Click here for a print-friendly version
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of October 27, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Luke 7:37-48
Key Verse: Luke 7:38
As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
: To understand and learn the important role of generosity and gratitude in faith and life. To understand the power of unbridled, courageous love.
There are other parallel passages in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. Some believe these are different descriptions of the same event and point out the similarities and inconsistencies. However, we cannot assume this event in Jesus’ ministry just occurred once, and was recorded four times. We have no definitive way to know if they are describing the same event. Therefore, I am studying the narrative as presented with no reference to the other passages. Remember, Luke states in the opening of his gospel that he consulted other sources in writing his gospel. Thus, Luke was rather careful as to how he recorded the events. He describes a banquet that in many ways is different from those in the other gospels regardless of the similarities. Therefore, we will study this text in isolation from the others. The purpose of Luke in recording this event is to reveal who Jesus is, and reveal the nature of a true, grateful heart. This purpose is that which is most important for our study.
Geography and Background Context
Jesus is attending a dinner given by a Pharisee named Simon. Most likely the dinner is occurring in Capernaum but could have been held in any of the villages of Galilee. The meal seems to occur not long after the centurion’s servant was healed. It is possible Jesus is invited in order to trap him and make mockery of his ministry. As Jesus’ popularity grows so grows controversy. Banquets at the homes of Pharisees were held in the presence of the courtyard. Visitors were allowed to stand or sit in the courtyard and listen to the conversation. Thus, we can infer that if the Pharisee is attempting to entrap Jesus he wants to do so in the presence of the townspeople. The dining guests are reclining on their right arms, the usual posture for dining in ancient Israel. The scene would have been busy with servants moving to and fro from the table. This would explain the sinful woman’s ability to approach Jesus before being recognized. Jesus accepted invitations to dine in the homes of religious leaders more than this one occasion. Why would anyone accept an invitation to a banquet in which the host is almost certainly hostile? Jesus took advantage of such settings to reveal the truth of God’s love for all. Those perceived as sinful were especially in the mind of Jesus when he accepted. He most likely didn’t accept to engage in conflict, but to express God’s love to the listeners in the courtyard and around the table.
Historical, theological, and experiential reflection on Luke 7: 37-48
Luke 7: 37-38a
I once built a church on the Yucatan Peninsula in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. During lunch we retired to the home of a United Methodist family. The homes of all were similar. They were concrete hovels with bars on widows rather than glass. As I eagerly bit into a sandwich I heard commotion near the window. I turned and saw the children of the community pressing their faces against the bars to watch us eat. That was the most difficult sandwich I have eaten. The Pharisees and leaders of Capernaum must have thought little about the people in their courtyard, watching and listening during the banquet. I imagine the common people often felt overlooked, or were invisible to the “important” people at the table. The sinful woman came with a mission. She brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, most likely myrrh, with her. She had heard of Jesus and was determined to express love and gratitude for him. The oil was most often used for perfume, for anointing the dead, and anointing the heads of prophets and religious leaders. Perfumed oil was expensive. Using the oil to express her affection for Jesus would have been a great sacrifice. Judas Iscariot once complained about a woman anointing Jesus with such oil. Jesus rebuked him, for an expression of love and gratitude was of far greater value than money. The woman most likely is a former prostitute or adulterer. I use the word “former” because it is evident something has happened within her. It was something so great and beautiful she was willing to risk ridicule, rejection, or worse to thank Jesus.
When a text is translated from the original language into English it can often lose some of its emotional power. The word “sinful” used by Luke implies a detestable life. One scholar interprets the life of the sinful woman as “a miserable way of life.” Jesus might have touched her life on a previous occasion, or she had heard him speak and act and witnessed his great love. She knew in her heart he would not turn her away. She was ready to leave her former life behind, for she witnessed the power of love and forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry. Capernaum was Jesus home, and most likely she heard him teach, or touch sinful lives, or both. Her emotion and tears reveal the depth of the love that drove her into the home of Simon. The narrative reads, “she stood behind him weeping.” We can also witness humility in her love.
Human need can humble the proudest person. In last week’s lesson the centurion humbled himself as he asked Jesus to heal his servant. I doubt this woman was proud. Her need for wholeness allowed her to engage in a risky act of love. It is definitely a humble woman who draws near to Jesus. She is standing behind Jesus as she weeps. This would have been the moment she was recognized by her host and the others as the “sinful” woman in Capernaum. Simon and the others would have bristled at her appearance. Remember, the touch of a sinful woman defiled a person. Those touched would have been unable to participate in religious rituals and functions. She is most likely a divorced woman. A woman could be divorced for any reason. Often if she failed to bear a male child she was divorced. But, she could receive a bill of divorce for most any reason. She could never remarry, though her husband could. If she had no family in the area, where would she go? How would she eat? No one wants a woman with the capability of defiling their home. Some women turned to prostitution to eat bread, or depended upon an unfaithful man to provide the most basic needs. We do not know the details of this woman’s life. But, it was most likely a “most miserable life.” If Jesus treated her as a worthy person, and loved her without condition, yes, she would weep. Jesus’ words and actions would have been most strange to her, and most beautiful.
Has a need in your life ever driven you to engage in risky love? Why was it a risk? Can you remember a time when your need, or the need of another, gave you a deep sense of humility? In what way? Are there individuals “standing in the courtyard” of our society, feeling uninvited and as though they have nothing to contribute to the conversations in our culture? What can be done to bring them into the conversation? How can we best issue an invitation?
Luke 7: 38c-38d
A woman’s hair was usually bound atop the head. A woman was expected to cover her head when in public. Some rabbis taught that an uncovered head was akin to being immodest and creating lust. On occasion a woman’s hair was unbraided and loosened in public as part of a ritual designed to humiliate them for their adultery. It is interesting that the woman in our narrative has let her hair down. This was shameful in public. Yet, her need to lovingly wipe her tears from Jesus’ feet was far more powerful than public shame. It is obvious that she doesn’t care what others think. Love is in action; it is expressing affection so powerfully that cultural expectations are ignored. Some would consider her action foolish; Jesus considered it loving. She is lost in the wonder and power of love. It was customary for the host to ensure the servants washed the feet of his guests. We can infer from the host allowing Jesus’ feet to remain unwashed that he was already beginning to treat Jesus with disregard. It appears the refusal to see that Jesus’ feet were washed was an act of “putting Jesus in his place.”
Everyone has their place in the narrative. Simon and the “important people in the city” are reclining in the most respected places. The uninvited are in the courtyard observing. The servants are busy walking to and fro in their service. Jesus is most likely not reclining in the area set aside for the respected. If Jesus was reclining in the most important area of the table his feet would certainly have been washed. The woman is standing behind Jesus. The two most humble loving hearts are not in the high places; the proudest occupy them. Her tears are not a mere trickle down the cheek. The original language and tone of the narrative indicates she is almost sobbing. Some authorities on language state she is emitting a “shower of tears.” She is performing the task that should have been done by the servants. No one has asked her, or commanded her to wash Jesus’ feet. Again, she is doing so from a grateful, loving heart. She is also anointing his feet with her costly perfume. She is giving Jesus the respect and reverence due him in contrast to the host’s possible attempt to belittle Jesus in the eyes of the observing public.
Can you recall a situation in which you were driven by love? When your loving actions would have been unstoppable? Is there a moment in which you didn’t care what anyone thought, when you followed your heart, and above all Christ? Have you been so thankful you just “had to” express your thankfulness to Jesus?
Luke 7: 39
The preposition “if” is important in the text. “If Jesus was a prophet, and if he knew what kind of woman touched him” are words that question who Jesus really is. Prophets were on occasion anointed with oil. Either Jesus has a reputation for being a prophet, or the woman’s anointing of Jesus with the perfumed oil are affirming Jesus as a prophet of Israel. Simon doesn’t agree and is stating his dislike of the woman’s actions and the crowd’s belief; both declare Jesus to be a prophet. Indeed, Jesus was a prophet. Prophets were not simply the tellers of the future. They were those who perceived the culture through the eyes of God, and boldly declared God’s truth. Like Elijah and Elisha they might also perform miracles. Remember, Capernaum will later be cursed for its refusal to believe in Jesus. The phrase that if Jesus was a prophet “he would know what kind of woman this is” proves revealing. The Pharisee is correct that a prophet would certainly recognize sin. But, Jesus is not an ordinary prophet. Simon does not call the woman by name, instead he is stereotyping her as “one of those kind of women.” She has a name, and she has a story. The prophet Jesus is aware of her story, and that she is worth loving and redeeming. Simon also refers to her “touching Jesus.” Allowing a sinful woman to touch you was sinful itself. The person touched was defiled. Yet, in Jesus eyes she is not a sinful woman. She is a repentant woman, grateful for her forgiveness and loving in her response to it. In allowing the woman to wash his feet and anoint his head, Jesus is accepting her at a banquet to which she was not invited.
Has anyone ever made you feel unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness? Did you ever feel excluded for being the person you are? As a forgiven person, how do you express gratitude to God? Have there been occasions when we stereotyped people, or judged them without knowing their story? What would we do differently?
Luke 7: 40-43
After implying Jesus could not have been a prophet and that he had defiled himself by allowing a sinful woman to touch him, the Pharisee must have felt he accomplished his purpose in discrediting Jesus in the eyes of the observers. However, Jesus always overcame such accusations with truth, and he does so in a parable.
In Vacation Bible School I learned a simple definition of a parable that has been useful throughout my Christian life. A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Some of Jesus’ parables may be hard for us to understand. We live in a western culture and we are studying a near eastern culture. There are differences in our perceptions of truth and our understanding of life. However, this parable is easy for anyone to understand. It is simple, short and to the point, and the point is inescapable. One man owed 500 denarii, a wage that would require a common laborer to work one and a half years. The other man owed 50. The man owing 50 possessed the ability to eventually pay his debt. However, the man owing 500 was forever locked into his debt. Interest would continually increase his debt, and he could not earn enough money to live and pay the debt. The narrative reads that neither man could pay at the time. They stand before their lender without a means of resolving their problem. Still, the man owing 50 denarii could eventually pay his debt. A means could be worked out in which he would live with some sacrifice, and save in order to pay his debt. Erasing his debt was very possible. However, for the man owing 500, his case appears hopeless. His family would eventually be sold into servitude as a means of payment. He is already imprisoned before any legal action. However, the creditor forgives both debts. Jesus turns to Simon and asks one pointed question. “Now which of them will love him more?”
Jesus was a master at asking a right question at the right time. With these eight words he has done so again. Notice that Jesus has quickly whittled down the issue to its most fundamental point. The story is about love. It isn’t about who deserves to have the debt forgiven, or who can find the best means for payment. Jesus is asking who will be most grateful for the forgiveness. For, the one most grateful will be the one who loves most. Gratitude and love usually walk hand in hand. Jesus is inferring that both men will love the lender, for both are grateful. But, Jesus adds the word “more.” He is implying there are measures of love. One can love more than another. He is asking his host who would love the creditor more. The answer requires no superior knowledge, just what we might call common sense. Simon knows the answer immediately, though he sounds almost reluctant in offering it. “I suppose the one who had the greater debt.” The host cannot escape the answer. It is the only answer to the parable. Why does he not want to simply answer without hesitation? He knows that he has been entrapped by the truth.
Why do you think the Pharisee is somewhat uncomfortable answering? What do you think of his answer? How does the parable apply to your life?
Luke 7: 44-47
Jesus now compares and contrast the woman and the host. She is the one owing 500 denarii in the parable. Simon is forced to admit that she would be more grateful, but he is uncomfortable with the answer. His answer reveals he has been far less loving and gracious than her. It isn’t their status, standing, or title that reveals who loves most. It is their actions. When perceived in the light of love, Simon’s actions pale when contrasted to the woman’s. Jesus reminds him of all the woman has done to reveal her gratitude, and how little he has done. The crowd in the courtyard must have been astounded. First, they hear Jesus claim to know God has forgiven the woman. Who can know such a thing, except for God? On another occasion the same issue will arise. A man is lowered through a tiled roof into the presence of Jesus. Jesus will claim the man’s sins are forgiven. The crowd will be dismayed, and the religious leaders irate. Secondly, the observers witness Jesus accepting and publicly endorsing her and her actions. In their culture, she has done everything wrong. In the eyes of Jesus, she has done everything right. Jesus has now revealed his ability to forgive sin, thus he is beginning to express his divine nature. Consequently, he is more than a prophet, for a prophet cannot forgive sin. It would prove too broad an assumption that the woman recognized Jesus’ divinity, or even knew that he is a prophet. She just knows he has treated her as a person. He has accepted, loved, and declared her forgiven in the presence of the town’s leaders and its common people. We should not leave this narrative without giving attention to Jesus question to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon and most others would not have seen her true nature and heart. To most she is a sinful woman undeserving of any attention, and certainly undeserving of unconditional love. But, Jesus sees her for who she is. He knows her story. He knows who she has been and who she can be.
Does our gratitude emerge from believing being forgiven has made our life better, or believing it has given us our life? Is there a difference? How do we express gratitude daily for the forgiveness of God? How do we embody that gratitude when we interact with others?
We frequently speak of how amazing God is. However, we often forget that Jesus was often amazed at us. He could be amazed at our love, our faith, and our courage. In the prior lesson, the humble faith of the centurion amazed Jesus. In this narrative, the woman’s gratitude and courageous love are amazing. The sinful woman acted in a most amazing manner. She risked public judgement and humiliation to express gratitude in love. Notice, the woman asked for nothing. It doesn’t appear that she came to get something from Jesus. She already recognized his love and acceptance. No one else had treated the poor, sick, and forgotten like Jesus. And, no one else had cared for a woman shamed by her culture. True gratitude births great love. Gratitude helps us add the word “more” to our affection. Yes, we love. But, when grateful, we love “more.”
Almighty God, your love is beyond our description and imagination. We are thankful you have declared us worthy of your affection. We are most undeserving, yet you are most giving and forgiving. Teach us the depth of gratitude that drives us forward, toward the highest expressions of love and care. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.