Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"For She Loved Much"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7.44-47)

This passage affords us the opportunity to go however far into the weeds we’d like.  To begin with, what is the significance each of the three mentioned acts of hospitality?  Then there’s the obligatory speculation about the nature of this woman’s well-known sins—and all of those trains of thought seem to end at the same station.  Of course there’s been debate for nearly two thousand years over whether this scene in Luke’s Gospel is, or is not the same event as the one recorded in Matthew 26.6-11, Mark 14.3-8, and John 12.1-8, which the other three say took place in Bethany near Jerusalem, and John says was within a week of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Yet Luke’s account, while bearing an uncanny similarity, differs drastically where the map and timeline are concerned, if nothing else!

But there’s a question that’s more doctrinally significant: which came first, the forgiveness, or the love?  Jesus himself says in verse 47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.”  This appears to answer the question easily.  Why did Jesus forgive her sins?  Because she loved him much; it’s simple.  The timing involved points us to the same conclusion—his proclamation of forgiveness (v48) comes after her acts of love (vv37-38), both in the text and on the timeline.  So the problem is solved; the question is answered.  Right?

Well, there are few hitches with this interpretation.  First of all, it runs counter to the parable Jesus told just before declaring that the woman’s sins were forgiven:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7.41-42)

The analogy is obvious, and so is the direction of cause and effect—did the lender forgive these two debtors because they loved him to degrees matching the size of their debts?  Clearly not; in fact, his reasons never enter into the equation.  The question posed by Jesus is this: given that the lender has already forgiven both of these debtors, which will appreciate his forgiveness more?  Jesus doesn’t ask which one must have previously loved the lender more, but which one will love him more in response to his mercy.  In addition to this, while we may have thought Jesus already gave a clear answer in verse 47—“for she loved much”—he gives an equally clear explanation in verse 50: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Well, which is it? 

Isn’t this an important question?  Shouldn’t we be able to answer whether love for Christ precedes forgiveness of sins, or whether it is the unavoidable response to a forgiveness available on some other basis?  Surely, we must know!  But it’s usually a mistake to build entrenched positions around a verse or two, as we’ve done here.  The rest of the Bible has a thing or two to say about salvation, and anytime we elevate one favorite verse at the expense of other things God has said, we’re behaving like the Pharisees.

Speaking of behaving like the Pharisees, to engage passionately in this argument puts us in the same boat as Simon, the Pharisee, the other person in the story we’ve been examining.  Wasn’t he guilty of sin?  Wasn’t he in need of Jesus’ grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation?  He certainly was, and he certainly should have responded to Jesus’ forgiveness with some expression of gratitude, love, and honor not too different from those given by the sinful woman.  But where was his focus?  It clearly wasn’t on his own shortcomings, or his need for a Savior.  It was on the minute details of everyone else’s behavior, so that he could pass judgment on them—as he did:

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7.39)

As Jesus might tell us, based on his lack of love for the Messiah, he must not have been forgiven for very much at all!  But he needed that forgiveness desperately, as we all do.

In contrast, where was the woman’s focus?  Based on her uninvited presence at this dinner and her position at his feet, her focus was on Jesus.  Based on her tears, her focus was on her own shortcomings, or her appreciation of Jesus’ care and attention for her in spite of them.  Based on her kisses and anointing, her focus was on expressing that appreciation, even though she may well have thought the Teacher wouldn’t even notice.  It wasn’t on the Pharisee’s judgmental glare, the whispers of the other guests about her, the expense of the perfume she was pouring on Jesus’ feet, or the fact that she was becoming a spectacle in all of this.

Of course, this nameless woman was not spiritually mature, and as that maturity comes, we should develop an understanding of the finer details regarding the how’s and why’s of God’s grace and salvation.  But remember that Simon the Pharisee thought he had that kind of maturity, and where did it leave him?  The nameless woman fared better than Simon, in their joint encounter with Jesus.  Imitate her.

Jeremy Nettles