The God of the Second Chance
Have you noticed how everything today has to have a positive spin to it? No matter how bad something is you have to find a positive way to express it. So you no longer get fired you get downsized, or rightsized. You go through delayering, or smartsizing, or redeployment, or workforce optimization, and so the euphemisms go on. No-one does things that are evil any more, they’re simply the victims of a bad upbringing or are psychologically challenged. We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak;’ or we ‘exaggerate’ or we ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say. Promises only matter if they were “core promises”. And of course I’ve already used the term ‘spin’ which really means ‘deceive or deceit.’ As for sin, it’s such an outdated concept that we never use it except as a joke.
So why is that? Why are we afraid to admit that we’ve done something wrong? Is it because we’re ashamed? Is it because it reminds us that we’re not perfect? Does it damage the self-image we’ve tried to create for ourselves?
In the story we’ve just read, there’s no pretending that the main character is a good person. In fact the whole point of the story is that she’s a terrible person. Yet that doesn’t stop God from loving her and forgiving her. In fact it’s her admission of her sinfulness that makes all the difference to her.
Jesus is invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee, named Simon. Simon, being a Pharisee, is an extremely upright man. Nothing untoward would ever come out of his mouth; no behaviour that could besmirch his reputation; no failure to keep God’s laws would ever be laid at his door. He’s very sure of himself.
But as they’re sitting down to eat a woman of the streets comes to Simon’s door. She’s heard that Jesus was there and has come carrying an alabaster jar of ointment. She gets in somehow, kneels down at Jesus feet and begins to weep. She’s crying so much that her tears wet his feet and so she begins to wash them with her tears and wipe them dry with her hair.
By itself this is a very provocative act. She not only wipes his feet with her hair but she kisses them and pours a fragrant and expensive ointment over them. The mere fact that she’s wiping his feet with her hair is an indicator of her moral state. Upright women in Jesus’ day would have had their hair tied back or covered by a shawl just as women in the middle east still do today. It was only the “loose” women who wore their hair out like that. So this was doubly provocative.
You can imagine the perfume filling the room, much to the dismay of the Pharisee and his friends. They had no doubt what sort of woman this was. And he’s quick to judge: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner.” Clearly he didn’t even need to be a prophet. Everyone in the room could tell what sort of woman she was.
One of the things we human beings are really good at is passing judgment on those we think are below us. And we often do it on the basis of criteria like clothing or language or even, as in this case, hairstyle.
But Jesus understands, far more than Simon, just who this woman is. In fact Simon was correct. Because Jesus is a prophet he knows not only who and what she is, but how far she’s come in her relationship with God.
But he isn’t going to tell them that just yet. First he tells them a story.
Jesus does this a lot doesn’t he? He tells a story that sucks people in, bypasses their preconceptions, and wakes them up to the truth as God sees it.
He says “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.” It’s a story that the Pharisees, as men of the world, would have understood well. They would have moved in the sort of circles where loans were arranged routinely for both large and small amounts. But the next part of the story may have come as a surprise to them. “42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them.” What? Who cancels that sort of debt. The 50 maybe but surely not the 500!
But that isn’t the point of his story is it? The sting in the tale comes next. He says: “Now which of them will love him more?” That’s a dumb question isn’t it? Obviously the one who owed 500 Denarii will be over the moon. He probably thought he’d never stop paying off the interest, let alone the capital. This moneylender would be his favourite for life!
You can imagine Simon answering him with a bit of a sneer, can’t you? “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Can he see where this is going, do you think?
Jesus says “You have judged rightly.” This time Simon’s judgement has been spot on. If only he’d been that discerning when it came to judging the woman.
So Jesus turns toward the woman and gives his judgement on the events of the evening. “Do you see this woman?” he says,” “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Simon is so caught up in his own importance that he’s ignored the basic rules of eastern hospitality. When a guest comes to your house you first offer them water to wash their feet. You greet them with a kiss. If they’re particularly important to you, you might even anoint their head with oil. Oil was used as a means of keeping the hair clean in a world where showers didn’t exist. Perhaps this was Simon’s way of making it clear that he didn’t actually approve of Jesus, even though he’d invited him to a meal. This may be one of those cases where the Pharisees were hoping to catch Jesus out. But in fact Simon has been caught out by Jesus, shown to be a poor host despite all of his pretensions.
By contrast this lowly woman has done everything that Simon should have done, and more. She’s washed his feet with her own tears; wiped them with her hair. She hasn’t stopped kissing his feet since she came in. She’s even anointed his head with expensive oil. These are the acts of someone who loves Jesus dearly, whose gratitude to him has overflowed in this extravagant act. She’s ignored the humiliation she can expect from these men because she loves Jesus so much.
Jesus explains this to Simon and his friends: “47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” The love and gratitude she shows is the direct result of the forgiveness she’s received from Jesus.
Far from pretending that she’s OK, that the work she does is simply a public service to needy men, she’s recognised her own sinfulness, her own need for forgiveness. She’s seen just how far she is from satisfying God’s righteous requirements and so she’s come to Jesus and asked for forgiveness. And she’s received it. And now she’s full of joy at the sense of relief that’s given her.
Jesus reinforces this for her. He says “Your sins are forgiven ... Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Those are real words of comfort aren’t they? She’s gone from being under the judgement of God to being forgiven, saved, because of her faith in Jesus.
I think that’s meant to come out as a contrast to the Pharisees who have no faith in Jesus.
In fact he says to them “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Their lack of love for him is an indicator of their state before God. They think they’re so righteous they don’t need to be forgiven. And they’re a bit put out by the thought that Jesus thinks he can forgive sins.
Of course this has happened before hasn’t it. Do you remember when the four friends brought the crippled man to Jesus, lowering him through the roof? Jesus said the same thing there. “Your sins are forgiven.” And the Pharisees asked the same question: “Who is this who claims to forgive sins?”, adding that it was God alone who could forgive sins. In that case, Jesus demonstrated his divine power by healing the man’s illness, telling him to stand up and go home on his own two feet and the Pharisees couldn’t say anything against him.
Here the woman’s response of love and gratitude are sufficient answer.
The message of this passage for us today is that it’s important for us to acknowledge our failings before God, because unless we acknowledge our failures we can never truly appreciate the greatness of God’s love for us.
It’s only when we admit that we’re unworthy sinners that we can begin to measure the enormity of God’s love for us, of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
What’s more if we’re honest with ourselves it’ll help us to see that there’s no-one who’s beyond the saving work of Christ. This sinful woman would have seemed beyond redemption to the Pharisees, yet Jesus could see below the surface to the woman made in God’s image, just waiting to be told that forgiveness was possible.
We too can offer that sort of forgiveness to people we know who are weighed down by their own failures. That’s the great good news of the gospel. Jesus died to release us from the weight of sin and free us to worship him forever.