Luke XXIX: Lk. 7:36-50
Last time we were in Luke, we saw how Jesus challenged people’s expectations. John questioned Jesus, the Pharisees and lawyers rejected Him, while the tax collectors and sinners justified Him. These same themes continue in the following episode as Jesus continues eating and drinking with sinners.
After Jesus has pointed out the difference between the sinners and Pharisees, a Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner (Lk. 7:36). On the one hand, this indicates that Jesus was not opposed to eating with Pharisees, and given the context, the immediate implication is that they need saving too (cf. 5:30-32). On the other hand, we might wonder what the Pharisees’ intention was. He may have been honestly intrigued or curious, or perhaps he was a bit more skeptical or self-righteous. Nevertheless, we are told that Jesus “reclined” at the table, which seems to indicate a more formal meal (compare 9:14-15, 11:37). Some speculate that this may have been a Sabbath meal; others suggest that this Pharisee has been influenced by certain Hellenistic banquet practices. In such settings, a famous teacher might be invited to come and give some sort of discourse on a topic, but the posture of reclining would have been common to both. The other possible allusion may be in the appearance of a woman on the scene. We see something analogous in the story of Herod’s birthday banquet, where Herodias’s daughter danced and pleased the guests (Mk. 6:21-22). Only this notorious woman appears and does something (perhaps) even more scandalous.
Because the dinner guests are reclining with their feet stretched out behind them, the woman is able to enter and stand behind Jesus at His feet (7:37-38). What begins as awkward with the woman appearing at dinner, quickly turns shocking. We are not told exactly how the events unfold, but Luke seems to indicate that the woman appears standing behind Jesus, begins weeping, even sobbing uncontrollably, and as she cries she kneels at Jesus’ feet. As her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, she lets down her hair, an act universally acknowledged as immodest and provocative, and finally she begins to wipe his feet with her hair, pouring a costly ointment on his feet and kissing them as she does so (7:38). Luke tells us that whatever questions the Pharisee had seem to be answered: this man cannot be a prophet if he doesn’t realize what kind woman this is who is touching him (7:39). But at that very moment, as the Pharisee concludes Jesus is not a prophet, Jesus speaks into his thoughts and tells him a short parable about two forgiven debts (7:40-41). Jesus asks, which of the debtors will love the lender more, and the Pharisee rightly answers that the one who is forgiven more will love more (7:42-43).
Turning the Tables
With this correct answer, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisee. While the Pharisee thought this was an interview for Jesus, he finds out that this has actually been more an interview for him. Jesus turns and faces the woman, and perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, asks if Simon the Pharisee has noticed the woman at His feet (7:44). Without waiting for an answer, Jesus proceeds to point out how the Pharisee has been inhospitable, ungracious, and rude to Him (7:44-46). On the other hand, the woman has welcomed Jesus; she has been the loving host. She is the example that Jesus gives to Simon the Pharisee for how he ought to receive Jesus. Even this is a subtle but extravagant claim. Who does Jesus think He is, implying that He is worthy of such devotion and reverence? But Jesus doesn’t leave it there; He drives the point home even further by explaining the source of the woman’s extravagant actions: she is the debtor forgiven much and therefore she loves much (7:47). And the implied assertion is that Simon loves little because he has only been forgiven little (if any). Then Jesus speaks directly to the woman, and assures her that her sins are forgiven (7:48). And right on cue, the people at the meal ask how He can forgive sins (7:49). But Jesus hardly seems to hear them, and sets the woman free: “your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).
Pharisaism is a religion of outward appearances. Jesus says elsewhere that they were concerned with cleaning the outside of the cup while inside they were full of greed and wickedness (Lk. 11:39). They were whitewashed tombs, beautiful and ornate on the outside, while full rotting bones and uncleanness (Mt. 23:27). They were concerned with “cleanness” and obsessed over washing and what they touched (e.g. Mk. 7:8-13). While this has an appearance of piety, it is really a cover for the despair of unbelief: Unbelief makes peace with sin and the powers of evil, and tries to limp along with an appearance of peace. But Jesus came touching the unclean and making them clean (Lk. 5:13, 8:46). Jesus came to break you out of the captivity of all sin. And He did this by canceling the record of our debt that stood against us, by nailing it to His cross and thereby disarming all the powers and triumphing over them (Col. 2:14). Do not despair, where are your accusers?
There’s a pharisaical tendency in all of us that resents the messy cases, the difficult cases, the awkward cases. But this is deeply ironic since that would disqualify all of us. But this episode goes further than to insist that God’s table welcomes the hard cases (it does that), but it also insists that those cases that seem most extreme are actually the rule. Those forgiven much are the leaders of the Kingdom. We are a Kingdom of forgiven sinners who love Jesus much because we have been forgiven much. All who need forgiveness are welcome, and only those who think they don’t are not. This is a particularly important lesson for us to teach our children.
Behind all of this is the standing question: Who is this? Who is this who allows a notorious sinner to wash His feet, to anoint them, and kiss them? Who is this who insists that this is a perfectly reasonable way to welcome Him? And who is this who forgives sins? These are not reasonable things for any ordinary human being. This is God in the flesh. He is worthy of this love. And what this underlines is the fact that all sin is ultimately against God, and there is no peace until we have peace with Him.