or greeting]; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. (v. 45)

You [Simon] did not anoint my head [even with basic olive oil]; but she anointed my feet with perfume. (v. 46)

Simon the Pharisee, invited Jesus to come to his house, on his terms, and provided the bare minimum of hospitality. The woman, sought Jesus out, possibly having heard Jesus’ earlier teaching on repentance and she poured out everything she had, materially, emotionally, spiritually – not to be seen and esteemed, but in complete humility, mingling tears, humble service, and treasured possessions.

Do you hear the contrast? Let it sink in… it nearly wrecked me when I got it all untangled.

I find far too much to identify with in the religious person who gladly welcomes Jesus into my house as long as it’s on my terms and with the limits I set. I congratulate myself on “being seen with Jesus” and miss the depth of faith and love of a sinner, broken in repentance and gratitude.

I know who I am more often. What about you? Who are you?

Who are you in relation to Jesus?

Do we offer our bare minimum or what we reserve as our best, most, and deepest – from our sorrow and disappointments to our hopes and dreams to our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

The message is not, “You aren’t doing enough.” It’s not that at all. Rather, the question of this text is, “Who are you in relation to Jesus?” Do you know how much he loves you? And how are you responding to that? Amen.

Some Music Used

  • Preludes
    • Offering (Baloche)
    • For the Beauty of the Earth
    • Take My Life/Here Am I
  • These Hands (Deyo)
  • I Love You, Lord/My Jesus, I Love Thee
  • I Will Offer Up My Life
  • BENEDICTION: The Blessing