Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Mercy and Forgiveness in the Face of Arrogance

Luke 7:36-50 (New International Version)

Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman

“36Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37When 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, 38and 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.
39When 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.”
40Jesus 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,[
a] and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44Then 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. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
48Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:41 A denarius was a coin worth about a day's wages.”

Our pastor’s wife, Jannie Stubbs, introduced worship this past Sunday by sharing a few thoughts about worship from Luke 7.

It’s the story of the “sinful woman” according to the heading in the New International Version of the Bible. But I think there’s much more to the story. There are several responses that I saw as I’ve read and re-read the story this week.

First, there is the response of the “sinful woman” on seeing Jesus. She had learned though the grapevine that Jesus was going to be at a Pharisee’s house having dinner. She went in spite of what I believe she sensed the response of many there at the dinner would be. I don’t know how she got in to the dinner, but she did. She then found her way to Jesus and stood behind him, holding an alabaster jar of perfume, probably the most valuable thing that the wages of her sin had provided. She then positioned herself behind Jesus as He reclined at dinner. Then she began to weep. As she did the tears cascaded down on his feet. These weren’t crocodile tears. She wept enough that the tears fell from her face and made Jesus’ feet wet. I believe she was overcome with emotion, knowing that the Jesus she had heard so much about was sitting in front of her. I read this part over and over again, seeing the depth of her emotion and also seeing the depth of her need. She desperately wanted and needed forgiveness, forgiveness and absolution she hadn’t been able to find in the religious environment of the day. I began to wonder how she must have herself wondered, “Will this man forgive me after all I’ve done?” “Is what I’ve done so bad that it’s now unpardonable?” In the midst of all this emotion she then sees that her tears have wet Jesus’ feet. She falls at his feet and wipes the tears with her hair. Then she kisses Jesus feet. “Why a kiss?” I wondered as I read. “Why a kiss?” I’m sure at this point there are many who could fault my exegesis, but I think (that’s about as far as I’ll go) that she might have heard that this Jesus refereed to Himself as the “son of man.” She might not have known much about the Hebrew Scriptures, but I can’t help wondering if at that moment she was thinking about this portion from Psalm 2:

Psalm 2:10-12 (New International Version)

“10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
and you be destroyed in your way,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

It was a mix of adoration and desperation, I believe, that drove her to do what she did. And the more I read it the more powerful it all becomes.

The next reaction I see to all this is that of the Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner. He didn’t have the courage to say it all out loud, he whispered it to himself. But I think that Jesus overheard him and everyone in that room knew what he was thinking. His thoughts had to have been mirrored in his face. I read about what this man was thinking and I see nothing but unbridled arrogance. Here was a woman in his presence who desperately needed mercy and he, in his mind, was sitting in the judgment seat. His language was somewhat muted, not quite dignified, but the type of language a man of his stature could use to make his point. “She’s a sinner, and if you were a prophet you would have known that.” In modern vernacular it might have sounded something like this: “This woman is a common whore, a slut, and if you can’t see that you’re no prophet as far as I’m concerned.”

I’m amazed now at how arrogant the Pharisee’s attitude was. There, in the presence of Jesus, was a woman who fell on His feet, in desperation. The Pharisee, in his arrogance, couldn’t see, or refused to see her need and her desperation. Further, there in the presence of Jesus, he pitted himself against the Very One he also needed to fall upon for mercy. His words indeed betrayed him. I believe he thought he was better than the “Son.” That to me is the absolute height of arrogance.

Jesus then responds, first to the Pharisee and then to the woman. I love the way He begins his discourse with the Pharisee: “Simon, I have something to tell you.” Under the circumstances the words seem very gentle to me. Again, using the vernacular, it was Jesus’ way of saying, “Listen up. The things that follow are very important.” Jesus then tells a story about cancelled debt, of two men who were forgiven, one more than the other. Jesus asks Simon, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon has nowhere to go, there is only one right answer – “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” Jesus then turns to the woman, speaking to Simon the Pharisee while He does so. He begins to contrast the “sinful woman” with the Simon. Jesus’ words are right to the heart of the matter. Simon had done little or nothing to honor Jesus. He hadn’t given Him water for His feet. He hadn’t given Jesus a kiss. He hadn’t poured oil on His head to comfort Him. The “sinful woman,” though, had done all these things. Jesus then closes the dialogue by making this astounding statement to the woman – “Your sins are forgiven.” The statement was so astounding that it caused a stir among the guests at the dinner – “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Those words astound me today – “Your sins are forgiven!” I cannot imagine how I could live or function in this world knowing that the weight of my sins were on my shoulders alone. The burden would be to far too great; my life would be absolutely miserable. And worse yet, there would be no place to find absolution if Jesus hadn’t come. I would be, as Holy Writ says, “still (dead – my emphasis added) in my sins.”

Well, dear reader, this world is much like that room where Jesus, the “sinful woman,” and the Pharisee had their fateful encounters. There are one of two positions we can take in that room. We can “kiss the Son” and lean on His mercy or we can, in our arrogance, see ourselves as so righteous that we do not need the mercy of God. We can be forgiven and be forgiving or we can be so arrogant that we ignore the mercy that is being set before us.

I hope and pray that, like the “sinful woman,” you who have read this piece will make the right choice.


pri said...

Psalm xxxx (New International Version)
Mmm, there's something in that 'new version' thing that scares me. It reminds me that each and every of the versions have been rewriten to make it easier for us to believe in the text. I wonder how many 'new versions' are still to come and how different will their message be in comparison to the one I got when I first read the Bible.

Pastor Mike said...

Response to Pri: The Bible wasn't written in English. Everything we read is a translation - either more contemparary or less. But a new version won't make you believe it any more than a shinier package would make me like cottage cheese. Only faith can cause you to believe, and, my friend, that is a gift from God for the asking.