Nov 11, 2012

The Forgiven Woman

Luke 7:36–50

Those who know they have been forgiven a great debt are stirred to great love and gratitude. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke by examining Jesus’ response when a notorious woman came to honor Him at dinner.


This morning, we continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the seventh chapter, and this morning I will read from Luke 7:36–50:

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

So he said, “Teacher, say it.”

“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

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

And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

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

All these episodes from the life of our Lord recorded in the Gospels, and here in Luke’s gospel, are profoundly important for us to hear and understand. But there is none more poignant, touching, or significant than the one we have just heard. This is not simply Luke’s account. This is God’s account of what our Lord did on this occasion. Please receive this as the Word of the living God. Let’s pray.

Again, O Lord our God, how glad we are to be in Your house this morning. How happy we are to have this opportunity to bring before You our sacrifices of praise. We ask now that You would send your Spirit that He may descend upon us as we hear Your Word, that the Spirit would cause us to delight in it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Strange Invitation

Last week, we heard Jesus speak of the hypocrisy of those who criticized John the Baptist for one thing and Jesus for just the opposite. It seemed that no matter what a prophet of God might do, the Pharisees were inclined to reject and condemn him. That episode was followed by a strange invitation from one of the Pharisees, whose name was Simon.

This was not Simon the leper, Simon the tanner, or Simon Magus. This was not Simon Peter. We are not sure what Simon it was, only that he was a Pharisee. It was the Pharisees and their party who were most hostile toward Jesus. So, we must ask the question, Why would a member of this hostile Pharisee party invite Jesus to his house for dinner?” Jesus was not the only guest, as this was a banquet feast that included many others as well. To include Jesus on the Pharisees’ A-list, however, was a strange thing indeed.

If I may have the license to speculate this morning, I must wonder what moved this Pharisee to include Jesus in the group. My guess, and it is only a guess since the Bible does not tell us, is that he wanted to probe Jesus, who had the reputation of being a prophet. The Pharisee thought: “Let’s see if He really is a prophet. I don’t think so, but I’d like to see Him up close and personal and see what I can discover about Him.” Maybe that was his motive, or maybe he simply wanted to find some way to trap Jesus into condemning Himself.

In any case, Simon asked Jesus to the party, and our Lord acquiesced. He said, “Sure, I’ll come to your house for dinner.” So, He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down to eat. That meant He reclined on a couch because that is the way they would eat in the banquets of that day. They would recline on couches where a person would lean on his left elbow and keep his right hand free to eat the food presented to him.

An Uninvited, Egregious Sinner

We are told in verse 37, “Behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner”—it does not say she was a prostitute. History and tradition assume that she was a prostitute because she was given this designation of being a sinner. There are many other sins than that one, yet that was the designation or euphemism for “prostitute” that was frequently used in antiquity.

We do not know for sure, but whatever her sin was, it was considered egregious and a sin for which she was notorious. She was not your rank and file, run-of-the-mill, commonplace sinner. She was obviously a serious sinner, possibly a professional sinner. In any case, we know she was not invited. There is no way that a Pharisee would invite a notorious, sinful lady to his house. The Pharisees embraced the idea of salvation by segregation, by keeping themselves at a safe distance from notorious sinners. To come into any kind of contact with egregious sinners would be to pollute themselves and their own holiness.

This was one of the common complaints the Pharisees made about Jesus: He was a winebibber and a glutton, associated with tax collectors and other kinds of awful sinners. We can only suspect that the woman heard about the party, but what interested her was not that there was a party in town, but that Jesus was going to be there.

I do not know how the woman got into the house. I assume she was well-dressed, and she was carrying an alabaster container filled with precious ointment, perfume. Maybe the gatekeeper saw an attractive woman coming, bearing an attractive gift, asked no questions, and said: “I’m not going to turn this lady away. Obviously, the master of the house has invited her and will be pleased with the gifts that she brings.” Again, that is a guess.

The Weeping Woman

While the Bible does not tell us how the woman got into the house, it does say that she came, and she stood at Jesus’ feet behind Him, weeping. This was a festive occasion. People were there to have a good time. The basic mood of the evening was one of joy. When the woman came in, however, she started to cry.

The woman did not simply whimper. She sobbed, and her eyes poured out so many tears that they fell and saturated the feet of Jesus. Once again, the text does not tell us why she was crying. Perhaps she was embarrassed, but she leaned over, seeing that her tears were soaking the feet of Jesus, and her intent when she came here was not to dishonor Him in any way. So, she leaned over, took the strands of her hair, and tenderly wiped away her tears from our Lord’s feet.

Can you picture it? Do you see it? Can you imagine the shock that rippled through the house? The rest of the guests, the Pharisees, watched this spectacle unfold before them. They saw a notorious woman enter and drip her tears all over the teacher’s feet, and then she leaned over and dried the tears with her own hair. But she was not finished. She kissed Hs feet. She didn’t come in and kiss him on the cheek or on the forehead. She humiliated herself to kiss His feet.

How can you not think of Psalm 2, where the question is, “Why do the kings of the earth conspire against the Lord and against His anointed, saying, ‘Let us cast their bonds from off us and let us break their chains’”? They made a declaration of independence. We read in Psalm 2, “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh, and He will hold the rulers of this world in derision.” They mock Him, just as the leaders of our nation mock Him every day. God looks at that and laughs, saying, “Who are you kidding?” Then we’re told at the end of Psalm 2, “Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and you perish in the way.” Dearly beloved, how our land needs people today who will kiss the Son instead of despising Him.

Which Will Love More?

The woman kissed Jesus’ feet and then anointed His feet with fragrant, expensive oil. When the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself. He didn’t speak to Jesus. He didn’t speak to the woman. He didn’t speak to his friends. This was a soliloquy in his own mind. He spoke silently to his own conscience, saying: “If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what manner of woman this is who’s touching him. Now I know the answer to my original question. This man can’t possibly be a prophet, because if He were a prophet, He would know the wickedness of this woman, and He certainly wouldn’t allow her to touch Him.”

Jesus knew what the Pharisee was saying to himself. Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon responded: “Yes? Well, go ahead and say it.” What Jesus had to say to this Pharisee was a parable, and there are none simpler in the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus began, “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors, one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty.” A denarius was the average day’s pay for a common worker in the country. The debtor who owed fifty denarii owed fifty days’ worth of wages, not counting the Sabbath day. The other man owed five hundred denarii, which would be about two years’ worth of his income. That’s a lot of indebtedness for a common person in the land of Israel to be carrying.

Jesus went on to say, “And when they had nothing with which to repay, the creditor forgave the debt.” He freely forgave the debt. There weren’t any strings attached to his mercy. He simply canceled the debt. There was no payment and nothing that could be done to earn it. This cancellation of debt was unmerited and freely given. The man who was owed all the money said, “You don’t have to pay.”

Then came the punch line. Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, “Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” I love the answer that Simon the Pharisee gave: “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” You suppose the one whom he forgave more? Isn’t it as obvious as it could be that the one who had been forgiven ten times more than the other was ten times more thankful, ten times more loving? As hard as it was to admit, Simon at least allowed a supposition that one of them would love more than the other. Jesus said to Simon, “You have rightly judged,” which was one of the few times this Pharisee made a right judgment.

An Extravagant Act of Worship

Jesus then turned to the woman. He looked at the woman, but He was still speaking to Simon: “Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you didn’t even give Me a water basin to wash my feet.” Customarily there was not only a basin for foot washing, but also a towel to dry your feet.

“Simon, you didn’t even give any water to wash my feet, which is a common courtesy. You gave me no water and no towel. This woman supplied the water and the towel. She washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. When I came, Simon, did you kiss Me? Do we not greet one another with a holy kiss? Is it not the custom to kiss our friends, even the men, on the cheek? You did not kiss Me, but she kissed me on the feet. In fact, she has not ceased to kiss my feet since I came in. Simon, you did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with fragrant oil. Therefore”—this indicates a rational conclusion coming—“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

Everybody in that place, including Jesus, came to Simon the Pharisee’s house for a party, but the woman came to go to church. She came because Jesus was there, and she came to worship Him. She came to adore Him, to praise Him, to thank Him, to honor Him, to glorify Him, and to serve Him.

Why are we here this morning? Are we here with tears flowing out of our shame and gratitude? Are we here to give extravagant praise and thanksgiving to Jesus? This was not a token offering of praise and thanksgiving. This was an extravagant act of worship coming from a woman who experienced extravagant grace for the forgiveness of her sins.

Great Forgiveness, Great Love

Finally, Jesus finished talking to Simon about the woman. The woman had heard everything Jesus said to Simon, but now He turned His attention to her and said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

There are two kinds of people in the world: those whose sins have been forgiven and those whose sins have not been forgiven; those who repent of their sins and those who remain steadfast in their impenitence; those who heap lavish praise and adoration upon Jesus and those who refuse to submit to Him. It is very simple. There are two categories.

I am not endowed with omniscience. I cannot read people’s thoughts and minds like Jesus could, but the odds would indicate that there are not just one or two, but many, possibly hundreds of people in this sanctuary whose sins are not forgiven. They have never repented of their sin, never given authentic worship to Jesus, and never wept tears of gratitude because their debt has been erased by the free mercy of God.

I do not know which group you are in. I don’t know if you are one of those who weeps tears of joy for Jesus or one of those whose heart is sealed against Him. I do not know how many of you are like the woman and how many of you are like Simon. But certainly, the Lord knows, and you know where your heart is.

Can you ever hear anything better? You could have somebody come to the door from Reader’s Digest and say, “Congratulations, you’ve won a million dollars.” You can have your boss come in and say, “Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to vice president of the company,” or, “You’ve had a tremendous raise in your salary.” What is that compared to hearing the Lord Jesus Christ say to you, “Your sins are forgiven”?

I know on September 13, 1957, in my heart, I heard the Lord Jesus say that to me. That was the defining moment of my life because there is no greater gift that the Lord can give any of us than to cancel our debt, erase the ledger, and forgive us for every sin we’ve ever committed.

The more we understand the gift He has given to us, the greater the love we have for Him, because he who is forgiven much, loves much. So, I say to you this morning what Jesus said to the woman: “If indeed you have faith, that faith has saved you, and you can go in peace.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.