Love's Measure

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 7:47-48

“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.”

Luke 7:47-48 RSV

I’ve always felt it was one of the most moving scenes in all the gospels, poignantly beautiful. Let me read it to you now. It’s from Luke, chapter 7, beginning at verse 36. It speaks of strange behavior, of secret thoughts and searching words. Listen:

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to a meal; he went to the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table. A woman who was living an immoral life in the town had learned that Jesus was a guest in the Pharisee’s house and had brought oil of myrrh in a small flask. She took her place behind him, by his feet, weeping. His feet were wet with her tears and she wiped them with her hair, kissing them and anointing them with the myrrh. When his host the Pharisee saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a real prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him, and what a bad character she is.” Jesus took him up: “Simon,” he said, “I have something to say to you.” “What is it, Teacher?” he asked. “Two men were in debt to a moneylender: one owed him five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. As they did not have the means to pay he cancelled both debts. Now, which loved him more?” Simon replied, “I should think the one that was let off more.” “You are right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “You see this woman? I came to your house: you provided no water for my feet; but this woman has made my feet wet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss; but she has been kissing my feet ever since I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil; but she has anointed my feet with myrrh. So, I tell you, her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to ask themselves, “Who is this, that he can forgive sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (REB).

STRANGE BEHAVIOR

Let’s look first at the strange behavior here. Jesus has been invited to be a guest in the home of a Pharisee, Simon. He has taken His place at table, reclining on a couch, feet extended behind Him. Suddenly a woman appears, uninvited. She seems to be looking for someone. It’s for Jesus. She’s found Him now and moves quickly to stand at His feet. The guests recognize her as a woman of unsavory reputation in their village. They wonder what she’s doing there. She has a flask of myrrh in her hand and seems intent on anointing Jesus with it. Before she can begin, her body is suddenly shaken with sobs. She weeps copiously, her tears falling like raindrops on Jesus’ feet. Still crying, she drops to her knees and begins to dry Jesus’ feet with the long tresses of her hair. She covers His feet with kisses and then anoints them with the myrrh.

All conversation by this time has ceased. Every eye is on this arresting scene, this woman so overcome with deep emotion. Everyone’s feeling a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed for Jesus.

What’s this woman doing? they wonder. What’s her connection with Jesus? What’s behind all these tears, these lavish tokens of affection? And who ever heard of anointing someone’s feet with costly myrrh? Anointing is for the head, isn’t it? What could all this mean?

SECRET THOUGHTS

The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Simon, the host. He had his own thoughts about it. He said to himself, “If this man were a real prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him, and what a bad character she is.” Simon reveals here his attitude toward the woman. In his judgment, she is a bad person, a sinner, someone who has repeatedly broken God’s laws and is rightly treated as a moral outcast. His view of everything she does is colored by that judgment of her character. Apparently he’s not impressed, certainly not moved, by what she has just done.

This leads him to some negative reflections about Jesus. He concludes in his mind that Jesus cannot be a real prophet. If He were, Simon reasons, Jesus would know what kind of woman this is. If He were one of God’s anointed spokesmen, He would be a discerning judge of character. He would have the kind of clairvoyance that would recognize instantly that this was a sinful woman.

The second conclusion was equally obvious to Simon. If Jesus were a prophet, someone heaven-sent, He would surely never have tolerated this behavior. A real man of God would keep himself as far away as possible from a woman like this.

Perhaps Simon felt a little sorry for Jesus, with a pity bordering on contempt. Wasn’t it too bad, he thought, wasn’t it outrageous that she should come to his home and make such a scene? And that Jesus would let Himself be taken in by it? That He would tolerate this disgusting display? Whatever view of Jesus Simon had held when He invited Him had now been revised sharply downward. He was disappointed, to say the least. He had thought well of Jesus but now he saw that he had been mistaken. Too bad!

SEARCHING WORDS

Jesus knew what His host was thinking. Don’t ask me how. He just knew. He felt it. And though these thoughts had all been unspoken on Simon’s part, Jesus answered them, we read, as though He had heard everything. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” What is it, Teacher? Then came this little parable. One man owed a money lender five hundred silver pieces and another owed fifty, and neither had anything to pay. The moneylender canceled both of the debts – quite an astonishing display of kindness and forbearance. Which one of these debtors, asked Jesus, would love his benefactor most? Simon, not quite sure where he was being led, gave the obvious response: “I should think the one that was let off more.” “That’s right,” Jesus said.

The Lord proceeded to apply the truth to their present situation. Jesus compared the treatment shown Him by the Pharisee to that which He had received from this woman. Simon had apparently shown Jesus no special courtesies. It was sometimes the practice of a host to have a servant wash the feet of his guests. But this had not been done, nor had water been provided for Jesus to refresh Himself. There had been no particular greeting of affection on Simon’s part, no kiss, no hand shake, as we would say. Simon had not appeared to feel especially glad or honored to have Jesus in his home. An anointing of the head with oil might have been arranged for guests held in special esteem, but it was not done for Jesus. Now Jesus is not blaming His host here for this neglect. He’s simply taking note of what has happened. Especially, He’s comparing this treatment with what the visitor had done, the woman whom Simon so despised.

Talk about foot washing! She had been bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her own hair. She had shown the highest expression of respect and reverence for Jesus by kissing His feet as a pupil might do for a beloved teacher. And if anointing the head of a guest was an honor, what was it by comparison to pour out a flask of precious myrrh on someone’s feet?

WHAT LOVE SIGNIFIES

Jesus sees the woman’s actions as an extraordinary expression of love. Her way of relating to Jesus spoke eloquently of gratitude, devotion, a sense of great indebtedness. The behavior of Simon, on the other hand, though reasonably polite, had nothing about it out of the ordinary. If we were to compare the two, we would have to say that “much love,” as over against “little love,” would be a fair description.

Now Jesus draws a lesson from all this. “So I tell you, her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” Jesus is saying that the woman’s extravagant devotion testifies to the fact that she has been greatly forgiven. She’s aware that her many sins have been pardoned. Her thankfulness for so rich a mercy knows no bounds. Simon, on the other hand, has demonstrated by his little love that he has been forgiven little, at least he’s conscious of little forgiveness. He does not see himself, apparently, as a sinner, as a “bad character” like this woman. He looks upon himself rather as a fine, upstanding man, law-abiding and devout. He feels little need for forgiveness and consequently little love for the One in whom that forgiveness has come.

Do you sense what is really startling here? Jesus is saying that a person’s attitude toward Him (Jesus), a person’s love toward Him, is a measure of the divine forgiveness they’ve received. Now Jesus would have acknowledged, like any of His countrymen, that forgiveness comes from God, that no mere human being can ever forgive sin. Our sins are all committed against God Himself. As the psalmist put it, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight” (Ps. 51:4). Therefore, only God can provide the pardon that every one of us needs. But Jesus is conscious not only that He Himself can speak the word of forgiveness, not only that He has the authority to forgive, but that whenever people experience the forgiveness of God, they owe to Him, Jesus, a debt of grateful love. He’s saying in the plainest and most powerful way that in His own life and ministry, God has come to bring pardon and peace to His people. Whatever they experience of the forgiving grace of God, they owe all praise for it to Jesus the Savior. He is in Himself the pardon of God. In His life, death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins becomes a blessed reality for all who believe in Him.

This is borne out by the rest of the narrative, isn’t it. Jesus says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” She must have known before she ever entered that dining room that in Jesus the grace of God had visited her. That’s why she came. Those were tears of repentance surely, but also of gratitude, joy, and devotion. She somehow knew that in spite of all her wrongs she had been accepted in Jesus, and that the past was buried in God’s forgiveness. This word from Jesus was simply an outward affirmation of what she already knew in her heart to be true. She was forgiven.

The other guests began to ask themselves, “Who is this, that he can forgive sins?” They were asking the right question. If they had followed through, they would have discovered salvation for themselves. That’s the right question for you, too, and for me. Who is this? Who is this that can blot out the past with forgiving love and give people a new beginning and fill their hearts with a rapturous love? Who is this that can make things right between sinful human beings and a holy God? Why, it must be the Lord of glory. It must be the Savior of the world. That is the answer of faith.

The woman had discovered this in blessed personal experience. Jesus said to her this final word, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” These tears of contrition, these demonstrations of affection, these signs of deathless gratitude, they were not the cause of her being forgiven. The Lord didn’t have mercy upon her because she proved to be such a loving person. No, these things were the result of her salvation, of her meeting with Christ. They were the fruits of forgiveness. What had saved her was the simplest trust in God’s great, accepting love in Jesus Christ. She could go in peace, a transformed woman, happy in her heart because she had believed in Jesus the Savior.

We can only imagine how this must have affected Simon. Did he blush? Did he lower his eyes? Did he come to realize that he, too, was one of the sinners Jesus came to save? Did he through this encounter come to trust in Jesus as the heaven-sent Savior? Did he in joyful gratitude spend the rest of his life as a devoted servant of the Lord? We don’t know about that. We aren’t told. But this we do know: It can be that way for us. May it be so! And may our fervent love for Christ be the sign that we have been forgiven much!

Prayer: Father, in the light of Christ’s life and of His death for our sins, may we see how great our sins and miseries are, that trusting in Him we may experience forgiveness and know a grateful love for all our days. In the name of Jesus. Amen.