a sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3
We don’t know her story, but everyone there certainly did. The woman who showed up at the Pharisee’s house almost certainly had a history. People knew her story well enough for the gospel writer to describe her as “a sinner,” making her something of an unwanted presence in the home of one of the staunch religious officials of the day. But that day she set aside her past, her shame, her fear to take a chance on a new path. Even someone with a history like hers could hear about this teacher Jesus, and when she did, she put everything on the line to be thankful for his words, his actions, his presence. When she heard that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she gathered up all the courage she could muster, bought a jar of alabaster ointment, and joined the guests of honor at dinner. Upon her arrival, she bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Once his feet were clean, she kissed them and anointed them with her ointment, showing incredible honor to this teacher even from her position of low estate.
This woman’s actions stood in sharp contrast to those of Jesus’ host. Just as we don’t know the woman’s whole story, we also don’t know why this Pharisee invited Jesus over for dinner in the first place. Didn’t the Pharisees realize that they would not look very good when they got involved with Jesus? When the Pharisee saw what was going on between his guest of honor and the uninvited guest, he got a little frustrated. Luke tells us that the Pharisee started saying something to himself, noting that if Jesus were really everything he said he was, he would know this woman’s whole story and would want nothing whatsoever to do with her.
Somehow Jesus got wind of all this. Maybe he was able to read the Pharisee’s mind and know things the Pharisee assumed he could not. Maybe the Pharisee had mumbled it under his breath just loud enough for Jesus to hear. Maybe the Pharisee was just showing his disgust at the situation in his body language or on his face. However Jesus figured out what his host felt, he immediately confronted him about it. First, Jesus asked his host who would be more grateful, a debtor who had had a five hundred denarii debt canceled or a debtor who had had a fifty denarii debt canceled. Once the Pharisee agreed that the one with the greater original debt would be more grateful when it was canceled, Jesus pointed out the strange situation that had greeted him upon his arrival at the Pharisee’s house. While Pharisee had offered basic hospitality to his guest, Jesus pointed out that the woman—an unwanted guest—had offered far more than the host himself. The host had left Jesus with dirty feet and treated him with little or no special honor. The woman, however, even with her dubious reputation, had shown Jesus great honor, washing his feet, honoring him with her care and concern, and even anointing his feet with ointment.
He closed his rebuke of his Pharisee host by indicating that her sin—the thing that had made her so unsuitable to the the Pharisee in the first place—had been forgiven, and that her gratitude for this had been the source of the great love that she had shown to Jesus along the way. Finally, Jesus addressed the woman directly and affirmed and confirmed what she seemed to already know in offering her extravagant gifts to him—her sins were forgiven, her faith had made things different for her, and she could finally go in peace.
The other guests responded with outrage. “Who is this who even forgives sins?” they asked. This is not how any reputable teacher was to behave! Inviting people to drop their nets and follow, interpreting the law and the prophets, even healing the sick and dealing kindly with a stranger—all that was expected of a teacher, but forgiveness of sins was something for God alone! They may have started out on the fence with this Jesus, figuring that he just didn’t know the woman’s history when he didn’t stop her from caring for his feet, giving him a little grace about showing his frustration with his less-than-perfect host, even accepting his words that showed deeper gratitude for the woman’s generosity than the Pharisee’s invitation to dine, but once Jesus began intervening to forgive sins as only God could, he had gone too far.
In this story as in so much of life, the thing that really matters is how we respond. The woman, the Pharisee, the other guests—all these characters in the story responded to the events before them in very different ways. Those responses were certainly informed by their experiences and the particular way of life that they had enjoyed, but their responses spoke even more to how they understood the grace of God at work in their lives and their world. Ultimately, the question that matters from this story for them—and for us—is, how do we respond to the grace of God revealed in our lives?
The Pharisee was pretty stingy in his response to God’s grace. He had everything that he needed, knew the way of God present in the law, and enjoyed wealth and status in the community enough to entertain Jesus in his home. And yet his response did not match the extravagance of grace that he himself enjoyed as one guest—the woman—was made to feel inferior and unwelcome and Jesus was left with dirty feet and nothing more than a meal.
The rest of the guests were a little less skeptical in their response to the grace shown here, at least at first. They certainly knew the woman who invited herself to this meal, yet they did not insist that she be sent away. They seemed to understand why Jesus would speak to their host the way he did because he had been a little less than welcoming of all of them. And yet, when Jesus offered the full extravagance of grace to the woman by forgiving her sins, they turned on him, afraid of the depth and breadth of grace that he offered, uncertain that anyone could grant such broad strokes of forgiveness and hope.
In stark contrast to the Pharisee and the other guests, the woman’s response to the grace shown here began long before she ever even saw any evidence of it. She came to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet not in hopes that her sins would be forgiven but because she had already received something from Jesus. She already knew that God was up to something new in his words and actions, and she wanted to respond. Her gracious and generous actions were not an attempt to buy her way into Jesus’ favor but rather an offering of thanks for the message that he had brought, coming long before he uttered any words of forgiveness in her hearing. She knew from everything that she had heard that Jesus’ message was one of generous hope for people like her, and so she had no choice but to respond with the same kind of generosity.
She was not alone in her generosity. Jesus had the things that he needed for his life and ministry because of the gifts of people like this woman. Luke recognizes a number of them, many themselves women, at the conclusion of our reading this morning. They too had encountered the wonder of God in Jesus, and they knew that they had to respond with the same kind of generous grace out of their lives to make a way for others to experience these things for themselves.
If we see in this story that the response is all that really matters, how then do we respond to God’s grace?
Are we like the Pharisee, meting out grace in stingy, small doses to those who deserve it, insisting that sin sticks indelibly to people who act badly even when they experience the fullness of God’s grace, only making room at the table for those who deserve it, showing no more care and concern than the basics of what is required to look good enough along the way?
Are we like the other guests at the meal with Jesus, excited to experience the grace for ourselves but pulling back out of fear when that grace starts to change how our world is ordered and organized?
Or are we like the woman, very well aware of where and how we fall short of God’s intentions, yet ready and willing to respond with extravagant gifts because we have experienced the extravagance of God’s grace?
May God open us to respond to all the gifts of God’s love, mercy, peace, and grace with the abundant hope and generous love of this woman and all who followed Jesus so that the world might know the depth and breadth of God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.