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A Reversal of Shame
Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 2: The Gift of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 10, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Luke 7:36-50
Just as the authority of Jesus was the crucial issue in healing the centurion’s servant in last week’s lesson, so the authority of Jesus is the key issue in today’s lesson. But this time the question is not who has the authority to heal and teach, but who has the authority to forgive sins.
Jesus is invited to dinner by a Pharisee and accepts the invitation. Pharisees are not uniformly seen as enemies of Jesus in Luke. We are informed that when Pharisees are mentioned in connection with scribes, they are usually opponents. But the Pharisee in this story is not an enemy. Simply put, he is not sure what to make of Jesus, but he is not an opponent. He addresses Jesus as “teacher,” but the story ends without telling us whether Jesus’ argument convinced him.
As was common in the ancient world, the guests recline on cushions beside the table with their heads close to the table and their legs behind them. That’s why the woman could approach his feet from behind.
And since Jesus is a public figure, the door to this meal likely remains open, so that interested people can enter, sit on the edge of the room, and hear the discussion. The rebuke in verse 39 is not because the woman has come to the meal, but because she did not stay on the sideline.
The woman in this story says absolutely nothing, but her actions produce much discussion. Her sin is not identified but whatever it was she has a soiled reputation. But she boldly enters into the room, interrupts the dinner party with her crying, and anoints Jesus’ feet with a jar of expensive perfume. As we are told, that act reflects great sacrifice, for such perfume was very expensive. The expense would cost an average person’s annual wage. And the presence of this perfume indicates that the woman treats Jesus as an important visitor. Moment by moment, she weeps as she anoints Jesus and kisses his feet. The action also reflects her humility.
The host knows this woman as a sinner, and Jesus does not dispute this evaluation. However, Jesus’ acceptance of her attention causes the host to question Jesus’ judgment and identity. If Jesus allows such attention from a notorious sinner he may not be a prophet after all. Ironically, at this point, Jesus reads his mind and tells a parable that explains his actions.
It is significant that Jesus calls this Pharisee by name. Scholars remind us that few minor characters in Luke are given a name. Naming him seems to indicate that Jesus has a connection with him and hopes he will see the truth that Jesus is about to share with him. Thus, in response to Simon’s judgment about Jesus’ behavior, Jesus asks him to comment on a hypothetical situation. In reality, Jesus asks him to participate in a parable.
The parable pictures two debtors: one with a debt that was relatively small (about a month and a half in wages for a day laborer) and the other with a heavy debt (about a year and a half’s wages) that he would never be able to repay. Actually, the debt collector discovers that neither of them can pay. So, unlike most debt collectors who would be turning up the heat, this collector forgives each debt. Thus, Jesus asks, “Who will love the debt collector more?”
At this point, Simon seemingly gives a reluctant response. He supposes that the one who owed more would have more love for the one who forgave him. Jesus nods in approval and says that Simon is correct.
According to scholars, here is the heart of Jesus’ relational ethic. Unlike the Pharisee, who can only dwell on the sinner’s past, Jesus prefers to see the potential that love and forgiveness possess for changing a person’s heart.
Consequently, Jesus applies the parable to the situation at the dinner. He compares the treatment the woman gave him to that which he received from Simon. Now, Jesus doesn’t suggest that Simon had failed in his duties as a host. But Jesus does mention the washing of his feet, the greeting the woman gave in kissing his feet and the anointing of his feet with perfume. None of these actions were required, but the fact that the woman has engaged in them shows the lavish extra steps she has taken to greet him.
But there is a reason for this woman’s love. Her multiple sins have now been forgiven (v. 47, the lesson’s key verse). The verse continues, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
As scholars make clear, to understand Jesus’ point, the parable and his remarks must be put together. Then, as the parable asserts, the basis of love is a previously extended forgiveness that produces a response of love. So, Jesus indicates that the woman’s actions reflect her experience of forgiveness from him.
Now, the explanation that Jesus gives to the woman’s behavior in verse 47 seems to assume that the woman’s sins have already been forgiven, perhaps in a previous experience with Jesus. But, in verse 48 Jesus tells her explicitly that her sins are forgiven. And it is this specific declaration about Jesus that Luke wants us to hear: Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.
Even if those around the table doubt that Jesus has the authority, Jesus remains undaunted by their doubts. He has authority to forgive and to save. He tells the woman that her faith, her faith in him, has saved her. She can now go in peace because her relationship with God has been restored.
Simon, on the other hand, is challenged to understand Jesus and Jesus’ actions in a different way.
Jesus Forgives Sins
The central point of today’s lesson about Jesus is that he has the authority and power to forgive sins, even for people who have sinned badly. Previously, Luke has expressed the same claim in 5:20, but it bears continuous repeating. It is simply a powerful affirmation about who Jesus is. He is the one who mediates God’s forgiveness.
God’s basic way of transforming people is through this offer of grace and forgiveness. Without the opportunity to restore a broken relationship, the way back to God is blocked. Some people would like to start over again, but are not assured it can be done. However, Jesus shows through the example of this notorious sinning woman that no hole is too deep for the reach of God’s amazing grace and deliverance. It’s the woman’s faith in Jesus that brings her forgiveness and salvation.
Sin is Not Unimportant
Now, the truth needs to be told that sin is not unimportant to God! Sin separates us from God. When we sign we reject the will of God and put ourselves at cross-purposes with God. As scholars attest, this rejection of God and God’s will keeps us from having the relationship with God that God wants and results in sorrowful guilt.
A young father came to see me a few years ago. He complained that he was losing his interest in religion and the church. He said he just didn’t care about it anymore. He had two daughters and he asked me if I had any words for him.
I continued to counsel with this man and about 30 minutes later he informed me that he was involved in an extramarital affair. My word to him was to give up the affair and walk away. You see, that young father was becoming faint-hearted in the faith because he was wearing the soiled clothing of sin. His sin was sapping his interest in the things of God.
The good news of this passage before us is that God forgives us through Jesus, the One who was willing to die to attain the position that authorizes him to forgive. Thus, it is the length to which God goes to offer forgiveness that is the unmistakable signal of the seriousness of sin.
While it is not the subject of this story, Luke makes it clear in other places that sinners must change their behavior. Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, restores our relationship with God and allows us to live in peace with God and with others as well.
The Joy of Being Forgiven
A second major point of this story is that the forgiveness that comes through Jesus brings joy to our lives. Certainly, the woman in our story knows that she is a “sinner.” As a result, she is overwhelmingly grateful for the forgiveness that she receives from Jesus. Because she is aware of the heavy load of sin and guilt that has been lifted from her life, she appreciates forgiveness as the wonderful gift that it is.
The speaker described his former life. He said he did a lot of things of which he was ashamed. He rebelled and drank obsessively. On a number of occasions he was rude to his mama. He was self-centered and deeply depressed. He was really, really unhappy. But then he smiled and joyfully said, “God’s grace changed my life.”
However, many of us in the church today are more like Simon – in a good way. Often our lives have not been characterized by obvious and hurtful sin. We see ourselves as people who have lived pretty good lives. Certainly, we have small sins, but it is reasonable to concur that those are easy enough for God to forgive. Consequently, we don’t feel much joy when forgiveness is proclaimed because we think there was not much to forgive.
As Anselm, the 11th century monk and theologian put it, “You have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.” Anselm’s point was that our sins do matter, in our relationship with God and in how we treat one another.
Of course, Jesus recognizes the differences between Simon and the woman. She had multiple sins, and he had a few. However, it is crucial to realize that all sin separates us from God. So while it is natural that those who have been forgiven the most are the most grateful, nevertheless, Jesus’ forgiveness is needed by all. And as we realize that we are forgiven, we can live in joyful relationship with God and others.
A third important notation of our story is that we have all sinned and need forgiveness, therefore, we are to be forgiving. Simon needed to be reminded that he, too, had sinned even if his sin was less than that of the woman. All sin, large or small, has to be forgiven.
Now, most of us know the sting of having someone sin against us or those we care about. In these situations, the good news of forgiveness of sinners may seem totally undeserved. In facts, it is always undeserved.
Yet, the story before us today of the sinful woman reveals that Jesus brings God’s forgiveness even to those people who publicly do things that hurt others. And this story also calls us to be forgiving. As we remember and are grateful for the forgiveness we have received, we will pass that forgiveness on to others. At least, part of the gift we are given in Christ is the motivation and power to forgive others.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- If we were to take a poll of people in the church concerning their need of forgiveness, what do you think most people would say about the nature and severity of their own sins?
- What does this story teach about Jesus’ authority?
- How can we, as individuals or a group, show our gratitude to Jesus?