A Note to You the Reader Explaining this Long Post
This past Sunday, January 26th, I preached the following sermon at my church on Luke 7:36-50 which tells the story of Jesus having dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house where a sinful woman, almost certainly a prostitute, interrupts the dinner, cries on Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. The congregation was very moved and a number of people wanted follow up. I am not the regular preacher at my church so I asked if there would be interest if I provided follow up here on my blog. I received significant encouragement to do that. But to do so without including the sermon would leave my readers who do not attend my church in the dark. Below is the message I gave, somewhat edited for this medium. In the following days I will post follow ups to this post. I hope you enjoy it. If there are questions for follow up that you might want to have me address feel free to leave them in a comment.
A Tale of Three Women
Two weeks ago Pastor Boylan started a sermon series on the book of Hebrews asking the question: How do we live for God through Christ? I am going to let him take us through Hebrews, but I am going to stay with his theme. How do we live for God through Christ? What does that life look like? Luke 7:36-50 (NIV) is a very challenging passage for us as we explore what it means to live for God through Christ.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 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.
When 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.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then 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. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
“What is challenging about that?” you say? What is challenging about that is that that is not often us. When we read this and study this passage we pull out things like:
- Jesus forgives anyone who comes to him.
- The importance of repentance.
- That in forgiving Jesus was claiming to be God.
- That whoever is forgiven much loves much.
- We compare and contrast the attitudes towards Jesus of the Pharisee with those of the prostitute. Are you more like the prostitute or more like the Pharisee?
All worthwhile things to consider. Yet I submit there is a much more profound question to ask here. What if we were put in Jesus’ place in this passage? Would we respond the same way both to the woman and to the Pharisee? Would we, like the Pharisee, see a sinner who should be shunned, or a woman who needed forgiven? Would she be drawn to God because of our life and walk and conversation? Would the Pharisee wonder if we were really a good Christian because we allowed a prostitute to recline at our feet?
Last October, I read The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. As you might expect, the book focuses around the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15. After exegetically going through the parable, Keller concludes the opening chapter of his book with these words.
The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31).
Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
Living for God through Christ means we should be living in such a way as to make Christ attractive to the broken, the lost, and the outcast. The point of the story is that the Pharisee should have been happy that this woman was coming back to God. Instead he was indignant.
How often in Scripture are we told to be looking for people like the woman in this story?
Luke 15 begins saying, Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to this question Jesus tells three parables, the parable of The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.
Isn’t it true, Jesus is saying, that when a shepherd finds a sheep is lost they don’t say to themselves, “Well that’s one less dumb sheep to watch over—good riddance!” No! They go out and find it and bring it back and celebrate when they do. If you have a shepherd’s heart, you would be happy that these sheep have been found.
In the parable of The Lost Coin, Jesus is saying that like lost silver coin had value and worth enough to the woman to clean and search her house until she found it, these lost sinners are valuable to God and we should search for them as the woman searched for her coin, and like her we should celebrate when we do.
The parable of The Lost Son places the sinners and tax collectors in the role of the younger brother, God the Father as the father, and casts the Pharisees and teachers of the Law as the elder brother. Yes, the younger brother sinned and wasted his inheritance in wild living, but when he hit bottom and looked to come back home and ask for work to pay his father back in repentance, he finds his father out on the road looking for him, running to him, restoring him, clothing him, and celebrating him and his return.
But the elder brother is indignant. Even angry. “Such grace is outrageous! It is a waste! Why would you ever celebrate his return so lavishly, let alone welcome him back at all? I’ve never disobeyed! I’ve never done anything close to that stupid! You never gave me a fattened calf to have a celebration with my friends! I deserve it, he doesn’t! I will not come in and celebrate!”
Like the elder brother did not really have the interests of his father at heart, the Pharisees did not have God’s interests at heart. They looked obedient on the outside. But they were just as lost as the younger brother in the parable ever was, maybe even more so. If they were really obedient sons, they would follow Jesus’ example and join in the Father’s search for the lost and celebrate when they are found.
Too often the opposite is true. We think about how it would make us look. We worry about our image. We worry about the cost: the time, the effort, and the resources. We don’t want to deal with the headaches, the heartaches, or the pain. We fear walking into the pain, loss, brokenness, and sin of such people.
Yet this is what Jesus did again, and again, and again. If we want to live for God through Christ, we will do the things Jesus did, and say the things Jesus said, and that means living in such a way that the broken, the lost, and the outcast are attracted to Christ. If we are not having the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.
We have talked about one woman’s story. Let me share by way of illustration and application the story of two others: one who got lost in the church, and another who is currently broken outside the church.
Rachael was a student of mine when I taught at a private Christian School in central New Jersey. When I started there she was a junior. Years before, she was very into Goth—black leather, black and white make up, blood, the works. She had an incredible conversion experience when she was in the 8th grade and made a total turn around. She was the school poster-child for what Christ could do. She loved Jesus, was her class president, sang in the choir, and was on my student prayer team.
One day she didn’t show up to school. That day became two, then three, then a week, then two weeks. No one seemed to know why. Then one day we were told that there was going to be a mandatory faculty meeting after school to update us on a student’s situation. We all guessed it was about Rachael. We were all led into the library where a square of tables had been set up. Once we were all inside, the doors were closed and locked, the window shades drawn, and the headmaster sat down and opened his Bible. I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, Rachael is dead!”
“Many of you know that Rachael has not been in school lately,” the headmaster began. “She has not been here because she is pregnant.”
I remember making an audible sigh of relief. “Oh thank God, she’s not dead!” I said to myself.
The headmaster continued, “I have spoken with her parents. She is repentant, she knows what she did was wrong. However, since it is clearly stated in the student handbook that student pregnancy is grounds for automatic expulsion, her parents have informed me that she has opted to withdraw.”
I will never forget the response of the faculty. “What?! What was she thinking? How could she do that? She’s ruined her life! She had so much potential! Didn’t she think how this would reflect on her parents (her dad was a pastor) and on us?” They were mad. They were shocked. They were indignant.
As we started to go around praying, one of the teachers prayed, “Dear God, Rachael really screwed up….but You can forgive…”
Can? CAN? As in its possible? Might? Maybe? I could not believe what I was hearing! I took my turn to pray next, “God, I am glad that when Jesus died for Rachael on the cross, He knew about this, He paid for it, and forgave her for it 2000 years ago! Help us to care for her and communicate your love, grace, and compassion to her.”
Right after that meeting I went to her house. I sat with her and her parents. I asked her why she did not go to her dad, or to her boyfriend’s dad (also a pastor), or to her youth pastor, or to me if they were struggling with the temptation to sleep together. This is what she said, “Mr. Ledwith, I have felt so under pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations for so long that I just decided I couldn’t. We were afraid to talk about what we were feeling to anyone because we were afraid of what people would say.” That was a great indictment against us. That should never, ever be true of any Christian church or ministry.
I am sad to say I was the only person from the school that went to visit her after that day. No students, no other staff. No one else came to see her. I was told not to go back by the school. I ignored that.
Rachael and her boyfriend Nic got married. She got her GED, and they both went to school to become missionaries. They started Shores of Grace Ministries, and are serving in Brazil ministering to prostitutes and the abused. Her life was not ruined by her sin. Her potential was not lost. She is a great Christian, woman, mother, wife, and friend. We are still in touch.
How would you have reacted? What would you have done in that meeting? More importantly what would you have done after? Would you react like Jesus, or like the Pharisees?
The third woman is Michelle. Michelle is deaf and lives in Florida. When she was fourteen, while walking home from school she was grabbed by five men and thrown into a van. In that van, and in a nearby building that they drove to, those men—and I use that term very loosely—beat her and raped her until they thought she was dead, then they threw her bleeding and broken body into a pit like a bag of trash. By God’s grace, a patrolman driving by somehow saw her in the pit and got help. If he had not stopped and looked, she would have died in that pit. To add insult to injury, she soon found that she was pregnant as a result of the attack.
Michelle’s mother is a Christian. Michelle is not. Neither is her father. But her family all went to church just the same in support of her mother. Of course, Michelle and her family looked to their pastor and church family for help. They were asking the obvious questions: “Why did this happen? Where was God? Does He even care?”
They got the standard pat answers:
- Just give it all to God, everything will be OK.
- God has a wonderful plan for your life, just trust in Him, He will bring something glorious out of this!
- All things work for the good of those who love Him.
These proved shallow comforts for Michelle. They seemed more about keeping her and her pain at arm’s length than caring answers from people who truly loved her.
As time went on, Michelle continued to struggle. She attempted suicide. She started cutting, a habit that abused people often get into to deal with the fact that they do not feel in control of their feelings and emotions. As her pain continued, the church’s patience began to wane. They told her and her parents,
- When is she going to let this go and live her life? It is time to let go and move on!
- They quoted Exodus 20:5 (NIV) I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, and said God had punished Michelle for her father’s unbelief.
- They told Michelle that God was punishing her for not being a Christian.
Michelle left, and didn’t look back.
About ten years later, Michelle began to think about God and faith again. Her girlfriend Sarah took her to her home church, excited that Michelle might finally find the love she needed. Things were ok until they realized they were more than just friends. When they discovered they were lovers, they told them to leave and never come back.
Rude. Judgmental. Self-righteous. Contemptuous. Hypocritical. That has been her experience with the vast majority of Christians she has met.
If we are reviled because people reject Christ and the gospel we live and proclaim, so be it. Jesus was, and told us that we would be treated no less than He.
But if we are reviled because we are rude, judgmental, self-righteous, contemptuous, hypocritical jerks, I have a big problem with that!
On November 4th, Michelle read a blog post of mine titled, What Angers God is Sin, where I quoted Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV)
There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
Michelle wrote me this comment, “Your God would hate me then. My hands shed my blood on many occasion. Long story, but I struggle with a horrible past and my release is blood and pain. I do not see god as hateful, He’s too pure for such a thought.”
I suspected she meant cutting, which almost certainly meant abused was or had gone on in her life. What to do? Should I respond? Should I let it alone? But I had just read Keller’s book, and his words were haunting me. After praying for discernment, I decided to respond; “Michelle, thanks for taking the time to share your comment. You shared a lot of yourself in just four sentences. My God would surprise you. Your past and your struggle with it cannot keep Him from loving you. I would love to talk with you more. If you would like, feel free to email me.”
To my surprise, she did, and told me what I have communicated to you. Since we have started talking she has stopped cutting. Since we have been talking she has felt light and hope begin to break through her darkness. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. I think that is God beginning the work of getting His daughter back.
Michelle had hoped to be here on December 29 when I last gave the message, but a work emergency called her back. But someday in the not too distant future, she, her son and her family will walk through those doors. Others like her and her family can walk through that door any given Sunday. They can walk into your life any hour of the day. Will they be glad they did? Will they find brothers and sisters looking for them and running to meet them, will they find the incarnated love and grace and forgiveness that Jesus offered the woman in our text, or will they find the incarnated indignance of Simon the Pharisee? I trust they will find the former.