“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love,” (Luke 7:47).
In this mornings gospel reading we meet a sinful woman who encounters the mercy of Jesus and is transformed. Friends, let me tell you right from the start that your past does not determine who you are today. What determines who you are today is the mercy of Jesus Christ which makes us new.
As we heard, Jesus is invited to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. And as he’s reclined there with the other guests a woman of the city enters and all we really know about her is what Luke tells us: she was a sinner. We’re not told who this woman is or where she came from or why exactly she’s a sinner. Whatever the case, this is a woman with whom Jesus really shouldn’t be associating.
And yet, this sinful woman is drawn to Jesus. Which by the way is something that we come to learn as we read Luke’s telling of the gospel: the beauty of Jesus Christ is most apparent to sinners (cf. 15:1).
Are we willing to welcome sinners today as Jesus does? May the Church—may this church—never cease to be a house not just for saints but for sinners as well.
At any rate, here is this sinful woman drawn in by the beauty and goodness of Jesus and where does she find herself but at his feet. There is something about the feet of Jesus. And there, weeping, she “began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” And kissing them over and over again she took her jar of ointment and poured it over his feet, anointing them.
What a powerful scene. What an extravagant response. What outrageous adoration. You can almost feel the host of the meal recoil can’t you? His sense of discomfort is palpable as he says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus, knowing what he was thinking—we should always remember that Jesus knows our heart—tells a parable. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon is no dummy, he knows the answer: “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And he is correct. The one who is forgiven much, loves much. The one who is forgiven little, loves little.
Of course, the size of the debt is not the point of the parable. The point is that neither debtor could afford to square things up with the creditor. They were both in way over their heads. And so what does the creditor do but have compassion and cancel the debt for both of them. Then Jesus looks to the woman and interprets the parable for us. This woman is showing such great love because she knows that her sins, which were many, have been forgiven. On the other hand, Simon’s lack of hospitality, his little love, may indicate the fact that he has not yet come to see in Jesus the beauty of divine mercy. And so he, instead, looks down his nose at this woman.
It can be tempting to downplay the seriousness of our sin when we start comparing ourselves to others.
Do you remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that Jesus tells later in Luke? (18:9-14) The Pharisee stands up in the temple and thanks God that he is not like other people, sinners. In fact, he thanks God that he is a good man who fasts and gives alms. Meanwhile the tax collector stands far off, unable even to lift up his head and beating his breast prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus says that this man went home justified rather than the other; “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” There is an ancient prayer that we would all do well to commit to memory: Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Here is a sinful woman who trusts not in her own righteousness but throws herself at Jesus’ feet in love and thanksgiving for his great mercy. Here is Simon the Pharisee who stands apart, pretty sure of himself, regarding her with contempt. Who goes home justified? Is it not this sinful woman? “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Now, it is not easy to know oneself as a sinner. Most often I am like Simon the Pharisee, confident in my own righteousness while looking down upon others who I see as greater sinners. O, that we would know the humility and the courage of this woman! O, that we would find ourselves more often at the feet of Jesus, pouring out our love in joy and thanksgiving, relying solely on his mercy!
I wonder if part of the reason why we have such a hard time knowing ourselves as sinners is because we forget that our salvation is in Christ and not in ourselves? We think somehow we have to earn it, get our act together, that only decent and respectable people can come to Jesus. Yet being a sinner is a pre-requisite for being a Christian. For only those who are true sinners are saved by the true mercy of Christ. Martin Luther wrote that God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Therefore, “be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
Only those who are true sinners are saved by the true mercy of Christ…God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.
Contrary to the wisdom of the world, to know oneself as a sinner is a great gift. First of all, Jesus Christ is a friend of sinners (7:34). So, if you and I are sinners then we are in the company of a good and generous friend. A friend who, in fact, did not wait for us to get our act together but loved us and came to us and gave himself for us on the cross (Rom. 5:8). And so, secondly, to know oneself as a sinner is to know the great mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It is to look to Christ and to Christ alone for salvation! Indeed, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to do just this. It is not by our own works that we are justified but through faith and trust in the great mercy of Jesus.
Christ’s love transforms even sinners like us. And so we ought to live for Christ because we have been made into something different. We now have a new life (Chrysostom). What then will be our response when we are confronted with this news? Let our response be outrageous love!
St. Ambrose wrote that Jesus wants the ointment of our love to be poured on his feet each day. But what does it mean to love Christ? Well, certainly we love Christ when we gather to worship him as we do now. Certainly, we love Christ whenever we pray or search for him in the Scriptures. But loving Christ is not just restricted to our “spiritual life”. Loving Christ has to do with living spiritually and I don’t mean that in some sort of hokey sense. What I mean is that all the baptized have received the divine mercy of Jesus who poured his very life and love out for us on the cross and into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. So then, there is no corner of your life which Christ Jesus has not claimed. Your whole life is your offering of love to Christ, returning to him that which he gave you. Do you have a job? Labour as unto God. Are you retired or out of work? Ask the Lord how he wants to use you to make his love known. Do you have children? Parent your children as unto Christ.
Your whole life, all of it, can be an offering of love poured out to Jesus.
This is all true and yet St. Ambrose and other early Christians had an additional answer to this question. What are the feet of Christ on which we are called to pour the ointment of our love? They are, especially, the poor and the frail. There’s a wonderful photograph of Pope Francis that was taken on Maundy Thursday this year. In it he is washing and kissing the feet of refugees. To love the poor is to kiss the feet of Jesus. To make known the favor of his gentleness and mercy to those who are weak is to anoint Christ’s feet with ointment (Ambrose). At St. Mary and St. Martha, ComSup is a particularly good example of this. Another good example is when we take the time to visit our members who are sick and shut-in. As we think about our life in this parish moving ahead, how could we grow that love and expand it? How can we make sure that we are a church which welcomes and loves the poor as an expression of our love for Christ for his great mercy? Perhaps one way is by being a church that never ceases to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Friends, the mercy of Christ is greater than our sin. The sinful woman in Luke’s gospel this morning found her salvation at the feet of Jesus. We will not find our salvation anywhere else for with her we are a people gathered around the foot of the cross. So come, to the beautiful feet of Christ who bears the love of God into the world. Receive mercy, receive forgiveness, receiving healing, hope, and joy and may we love much. Amen.