Perhaps you football fans recall reading not long ago about the passing of Bill Walsh, who used to coach the San Francisco Forty-Niners. It’s interesting to discover life details that you didn’t know before: how Walsh invented the so-called West Coast offense, with lots of short, snappy passes—often on first and second down. How early in his sports career he had a lesser job as quarterback coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, but got passed over for the top job when Paul Brown quit in 1975—and hearing about the snub through TV people instead of from the front office. So who did the 49ers beat in the 1981 Super Bowl when Walsh took San Francisco to a world championship on the momentum of Dwight Clark’s famous end-zone catch? Cincinnati, of course.
But it’s interesting to explore the unknown story that hides behind the curtain before an obituary is printed. They say that when TV writers create a new series, they invent hugely complicated “back stories” for all of the characters: where they were born, went to school, what food and sports they like. A lot of that fabricated fictional material never gets onto the show, but still informs the writing staff’s flavoring of the various motivations which make a hit show work.
Here in our Luke 7 Bible study of this past month, we have two mystery stories like this. Here are the things we know. Simon is a Pharisee. He lives well; his house is big enough for a major banquet event. He possibly had Jesus heal him of leprosy, so he appreciates Him for that. He likes Jesus and admires Him, but mostly as a healer and friend and philosopher, not as a Son of God or a forgiver of sins. It’s also likely that he spent a half hour of midnight time with the very prostitute who came in to anoint the feet of Jesus. However, Simon doesn’t really think he has sins to forgive; he’s a good guy in his own eyes and those of his peers.
Then we have this woman. “Mary.” We call her Mary because it’s convenient, and because maybe she was Mary Magdalene. Maybe she was also the woman of John 8, who was taken in adultery. But we seem to at least know that this fallen woman made her living in a very difficult way. We try not to mentally picture it, but she experienced the hurt and the shame of living in sin every single day, and also having to pretend to enjoy it.
Now—what happened? Something happened to these two people: Simon and Mary. We don’t know for sure what. It appears that Simon had a gradual, socially smooth journey toward Jesus. Not Jesus the Savior or Jesus the Son of God. But certainly Jesus the celebrity. Jesus the edgy party guest. Jesus the talk of the town. Simon was glad to be seen at Studio 54 with Jesus.
The one we really don’t know about is Mary. Did she have seven demons? Did Jesus rescue her from being stoned to death by the teachers of the law? Was she really a full-fledged resident of the red-light district? Something happened—some place, some day, some way—that made her want to come into this public place in the full light of day, and anoint the feet of this Man who had changed her life.
Did she earlier hear a sermon which touched her heart? Did Jesus go right into the middle of Sodom and pull Mary free? Did He heal her of some psychological dysfunction which had caused her to throw herself wantonly at men in a craven and desperate search for approval? Did she need a strong man to value her for her soul . . . and did Jesus come along and be that man to her? The “Mary” in the 1970 Broadway production Jesus Christ Superstar sings plaintively, “I don’t know how to love Him. I’ve been changed; yes, really changed. In these past few days when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else.” Something happened to this woman which made her want to fall at the feet of Jesus in a public place and say to the whole world, “Listen, I love this Man!”
I want for us to spend next Sabbath thinking about what she actually does for Jesus at this feast. The expensive perfume on His feet. The tears wiped up with her hair. The loyalty. The devotion. What comfort did this bring to Jesus during the final moments of His difficult ministry to a lost world? But Jesus makes a very interesting statement as this precious story winds down.
We’ve been through the story, the parable, of the two men who owed somebody money. Both got forgiven. One was forgiven a little, the other a lot. And Jesus asks the probing question: Who will now love their benefactor more? And Simon, who by his own accounting has only a smidgen of social sin to forgive, can’t avoid the plain truth. The guy who’s forgiven more will probably love more. That’s why he doesn’t really love Jesus all that much. Jesus only took away a few white spots from his skin, and not all the spiritual blackness of a bad man’s soul.
Then Jesus says to Simon in verse 44: Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing My feet. You did not put oil on My head, but she has poured perfume on My feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Howard Marshall, a Bible scholar and commentator for Luke, takes us into a fascinating and important question which is embedded into this story. Does this woman get forgiven because she has a great love for Jesus, or does she love Jesus very much because He’s forgiven her? We sometimes ask, “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?” And here it’s clear that this woman loves the Master intensely, and is also forgiven for a Mt. Everest of transgressions. But which came first? Did one lead to the other? And if our great love for Jesus is what gets us forgiven—if we must spark up within ourselves a qualifying love—that might be a troubling discovery, especially if we tend to spiritually be like Simon. I’ve already confessed that I grew up in Simon’s house, in an atmosphere of self-satisfaction. When you have a bit of education and own a house and have an attractive spouse, you begin to think well of yourself. You don’t think you need much forgiving, so you don’t love very much; hence, you don’t get forgiven much.
We have what may appear to be two contradictory statements by Jesus in this story. In the parable itself—the two men who owed money—the man who was forgiven a whole lot was thankful and filled with love. He loved much because he was forgiven much. The love was a response to the forgiving. The forgiving came first, the love afterward.
But Jesus says here at the close, “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – FOR SHE LOVED MUCH.” He tops that off by saying to this woman who has already demonstrated her love in a very pungent and heartfelt way, “Your sins are forgiven.” It sounds here like Jesus is forgiving her as a reward for the fact that she loved Him so much. Which way is it? Is this an important question? I would suggest that it is, that we must understand the grace of God as coming before our response to it.
Here are some Bible verses on the matter. I John 4:10, 19: This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We love Him because He first loved us. Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Notice how that verse reads in the Messageparaphrase: Christ didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. “Doesn’t wait for us to love Him, I might add. He presented Himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. God put His own love on the line for us by offering His Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to Him. II Corinthians 5:17 talks about our becoming new creations, and then Paul adds in the next verse: All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ.
Now, why does Jesus seem, for a moment, to put the cart before the horse here? I was interested to read this passage in what’s called the Clear Word, which is a rather openly Adventist paraphrase. I use this material carefully, but the author puts Jesus’ words in this order: “Though people call [this woman] a prostitute, Jesus says to Simon, she asked Me to forgive her and I did. As you can see, she appreciates having been forgiven and her heart overflows with gratitude. But those who little appreciate being forgiven express little gratitude.”
This commentator, Dr. Marshall, makes a good point: “No prior act of forgiveness has been recorded, and an explicit declaration of forgiveness comes at the end of the story. But it is clear that Luke himself did not regard verse 48—‘Your sins are forgiven’—as contradicting verse 47—‘Her many sins have been forgiven, for she loved much.’” Then he adds this: “At the end of the story the woman’s forgiveness is declared to be on the grounds of her faith, not of her love.” And now referring to unknown back stories again, he makes this concluding point: “It must, then, be assumed that there had been some previous contact between Jesus and the woman, not recorded by Luke. Without some such previous contact the woman’s conduct in the present story is inexplicable.” Again, some dynamic unrevealed miracle contact between Mary and Jesus must have led to her receiving forgiveness. And in gratitude, she comes and weeps tears over His feet and hears the beautiful reiteration of a promise previously given.
What does this mean for us? We have some people here who have had a Mary experience. Not just because you came to us from the clutches of alcoholism, but because some of you, as fully grown adults, made conscious decisions to join God’s family. Some of you attended evangelistic meetings; there are those among us who began to date an Adventist Christian and studied God’s Word carefully. You embraced the cross of Jesus without benefit of family momentum or heritage or expectations. I envy you that experience, and I think we have something to learn from you.
Because it’s been pointed out that Simon the Pharisee was probably like Nicodemus, who also served in the courts of spiritual judgment and power. I got this line from the Adventist commentary: “Simon’s gratitude for being healed was ‘one man toward another,’ ‘not the gratitude of man toward the infinite God.’” Sitting at this feast, Simon is essentially unconverted. It’s been suggested that both Simon and Nicodemus, good men that they were, were what we call “stony ground” hearers. They appreciated the keen logic of Jesus, the warmth of the stories, the consistent trains of thought. They hated Rome and liked the idea of a new kingdom. But were they desperate sinners who would die and be lost without the blood of Calvary? No way; they didn’t accept that for a minute.
Sometimes in our Adventist culture, we look around and wonder why our churches struggle. The pastor works hard; his members labor with intensity. People are faithful in their giving. And yet, the church seems to shrink by leaps and bounds instead of growing.
I just wonder if we haven’t really learned to respond to the hugeness of our forgiveness. We have these 28 Adventist teachings which seem to line up in an interlocking pattern of Scriptural consistency, but that doesn’t move us. We’re not grateful for it. I don’t think we’re particularly smug, but having these doctrines does not make us feel like Mary the forgiven sinner. And unless our community of Adventist churches can find a way to regularly experience the keen, wondrous stab of reality that a loving Friend has rescued us from the lethal injection gurney, we’re going to miss the celebration that concluded so many of Jesus’ parables.
What was the dividing line between 27 and 31 A.D., that made some people love Jesus a lot and others only a little? This is before the cross, and I think that’s a crucial distinction. Some people got healed by Jesus; that doesn’t generally appear to be enough to have caused deep, salvation love. Ninety percent of lepers were not moved by the blessing of healing. Simon was barely nudged into a kind of social affection. Most of those who got free food from Jesus did not truly love Him. Potlucks and fellowship events here are not enough. Up to and including the night in Gethsemane, the disciples got close but not really quite there. Judas, in fact, resented this woman for wasting money on Jesus. The teachings of Jesus were powerful and intellectually interesting and capable of starting a movement, but they seemed to rarely inspire commitment love.
But this woman seems to have gotten to that higher level, maybe because she was so desperate. As a beaten-up prostitute, maybe for her it was this Man from Nazareth or nothing. Maybe it was having seven demons cast out of her.
The point is this. You and I are on the other side of Calvary. After people saw Jesus hanging on the cross for them, all eleven disciples loved Jesus enough to die for Him. They understood at last the power of true forgiveness. Three thousand people heard the gospel, heard from Calvary eyewitnesses, and they joined God’s church en masse. The point is this: if we have seen Calvary, that should be enough. We should all be like Mary, and not like Simon.
There’s a scene in the sci-fi film Back to the Future where Doc Brown says to Marty McFly, “Do you want to go back to see the signing of the Declaration of Independence?” And he punches in some numbers on a keypad, and it says, “July 4, 1776.” Of course, you’d have to get from a mall in Hill Valley, California, and over to Philadelphia. And then he asks, “Or how about the birth of Jesus?” And he types in December 25, 0000. Well, that is probably off by a bit, but what if a silver DeLorean could take you to that hill where Jesus is dying? I would hope and pray that we would see that moment, come back here to this present time and place, and say to ourselves and our families and our church community for the rest of our lives: “Jesus forgave me much, and by God’s grace, I will now love Him much. And you will know I love Him much by the faithfulness of my love and effort for His kingdom.”
Let me go back to the chicken-and-egg dilemma we faced earlier, where it sounded for a moment that Jesus forgave this woman because she loved Him so much. Again, I don’t believe that can be accurate, because God’s love and His atonement initiative precedes our response. We talk about prevenient grace—divine grace which precedes human decision. Prevenient grace comes first; prevenient grace pursues and woos us. God’s feelings toward us are constant and eternally overflowing. God does not ever change His feelings or go from a no to a yes because we anoint His Son’s feet with our hair. All of the verses I just mentioned speak of God’s love for us while we are yet sinners, of reaching out to us in our rebellious state. God does not change His views toward us because we say to Him, “I love you.”
At the same time, it may be that our faith—which is simply our response to Calvary, our putting our hand into the hand of Jesus, deciding to trust Him—may well be motivated by love. Jesus’ forgiveness given to us motivates us to love Him in return and to keep seeking a relationship that thrives in a forgiven state.
For us, then, we ask the question: how shall we then live? How should we respond to the gift of prevenient grace? We want to have the experience of Mary, not of Simon. Mary is the happier person; Mary is released while Simon is still in prison. Mary becomes a major player for the Lord; we don’t see that Simon ever did. Mary is so happy she’s crying; Simon and Judas have perpetual scowls on their faces.
Not long ago, July 19, 2007, twenty-three Korean Christians were captured by the Taliban in Ghazni province, in the heart of Afghanistan. They had already killed Pastor Bae Hyong-hyu and one another man; thousands of believers all throughout South Korea prayed night and day and pleaded with both governments to intervene. And of course, an event like that—a personal 9/11, a Virginia Tech shooting, a mom facing cancer—puts us into a mode where we pray and mean it. We feel a need of God and we say so. We live that life of dependence for a brief while. Jesus finally comes into our conversations. I can think back and remember spiritual crises within my family and the way our prayers were filled with a keen, intense need for Jesus to give us comfort and help. But the challenge here, later, now, in Simon the Pharisee’s neighborhood is to seek the discipline of embracing our role as forgiven sinners when everything around us offers a false affirmation.
I want you to know how deeply committed I am to having our church be a place where forgiveness is a living reality. We choose songs of praise and commitment which focus on forgiveness. Please, when the music begins, treasure those holy minutes. Make sure you are here for them. Don’t let the words just float by because the rhythm is pleasantly lively. Please take your turn going into the children’s division where stories focus on how Jesus saves us from our sins and how wise lepers who get forgiven then fall at the feet of Jesus and worship Him. And let’s pledge ourselves to regular outreach ministry where new, hurting, lonely people will come here whose wide-eyed love for a new friend named Jesus will keep our own hearts tender to the touch of heaven’s grace.
There’s a theme I regularly return to because I crave it in my own life. We are so often shaken by events; our commitment takes a dive because we get discouraged. When we face change or uncertainty, it’s easy to have doubt and frustration take us away from Jesus. That’s why I want to have this experience myself—and for you too—where we simply decide on a daily and ongoing and permanent basis that we will live with our eyes on Jesus’ love for us. We love Him because He first loved us. I’m just plain not willing to leave that picture. I want it in my mind every day. I want it in your minds every day. I don’t want you to quit because it faded from your view.
On June 6, 1944, this massive D-Day plan went into effect for America and our allies. General Dwight D. Eisenhower did everything he could to prepare for the invasion of France. He and a staff of thousands had put together a plan so detailed it was like a New York City telephone book, and this was in a day before laptop computers. They had a synchronized plan of attack for the beaches at Normandy that was down to the minute: destroyers, tanks, battleships, infantry, parachutes, gliders, soldiers with bicycles—the list went on and on and on.
The reality, though, was that there was great uncertainty in the air. In war, a lot of things can go wrong, and we all have to learn not to scream too loud at a President who has bad things happen on the battlefield. That’s always been the case and always will be. But General Eisenhower had to weigh the weather reports and the possibility of storms. He had to gauge where the German forces were. Had Hitler been properly suckered into leaving the bulk of his army up in Norway? Was June 6 the best day to get underway?
They had a meeting on June 4. Some generals said yes, others no. Stephen Ambrose puts it like this: “The high command of the AEF was split. Only Eisenhower could decide. General Smith was struck by the ‘loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision was to be taken by him, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his individual decision.’” The world literally was hanging in the balance. It was 9:45 at night; outside it was a veritable monsoon. All the men on boats were seasick. But a Captain Stegg was good at predicting the weather; he thought there was probably going to be a break in the storm.
The next morning, it was still raining hard, coming down almost horizontally. But Eisenhower, after weighing all the variables—and I imagine he said a prayer or two—gave the order. D-Day was a go. Word went out and literally thousands of decisions were set into motion.
And then Eisenhower did something interesting. He had made this lasting choice. Blood was going to flow like the Thames River. Thousands were going to die. The carnage was going to be horrific. But he had chosen a course for victory. And after the room emptied out and people rushed to put the last campaign of World War II into action, he calmly had some breakfast and coffee, watched the ships pull out of the harbor, and then went back to his military trailer and played a game of checkers on a cracker box with his naval aide, a Captain Harry Butcher. Butcher was leading in the game when Eisenhower got a lucky jump and pulled out a draw. He decided that was a good omen.
So I say to all of you. Make your decision to live always in the shadow of the cross. Don’t dither and deliberate. Don’t change your mind. Don’t drift away. And then, with the permanent joy of Jesus’ love and forgiveness in your heart, enjoy a game of checkers. Shall we pray?
Lord Jesus, some of us have to choose to remember that we need You. When comfort defines our lives, it’s easy to have secular disdain be our default mode. Please use this church and our connections with one another to forge a lasting community of people saved by grace. In Your healing name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2007. Click here for usage guidelines.