One of the religious folk invited Jesus to a dinner party. When he got there and had sat down to eat, something happened. A woman came in and began washing Jesus’ feet. And she was not the kind of woman a religious person would want at a dinner party. I don’t know how she had gotten in there. The people were stunned by her behavior. I imagine that before anyone could ask for her invitation she just barged in. She was crying so that no one could stop her. Then she went straight to Jesus and started anointing his feet, washing them with her tears, kissing them and drying them with her hair.
Can you picture the scene? There she is at Jesus’ feet with her hair down, crying her eyes out and kissing his feet right there in front of God and everyone. Now, if she had been the right kind of woman it would be one thing but she was that kind of woman. You know what I mean. She was a sinner. Perhaps she was a thief or con artist. She definitely didn’t go to church. She wasn’t the type. She might have even been a street walker; a prostitute.
She was “that kind of woman,” or was she? All the Bible tells us is that she was a sinner. That was the label that the religious people gave to her. So we have to ask ourselves what the religious people meant by “sinner.” She might have been a widow who had little income. As a result she had to live on the seedier side of town and could not wash and dress like the religious folk. Since she lived in or near the red light district people assumed the worst. Or maybe she was divorced. Back in those days a woman could not divorce her husband but a man could divorce his wife for any reason. If she burned his toast he could divorce her. So divorce was a socially acceptable way to abandon one’s family. She might very well have been a thief or streetwalker. The point is we really don’t know. So let’s not assume more about her than we really know.
Whether she was “that kind of woman” or not is not important to the story. Everyone called her a sinner and that was that. What is important is that this woman, no matter what kind of woman she was, was truly grateful. Jesus had done or said something that made her thankful. So she made a spectacle of herself. She expressed her gratitude and didn’t care who saw her.
But the religious folk didn’t understand. They were scandalized that Jesus allowed that kind of a woman to keep touching him. So Jesus told them a parable. There was a banker who had loaned money to two people. One owed $50,000 and the other $500. When neither of them could pay he forgave both loans. Then Jesus asked, “Who will love the banker more.”
The religious leader responded, “The one who owed more.” Jesus said, “Right, now look at this woman. She is truly grateful for she has not stopped anointing my feet and kissing them. But you did not even greet me as a friend when I arrived. I tell you her sins, as many as there are, are forgiven; therefore, she loves greatly, but the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.
This reveals a staggering truth. The level of a person’s devotion to God corresponds to the level of forgiveness they have experienced: the greater their forgiveness the greater their devotion. This is where the women who followed Jesus come in to the story. Luke tells us that there was a group of women that traveled with Jesus and aided his ministry. These included Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus cast out seven demons and Joanna the wife of Herod’s accountant.
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Luke could have dropped this historical footnote anywhere in the book but he was led to put it here. These women were devoted to Jesus because they, like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, were truly thankful. In a world where women in general were second or third class citizens, sometimes little more than slaves, Jesus showed them love. He took the time to cast out their demons and to address them as people no matter how high or low their social status. Joanna was rich and lived in luxury but she left that to follow Jesus and Jesus let her!
Have you ever noticed that women, who make up 50 percent of the church, do 75 percent of the work (if not more)? I saw it once when I was serving on the District Counsel on Ministries. The women report that 90 percent of the churches have an active United Methodist Women’s unit and then they give a long list of things the UMW has been doing. After that the men report that only 10 percent of the churches have a United Methodist Men’s group. It still amazes me that some churches don’t let women have leadership roles in the church. In direct contradiction to the action of Jesus, they refuse to let women preach or speak from the pulpit or take other leadership roles in the church. Like the Pharisees they fail to give Jesus a warm welcome and they despise the true devotion of those who anoint Jesus’ feet.
Jesus shows us why some people have such great devotion and others don’t. Some experience great forgiveness and so they love greatly, while others experience little forgiveness and so they love little. So what should we do? Become great sinners so that we can be forgiven more and love more? I remember a story about a young man who was reading a number of testimony books so he could understand how to become a follower of Jesus. You know those books in which people tell how they came to the Lord. After reading a number of them, someone asked him if he had discovered how to become a follower of Jesus. He said, “Yes, first you get mixed up in drugs or drinking then you hurt all the people that love you and maybe even get involved in crime, then you turn to Jesus.”
Let me assure you that you don’t have to become a great sinner to become a great follower of Jesus. You don’t have to become a great sinner, because you already are! We’re already great sinners and it’s human pride and sin that keeps us from seeing that. That woman did not love Jesus more because she was a greater sinner than the religious folk. She loved Jesus more because she had admitted her sin and received forgiveness.
Tell me, where are you in Jesus’ parable of the debtors? Are you the one that was forgiven a great debt or the one who was forgiven little? Most “religious people” think they have been forgiven little. They say in their hearts, “I never really did anything wrong. I never killed anyone. I never stole anything. I never cheated on my taxed or my spouse. I never took drugs or drank. I’m not like those sinners.”
But we are great debtors. The twist to Jesus’ parable of the debtors is that the one who owed little is an illusion. When it comes to humans owing God for our sins there is no one who owes little. We are all great debtors in God’s books. We all owe God more than we can ever pay, and our only hope is that God will forgive the debt and wipe the books clean otherwise we will all end up in the red.
So I ask you again, “Which are you: the one forgiven little or the one forgiven much?” Jesus died for your sins. That means that your sins are so great that the death of the only perfectly righteous human was required to pay for your sins. Go ahead and admit that you owe much so that you can be forgiven much. Then act like it and show your great gratitude to God. Don’t worry if they call you a fanatic. You know the truth!
Copyright 2008, Alex Stevenson. Used by permission.