Introduction: The Scandal of Grace
A sermon preached by Fr. Justin Clemente, October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD.
V. 37 “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.” Friends, today this is the setting for both the power and yet, the scandal, of the grace of God to be unfolded for us this morning.
And that is a biblical description of the Gospel – a scandal. Does that surprise you? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 23, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block” (literally, a skandalon – an occasion for stumbling, something to trip over).
The scandal and the power of grace. Our passage today will either cause us to bow in humility and thankfulness or recoil in self-righteous praise. There really is no in between. As we have said already, each of these parables is a revelatory story! They reveal who Jesus is and where we stand in relation to him.
This passage reveals four aspects of the gospel that I want us think through today.
The gospel scandalizes those who do not yet possess it.
Look at the occasion here. Our Lord is invited to be the guest of a pharisee – Simon the pharisee, to be exact. For what purpose? To examine Jesus. To determine if he really is a prophet of God or not (only to be confronted with someone who is more than a prophet).
Jesus is greeted, if you can call it that, without common Jewish hospitality (no water, no kiss, no oil for anointing) and when the meal is interrupted by an unreputable woman who makes up for Simon’s lack of hospitality, Simon takes this as the ammunition he needs to take Jesus down.
Before Simon can express what’s on his mind, Jesus interrupts him. See, you can bring countless questions to Jesus, but Jesus will always bring back to you the one question that matters the most. His questions are like a spiritual scalpel that get to the heart of the matter at hand.
And so he tells Simon the Parable of the Money Lender. And this parable is a missile aimed right at the heart of Simon. One owed much, the other owed less. Both were in over their heads, says Jesus. But Simon doesn’t see himself like that! Certainly not with God! And until he does – until you do, the Gospel of Christ will always seem foreign, weak, and offensive. To go back to St. Paul, it will sound like foolishness!
James Boice says,“Simon misunderstood everything – he misunderstood the woman, he misunderstood Jesus. He even misunderstood himself.” (James Boice, The Parables of Jesus, pg. 171)
But there is grace even here, because the gospel, and the potential for it to be received, remains even where it is not welcomed. Jesus endured Simon’s lack of hospitality – he forgave him that debt. And the possibility for him to become Jesus’ disciple remained despite that rejection. So it remains today, even if you’ve rejected the gospel for years upon years.
The gospel creates worship and gratitude in those who do possess it.
The sinful woman saw the rudeness and lack of hospitality toward Jesus. Look at verse 45, “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.” She was there from the start. Not a participant in the meal, but watching the meal.
The assumption here is that the woman had already heard of Jesus’ willingness to receive sinners. She had heard, she had repented, she had believed, she was forgiven. She had accepted to be found. And that was enough for Jesus. She came to this meal to say thank you. She is moved to do what she does, not to be forgiven, but because she is forgiven.
Now let’s take a closer look at the text to understand this. Look at verse 47. When Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” The clear sense of that verb, forgiven, is that her sins have authoritatively been dealt with, put away, and absolved. The verb is in the perfect tense, meaning an action that has been wholly completed in the past. Her love is the natural overflow of the forgiveness she has received.
So, when she sees the humility and humiliation of Jesus here (again, expressed by the lack of hospitality) she says I will honor him myself! She has seen something of the worth and value of who Jesus is. How specifically does she respond to that? Let’s note two things.
First the letting down of her hair. What does that signify? Well, so much. We must understand that in the Jewish culture of the first century, for a woman to let down her hair in public was provocative. But that is not the meaning here. Listen to what theologian Ken Bailey says:
“In traditional Middle East society, a bride on her wedding night lets down her hair and allows it to be seen by her husband for the first time. No one around the room could have missed the overtones of this woman’s gesture. By unloosing her hair, she is making some form of an ultimate pledge of loyalty to Jesus (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Ken Bailey, pg. 249)
The letting down of her hair is an expression of her allegiance to Christ for what he has done for her. She is trading the allegiance (and bondage) she had to her sin to Christ himself.
Secondly, we need to notice how she lovingly kisses the feet of Jesus. This act may seem very strange to us, but in other cultures, kissing the feet of a person was an act of reverence, submission, and thanksgiving. Never was that truer than here.
Birke Davis tell the story of what happened when, after the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln visited the fallen southern capital of Richmond, VA.
“On arrival, he was pointed out to a former slave, who rushed to the president, fell on his knees and began to kiss Lincoln’s feet. Embarrassed, Lincoln replied, “That’s not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for liberty.” (Birke Davis, To Appomattox: Nine April Days, pg. 165, as told by Ken Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 251)
She never said a word. But the meaning of what she had done and the identity of the person she had done it to were clear for all who had eyes to see.
My friends, the legacy of this woman is this: an ounce of the gospel will create more life-changing worship, service, love for God and neighbor than will a pound of anything else.
The gospel relativizes all other treasure, identity, and sense of worth.
Many have noted that, if indeed she was a prostitute, as is almost universally assumed, then in order for the oil to be poured onto the feet as it was, the thin neck of her vial must have been snapped. Broken – never to be used again.
Prostitutes would wear an expensive vial of perfume around their neck to attract clients, dabbing just a little at a time, as needed. In a strange way, perhaps this was also how she clung to some distorted sense of dignity. We do not know this woman’s background and her full story. We do not know the ways in which she sinned and was sinned against, wounded and wounded by others, and most certainly abused. But we do know that the thing that broke her bondage was the forgiving love and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
We hear so much about identity in our culture today. And ironically, I think we talk about it so much because we have no idea who we are. We don’t know God, and therefore we don’t ourselves. And so we deify ourselves, creating all kinds of false identities, sexually or otherwise. But it is in Christ that we can be given a new name.
As we sing in our hymn “Hast Thou Heard Him, Seen Him, Known Him?”
What can strip the seeming beauty,
From the idols of the earth?
Not a sense of right or duty,
But the sight of peerless worth.
‘Tis that look that melted Peter,
’Tis that face that Stephen saw,
‘Tis that heart that wept with Mary,
Can alone from idols draw.
And that’s what will strip you of yours! That’s what will relativize and crush anything else that you put your value, worth, and identity into apart from Jesus.
This passage deserves much reflection from all of us, but especially for women. It’s not that I’m trying to identify our women with this woman’s background, but rather this: this woman knew the spousal love of Jesus Christ. Simply put, in Christ, she found a man who would not fail her, and he became the rock on which she stood.
Christian artist Jess Ray captures this dynamic in her song, “No Man.” In that song, she writes from the perspective of a woman about the failure and fractured nature of relationships – particularly with fathers and husbands. But then the realization comes in the chorus:
No man is gonna love you like He can.
No man. …
You’ve gotta know it well.
This woman found that. In Jesus, a space was opened for her to come and be a disciple – to find her worth and personhood in the redeeming love of Christ. Each disciple has to learn that.
Are you keeping other saviors? Your husband? Your wife? Your kids? Your bank account? Or perhaps, like Simon, your moral uprightness? You’re in over your head, and so are your saviors. Set them free. Let them go so that they can come back to you as they are, and not as an idol. Break them over the feet of Christ.
The gospel is Jesus Christ.
Most everything we could hope to know about the gospel and person of Christ is in this passage. Let me name some of them:
- Jesus is worthy of worship: Jesus rejected the title good teacher when it was given by those who only saw him as such, but he never rejected the worship and tribute of those who began to see him for who he is.
Our Lord could have said, “Guys, I’m so sorry, this embarrassing. She’s a little off, you know. Let me take her aside and correct her. I’ll be right back.” But none of that happens. To the host’s chagrin the worshipper received the blessing he did not: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”
- There is justification & imputation: Jesus becomes this woman’s refuge. In the face of those who would cast her out, he accepts her and, in the process, identifies himself with her sin. He takes her debt onto himself and pronounces peace. Christ becomes her advocate! And she becomes identified with him.
- There is new life & resurrection: the Messiah will be rejected, as foreshadowed in this scene, but it will be the very means by which he will defeat sin, death and evil, giving new life and peace to those who follow him. For “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) And so the woman receives the good news: “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
And so we give all the praise, all the honor, all the thanksgiving to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.