Years ago I knew a man named Glenn who had been doing five years to life in Tehachapi Prison for drug dealing and other charges. One night, in the emptiness of his soul, he wandered into the prison chapel, where he heard the good news that Jesus Christ saves sinners. There, as he later learned, at the same moment that his mother was at home on her knees praying for her wayward son, Glenn got down on his knees and received Jesus Christ as his Savior. His life was dramatically transformed from that moment.
God put in Glenn’s heart the burning desire to tell everyone he met about Christ’s love for sinners. Everyone! One summer night, he and I walked along the boardwalk in Seal Beach, California. We could hardly carry on a conversation because every time we passed someone, Glenn would stop him to tell him about Christ. Another time I was sitting in a restaurant when Glenn walked in and spotted me across the room. He loudly called out, “Praise the Lord, brother Steve!” Then, since he had everyone’s attention, he stopped at each booth on the way to where I was to announce, “Jesus Christ saved me from prison and from sin. Here, read this!” He would hand each person a gospel tract.
I believe that God gave Glenn a special gift to talk to people about Jesus Christ that I lack. But apart from special gifts, Glenn had something that I wanted for myself and that every Christian should desire, namely, a fervent love for Jesus Christ. Glenn’s experience with the Lord was not a formal, go-to-church, run-through-the-motions thing. He was keenly aware of where he would have been if Christ had not reached down and pulled him out of a horrible pit, and he lived each day with fervent devotion to the Lord because of it. He often would say, “I have been forgiven much, and so I love much.”
But that’s where the rub was for me. I don’t have a dramatic, rags-to-riches testimony. I grew up in a Christian home. Accepting Jesus as my Savior is one of my earliest memories. I was raised in church. I have a pin in a drawer at home signifying seven years of perfect Sunday School attendance. I think the actual record was higher, but I just didn’t get the pin. I certainly had my normal share of childhood sins, but I never was rebellious toward my parents, even in my teens. I have never been anywhere close to being drunk. I have never used drugs. I have never been arrested. Compared to Glenn, it seemed as if I had not been forgiven nearly as much.
So I wondered, “How can I develop the same fervent love for the Lord that he seems to have?” I realized that the answer was not to go out and rack up some big sins, so that grace might abound. But Glenn got me thinking about the meaning of this beautiful story in Luke 7:36-50. While I still have a long ways to go, this story has helped me to deepen my own love for the Savior. I believe it will do the same for you if you will take it to heart.
William Barclay remarks, “This story is so vivid that it makes one believe that Luke may well have been an artist” (The Daily Study Bible, Luke [Westminster Press], p. 93). We need to meet the three main characters in this drama. We might call them the Pharisee, the Prostitute, and the Prophet.
The Pharisee: His name was Simon. This story is not a variation of the incident that took place in the home of a Simon the leper, where Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus just prior to His arrest. Simon was a common name. This Simon was a Pharisee, which means that outwardly he was a good, upright, religious man. He attempted to keep the Law of Moses. He tithed his income. He fasted regularly. He prayed at least three times every day. He never missed in his attendance at the synagogue. He was a decent man who was respected as a religious leader in the community.
His relationship to Jesus could be described as formal, distant and cool. He invited Jesus to his home for dinner, probably thinking that the theological discussion would be interesting. This young Teacher was creating quite a stir, and it would be intriguing to interact with Him. But Simon had no sense of personal need. He projected an air of having it together. After all, he was a Pharisee. For him, Jesus didn’t offer anything eternally vital. Scholars debate whether Simon’s withholding of water to wash Jesus’ feet, of the greeting kiss, and of the oil to anoint His head was rude or not. But certainly Simon’s reception of Jesus was much more reserved than he would have shown to the Chief Priest if he had come to dinner. Simon wanted to reflect a certain coolness and distance. He didn’t want his friends to think that he had gone overboard for Jesus or anything like that.
The Prostitute: The second character of the drama, deliberately left unnamed by Luke to guard her privacy, was probably a prostitute. She is not Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany. At the least, she was notorious in town for her openly sinful way of life. When she entered the room, eyebrows were raised and voices were lowered to whispers. Jesus’ question to Simon (7:44) is rather amusing: “Do you see this woman?” You can rest assured that Simon was aware of nothing but that woman from the moment she had entered the room! Although it was a common custom for uninvited guests to be able to drop in at such a gathering to listen to the dialog, Simon hardly expected to see the likes of her!
By His question, Jesus was about to showcase a prostitute as an example for a Pharisee to follow! The fact was, Simon had not really seen that woman. He had not seen that she had something he needed, namely, a loving, thankful heart toward the Savior. It took a lot of courage for this woman to seek out Jesus in this gathering that probably included many Pharisees. She knew that she would have to endure stares, whispers, and muffled laughter as the men nudged one another. But she wanted openly to express her love for Jesus, and she was willing to endure public humiliation to do it.
Luke does not tell us, but we must assume that this woman had come under Jesus’ teaching prior to this occasion. Jesus’ words to her (7:48, 50) are words of assurance, not first-time declarations. As this sinful woman had heard Jesus speak of the things of God, she sensed that here was a Man who did not condemn her. She had heard the Pharisees teach that the way to God was to keep the law, to observe countless Sabbath regulations, and to be diligent to avoid ceremonial defilement. But their teaching offered her no hope. It only added to her condemnation. She didn’t even know where to begin!
But then she heard Jesus say, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). She heard of greedy tax collectors who had been transformed by coming to Jesus. Perhaps she heard of another sinful woman to whom Jesus had said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on, sin no more” (John 8:11). She thought, “This Man offers hope even to a sinner like me!” And so she repented of her sins and put her trust in this one who came to seek and to save the lost. All of this had happened before that day in Simon’s house.
When she learned that He was nearby, she determined to go to Him and express her deep gratitude for all that He had done for her. At such a dinner, the guests reclined on couches with their heads toward the table, leaning on their left elbows, with their feet away from the table. She planned to slip in and anoint His feet with this expensive perfume as He reclined at the table. But when she got there, she was overcome with emotion. She could not contain her tears. As she clung to His feet and they became wet with her tears, she ignored the custom of a woman not letting her hair down in public. That hair that before she had let down for sinful purposes, she now undid to dry the Savior’s feet. She was so thankful that she kept kissing His feet. Kissing the feet was a common mark of deep reverence, especially to leading rabbis (Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribners Sons], p. 211). Finally, she took her bottle of costly perfume and poured it on His feet. She didn’t care what anyone else thought. She wanted to show her love for Jesus. In contrast to the cool detachment of the Pharisee, this prostitute had a fervent, demonstrative love for the Lord Jesus who had done so much for her.
Before we look at the third character of the drama, let me ask: Which of these two characters most describes your relationship with Jesus? Are you more like the cool, calm, and collected Pharisee? You’ve got it pretty much together spiritually, so you don’t really need what Jesus offers, namely, forgiveness of sins. Are you like Simon? Or, like this woman, do you see that without Jesus, you’d be hopelessly, helplessly lost in your sins? Like her, are you at liberty to express your deep feelings of love and gratitude for the Savior, in spite of what people might think? Luke wants us to take an honest look at ourselves and identify with either the Pharisee or the prostitute. Clearly, the prostitute is the preferable character here!
The Prophet: Jesus is the third main character of the drama. One of Luke’s main reasons for relating this story is to get us to reflect on the question, “Who is this man, Jesus?” The question came to Simon’s mind as he squirmed while watching this notorious woman kiss Jesus’ feet. He thought, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39). Luke uses splendid irony by showing that Jesus could read Simon’s secret thoughts, even though Simon doubted that He was a prophet!
The dinner guests also raise the question of Jesus’ identity: “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (7:49). It’s not the first time in Luke that this question has been asked. Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive sins by raising the paralytic from his stretcher (5:21, 24). Here, He ignores the murmuring of the religious crowd, assures this sinful woman of her forgiveness and sends her away in peace. You can only rightly forgive sins if they were committed against you. Luke wants us to consider that this man is not only a prophet, He is the one whose Law this sinful woman had broken. As God in human flesh, He could rightly forgive sins.
Having met the main characters, let’s come back to the central question: How do I develop the fervent love for Jesus that this sinful woman had, especially if my background is more like that of the Pharisee? Jesus answers that question in the story about the two debtors that He addresses to Simon (7:41-43). He brings out three simple truths:
Both parties are in debt. The greater debtor refers to the sinful woman, the lesser debtor to the Pharisee. But in God’s sight the woman was not necessarily the greater sinner. Outwardly, as men see things, yes, she was the greater sinner. It is true that sins of the body are worse than sins of the mind (1 Cor. 6:18-19). But God looks on the heart, not just on the outward sins. In his heart, the Pharisee was guilty of pride and self-righteousness, which are serious sins. Also, God judges according to the light that a person has received. To sin against clear knowledge and an informed conscience is more serious than to sin in ignorance, although both are sins. God takes into account the various circumstances that surround a person, such as the person’s upbringing, environment, and the factors that led the person into the sin. God would judge much more severely a young person from a godly upbringing who fell into a lifestyle of immorality than someone from a pagan country who had no knowledge of the gospel. So we do not know which of the two was the worse sinner in God’s sight.
But Jesus couches the story in this way to draw the Pharisee’s neck into the noose. Simon would have been thinking, “Jesus is right; this woman is at least ten times worse than I am.” But in so agreeing, Simon has just acknowledged that he, too, is a debtor! He may not be in quite as deep as the woman, but he is in debt as a violator of God’s holy law. Before you can love the Lord Jesus as the one who paid your debt, you have to come to see that you are, in fact, in debt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 6:23). “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). You must acknowledge, “I have sinned and am guilty before the holy God.” Jesus’ second point pulls the noose tight:
Both debtors were unable to repay. Both were in over their heads. If you can’t repay, you can’t repay! You’re bankrupt! The creditor can take everything you own to recover at least part of his losses. Which person is in bigger trouble: the guy drowning in 50 feet of water or the guy drowning in 500 feet of water? It would be ridiculous for the guy in 50 feet of water to look at the guy in 500 feet and think, “Well, at least I’m better off than that poor wretch!” And, it wouldn’t do any good for the guy in 500 feet of water to think, “If I can just swim over to where that guy is in 50 feet of water, I’ll be okay!”
And yet sinners often think like this! The self-righteous sinner thinks, “I’m better off than that degraded sinner who is drowning in 500 feet of water!” But all the while, he’s going to drown in his 50 feet! Or, the really bad sinner mistakenly thinks, “If I can just clean up my life by swimming over next to that guy in 50 feet of water, I’ll be just fine.” But in God’s sight, both are guilty as lawbreakers. Both are debtors and neither has the ability to repay.
To love Jesus much, you must come to the realization that you are in debt to God because of your sin nature and because of the many deeds of sin that you have committed. You must also realize that there is nothing you can do to repay the debt. All the good deeds in the world added to your sins is like putting frosting over a moldy cake. You’ve got to come to the place where you recognize that your entire cake is moldy and you can’t do anything to fix it.
In his autobiography, Charles Haddon Spurgeon spends a chapter telling of the five years of soul-agony he went through before he got saved at age 15. Although he was outwardly a Bible-reading, church-going son of a pastor in Victorian England, the Holy Spirit took him deeper and deeper in seeing his own pride, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, and unbelief. He observes that much of the flimsy piety in his day (his comments are still true) was due to the fact that people professed salvation without any deep conviction of sin. He states, “Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Savior. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honor of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54). He later remarks that he thought that he loved Christ better and could preach Him better to others because he was led to see the depths of his own sinfulness before he came to salvation (ibid., p. 85).
This is a main reason that I stand vigorously opposed to the teaching of Neil Anderson, who has become increasingly popular. He tells Christians that they are not in any way to view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but rather we should see ourselves as “saints who occasionally sin.” He claims that if you see yourself as a sinner, you will sin more. But his teaching is diametrically opposed to every godly man from the past that I have read and it is opposed to Scripture. The more the Holy Spirit opens my eyes to the holiness of God as revealed in His Word, the more I see my horrible sinfulness. I argue that this process does not stop at conversion, but that the more a person grows in the Lord, the more he sees the terrible blackness of his heart. Yes, by God’s grace every Christian is a saint; but also, we should with Paul see ourselves as the chief of sinners. This growing awareness of the great debt we owe to God and of our utter inability to pay will lead us into a deeper love for Jesus who paid the debt Himself.
“When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both” (7:42). What wonderful words! Why did he forgive them both? Did he look at their character and say, “I think you’re worthy for me to do this?” No! Did he extract a promise to work off the debt in the years to come? No! He forgave them graciously or freely. It stemmed totally from him and not at all from them.
It is crucial that you not misinterpret the text at this point. Some commentators (especially Roman Catholics), based on verse 47, argue that it was this woman’s love for Christ that merited her forgiveness. But Jesus states plainly (7:50) that it was her faith that had saved her, not her love. Also, at the end of verse 47, Jesus does not say, “he who loves little is forgiven little,” but the reverse. The point of Jesus’ story in verses 41-43 is obviously that forgiveness precedes and results in love, not vice versa. In verse 47 Jesus is saying that this woman’s fervent love was an evidence of her great forgiveness which preceded it. For example, we may say, “It is raining, for the window is wet.” The wet window is not the cause of the rain, but the evidence of it. The woman’s fervent love was the evidence of her forgiveness, not the cause of it. When a person sees his debt of sin before God and his inability to meet the debt, it drives him to trust completely in the Savior who graciously forgives the debt. That is the key to developing a fervent love for Christ:
To love Jesus fervently, realize your great debt and your utter inability to repay it and trust totally in God’s grace to forgive it.
The more you see your debt and your own inability to repay it, the more you will see how much the Savior did for you when He took the penalty for your sin on Himself on the cross. When you see the depths of His great love, you will love Him more and more.
There are two groups that I hope will take this message to heart. First, there are those, like myself, who were reared in the church or who have been in the church for many years. You are familiar with the things of God; perhaps too familiar. You can quote John 3:16 while yawning. The gospel does not stir your heart as it used to do. You need to think about how much God has forgiven you so that you will shake your apathy and love Him fervently.
The other group consists of any, like this woman, who are overwhelmed with sin and guilt. I hope that you can see that there is hope for the very worst of sinners who will come to Jesus for forgiveness. He freely forgives both the small and large debtors who cast themselves on His mercy.
The Lord has given us a means by which we can stir up our love for Him: the Lord’s Supper. We should celebrate it often because it keeps us near the cross, where we see the Savior’s loving wounds that He freely suffered to reconcile us to God. Note Jesus’ word (7:40), “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He calls Simon by name and specifies that the story is directly for him. Right now Jesus is calling you by name. He wants His Word to bear in on you personally. Would you like to hear the Savior say directly to you, as He said to this sinful woman, “Your sins have been forgiven?” Then you must join her at Jesus’ feet, deeply aware of your many sins, but even more deeply aware of His abundant grace. Trust totally in Him to save you and not at all in yourself. You will then hear Him say, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation