The Scandal of Faith

A Sermon Transcript: Luke 7:36-50

Jesus often found himself embroiled in scandal. During his ministry, the words and actions of Jesus often caused public outcry, but not because of any flagrant personal sin on behalf of Christ. In fact, the absence of sin in the life of Christ is well recorded in Scripture including the testimony of the apostles.

Peter proclaims that Jesus committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22), and the apostle Paul states God made Christ who “knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21).The letter to the Hebrews says Jesus our high priest has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. He was an unblemished and spotless lamb who stood before Pontius Pilate as the roman official declared “I find no guilt in Him.” The same man who washed his hands before a blood-thirsty crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves.”

Even Luke records the angel Gabriel saying to a virgin woman the “holy child” shall be called the Son of God, and the term holy refers to the separated essence of God that is totally void of sin. The same Luke who records the holiness of Christ in the miraculous conception also records the disreputable public scandals that often followed Jesus. 

Luke 5 records a tax collector named Levi, also known as Matthew, being recruited personally by Jesus to join his disciples. This public indecency of engaging in conversation with a ceremonially unclean traitor, an employee of the ruling foreign nation Rome, led to increasing scandal when Jesus accepted a dinner invitation at Levi’s home. This large gathering of tax collectors and disreputable dining guests led the religious elite to ask Jesus why he would eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.

Continuing this public disgrace, again the Pharisees questioned Jesus concerning his apparent breaking of Jewish law when his disciples plucked and ate the heads of grain on the Sabbath in Luke 6. Jesus further complicates things himself when he heals a man with a withered hand on another Sabbath day.

So the words scandal and Jesus are not an unusual phrase, but our text this morning in Luke 7:36-50 reveals a narrative where Jesus finds himself in the midst of public scrutiny because of a dinner table being shared with both a devout man and a woman of ill repute. It is around this dinner table that the proposed Son of God finds himself in the presence of the preacher and the prostitute. Through the course of our text we find that Jesus illustrates a profound difference between these two individuals, perhaps a difference that our own human minds would not conceive unless divinely inspired.

The question I hope to answer in part this morning is one that Jesus answers himself, “How do we find assurance in our salvation?”

How do we find rest, security, comfort, and hope in our salvation?

As we move through this narrative, I hope to draw your attention to four distinct parts:

The Scene

The Scandal

The Accusation, and finally

The Affirmation.

THE SCENE

Luke 7:36-37 sets the scene for us.

Luke 7:36, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.”

Jesus receives an invitation to dinner by a pharisee, and the text later tells us this invitation comes from a man by the name of Simon. Accepting the invitation, Jesus enters the man’s house and reclines at the table for the evening meal. 

Now, this is not an uncommon invitation because we find Jesus eating in the homes’ of Pharisees in both Luke 11, and Luke 14. However, this man does not appear to be sympathetic to the life and ministry of Jesus, raising profound questions for us concerning Simon the Pharisee’s motives for such a dinner invitation. 

Perhaps his intentions include entrapping Jesus, finding evidence and reason to accuse him of blasphemy against God. Simon knows that if Jesus is accused and convicted of blasphemy, misrepresenting the character of God… and in Jesus’ circumstances, claiming divine relationship with God, the subsequent punishment by mosaic law, according to Leviticus 24:16, is death.

These insidious motives by Simon the pharisee should not surprise us as Luke 6:7 reveals “the scribes and Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse him.” In fact, perhaps Simon has been enlisted by his peers to bring Jesus into an intimate setting where he may unintentionally allow a private word to contradict his public messianic claims.

Luke 11:53-54 says, “that the scribes and Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.”

The greek word for catch used in the original translation referred to hunting animals. So it is that there is a great crescendo occurring in Luke, where Jesus is provoking the Pharisees to become hunters on the prowl seeking to catch their prey and Simon is merely at the forefront of this rising intensity. He is enlisted to ensnare this man, this false prophet according to Simon’s colleagues, Jesus the self-exclaimed “Son of God.” 

Hostility from these religious leaders should not surprise us.

The word Pharisee derives from an Aramaic word meaning “to separate” and so it was that these devout religious leaders became known as the “separate ones” … owing to a different manner of life from that of the general public.

They were a small group of roughly 6000 Jews but the most influential of the major Jewish sects.

Their meticulous observance of God’s law included strict adherence to the Old Testament laws and their own accumulated extra-biblical traditions. Their primacy on obedience, and the strict adherence of all laws, were the means by which one attains righteousness before God and returns his favor.

That is to say the Pharisees trusted in their own righteousness… adhering to the commands of God, in order to attain righteousness from God and return his favor.

The Jews tithed money to God but the separate ones tithed even their garden herbs. Jews fasted to God but the Pharisees fasted twice a week to God. They even avoided sharing tables with sinners and tax collectors.

They were teachers in the synagogues and religious examples. They were the self-appointed guardians of the law and its proper observance. They also considered their own interpretations and regulations handed down by traditions as authoritative as scripture.

The Pharisees taught how to obey the Jewish law when extenuating circumstances made maintaining holiness less obvious. There were no “in-between categories” of purity because God could not be ambivalent about holiness. The Jews believed in a binary world, clean or unclean. The pursuit of holiness drew battle lines, a divisive pursuit, and removing the unclean was an act of divine judgment. Even the apostle Paul used this standard when encouraging the Corinthian church to remove an immoral church member from its congregation in 1 Corinthians 5. The Pharisees believed their complete obedience would be a sign of covenant faithfulness to God and would bring a light of righteousness to the Gentiles. They pushed the limitations in a noble pursuit, purity extending from eating clean foods to using clean pots, and even to sharing tables with clean guests.

Paul, himself a Pharisee before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus says in Philippians 3:6, “as to righteousness under the law, I was blameless.”

In their zeal for the law they almost deified it and their attitude became external, formal, and mechanical. They laid stress not on the righteousness of an action but its formal correctness and attempted to shape the religious life of the ordinary Jew through the dissemination of their traditions. Their opposition to Christ was inevitable because his manner of life and teaching was a condemnation of theirs, and it was these man-made biblical traditions that Jesus publicly rejected,

Mark 7 records such an exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus, 

5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,

    but their heart is far from me;

7 in vain do they worship me,

    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Many Pharisees opposed Jesus, naturally, because he condemned their hypocrisy.

8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

In Matthew 3:7, Jesus called them a brood of vipers, a viper being known for its subtle movements and lethal strikes.

In Luke 11:37-44, Jesus issues a series of “Woes to the Pharisees” in which he says inside they are full of greed and wickedness, that they tithe even down to their herb garden but neglect the justice and love of God… it does not surprise us that when Jesus condemns the religious ideologies of the Pharisees, they respond with subtle snake-like movements, preparing for a lethal strike.

Simon was one of these roughly six thousand Pharisees in the ancient world

And so, we find Jesus, in the home of one such Pharisee, invited to recline at the table for a meal.

Now, the normal posture for eating was reclining on couches with their feet angled back and away from the table. Sofa frames were made of wood with leather straps on the bottom frames supporting cushions and a diner would recline on his left side while eating with his right hand. The feet were angled back and away from the table due to the dust and odor that accompanied wearing sandals and walking being the primary mode of transportation through the dusty and dirty roads of ancient Israel.

The dining most likely took place in the courtyard of Simon’s home. Wealthy, “well-to-do” people had homes built around an open courtyard like a hollow square. Perhaps there was a fountain and garden next to the table for dinner, and it was a custom that when a Rabbi was at a meal in a house, all kinds of people were allowed to come in and listen to his wisdom. In fact, this became a kind of public entertainment where dinners with dignitaries were open to public spectators.

It is precisely in this private but public setting, that Jesus sits across from this strict observer of the law, and with many people in the crowd listening to his every word, a woman slips into the vicinity.

Luke 7:37 says,

“And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,”

The word behold draws attention to this woman… the next character introduced into the scene, but Luke uses the word sinner to describe this woman of the city.

Luke often uses the Greek word for sinner to identify a person who has a reputation for gross immorality. This woman is a bad woman, a notoriously bad woman, and the presence of her hair unbound in verse 38 was an act of gravest immodesty in Jewish culture. On her wedding day, a Jewish girl bound up her hair and never would she appear with it unbound again. These reasons lead many to believe this woman was a prostitute. This woman appears in the home of Simon, taking advantage of the societal customs, and her very presence would have been shocking to all for a woman of such ill repute to appear in the home of a Pharisee. However, this woman is desperate, and it is with the intention to bring an alabaster flask of ointment to Jesus that she risks ridicule, mockery, and even public condemnation.

Now, an alabaster jar was a sealed flask with a long neck that was broken off when the contents were used and contained only enough ointment for one application. Inside this jar was expensive perfume, and the breaking of the expensive jar amplified the precious gift it was to those who used it.

With every intention to use this precious, expensive gift to honor Jesus, a simple act of kindness from a morally corrupt woman turns from kindness to scandal.

THE SCANDAL: Luke 7:38

38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.

This woman has made her way into the home of a devout religious man, Simon the Pharisee, and she has perhaps gone unnoticed due to the celebrity scene of Jesus being entertained for dinner. Now, she is standing behind the feet of Christ, and she is weeping. She is so overcome with emotion that Luke says his feet became wet with tears. Not only is she standing their crying, but now she begins to wipe the feet of Jesus with her hair. RemembJewisht a jewish woman with her hair unbound was culturally unacceptable. In addition, she begins to kiss the feet of Jesus and then breaks the alabaster jar and pours the expensive perfume on his feet.

Now imagine the intimacy of this scene, and the public scandal racing through the minds of those in attendance. Two men, both religiously devout and in the presence of a prostitute. One man claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God, a man the Pharisees seek to catch like an animal. The other man is a member of the religiously devout Pharisees, the “separated ones” … self-appointed guardians of the law striving for the blessing of God through strict obedience to the commands of God.

In their midst is a woman of the city, a woman of ill repute, and she is exclusively giving one man, the self-proclaimed Messiah, her intimate attention. She is weeping at the feet of Jesus. She is wiping his feet with her hair. She is kissing his feet. She is anointing his feet with expensive perfume.
Can you imagine the thoughts of those in attendance? Does Jesus know who this woman is? Does this woman know who this man is? Why are these two so acquainted with one another?

Quickly our scene moves from religious entertainment to scandalous soap opera. No longer is this dinner merely a formality between two rival teachers, but now it is an open air accusation of the decency, morality, and innocence of Christ.

The Scene turns to Scandal, and Scandal always brings about Accusation.

THE ACCUSATION: Luke 7:39

39 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.”

Simon the Pharisee witnesses this intimate, culturally unacceptable, scandalous display and immediately thinks to himself, if Jesus was really a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.

The gears are turning in Simon’s mind as he internally prepares the report for his fellow Pharisees. This is tangible, physical evidence proving that Jesus is not a prophet because he doesn’t even know this woman’s past. A true prophet, in Simon’s mind, would have sent this woman away because her presence conveyed ungodliness.

Discerning the thoughts of Simon, Jesus answers his internal thoughts, he says to the pharisee.

40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

Now, remember, neither Simon nor Jesus have acknowledged this woman. Simon has merely concluded internally the skepticism of Jesus’ claims… and now Jesus says I have something to say to you. Perhaps Simon answer was filled with pretentious sarcasm when he said, “Say it, teacher.” Say it, O wise counselor, knower of all things… (but you don’t even know who this woman is). However, Jesus does know this woman, and he knows the thoughts of Simon and so he addresses the accusation, the internal accusation of Simon, by telling a story…

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. “

A denarius was worth a day’s wage. So one debtor owes almost two months of salary and the other owes almost two years of salary.

Each debtor is unable to pay back the loan in the required amount of time and so,

42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both.

This is a great story, let’s be honest. This doesn’t happen in the world today. If you owe a mortgage on your house, or you have a car payment, and you can’t pay it… the bank doesn’t simply say, that’s ok, it’s forgiven. You know what? We’ll just cancel this month’s payment, and in fact, we’ll give you next month’s payment free of charge. It doesn’t work like that. This story is phenomenal, let’s be honest. Could you imagine if you were one of these debtors and the lender simply says, you know what? You’re off the hook.

There’s an important lesson here when it comes to forgiveness, the debtor may be forgiven of the amount owed, but the lender still incurs the cost.

Jesus himself said in Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Greek word (lutron) for ransom means a payment to release someone from some kind of bondage: prisoners of war, slavery, debt. So the implication is that Jesus sees his death as a ransom to release many from bondage. He is paying what they cannot pay so that they may go free. He is substituting himself for them. And at the cost of his life, they get freedom. So it is that God is the lender, giving the debt of mankind a ransom… or payment that he himself, Jesus, incurs the cost of so that we may go free…

So Jesus says to Simon, which of these two debtors, the one who owed two months wages, or the one who owes two year’s wages loves the lender more when he cancels their debt?

43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Jesus says, you’re correct Simon… and then the Accusation in Simon’s mind turns to the Affirmation from Jesus’ lips to this woman on the ground.

THE AFFIRMATION: Luke 7:44-40

44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “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.

Jesus reveals his awareness concerning the true intentions of Simon. When a guest entered a home, three things were always done. Cool water was always poured over the guest’s feet to cleanse and comfort them from walking dusty tracks on leather soles with straps made into sandals. Even Jesus humbled himself to offer this common courtesy to his disciples in John 13. This was an essential formality and not to offer a guest water for the washing of feet was tantamount to an insult, like not offering to take a guest’s coat.

Jesus says to Simon, you gave me no water for my feet, but this woman has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. After water was offered, a towel was utilized to dry the feet as Jesus did the same to the disciples but because no towel was present, this woman used her unbound hair.

45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.

He continues affirming this woman’s actions saying you gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. It was customary for the host to place his hands on the shoulders of his guest and offer a kiss of greeting.

46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.

Finally he concludes his revelation to Simon saying, you did not even anoint my head with oil, a customary practice of providing sweet-smelling perfume or oil for one’s guests… but this woman has anointed my feet with expensive perfume.

47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

There is a profound difference here, and Jesus wishes to declare it to Simon, to this woman, to those in attendance at the meal, and even to us today.

The evidence of true forgiveness is the evidence of much love.

The evidence of little forgiveness is the evidence of little love.

Simon said it himself, he is guilt by his own declaration, the one who loves much is the one who is forgiven much. The one who loves little is the one who is forgiven little.

Simon, the pharisee, invited Jesus into his own home, foregoing proper customary manners and revealing his true intentions. This woman, appalled by the Pharisees’ lack of social customs displayed extravagant love through tears, unbound hair, and a customary kiss… and she is forgiven not because she loves much but because she believes Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, the Son of God.

Notice Jesus says to her in v. 48, your sins are forgiven, but he does not say your sins are forgiven because of what you have done for me… he says, your sins are forgiven because your faith has saved you.

This woman has been forgiven much and now she loves much because she believes much about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

So it is that faith leads to forgiveness, and forgiveness leads to love for God, and love for God is the evidence of forgiveness.

Jesus says he or she who is forgiven much will love much.
Your love for God directly flows from your forgiveness in Christ, forgiveness that is only granted through your faith in Christ.

Luke 7:36-50 reveals two vastly different individuals.

Simon the preacher, the pharisee, believes in his own self-righteousness earns salvation…

and

an unnamed prostitute who believes in her utter, dire, need for righteousness, her inability to save herself because salvation belongs to the Lord. 

One man scoffs at the wickedness of another… revealing his own inner deception of salvation. He believes in a false gospel, a gospel that moral character, and righteous works will earn his salvation.

One woman weeps in the presence of the savior, knowing her need for forgiveness and inability to achieve salvation on her own.

The tears streaming down her face result from the conviction of her sin, the repentance of her heart, and the faith in Christ as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Ransom for many.

Her extravagant, ridiculous, culturally dishonoring love pays homage to her dramatic assurance of salvation, evidencing the true forgiveness and payment for her sins.

One may ask the question, whose sin is greater?

Simon, the Pharisee, is the worst of sinners here. Even worse than a woman of ill-repute, a prostitute? Yes. The most unredeemable person of all is the one who thinks he or she is not a sinner and does not need redemption. Forsaken and lost is the one who believes that God is pleased with me just the way I am. This is the worst of sinners. The apostle Paul himself said, ”The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

The worst kind of sin is the sin of self-righteousness, the assumption that you on your own by your own religious activities and moral merit can somehow earn a place in the kingdom of God. That is the most heinous crime of all for it treats the sacrifice of Christ with utter disdain, as being unnecessary and foolish.

This then is a story of Jesus using a wretched sinner to reach an even worse sinner.

50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

CONCLUSION: 

So how does one find assurance in salvation?

Faith in Christ alone brings salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

There is no self-sufficiency in faith, it is not a result of works.

How does one find assurance in salvation?

Salvation in Christ is due to forgiveness.

Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Horatio Spafford wrote these words in the second verse of his hymn, “It is well”

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Our salvation is where Christ cancels the debt of our sins, and God incurs the debt on his own, the death of His son paying the wages of our sin.

How does one find assurance in salvation?

Forgiveness in Christ leads to love for God, evidencing one’s own forgiveness.

47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

The woman expressed exorbitant gratitude for her forgiveness, and love for God flowed from her tears, her hair, and her lips, and her heart. Love for God and love for others is the divine evidence of the forgiveness of God in one’s life, forgiveness due to faith, and faith in Christ alone that brings about salvation.

PRAYER:

Father, we are humbled by the magnificent encouragement your word brings to us. Not merely words on a page, but true testimony of the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Give us faith to trust and believe that in Christ alone is salvation. Help us to experience, believe, and trust the forgiveness that results from our salvation, and may our love for you evidence our forgiveness. Give us assurance in our faith, and for those who find little forgiveness and little love present in their heart bring them to repentance. We pray this in the name of our savior Jesus, Amen. 

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