“Forgiven Much? Love Much”
March 31, 2019
Our love grows in response to his great forgiveness.
I. Love Demonstrated (Luke 7:36-38)
II. Love Explained (Luke 7:39-43)
III. Love Compared (Luke 7:44-47)
IV. Love Confirmed (Luke 7:48-50)
Joni Eareckson Tada tells many inspiring and helpful stories in her book “When God Weeps.” “Shawna Leaver,” she says, “could be a model in Paris, gliding down the runways at the finest fashion shows. When she was little, we'd camp up in the Sierras. I'd sit at the bottom of a cliff and enjoy vicarious rock climbing through her. "What a helpful kid," I'd say to her mother as Shawna pushed me along the road of Coldwater Campground. Years later, art school and wardrobe work in the movie industry pushed her into a different life.
An unsafe life. Living alone in downtown Los Angeles, she walked the edge of darkness and depression. On a lonely Friday night, after a couple of glasses of gin, she stumbled out of the house, clouded and numb. In a fog, she climbed into her car, drove down the street and got on the Hollywood freeway. Up the exit. Shawna was speeding north straight into southbound traffic. Oncoming cars veered, flashing their high beams and honking. She doesn't remember the head-on collision. She doesn't recall the police cars, helicopters and bullhorns, and evening news reports on the television. One man dead. Another seriously injured. A wife left without a husband and three children without their father.
Days later, a policeman was still posted outside of Shawna's hospital room where she lay bruised in a body cast. When I wheeled up to her bedside, she moaned through swollen lips. "l am...so sorry." Gone was the happy, free-spirited little camper with the sunny hair. It took over two years for her final sentencing, but in the custody of her mother, she prepared for prison by attending church five nights a week plus Sunday. Bible institute. Prayer meetings. Witnessing. And always, whenever we were together, tender tears of repentance. When she was finally led away in chains, she welcomed justice. She embraced the chance to tell other women in prison that a sinful, self-serving life kills.
Shawna wasn't expecting the prison to be so overcrowded that she would be forced to endure a stint on death row, isolated and without her Bible. "l needed that. It tested my foundation." Finally she was moved to a cell with seven others. Shawna stands out. They are tough; she's tender since the accident. They are black; she is very white. But some of the women are approaching Shawna for prayer and advice. Others scoffed, "You think you're so high and mighty, better than us," to which Shawna replied, "Oh no, you're wrong. I'm the worst. I had every chance. I was given every opportunity. And I blew it. But Christ has forgiven me, the worst of sinners. And he can forgive you, too."
As I prepared for this message I recalled that story, because we meet a woman in our text who also showed great love and devotion to Christ in response to his great forgiveness. The text is Luke 7:36-50, and the teaching is very simple. Jesus wants our love for him to grow in response to his great forgiveness. The first section of this text, verses 36-38, show us her love, demonstrated. One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
This episode occurs at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus not only dined with tax collectors and sinners, but also quite often with Pharisees and other leaders. I wonder if he smiled when being accused of spending time with sinners, thinking of all the time he spent with Pharisees. Jesus is dining at this house, and as was the custom, he is reclining at the table, leaning on one elbow around a low table, propped on pillows, eating with the free hand. At that moment a woman from the town comes up to him. Recognize that a dinner like this with a public figure was a public event. It probably occurred in a courtyard or portico. Given that the guest was Jesus, there may have been a crowd around the portico. Still it was bold of this woman, given her reputation, to just walk up to him.
The text tells us that she was a sinner, a woman who had lived a sinful life. It does not tell us what her sin was, though many assume it was some kind of sexual sin. But I find it intriguing as I seek to apply this to my own life, that the actual sin isn’t mentioned. Let’s assume for a moment that the sin for which she was notoriously guilty is the same sin for which you have a special weakness. I’ve said often that most of us struggle with a characteristic sin. We’re tempted by other things as well, but there is one sin that seems to have our name on it. It might be lust, might be greed, might be uncontrolled anger. It might be judgmentalism, self-centeredness, pride, sins that keep us from seeing our other sins. The only difference between us and this woman is that her sin has become publicly known. She lives in public disgrace, the opposite of grace.
Yet when she learns where Jesus is having dinner she goes there. I wonder whether she and Jesus had had a previous encounter. Maybe she had gone and listened to him. Maybe they had talked and he had told her about the compassion and mercy of God. Maybe he had given her a glimpse of the peace and love she could find, the forgiveness, the victory. Some have speculated this might be the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 4, returning to express her gratitude. I doubt that, but I suspect she has had a similar encounter with him.
She comes to him, defying public opinion, and brings with her an alabaster flask of perfume or ointment, though neither the word perfume nor the word ointment adequately describes it. It was not thin like perfume, nor gooey like ointment. The most descriptive phrase I’ve found is scented oil or spiced oil, which is what I showed the kids. It was a fine olive oil scented with expensive herbs and spices. It was kept in a jar of white gypsum, hard enough to hold liquids, but soft enough to be carved. Many of these have been found in archeological digs. The shape used to store anointing oil was often a sphere with a long neck that would be broken off when the oil was used. In a similar incident in Mark 14, the woman broke the jar before she poured the contents onto Jesus’ head.
This woman may have intended to anoint Jesus’ head, but then she began to weep. Imagine the scene. She is standing there crying, and a few of her tears begin to fall on his feet. At that she kneels, but continues to weep even while drying his feet with her hair. This is an act of devotion, of worship. She even goes so far as to kiss his feet. Then she apparently breaks the jar, and anoints his feet with the scented oil. Now our culture doesn’t use oil on people very much. We don’t value being oily. But most cultures through history have anointed people with oil, used as a perfume, salve or medicine. In fact, the Psalm we all love, 23, has this table-hospitality in it. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
To be anointed with oil was to be honored. In fact the Messiah for whom the Jews waited was named by this very symbol. He was the anointed one, meshiach, anointed of God for God’s work. Psalm 20 says “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand.” Psalm 45 says, of Jesus, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; 7you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” Jesus is the anointed one, and his anointings in the Gospels picture this.
Notice also that the woman ends up wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet instead of his head, This is a strong indication of a humble and contrite spirit on her part. To clean the feet was considered the work of the lowest slave. This woman effectively places herself on that level when she stoops to wipe his feet. She demonstrates, for us, strong devotion, strong selfless love of Jesus.
In the second section, Jesus illustrates for the Pharisee what kind of love this is. Verses 39-43: Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
40And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Simon the Pharisee is wondering whether Jesus is really a prophet. He says to himself: if he were a prophet, he’d know about this woman. Well, Jesus proves he is a prophet twice in one simple illustration: First of all, he knows what Simon is thinking, and second of all, he does know about this woman. The illustration is actually a parable, the first of many in Luke. Each of the two men in this parable owes a substantial amount to the moneylender. The lesser debt is fifty denarii, about two month of typical wages. The other man owes ten times this. But the moneylender cancels both of their debts. There’s an interesting nuance in the Greek, that you can’t see in the English translations. When it says he canceled or forgave their debts, the Greek word is a variation on the word grace. He applied grace to their debts. This is key. When Jesus wants to illustrate why this woman would be devoted to him, he compares her to someone who has received incredible grace. Someone who did not deserve to be forgiven their debt, but received that forgiveness as a free gift. Then Jesus asks Simon “of these two debtors, which one will love him more.” Simon gives the right answer, but he hedges. “I suppose it would be the one with the bigger debt.” It’s not that he was unsure, but that he wasn’t happy with what Jesus was driving at. You have judged correctly, Jesus says.
Now this is a simple parable, and by itself it might almost teach the wrong thing. You could understand it to say that since Pharisees were not very sinful, they didn’t need to show much gratitude. because they hadn’t been forgiven much. But this woman who was forgiven much, would be expected to love a lot. That’s not what Jesus was driving at. He didn’t want to comfort the Pharisee, he wanted to disturb him. His point is that anyone forgiven by God should be greatly grateful. Jesus goes on compare the woman’s love to Simon’s lack of love. Simon lacks any perception of forgiveness. That’s why he doesn’t love.
Verses 44-47: Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Jesus very pointedly paints a contrast between Simon and this woman, and every bit of it is in the woman’s favor. It was customary when receiving a guest into your home to provide water, and even a servant, so that the guest might wash his feet. Simon, in what must have been an attitude of condescension and pride, did not provide this courtesy to his guest. But the woman wept on Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair. It was customary, when providing hospitality, to welcome the guest with a ceremonial kiss, as is still done in many cultures today. But Simon did not consider Jesus an equal, much less a superior, and he gave Jesus no greeting. It was customary, when the guest had traveled, to provide scented oil for the guest to put on his head. But Simon did not provide this, while the woman humbly anointed the feet, rather than the head of Jesus.
All this shows is that Simon didn’t care about Jesus, but the woman loved him. She showed an incredible gratitude to him and honored him. Verse 47 “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” The translations imply that her sins are now forgiven because of her love for Jesus. But that would go against both the broader teaching of Scripture and the context. The Greek verb is ambiguous. It can be past tense, “have been forgiven,” or present tense “are forgiven.” And the connecting word does not always imply cause and effect, but is often translated ‘as shown by.’ I. Howard Marshall translates it “her many sins have been forgiven, as shown by the fact that she loved much.”
Jesus makes a sharp contrast between Simon and the woman. Simon you obviously love me little, and that’s because you have been forgiven little. Again, Jesus is not trying to imply that Simon has no need of forgiveness. Rather he implies that Simon has little awareness of his need. Simon, you’re not even aware of your own sin, not even repentant, and you have no idea that I am the one who can offer you forgiveness. In your pride you have not even extended to me the common courtesies. You’ve been critical of this woman who is no worse a sinner than you. I. Howard Marshall says that “the text ultimately asks those who have little love for Jesus whether they have realized the magnitude of their sin and their need of forgiveness, their own personal debt to the Savior.”
It is with this question that we need to apply the passage to our own lives. We ought to compare ourselves to Simon, and to the woman. Who are we more like? Are we nonchalant about forgiveness. Do we take it for granted? Or are we so overwhelmed by grace that at times it makes us weep? I’m sure most of us would like to say: “Of course I’m grateful to Jesus.” But is our gratefulness reflected in our daily thoughts of God. Have we spent some time in the word learning about the gravity of sin? Have we studied how God feels about sin? Have we come to feel the same way?
It’s so easy to think of sin as someone else’s problem, to think that we ourselves are pretty good. We can even subtly think that we have done God a favor by being saved. God is pretty lucky to have me on his team. Uh. One of the formative moments of my life was way back in Boy Scout days. Our troop was having an event and I was the Senior Patrol Leader. But I arrived late and unprepared and my Scoutmaster called me out on it. I made the juvenile and prideful mistake of saying “you’re lucky I showed up at all.” My Scoutmaster, Mr. Hanrahan, made sure I deeply learned the lessons of pride and presumption.
God has not saved us because we were his top draft choice. But true gratefulness and true love grow when we get God’s perspective on our sin, when we study how God feels about sin, and what it means that God is holy. Such study will show us the gap between God’s perfections and our sinfulness. Only when we see that gap in all it’s harsh reality will we grow in gratefulness to him, will we realize the full extent of his forgiveness, the measure of his sacrifice for us.
A big part of our gratefulness to God is the simple study of His word. That’s where we learn these things. Our willingness to spend time in God’s word is both an evidence of our love for him and a catalyst to that love. A similar outcome of our love is worship. This woman came and fell at his feet and worshiped him. Do you and I truly worship Jesus, giving him all that we are and all that we have? You remember Paul’s definition of worship in Romans 12:1 offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship. Giving ourselves to him is worship. When we turn from ourselves, and focus our minds, our wills, emotions, our time, energy, attention on him, then we are truly showing love in response to his great forgiveness. Public worship and personal worship, though narrower in scope, are also great ways to express our hearts to him. He is worthy of our praise, our awe, the prostrating of our hearts. Our worship is the response of a grateful heart.
So is giving. This woman brought an expensive alabaster jar of expensive spiced oil. In a similar episode in Mark some of those present claimed that the scented oil was worth at least a year’s wages. We don’t know about this oil, but it may have been the most valuable thing this woman had. Yet she offered it to Jesus. Her gratitude led to generosity. For us too, when we recognize the greatness of his forgiveness, we should more and more find ourselves offering all we have to him, and giving generously to his work, and to those around us in his world, that others might come to know or appreciate his gracious forgiveness. What I’m saying is that our love grows in response to his forgiveness. And the working out of that love shows up in our relationship to the word of God. It shows up in worship: we desire to praise the one we love. It shows up in giving: we desire to express our thanks to the one who forgave us.
Finally, we grow to love him when we hear his heart saying to us the same things that his voice said to the woman. Verses 48-50 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The New American Standard Version translates verse 48: “Your sins have been forgiven.” This is a better translation because it retains the ambiguity of the tense used. The perfect tense in Greek can be either past perfect, a thing completed in the past, or present perfect, a thing accomplished in the present. In this case, in the context of her behavior, I’m convinced that Jesus is repeating a truth which was already true before she even entered the room.
And I hope that is so for us, that we are continually grateful to hear him say “your sins have been forgiven.” We’ve heard him say that in the past, we may have heard him say it countless times, but it is a joy and a release, an honor and an awesome thing to hear him say it again. Your sins are forgiven, Jesus says, because I died on the cross, because I gave my life in atonement for those sins, I paid the penalty that you deserved. I bore the pain, the shame, the separation. My life was broken, spilled out, so that I might say, “Your sins are forgiven.”
When Jesus says this to the woman, the crowd is amazed. Who is this who even forgives sins? Who is this? That’s sorta the central question of the Gospels. But who other than God can forgive sins. If our sin is an attack on his holiness, his purity, his sovereignty, then who else but God can say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Who is this who can forgive sins? He is the son of God and the son of Man. He is the Lord, the Savior, the promised Messiah. The lamb of God who takes the sins of the world. Who is this who can forgive sins? It is Jesus.
Jesus makes one more remarkable statement to the woman: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” We learned a few weeks ago when we studied the story of the centurion that faith is simply a great confidence in Jesus. This woman teaches us again that faith is a great confidence in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. We are that woman kneeling in faith at his feet, and our love for him grows as we recognize his forgiveness. We cannot forgive our own sins: He must do it. We cannot pay the penalty to atone for sin: He must do it. All we need to do is trust, have confidence, that he has done it for us. Do you have confidence that Jesus died for you, and rose to new life that you too might live? Do you have confidence in that alone. No works you do, no merit you have, no success you achieve, no penance you make, no sacrifice you embrace, no charity you give can earn salvation. It’s not a merit system, it’s a grace system and the floodgates of grace are opened by faith, trust.
The last thing he says is: Go in peace. The fruit of his forgiveness, and our love for him is peace. It is a quietness and assurance within our souls, that no matter what the world might throw at us, the best thing that could ever happen to us has already happened. Our sins have been forgiven. Our lives have been redeemed. Our trust has opened the door to His salvation. If God is for us, who can be against us? There is no reason not to go in peace. It’s the command, and its the promise of a loving Savior.
These are the truths that inspired this woman from the town to express her love. These are the same truths that inspired Shawna, the woman in Joni’s book, to express her love for Jesus by sharing about Him in prison. These are the truths that can motivate us to express our love for Jesus. Our love grows in response to his great forgiveness. But how will we express it. I love this woman’s extravagant gesture. I value Shawna Leaver’s heart for those around her in prison and her desire to share the same forgiveness she has received.
But most of our expressions of love are more mundane. We express love for Jesus by getting to know him better in his word and through his Spirit. We express love for Jesus by worship, both the worship of a transformed life and the worship of praise. We express love for Jesus by service, which is another word for worship, selfless service of our families, our churches and our community. We express love for Jesus through relationship, loving others as he has loved us, forgiving others as he has forgiven us, having compassion on others as he has had compassion on us. The idea here is that our expressed love, our lived-out love, grows in response to his great forgiveness.