An Interrupted Dinner Party
This morning we’re going to look at Lk.7:36-50—an interrupted dinner party. But before we read it, we should read what Jesus says immediately beforehand—because it tips us off to the meaning of this incident (read 7:34b,35 NIV). Jesus is the friend of sinners (irreligious/overtly immoral Jews). His enemies (the religious leaders) conclude from this that he is a sinner (“Like attracts like.”). But Jesus insists that his friendship with sinners embodies God’s wisdom, and that this is proven by what happens to those who respond to his friendship. Let’s see how this incident illustrates Jesus’ claim...
Read 7:36 (NLT). The Pharisees were the sect of Jewish religious leaders that were most outraged by Jesus’ association with “sinners.” We’re not told why this Pharisee (named Simon in 7:40) invited Jesus to dinner—but what follows implies that it was an investigation under the pretense of hospitality. It didn’t take long for him to find the dirt he was looking for...
Read 7:37,38. Dinner parties were often held in the cooler outdoor patio, so passers-by could easily see and crash. They ate dinner lying down, leaning on their left elbows with their feet outward from the table. (This explains why the woman was able to anoint and wash and kiss Jesus’ feet without being under the table.) This woman had pursued a lifestyle of sexual immorality—probably either as a prostitute or as the village whore. The perfume was very costly (about one year’s wages). This incident went on for some time (actions described; present tenses?), and Jesus obviously made no effort to stop her.
While this going on, Simon forms a (silent) interpretation of its meaning (read 7:39). Essentially he is saying that Jesus’ toleration of this woman’s presence and (especially) her physical contact proves that he is not a prophet from God. A prophet would know that she was a slimy sinner and would never allow himself to be touched (and defiled) by such a person. He probably was on his way to concluding that Jesus was far worse than just not a prophet! Maybe Jesus had been her customer or lover—and she was trying to get him back by trying to emotionally manipulate him and buy him with money she got from one of her other customers.
While Simon is silently judging the woman and Jesus, Jesus speaks (read 7:40-42). Through this little story, Jesus is subtly communicating both that he knows Simon’s interpretation of this incident (thus proving that he is at least a prophet)—and that Simon’s interpretation is wrong. This woman is not human trash who is rudely violating their dinner by desperately trying to get Jesus back. She is a “child of God’s wisdom”—she has responded to Jesus’ friendship and offer of God’s forgiveness, and this forgiveness has filled her heart with grateful love. This is not an offense to be angry about—this is a miracle to be rejoiced in!
But the subtle approach doesn’t work—Simon doesn’t connect the dots (read 7:43a). So Jesus takes the straightforward approach—read 7:43b-50. This is the heart of our passage, so let’s make sure we understand three key points:
Jesus is claiming divine authority to forgive people’s sins. If you steal something from your neighbor and you admit it, he may say “I forgive you.” But what if I come in the middle of this conversation and say “I forgive you for stealing from your neighbor—and for everything else?” That’s what Jesus said to this woman: “I pronounce you completely forgiven for all the horrible things you have done against others and against God.” This is polarizing claim to be way more than a prophet, and a claim that no other founder of any world religion has ever made—it is a claim to be God.
Jesus isn’t saying that Simon hasn’t sinned much—he’s saying that Simon self-righteously thinks he doesn’t need forgiveness. This is very ironic language (like 5:32,33). He is saying: “Your lack of basic courtesy shows that you don’t love me. And the reason you don’t love me is that you don’t think you need the forgiveness I offer.” Simon’s self-righteousness has skewed both his interpretation of the woman’s action and his assessment of who Jesus is. Therefore, self-righteous pride is a far greater sin because it blinds people from seeing the truth.
Loving Jesus doesn’t merit his forgiveness—being forgiven by Jesus motivates love for him. Some people (and some church denominations) misunderstand this as teaching contrition—the woman’s love for Jesus cancels out the guilt of her sin. But the whole point of the parable and Jesus’ explanation teaches exactly the opposite. His gracious forgiveness comes first, and this amazing gift is what motivates her to love him with grateful abandon.
“Wisdom is proved right by her children”
Let’s go back to what Jesus says in 7:47. Jesus is describing a profound spiritual dynamic that only he can provide: Experiencing Jesus’ love and forgiveness has the unique power to change your heart and transform your life. Religion could never do what Jesus’ love and forgiveness did for this woman. Religion could only condemn her or at best restrict her behavior through a sense of duty and a fear of judgment—but Jesus’ love and forgiveness changed her heart and her life. This is what Jesus meant in 7:34,35 when he insisted that his friendship with sinners was God’s wisdom, and that this wisdom is proved right by her children. When you realize that what you truly deserve is judgment, but that instead Jesus has given you God’s love and mercy—this melts your hard heart and generates a gratitude that must express itself in lavish love.
This is the deepest experience of the human heart. This is why this story moves me so much. This is the greatest theme of great literature. I want you to feel the power of this amazing truth by watching a scene from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” Jean Valjean, the criminal, represents you and me. The bishop represents Jesus’ amazing love. And the bishop’s maid represents religion. WATCH CLIP. It was the love of Jesus through this bishop that rescued Jean Valjean from hardened misery and transformed him into a man of amazing love and integrity. And the maid (like Simon the Pharisee) is shocked and outraged by this kind of love.
This is what changed the life of a Jewish religious leader named Saul of Tarsus. He killed Christians for a living, and killed them with calculating cruelty. But then the risen Jesus appeared to him when he was on his way to kill more Christians. And instead of slaying him on the spot (which he deserved), Jesus forgave him and chose him to be a spokesman of his love and mercy to others. And this changed Paul’s life forever. He never got over the incredible disparity between what he deserved and what Jesus gave him. And this disparity motivated him to give his whole being in glad service to Jesus by sharing his offer all over the world (read 1 Tim.1:12-17 NLT).
This is what changed the life of a man named John Newton. Newton was a slave-trader in the early 1800’s, and he was responsible for the death and abuse of thousands of Africans. His heart was dark and hardened and hopeless—but then (like this woman) he met Jesus and experienced his incredible love and forgiveness. In gratitude, he gave his whole life to serve this Jesus. This John Newton was the author of most famous Christian song in the English language (“Amazing Grace”). Newton also became the powerful spiritual supporter of William Wilberforce, the Christian who was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. You can learn about the incredible redemptive impact of Newton’s life in the newly released movie “Amazing Grace.”
This is what changed my life. I met Jesus 37 years ago. I was ruining my life and hurting other people when he extended his love and forgiveness to me. The discovery of his undeserved love has been the greatest experience of my life because it has had the longest-lasting and deepest impact on my life. The longer I live, the more clearly I see how sinful and undeserving I am, and the more blown away I am that he reached out to me. That’s why the thing that gives me the greatest joy is seeing other people meet him—especially people like this woman!
Jesus’ love and forgiveness can change your life. This is what it means to become a Christian. You don’t become a Christian by subscribing to the doctrines of the Bible and trying to following the ethics of the Bible. You become a Christian by meeting the Jesus of the Bible—the same Jesus that this woman met, and experiencing his love and forgiveness. It is this encounter with the living Jesus and his undeserved love that changes your heart and gradually transforms your life to thank him and love him and serve him by giving his love to others. You can meet Jesus by faith, just as this woman did. Just take your place with her and:
Acknowledge your debt to him. Tell him “I have rebelled against God and sinned against people. I have a sin-debt that I can never repay, and I deserve God’s judgment.”
Ask him for his gift of forgiveness. Tell him “I cast myself on your mercy. I trust that you are willing and able to pay my sin-debt for me, and I ask you to forgive me for all of my sins.”
Thank him for his forgiveness. Tell him “Thank you for loving me and forgiving me as you promised. I want to follow you because of your love.”
When you come to Jesus this way, he says to you what he said to this woman: “Your faith has saved you—go in peace.”
I wonder if some of you want to share your own confirmation of this amazing reality...