Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. This was because of the common racial separation within most churches. Some churches are working to change that but it's still prevalent.
But there's another type of segregation or division in many American churches. It's been around for a long time. It plagued Jesus and contributed to His arrest and crucifixion.
The trouble is, we—the church—say we want to welcome "sinners" into the church but when they come they often don't feel welcome. Probably hundreds of books and conferences and blog posts address the issue but with minimal impact.
Many things contribute to this dilemma but the real issue is the heart of the matter. A simple story involving Jesus, a religious leader, and a sinful woman illustrates it best.
A story within a story
Jesus told many parables, some short and some longer. Each one teaches a simple truth and is told within a specific context. The setting or situation preceding or following the parable gives insight to the purpose of the parable.
We find a short, simple parable in Luke 7:40-43 where the situation is critical for understanding its truth. Here's the parable—
“Two men owed a moneylender some money. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. When they couldn’t pay it back, he was kind enough to cancel their debts. Now, who do you think will love him the most?”
Jesus was invited to Simon the Pharisee's home for a meal. During the meal, a woman with a bad reputation came in looking for Jesus. Simon's inner thoughts scoffed at the idea that Jesus was a prophet, let alone the Messiah because of this woman's attention to Jesus.
This prompts Jesus to tell this short parable of a moneylender forgiving what was owed by these two debtors. The amounts were considerable. The 500 silver coins were equivalent to twenty months of wages while the 50 coins represented two months wages.
The Pharisee answered Jesus' question at the end of the parable, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus agreed but confronted Simon about the Pharisee's self-righteous, judgmental attitude towards the woman.
Those of us in the church too often fit the profile of Simon the Pharisee. We are quick to judge others as less than ourselves and forget the suspended judgment God showed us because of His mercy.
A study of contrasts
The two characters who interact with Jesus are polar opposites. On the surface, Simon the Pharisee represents the religious elite. He was well-learned in the Scriptures and traditions of his faith with an elevated status and reputation.
The sinful woman had a shameful reputation. She was well aware of her diminished status but she knows of Jesus and of His message to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was near (Matt 4:17).
This woman risked rejection by both Simon and his cohorts and Jesus. After all, she knew what she deserved, unlike the Pharisees who considered themselves to be godly.
Oddly, no one dismisses her. Did she already know Simon and his cohorts from previous encounters? Her many sins (Luke 7:47) were likely known by many men.
Judgment and mercy
This story reveals a powerful picture of judgment and mercy.
Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent religious leader accompanied by other men (Luke 7:49). Women were only present as servers of the food and had little status then.
In those days, people didn't eat at tables with straight-backed chairs but reclined on the floor, often leaning on one arm while eating with the other hand and with their feet extended outward.
The woman approaches Jesus at His feet away from the table of men. At first, she stands weeping then bends down as she wets the Lord's feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing them with affection and respect.
She opens a vial of expensive aromatic oil and begins to anoint His feet. It's an act of submission and worship. She pours her heart out to Jesus with her tears and the oil.
She was an immoral woman and Simon knew it. So he wonders how Jesus could even allow her to touch Him. Surely this Jesus couldn't be a prophet or the Messiah!
Simon couldn't see beyond her past or her gender. He didn't see her as Jesus did.
The power of mercy and love
The parable's powerful message is revealed as Jesus explains why He told it to Simon (Luke 7:44-47). It exposes the superficiality of Simon's self-righteousness.
This sinful woman with the shameful past showed a respect for Jesus unlike Simon.
Guests were customarily greeted with water to wash their dusty feet, a kiss of acceptance, and oil to anoint their wind-blown hair. Simon offered none of these to Jesus.
This woman washed Jesus' feet with her tears and hair, then kissed and anointed them with oil. Her respect was genuine. Her broken heart pursued Jesus in hope of redemption and she received it.
Simon the Pharisee didn't realize his own need of forgiveness because he was so full of himself. Another parable illustrates the strength of this self-righteous condescension towards others (Luke 18:9-14).
Unmeasured mercy and love
The simple truth of the parable and the whole story is summed up here—
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:47 NLT)
God doesn't measure out His mercy and love, we measure it. We limit it based on our measure of others and we see ourselves as an exception to the rule. But this is self-deception.
How have you seen this same condescending attitude in your own heart? I know I've seen it in mine!
God's work of redemption is based on the Lord's nature and the power of His mercy and love. It will always be greater than any religious or spiritual status we think we hold.
This woman humbled herself, sought out and pursued Jesus, risked rejection and humiliation, and poured herself out at the feet of Jesus through her tears, kisses, and expensive fragrant oil.
This is a picture of worshipful surrender and submission to the Lord.
If we say we love Jesus, how can we offer anything less to the Lord than this woman did?
The full story in its context is found in Luke 7:36-50
If you're a follower of Jesus and part of a church fellowship, beware of a hardness of heart towards others creeping in and taking hold. It will limit your full devotion to Jesus and it will be felt by others. Self-righteousness excludes others and gives a distorted image of the Lord.
When we are mindful of how great the Lord's forgiveness is for us, we are less likely to look condescendingly upon others. When we find ourselves drifting towards self-righteousness, it's time to repent—to surrender our heart to the Lord and the power of His mercy and love!