So the setting here is still in the small town of Nain. Jesus arrived here last week, brought the boy back to life, word spread, and people came from everywhere to be healed. And it was while Jesus was still very busy healing people that John the Baptist’s disciples came to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah or if John anointed the wrong guy.
Now, we don’t know if all this happened on one day or over several days. It seems like he must have spent several days there in order for the rumors to reach John in prison and then for his messengers to get to Jesus, but we don’t really know. So, some unspecified length of time later, Jesus finishes his healing work and gets invited to dinner at a Pharisees’ house.
So, Luke tells us, Jesus went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
— and here, again, Luke is being a little bit funny and ironic. Because what did the Pharisees accuse Jesus of just two verses ago? Verse 34: “This guy eats with sinners!”
Well, sure enough: here he is, eating with a sinner! Because remember, Luke has just told us that the Pharisees — many of them — have already rejected Jesus. And yet here Jesus is willing to eat with one: he is loving his enemy, just as he told us to do.
And when Jesus gets to the house, it turns out that this isn’t just a casual dinner: this is a “symposium”, one of those “seminar dinners” that we first saw at Levi’s house back in chapter 5 —
— we know this because Luke tells us Jesus “reclined” at the table. The Jews normally sat up to eat, just like we do. It was only at a major party like a symposium that people would “recline” at the table. And this is an important detail, actually. We have to understand this cultural detail or else this episode won’t make any sense. This is how they would do it:
There would be a large, U-shaped table in the middle of the room. And the guests would lie down on their sides, propped on their left arms, with their heads toward the table and their feet stretched out toward the wall. And they would eat with their right hands.
And as I mentioned when we were at Levi’s banquet, this meal was a chance for a teacher or philosopher to talk about their area of expertise; much like a modern seminar, except with lots of food and even more alchohol. Guests at the table were allowed to ask questions and interact with the guest speaker. But uninvited guests, even though they were allowed to come in and stand against the walls — at the guests’ feet — they were supposed to be quiet and listen and not distract the “intellectuals” —
So that’s the dignified setting: this is an intellectual meal for intellectual men. Everyone else can watch, but stay out of the way.
And into this dignified setting comes a very undignified woman: a prostitute. And not just any prostitute: this is a very wealthy prostitute. She is very good at her job! And we can tell because, Luke tells us, she brings an “alabaster jar of perfume” —
— and what is that? Well, in the Gospel of Mark we are told that a jar like this would have cost more than a year’s wages; we’re talking about a jar of perfume that costs as much a car in our age! So this is not a woman who is barely surviving financially —
And when she hears Jesus is going to be at this symposium, she take this very expensive perfume and makes sure to get to the house early, so she can get a place along the wall where she knows Jesus will be reclined as the “honored guest”. Then, as the guests come in and take their places, she ends up standing at Jesus’ feet.
Apparently, her plan was to anoint Jesus’ head with this perfume. That would have been a gesture of extreme honour and devotion because with this perfume, once the seal on the bottle is broken, it has to be used all at once; it cannot be stored. Perfumes in those days were not alchohol-based like we have now; they were oils, like essential oils.
So this anointing, if she had managed to do it, would have been an anointing in the truest possible sense: the pouring out of a precious oil on Jesus’ head.
But something goes wrong. Her plans to honor Jesus fall apart. She has gotten as far as his feet, but she can’t get to his head because it’s way up there at the table, and on Jesus’ left is the Pharisee — the host of the house — and on Jesus’ right is some other bigwig from the town. So there she is, standing at Jesus’ feet, against the wall, and she is weeping —
— and by the way, I should point out that the Greek word is used here for “weeping”…is not the word used to describe the kind of quiet weeping where tears flow silently down the cheeks. That’s dignified weeping. But the Greek makes it clear: this woman is wailing. Loudly. She is losing control. Making a scene. Interrupting the intellectuals.
And then, to make it worse, she is crying so hard her tears fall on Jesus’ feet. Jewish culture — like Muslim culture today — was very sensitive to bodily fluids because bodily fluids can make you unclean! —
So now here we have this unclean woman, a prostitute full of unclean bodily fluids, and some of her unclean bodily fluids are falling on the feet of this holy man!
And this woman, in her horror and confusion, thinks, “I’d better clean this up!” So she kneels down to clean up the mess, but she has nothing to wipe with, because an unclean woman’s clothing is also unclean. So she lets down her hair —
— and that is even worse! In Jewish culture — just as in many Muslim cultures today — a woman’s hair was her honor, to be seen only by her husband. So for a woman to take down her hair in public would have been considered a very erotic and shocking act. By our standards here in KL, this woman’s act is the equivalent of appearing topless in public —
She lets down her hair and wipes her unclean tears from Jesus’ feet. Then she…kisses them — another erotic and shocking act.
And then, as if realizing she’s just not going to get to Jesus’ head, she breaks open the jar of oil and pours it on his feet instead…
Meanwhile, the Pharisee, who is reclining at Jesus’ left, basically at Jesus’ back, is looking at this scene going on down by their feet, and he thinks to himself, “if this guy really was a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him!”
— the Pharisee makes two assumptions here: 1. that a true prophet can read minds, and 2. that a prophet would carefully guard himself from anything unclean.
Well, it turns out, he’s right about number 1: a true prophet can read minds, and Jesus proves right then and there that he is a prophet —
Luke says (verse 40) Jesus answered him, meaning Jesus “answered” the Pharisees’ unspoken comment, he says, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
And Simon, the Pharisee, having no idea that he’s about to be called out, says, ”Tell me, teacher.”
— see, Simon is thinking this is part of the seminar. Jesus is supposed to say something wise, and then Simon will say something wise back, and then there will be this dignified intellectual laughter (ho ho ho) and everyone’s going to feel good about how smart they are.
So Jesus begins: “Once upon a time two men owed money to a banker. One owed two years’ salary; the other owed two months’ salary. They were both pokai, so the banker erased of their debts.
“Now, Simon, which man will love the banker more?”
And Simon, still having no idea that he’s about to be owned, says, “hmmmm, well, ahem, ahem, I suppose the guy who owed more money would love the banker more!”
And Jesus says, “Well done! Jolly good show! “You have judged correctly.” And all the men at the table would have been like, “ho ho ho! Yes, well, I do say I couldn’t have said it better myself, ha ha ha!”
Then Jesus springs his trap:
 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?
— “yes, of course you’ve seen this woman, she’s been making a scene here since I arrived! —
“I came into your house. Normally, a host would honor his guest speaker by assigning a slave to wash his feet. But you have treated me with dishonor by not having my feet washed, as if I am beneath you. But this ‘unclean’ woman has washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. She has shown me unbelievable honor!
“Normally, a host would honor his guest speaker by kissing both his cheeks as a gesture of brotherhood. You didn’t. But this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.
“Normally, a host would honor his guest speaker by giving him hair products, letting him clean up his appearance a bit before the seminar starts. You didn’t. But this woman 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.”
“Her many sins have been forgiven — for she loved much.”
— now, what does that sound like to you? It sounds like Jesus is saying, “because she loved a lot, she has been forgiven”, right? So the application of this passage ought to be, “if you want your sins forgiven, you had better love others a lot.”
But isn’t that legalism? Isn’t that just a variation on what every other religion in the world preaches? A summary of Islam might say, “if you pray five times a day, go on hajj, and complete the five pillars, then you will go to paradise.” A summary of Buddhism might say, “if you realize that all suffering is an illusion, then you will no longer suffer.” Hinduism might say, “if you live an ethical life, then you will be reborn on a higher level.” We have already heard what the Pharisees think: “if you avoid eating with unclean people and keep the Sabbath laws, then you can be part of God’s people.”
So is Jesus just saying another version of that? “If you love other people a lot, then your sins will be forgiven”?
No. All that kind of thinking comes from the ancient dragon, the devil who enslaved mankind and brainwashed us all. Jesus has already made it clear that he has come to rescue us from that kind of thinking! — not to just give us another version of it.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Her many sins have been forgiven — for she loved much”?
Well, let me try another sentence on you, and you interpret it for me. Ready? Here it is: “It is raining outside — for the windows are wet.”
Now, pop quiz: am I saying, “if I make the windows wet, then it will rain outside”? Or am I saying, “I can see that it is raining outside — because I can see that the windows are wet”?
10,000 points if you get it right.
See? Jesus is not saying, “this woman’s many sins are forgiven because she loved much.” He is saying, “I can see that her many sins have already been forgiven, because I can see how much love she has been showing to me.”
“But he who has been forgiven little, loves little.”
— in other words, Jesus is saying, “I can tell how much she has been forgiven by how much she loves me. But I can tell how little you have been forgiven, Simon, by how little you have loved me.”
So we see here the summary of all Jesus has been teaching and doing up until this point in the book: you can tell that a person has really been forgiven by how much they love others — by how compassionate they are. Just like he said in his sermon in Chapter 6: you cannot call yourself a Christ-follower and continue to divide the world into holy/unholy, clean/unclean, insider/outsider. You cannot call yourself a Christ-follower and refuse to extend compassion and forgiveness to others.
Those who have been forgiven much, love much. That is the Christian faith in a nutshell. How do you become a Christian? You ask Jesus to forgive you, and he does. Guaranteed. How do you live as a Christian? Love much.
Simple as that. And if you notice, this is the exact opposite of the devil’s system, the world’s system. The world’s logic says, “if you want it to rain, make the windows wet. If you want to go to paradise, pray five times a day. If you want to stop suffering, realize that suffering is illusion. If you want to be reborn on a higher level, live a good life. If you want to be part of God’s people, avoid eating with sinners.”
But all that is obvious nonsense. You cannot make it rain by making the windows wet. You cannot persuade God to forgive you by trying to love much. It’s the exact opposite: first it rains outside; then the windows get wet. First, God forgives us — simply because of the compassion of Jesus, nothing else! — then, we love much.
But if the windows are not wet, then it is not raining outside. If we do not love much…then our sins are not forgiven.
Jesus is saying, “Be careful, Simon the Pharisee. Your cold-heartedness, your isolation from those you consider ‘unclean’, your pride in thinking you can persuade God to forgive you by being religious — all this is dragging you to hell. One day, when that ancient dragon is seized and judged and thrown into the abyss, everyone who still thinks as he does will go with him.
“And Simon, you are on the edge of damnation. Repent. Humble yourself. Accept your need for my forgiveness, and even now you will be forgiven!”
Then Jesus turns from Simon to the woman, and in verse 48 he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
— now, bear in mind, she already knows that. We don’t know when it happened. Sometime in the last little while, between Jesus raising the widow’s son and Simon inviting him to dinner, this prostitute understood Jesus’ preaching of free forgiveness. And she received it. That is why, when she heard Jesus would be at Simon’s house, she took the most precious thing she owned and brought it to show her gratitude, her honour, her love for God’s anointed king, this warrior who has set her free from all fear. First she was forgiven. Then she loved much.
So Jesus doesn’t need to say, “your sins are forgiven” because she doesn’t know. She knows! And she has proven it by her actions!
But no one else at the table knows. So Jesus has to make it clear. He has to be explicit.
And still, they miss it —
 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
— and this shows us that these men still have the Pharisees’ mindset, the dragon’s mindset. Just like in the episode of the paralyzed man, they judge Jesus’ work. They say, “who does this guy think he is? God?”
And the answer is…yes. He is not just a great prophet: he is God’s anointed king, with the authority to forgive sins. He is the Messiah.
Jesus has just pleaded with Simon to repent, to humble himself, to accept his need for Jesus’ forgiveness.
But he won’t. And neither will his friends.
But Jesus ignores them all. He says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
— and here is the final piece of the puzzle: faith.
The first time Luke used this word was when Jesus looked up and saw the paralyzed man’s friends, and saw how desperately they had worked, how many rules they had broken, to get their sick friend in front of Jesus. He says, “when Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’”
The second time Luke used this word was when the non-Jewish police chief said, “no need to come. Just say, and do.” And Jesus said, “I have never seen faith like this in all of Israel!” He saw how desperately the police chief wanted his servant saved, and how trusting the police chief was to realize that he did not actually have to get his sick friend in front of Jesus for Jesus to see: all he had to do was ask, and he knew Jesus would act.
Now, for a third time, Luke uses this word “faith”. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
But isn’t this legalism, again? Is Jesus saying, “if you have faith, then you will be saved.”
No. Because “faith”, as Luke has been defining it for us, is not a “work”. It is not something you do. It is a state of being. Faith, for Luke, means a state of desperation, poverty, hunger, weeping. A desperate person may do desperate things — but that person is not saved by those desperate acts.
For instance: a leper, desperate for cleansing and believing that Jesus can give him cleansing, may break all of society’s rules to meet Jesus in town. But he is not cleansed by his desperation; he is cleansed by Jesus words.
A paralyzed man’s friends, desperate for his healing and believing that Jesus can give him healing, may break someone’s roof open to get their friend in front of Jesus. But he is not healed and forgiven by their desperation; he is saved by Jesus’ words.
A non-Jewish police chief, desperate for his servant’s healing and believing that Jesus can give him healing, may restrain himself from demanding that Jesus come to him — a truly amazing act of faith! But his prayer is not answered because of his desperation; his servant is healed by Jesus’ words.
In the same way, a prostitute, desperate for cleansing and forgiveness, heard Jesus preach and believed him when he said that he will have mercy on anyone who asks, no matter how unclean they are. So she was not forgiven because of her desperation; she was forgiven by Jesus’ words, his preaching — even from a distance!
And yet, Jesus was moved by her desperation — even from a distance. Last week he saw the widow in her desperation, and he was gut-wrenched with compassion for her. In the same way, Jesus saw this prostitute in her desperation — even without coming face to face with her — and he was gut-wrenched with compassion for her. He preached, not just to her, but to hundreds, thousands. In her desperation she heard his offer of forgiveness…and she took it.
This is how the process works: a person in desperation, poverty, hunger, grief, moves Jesus with compassion. He preaches healing and forgiveness. And that person, in their desperation, realizes that Jesus is their only hope, and they take him at his word.
But the rich, the well-fed, the powerful, do not move Jesus with compassion. Oh, he still offers them healing and forgiveness! just as he has done here for Simon. But the rich, the well-fed, the powerful…they don’t even understand what he is saying. It is impossible for them to believe Jesus’ words when they cannot even comprehend their own need.
So, in effect, what Jesus is saying here is this: “Woman, your faith has saved you: your condition of desperate longing for my forgiveness has moved me with compassion; that’s why I answered your prayers: because I love you.
“Go in peace.”
Wow. This is the word of the Lord!
And what difference does it make to us?
Well, this episode is something of a summary episode for Luke. Here he has gathered together all the concepts he has introduced so far: a dinner party, a Pharisee, a sinner, faith, forgiveness, compassion and love, healing, salvation. After this point we will be seeing Jesus turn his focus back to his active war against the dragon, one last push through to victory.
And since this is something of a summary episode, it actually has many possible applications for us!
“Don’t be like the Pharisees” is an important one; basically: recognize your Messiah! You don’t need just another prophet to tell you want God is thinking; you need a Messiah to save you, and introduce you to God directly.
And related to that one, “recognize your need for forgiveness!” You are never going to meet God unless you are completely holy — and Jesus, God’s Messiah, is the only one who can make you holy. Recognize your need for forgiveness, and he will have compassion upon you in your desperation! That is a promise.
What else…in your desperation, take Jesus at his word when he says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” He said it! And he has proven that he has the authority to make it true. So believe him!
And then, following on from that: once you are forgiven, love much! Honor the Lord who has set you free. Open the gates of forgiveness to others. Do not treat people as “outsiders” because you think they aren’t holy enough, or clean enough, or good enough.
Friends, are you starting to see the shape of the kingdom Jesus wants to build? It is not a “religious” kingdom: it does not depend upon ritual. We do not have to “do the right things” to get in, and then “do the right things” to stay in. All we have to do is admit the truth: “we are not worthy to enter.” Then all we have to do is believe his words of forgiveness, and enter in. And once we have entered in, all we have to do is continue to hear his words of forgiveness; continue to believe; continue to remain secure in his promise.
The Christian life really is as simple as that. So let us put out of our minds all thoughts of religious diet or clothing or behaviour. Let us get rid of this clean/unclean distinction that keeps us turned against one another. Let us remember that Jesus’ holiness is so great that he makes everything he touches clean! — even a prostitute’s tears.
We don’t need to live in fear of being defiled. So let us live with courage! Let us go in peace.