The Woman Who Loved Much

Luke 7:36-50 (Unsung Sheroes, part 5)

This morning we wrap up our series exploring the stories of Unsung Sheroes in the book of Luke. Stories about women in the Bible are a mixed bag and often times we find what we came looking for, whether that’s subjugation or liberation. But the gospel of Luke has more stories about women than the other gospels and even though they don’t always says what I want them to say, they do contain wisdom that I don’t want us to miss. The first week we affirmed that the women who funded Jesus’ traveling ministry and managed the logistics were following the pattern of service set by Jesus himself. The second week Jon Powers showed us how Jesus emancipated women who had been marginalized by physical illness, bringing them into the center of God’s divine activity. The third week we saw how Jesus chose to honor widows when he wanted to talk about persistence and generosity. Last week we heard Jesus’ invitation to sit and rest instead of being distracted by our service. This week we come full circle to hear the story that comes right before the story we started with at the beginning.

The first story we explored was of the women who provided the financial and logistical support for Jesus’ traveling ministry. The gospel of Luke says that they served him out of their own resources. And instead of seeing that as a servile position, we recognized how their service is as honorable as the service Jesus came to render in the world.

This morning we are going to hear the story that comes right before that. It might be familiar to you. Or you might think it’s familiar to you. Because a story sort of like this is told in all four gospels. This morning we are going to just focus on Luke’s version of it though and see what we can learn from his particular lens. 

Before we read it, let me set the stage. We are at the end of chapter 7, which begins with Jesus healing the Gentile servant of a Roman general. Then Jesus raises a Jewish man from the dead because he feels compassion for the man’s grieving widowed mother. Then some followers of John the Baptizer come to Jesus to ask if he is the one they have been waiting for. He reassures them by recounting what has been happening in his ministry: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news. He is the one they have been waiting for.

But then he has words with the Pharisees and lawyers who rejected John’s ministry and now are now rejecting Jesus’ ministry too. Jesus ends by saying to them, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ Yet the Human One (aka Son of Man aka Jesus) came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by all her children.”

“He’s a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” That’s the criticism they have for Jesus. So with that in mind, let’s get into our story. We’re going to read it bit by bit this morning and I’ll make some points along the way.

This is Luke chapter 7, verses 36 through 38:

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, Jesus took his place at the table. Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.”

Now I don’t want to spend too much time on comparison, but I will say briefly that a story that reminds us of this one shows up in all four gospels. In Matthew and Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head. In Luke and John, she anoints his feet. But Luke’s is altogether different from the other three. The other three occur in the week leading up to Jesus’ death. Luke’s is much earlier in his ministry. In the other three, the woman’s act is interpreted by Jesus as her preparing him for burial and the disciples get snippy about how much the ointment cost. As you’ll see, Luke’s story goes in a totally different direction.

Let’s read the next part. So, the Pharisee has just been commenting to himself about this woman and how Jesus must not be a prophet after all. He was saying that to himself, silently, in his own head. So here we go:

Jesus replied, [ha! The Pharisee just got done assuming Jesus isn’t a prophet and then Jesus reads his mind!] “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed more than two years’ salary. The other owed more than two months’ salary. Neither could pay, and so the lender canceled the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

I find this comparison interesting. As you’ve already guessed, Jesus is setting Simon up for a lesson. But in this comparison, neither of the debtors could pay their debts. Doesn’t matter whether it was a little debt or a big debt, they couldn’t pay it. I think this might be a little bit of a trick question. Because regardless of the size of the debt, if it is un-pay-back-able, the intensity of the gratitude would be the same, wouldn’t it? You follow me? It doesn’t matter if one owes more than the other. In their own situations, if neither could pay the debt, then they have been equally rescued from disaster. I think this is part of how Jesus is setting up the lesson. Keep that in mind and let’s see what happens next. 

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? {Did you catch the positioning? Jesus is looking at the woman but supposedly talking to Simon.} [Jesus said to Simon,] When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

This section makes no sense to us modern readers. But it is about hospitality. In the ancient world, most people traveled on foot. It was hot. There were no showers. So personal hygiene was … not what we are used to. When you welcomed a guest into your home, the hospitable thing to do would be to allow them to wash their dirty feet, or to have one of your servants wash their feet. You would greet that person with a kiss of friendship and respect. And you would offer them some fragrant oil, which would make close contact more pleasant for everyone. Simon does none of these things. The woman does extravagant versions of them. This is not her house, but she’s going above and beyond what even the best hostess would do.

Here’s the last few sentences of the story:

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

We can tell this story in seven words. Seven. A number that often represents wholeness in the Bible. 

The first word is sinner. This woman is labeled a sinner. And despite what church tradition usually offers us, we don’t know what that means in this situation. How many of you thought prostitute? Yeah, of course you did. That’s natural. Because that’s what we always think. With absolutely no evidence from this story or any other, we assume that a “sinful” woman must be doing something sexual. This is something that has been handed down to us through a misogynistic patriarchal church tradition. Maybe she was, but we don’t know. There are plenty of other possibilities.

The Pharisee reacts to her with all kinds of self-righteous indignation, as though she is a sinner but he is not. A sinner who has come into his house, crashed his fancy dinner party, and is monopolizing the attention of his guest of honor. A sinner, he says. He gives her a label. Sinner. His label for her. Society’s label for her. But not Jesus’ label for her.

The second word is canceled. In Jesus’ parable, the creditor canceled the debts, forgave the debts. Literally the creditor “gave grace” to those who owed him life-destroying impossible-to-repay debts. All of a sudden, by the grace of the creditor, the debt is just gone. Canceled. We have good evidence that in Jesus’ day debt was the most common Jewish metaphor for sin. Sin isn’t tangible. It’s a concept and so we need to relate it to something we can touch and experience. Like debt. Which almost all of us have in some form. Can you imagine if someone just wiped out all, ALL, of your debt? Can you just take a minute and feel that? All debt, canceled.

Which brings us to the third word: love. The verb, not the noun. Love is the action in response to having debt canceled. The one who had the larger debt canceled supposedly loved more. And this is where I think Jesus is making a point. Remember what I said a few minutes ago? If both debts were equally unrepayable, why would one person love more than the other? They wouldn’t. But Simon thinks the one who owed more would love more. Why? Because he was comparing the debts. And so Jesus comes back at him with comparison. This is important.

Simon thinks he has little to be grateful for. He’s a Pharisee. He’s a stand-up guy. He’s not a sinner, like her. His sense of self-righteousness deadens his gratitude. He is playing the sin-comparison game, saying “Well at least I’m not like those bad people.” He is judging her sins but ignoring his own sins. The point of the story is that the debts were equally unrepayable, even though they were of different amounts. It doesn’t matter that Simon thinks he is better than this woman; he couldn’t pay his debt either! He is paying attention to the size of her debt instead of the grace of his cancellation. This is the perennial hypocrisy of church people. We look at other people who we think are worse than we are and forget that our debts are equally life-destroying for us, equally un-repayable. We are paying attention to the sins someone else had in the past instead of the grace we have now. 

The fourth word is forgiven. (Sinner, canceled, love, forgiven.) This is what the woman was focused on. She wasn’t focused on comparing the size of debts. She was only focused on the fact that her debt had been forgiven. The literal translation is “released.” We have talked about this word several times this year. The book of Luke uses this word “released” a lot. Luke uses it when he means social liberation, physical healing, freedom from demonic oppression, letting go of possessions or status, being freed from a debt, or the forgiveness of sins. This word “release” can be used in all of those ways. Here it means forgiven. And it’s intricately tied to the word right before it: love. Love and forgiveness. Love and release. 

The way the sentence is written, it’s actually hard to tell whether love brings about release or whether release brings about love. Which means that what Jesus wants us to remember is that love and release, love and forgiveness, are inseparable. They spark each other. If you are forgiven, you will love. If you love, you will forgive. More and more and more.

The fifth word is faith. This is the word we talk about all the time. It doesn’t mean to force your brain to cognitively believe something invisible or nonsensical. It means to trust because of a relationship. To trust because you know that person. 

The sixth word is saved. Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you.” In this situation, I do not think that “saved” means “a soul rescued from the fires of eternal conscious torment.” When we come up with that meaning for the word “saved,” we are reading a whole lot of history back onto the text and seeing something that’s not clearly there. The word “saved” is used in lots of ways, like the word “released.” “Saved” means rescued, healed, or victorious. This woman’s trust has rescued her from her past, whatever she did and whatever was done to her. Her debt has been cancelled, and she trusts that her debt has been canceled. She trusts that she doesn’t need to spend her life trying to pay off an unpayable debt. She has been saved.

One last word. There are seven key words in this story: sinner, canceled, love, forgiven, faith, saved, and the final word, the seventh word is peace. The last word in the story. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace. It is the last word Jesus speaks over this woman and it is the last word that Jesus speaks over us. Peace. I’m not talking about zoned-out serenity. This peace means “wholeness.” It means everything tied together and in it’s proper place. Wholeness. God’s intention for the world. The Hebrew word is shalom. And we find it all throughout the Old Testament. When the world is as God intends it to be, when God renews creation, all things will be at peace. The cosmos will be whole. We will be whole. The point of debts being cancelled is wholeness. Love makes us whole. Release brings wholeness. Trust restores our wholeness. When we are saved we are whole. And Jesus speaks a word over us: Go in peace. Amen. 

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