I once heard a pastor talking about a mission he did with a university Christian Union. They were trying to reach out to students at the university with the good news of Jesus. There were various events happening and one of the things the students were encouraged to do was to carry their Bibles around with them. I guess the logic went, if you're not ashamed to carry a physics textbook, or a novel that you're studying, then you shouldn't be ashamed to carry a Bible and it might get some conversations going, but apparently, this pastor started to notice throughout the week that the Bibles students were carrying got bigger and bigger. It was clear that for some people the main people they were interested in impressing were their Christian friends rather than the students. They were trying to gain a reputation for being devout and holy.
It's a silly example. But it's so easy for us to slip into doing Christian things for the wrong reasons isn't it? And if you're a Christian, one of the main reasons we often don't move forward and grow as Christians is because we become so focussed on doing religious things that we stop loving Jesus. We focus on reading our Bible, praying, sharing the good news, giving, leading Bible studies, studying theology - which are all really good things when we're doing them for the right reasons, but often without realising it, they become about our own performance. It might be to impress others or it might be just so that we can feel good about ourselves (knowing that we read our Bibles every day this week). We might feel we can come to church and sing confidently, knowing it's been a good week, but when we've not had a good week, we feel like we shouldn't even be in church.
Well this passage today reminds us that there is a difference between knowing and loving Jesus, and religion or legalism (where we try to earn God's forgiveness or impress others through our personal performance) and we need to get back to focussing on Jesus if we're to grow as Christians.
If you're here today and you're not a Christian, you might have a variety of different reactions when you look at Christians who always talk about doing religious things or good deeds. One reaction might be to think you're not good enough. You know you've done some bad things and how could God ever accept you? Another reaction might be to think what hypocrites, they're just trying to look good but actually they're proud and self-righteous. They do lots of religious things but they're no better than anyone else.
As we start, let me say to you, please don't focus on religious things or religious institutions if you're looking into Christianity. Focus on getting to know Jesus. Unless you see the difference between religion, trying to earn God's forgiveness ourselves and getting to know Jesus, you'll be confused. You won't understand what this is all about. I hope that will become clear as we look at this passage, because we see two very different responses to Jesus.
Well let's pray that we'll see that we'll be able to focus on Jesus this morning and get to know him better.
Father, please speak to us through your Word this morning and please help us to be captivated by Jesus. Help us to know him better and love him more. In Jesus name, Amen
Well try and imagine the scene that Luke describes to us in this passage.
We've joined Luke's gospel at a point reasonably early on in Jesus' ministry. The Pharisees, a group of very strict Jews, were intrigued by the things Jesus had said and done. They're studying him. He already had a reputation as a healer and teacher at this point and so a Pharisee called Simon invites Jesus over for a meal. He probably wanted to get to know him. Jesus is clearly an interesting guy at the least! He's good company. It's already clear from the beginning of the book of Luke that Jesus makes himself available to all types of people from all different backgrounds, and so he accepts Simon's meal invite. The Pharisees were generally wealthy and powerful and so it was probably quite a nice banquet.
But during the meal, there's a disturbance…take a look with me at Luke 7.37-38:
"And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears…"
When people realise who she is there's a groan. She's known. She's "a sinner" (Luke 7.39). We don't know exactly what her sin was but it's possible she might have been a prostitute or known for committing adultery. She's weeping (apparently the word is more like a deluge!). Jesus' feet would have been dusty and dirty from wearing sandals. And yet she gets down and kisses Jesus feet and wets them with her tears. And then she wipes his feet with her hair, and pours expensive perfume on his feet. It doesn't seem like she rushed it either! And you can imagine how awkward it would have been. It's kind of difficult to crack on with eating your dinner whilst this woman is making such a scene! What is she doing? She shouldn't be here anyway, she's not respectable. This is inappropriate. And you can imagine Simon, and maybe his guests, looking at each other and thinking "What is Jesus going to say to this?"
And what he says is probably not what they're expecting. He praises the woman, rather than Simon. Why? Well because she understood what was at the heart of the Christian gospel:
God shows amazing, undeserved love for sinners.
The Pharisees were respectable, good, religious people. But it's not from Simon that we learn, but from the woman. Interestingly, she says nothing in this whole story, but her actions speak a 1000 words. You see, we see here that Jesus' behaviour towards this woman is actually a bit of a concern for Simon. He doesn't like what he sees. Take a look at the end of Luke 7.39. Simon says to himself:
"….If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner."
The Pharisees thought they were holy and above others. They thought that mixing with sinful people like this woman would make them unclean, and so Jesus can't be a prophet because he's let this sinner get too close. Lots of people today think that Christianity is all about doing religious things, it's about earning our way to be right with God, looking down your nose at people who don't live up to your standards, it can be summed up in Simon's attitude to this woman. And if religion is about living a good life, then there's no hope for her. She's done bad things, and even if she goes on to live a good life after this, she can't ever erase the record of what she's done.
Well thankfully for all of us, that's the complete opposite of what Jesus says. Whilst he doesn't lower his standards in any way, he welcomes and accepts this woman. In fact, he shows us what the Christian gospel is really about by telling Simon a little story with a meaning.
Jesus says, look, imagine 2 people in debt to a moneylender. For our sake, let's call them Jon Teasdale and Ramzi Adcock. There have been lots of Rocky bars in the office this week. So let's say that Ramzi owes someone 2 rocky bars and Jon owes them 20 Rocky bars. He might have been in the RAF but he's not going to be staying fit for long with that intake!
Although actually, in the story that Jesus tells it's a lot more serious. You see, the number of Rocky bars here represents about the number of months wages that the two people owed to a moneylender. One of them owes about 2 months of his wages and the other one about 20 months of wages. So both are seriously in debt, but one 10x that of the other and the fact is, neither of them can afford to repay it.
But amazingly, the money lender cancels their debt, even though they've done nothing to deserve it. He shows them amazing, undeserved love. You could say he forgives their debt.
Jesus tells Simon this story, and take a look at the question that he then puts to Simon. Luke 7.42, Jesus says:
"'…Now which of them will love him [the moneylender] more?' Simon answered, 'The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.'…"
Simon answers the question correctly. The larger the debt, the larger the thankfulness and love. Imagine how thankful the man would have felt knowing that huge burden of debt hanging over him had been cancelled. He would love that moneylender and be so thankful to him. At this point, Simon the Pharisee, listening to Jesus over a meal, might be feeling the vice starting to turn on him. You see, Jesus then applies that story to their situation round the dinner table and he shows the huge contrast between Simon and the woman.
What we see is that Simon the Pharisee hadn't shown Jesus even basic courtesies. He didn't give any water to Jesus to wash his feet. He didn't give him the usual cultural greeting of a kiss on the cheek. He didn't anoint Jesus' head, which wasn't required of hosts, but would have been seen as a nice touch for special guests. Simon loved little.
In contrast, this sinful woman has gone way beyond. It's absolutely clear from everything she's done, that she loves much. She's devoted to Jesus. Take a look what Jesus says to them in Luke 7.47:
"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven.""
The message is clear:
Jesus is ready and willing to forgive people's debts - their sins. He shows amazing, undeserved love to sinners. And the sinner who understands and accepts that is going to love Jesus greatly.
Maybe you feel a bit like this woman yourself – whether you're male or female. In that, you know that you've sinned a lot. You feel you're carrying a burden of guilt that won't go away. Maybe you don't feel like God will ever accept you. This woman's sin was probably sexual sin. It might be that for you, something from the past, or it might be lust and pornography, or maybe it's something completely different; just a knowledge that you don't live up to your own standards in everyday life, let alone God's standards.
The great message here is that Jesus associates with sinners! You see, Jesus doesn't dwell on people's past. He knows that God can transform people through his undeserved forgiveness and grace and so rather than looking back, he looks forward to what God can make of people. That's fantastic news! There's a free gift of forgiveness for anyone who will receive it. God shows amazing, undeserved love for sinners and the woman in this passage clearly understood that.
She goes away knowing that she's accepted by God. Jesus tells her to go in peace, and so, she loves a lot.
But many of us here today will be more like Simon at times. Just like those students I mentioned at the start, we slip into thinking that actually we're alright. We're good, religious people. We don't feel a great sense of guilt for our sin (not in the right way, in that we've laid our sin at the foot of the cross, but because we think we're doing pretty well!). We read our Bible every day. We go to church. We've never cheated on our spouse. We think "I'm doing well!"
And it's very easy to think that it's all those out there who are wicked and sinful and we're alright ourselves. Just like Simon, we judge those who we deem more sinful than ourselves. We don't think we have much debt, and just like him, we need to repent of that attitude.
You see, Jesus had very clear standards, but he always condemns self-righteousness. The reality is that none of us deserve anything from God. The Bible is clear that we've all sinned. We all need the grace of God. We're not to be proud, but humble and thankful. Forgiveness is the only place we can begin and that's what this woman knows. So as we hold to God's clear standards, for instance, on sexual ethics, or abortion, or drinking or gossiping and we rightly call people to repent, we must always do that from a place of humility and great compassion for the lost. God shows amazing, undeserved love for sinners and we as a church must reflect that.
Now, it's worth bearing in mind that even when we do that well, the world might not always see it that way. We shouldn't listen to them, but we should listen to Jesus and examine our hearts in light of this passage.
OK, before we finish. I want to highlight a couple of warnings that we need to take note of from this passage. There are a couple of potential misunderstandings. So listen carefully.
Take a look at Luke 7.47:
"…her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much…"
And the potential question we might have is:
Is love the reason for her forgiveness?
Is the fact that she loved a lot, the reason why she was forgiven? It looks like it could mean that in verse 47 doesn't it? It's an important question, because if that's what it means then forgiveness isn't a free gift, we have to earn it by loving others and being lovely people.
The best way to address that question, is the same way we should address most questions of verses in the Bible. We simply look at the context – what is said either side of this verse, and the context shows us that her love isn't the reason for her forgiveness, it's the evidence of her forgiveness. In fact, it's just in the next sentence – take a look, it says:
"….But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7.47).
The love is the evidence of forgiveness and that also ties in with the parable beforehand – the money lender cancels their debts, and they haven't done anything to deserve it. And Jesus says, now which of them will love him more?
So what is it that brings forgiveness? It's there in Luke 7.50, Jesus says to the woman:
"…your faith has saved you…"
She had faith that Jesus could forgive her. She knew that Jesus had amazing, undeserved love for sinners. And so faith in Jesus is what brings forgiveness, and love for him is the evidence of that. Is that love for Jesus evident in our lives? Or have we not understood how much we've been forgiven? Are we like Simon, not recognising how much we owe?
OK, warning number 2.
Most of us here will be Christians. We want to love Jesus more and the question is:
Is this passage saying that the more sinful we are, the more we love Jesus? And therefore, does that mean we should sin even more?
You see, some people here will be more aware of their sin than others and so, as they become aware of God's amazing undeserved love for them, they'll have a huge sense of love for Jesus. Which is completely appropriate, but is that the way to love Jesus more?
Or to put it a different way, most of us know that it's clear in the Bible that we shouldn't try to sin more, but if we want to love Jesus more, does the quantity of our sin limit the amount we can love Jesus? Are we only able to love Jesus as much as the amount of sin we've committed?
Well the answer is no – we're never limited in our love and thankfulness to God! You see, God's grace isn't just shown in how much we've been forgiven. We see God's grace at work in many different ways in our lives and every time we see God's grace at work we should be thankful. I found 3 good examples in a Christian article I read recently. Think about these 3 scenarios, which are similar to the moneylender parable:
Scenario number 1: Who would love Jesus more? The one who was kept back from 50 sins or kept back from 500 sins? Well, the person who experienced more mercy by being rescued from committing more sins by God's grace.
Scenario number 2: Who would love Jesus more? The person he enabled to lead 10 people to salvation or the one who brings 1 person to Jesus? Well the one who led 10 people would be even more thankful!
Scenario number 3: Who would love Jesus more? The person who is strengthened to endure 100 days of great trials, who has known God's strength and grace through that time, or the person who has never known God's grace in a time of great trials. Well the person who God strengthened!
You see, not only has God showed us his amazing, undeserved love by cancelling our sins (which is an amazing thing for every one of us) he also shows every one of us his grace and blessing in many other ways which will be different for each one of us, and all of his blessings should result in an increase of our love for him.
So we should never think it right to sin more in order to love Jesus more, but a right understanding of God's amazing, undeserved love (his forgiveness, his grace, his many blessings) will always lead to greater love and devotion for him.
I'm sure the tragedy at Grenfell tower has been on many of our minds recently. And there was an amazing story of a grandmother who had been trapped. She'd been woken up by the fire alarms at 1.30 in the morning, but hadn't felt able to go out into the corridor because of the thick smoke. She'd opened the door 3 times but had closed it again each time, pushed back by the smoke, but then a big tall neighbour called Luca heard her cries as he was running down the staircase in the smoke. He knocked on the door, put her over his shoulder and carried her out of her 11th floor flat to safety. There are some fantastic pictures of her being reunited with her rescuer a few days later. This big guy wrapping his arms around this little lady and her being overcome with emotion. Imagine how that would feel knowing that the fire had claimed so many lives, and yet this man had carried you to safety.
Jesus has seen every sin we've ever committed and yet he loves us and he blesses us in so many ways. When we put our trust in him, he wraps us in his big arms and he carries us through the judgement we deserve as sinners. He carries us through the cross. He takes it on himself, and he rescues us. Think how amazing it will be on that final day, when we are reunited with him; when we meet our rescuer face to face. How thankful we will be! You see religion, or trying to earn your way into heaven can't transform people - but God's amazing, undeserved love for sinners can. Let's be a church family who reflect that. Let's be a church family who are humbled by that. Let's be overwhelmed with thankfulness to Jesus – just like the woman in this passage.
Father, we thank you for your amazing, undeserved love for sinners. May we never forget all that we have been forgiven. Please humble us. Please give us a great compassion for the lost. And make us a church family full of love for Jesus like the woman in this passage. In his name we pray. Amen.