Christians, as they continue on their journey under the Lordship of Christ, are admonished by Paul to follow his lead as he states
"Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Phil 3:13-14).
Paul describes the Christian journey using the metaphor of a foot-race, and if running a race, what would the runner wish to carry along with him/her on the race? What would be the effect if the runner were required to carry along his/her own weight in baggage? This metaphor illustrates a significant truth when we consider the task of righteousness. Many people believe that one is saved by being good. However, the scriptures clearly teach that righteousness only comes through faith in God, and not by works, "lest any man should boast" (Eph 2:19). Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6). Consequently, without faith, one is trying to run a race while attempting to carry a weight that cannot be lifted, the weight of sin. However, God, by His grace, because of his love for people, sent His Son to pay the penalty for that sin so that those who turn to Him in faith and trust do not have to carry the weight of sin at all. However, Christians still carry burdens with them. Such burdens include (1) unrepented sin (choosing to continue in ungodly behaviors), (2) guilt for past sins, and (3) unforgiveness towards others. Taking such things with us while running the race slows us down and distracts us from the goal: the abundant life that Jesus promised (John 10:10). The primary work of God for the benefit of mankind is that of forgiveness: providing a way that people who are sinful by nature can be saved from the consequences of their sinful choices. The following scripture passage deals with this issue, and provides instruction on how to be freed of this burden that robs the faithful of the joy of their salvation.
A primary source of the burdens we bear relate to the way we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we compare the two. This passage in Luke describes the interaction between three persons, Jesus, a Pharisee, and a repentant prostitute, and the nature of the unconditional and complete forgiveness that God has provided for those who turn to Him in faith and trust.
And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. 37And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
There are only three occasions where Luke records Jesus eating with Pharisees (Luke 11:37, 14:1). Usually we think of Pharisees as outside observers who were critical, judgmental, and hostile towards Jesus. These were men who were plotting Jesus' death. However, Jesus always shared his ministry with anyone who would come to Him without regard to the attitude of their heart, their social state or status, and on a few occasions there were Pharisees who were either curious enough to listen to Jesus, or as in the case of Nicodemus, those who actually came to Jesus with sincere questions. The context of this setting implies that this banquet, this kateklithe was held by the Pharisee, Simon, in Jesus' honor. As a kateklithe, there would be traditional ways in which the honored guest would be greeted, presented, and seated. This would have been a Sabbath day meal, held to honor a traveling Rabbi who had just spoken in the Synagogue. In the normal context, the Pharisee treated the Rabbi with great deference and respect, and would be careful to follow all of the traditions of the event. However, we see from the events that took place during this meal that the Pharisee did not employ all of the kateklithe traditions. Among other required tasks, Simon would have greeted Jesus with a kiss, and had his feet washed by a servant prior to entering the home. However, Simon's motive was not based on his respect for Jesus but rather on his desire to examine him. His true lack of respect is quite evident. He could not bring himself to honor the traditions on Jesus' behalf.
We see quite a contrast in the response of a woman who, unlike the respected Pharisee who sat atop the social ladder, was despised as one who is unclean and a sinner. Many believe that she had been a well-known prostitute. It is obvious that this is not her first encounter with Jesus, and at some previous moment in time, she came to know and understand who Jesus is. Recognizing what Jesus has done for her, she responded in a manner totally opposite to that of the Pharisee when she, upon hearing of the kateklithe for Jesus, came to Simon's house to meet Jesus. She brought with her an alabaster box of ointment. This would have been a small bottle, similar to a perfume bottle that held a very expensive perfume. This perfume served several purposes in their culture. The ointment was rare, and very expensive. Since it could be preserved and stored in a small space, it served as a financial investment. Often this investment was made throughout one's life so that the perfume could be used to anoint their body after their death and prior to their burial. It is likely that this bottle of perfume represented this woman's entire life savings, and its contents were intended for her own use.
And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Those who took part in this meal would be seated in couches, surrounding a low table. Servants would be bringing in the individual courses of the meal, tending to the wine, etc. Those who were observing this ceremonial meal would be standing at the windows and doors if this were held in a home, and surrounding the group if this meal were held in a courtyard. It is apparent that the setting was more like the latter example, inferred by the close proximity that this woman, who would normally not have access to the house of Simon, had to the table. One can see that while Simon's perspective seemed to be rather self-centered, this woman was totally focused on the object of her visit: Jesus.
She is first described as weeping. This ceremony is one of joy, a time for showing honor and respect, and a time for sharing a good meal, and for sharing words of encouragement. Why, as this woman was standing at Jesus' feet, was she in tears? The context reveals that this woman, with a history of a sinful lifestyle, was experiencing profound remorse for the choices she had made in life. She carried a burden of guilt and shame that could only be lifted by complete forgiveness. She could not find forgiveness in society, and she would certainly not find it in the home of the Pharisee. However, she knew that she could find forgiveness and restoration in Jesus, who she recognized as the Christ.
When one anointed another with oil, this anointing was done by placing a small droplet on one's head. Note that a single droplet of the expensive ointment, even in itself is so small that it is a small sacrifice on the part of the one who is anointing the honored guest. This is one of the traditional components of the greeting given to one who is honored in the kateklithe. Why did the woman not anoint the head of Jesus with a droplet? She was not the one offering the meal, and she is not an active participant in it. Also, knowing herself as one who is "unclean" she would not feel worthy to so distract Jesus. She felt fully correct in stooping down and anointing Jesus' feet rather than His head. Furthermore, she did not feel it was appropriate to give Jesus the ceremonial kiss on the cheek. Rather, she kissed his feet. These actions are simply expressions of her profound humility and devotion to Jesus.
Did the woman anoint his feet with a droplet? It does not take the application of a large amount of perfume for its presence to be known. The traditional droplet of oil used in an anointing ceremony would have fulfilled the tradition, and cost her little. However, her humility and love for Jesus is lavishly presented. Prior to anointing his feet with oil, she washed them. Without the traditional laver and towel, she used the moisture of her tears and her hair. Such humble devotion was not something often seen, and it certainly was not the nature of Simon. Her kiss, her washing, and her anointing went far beyond the minimal tradition, and was lavished upon Jesus as a true expression of the purpose they were intended for: to honor, to show respect, and to love.
Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.
The true heart of Simon is immediately exposed when this event unfolds. Simon, who neglected to kiss Jesus, wash his feet, or anoint his head with oil, could only see that this sinful woman was touching Jesus, something he could never allow to happen to himself. Even he, as a Pharisee, was aware that if he were simply touched by one who is considered unclean, he would become ceremonially unclean himself and could not enter the temple until participating in a ritual of cleansing and forgiveness. So, as he witnessed this event, rather than thinking about cleansing and forgiveness, his first assumption was that Jesus was not the prophet that He claimed or appeared to be, and this event validated for Simon his own hope to find Jesus to be a fraud.
We can now see that Simon's purpose in bringing Jesus into his home for the kateklithe is fully a sham. Simon does not truly respect Jesus as a Rabbi, and he did not treat him as one. The evidence is clear that Simon did not respect Jesus, was not trusting of Jesus' teachings, and that he was very suspect of Jesus' purpose and motives. He was simply using the kateklithe as a means to get a closer look at Jesus. It was a ruse that exposed his arrogance and his true motives. He had no love for Jesus, and only despised the woman who was kneeling at Jesus' feet.
The natural and sin-bent person in each of us motivates us to act a similar way. We will show honor to those with whom we share something in common, and shun those who we think are beneath us on the social scale. Who are some people we tend to shun? Somehow we come up with some rationalization that we are going to be contaminated by contact with someone who is different from ourselves. What is the source of such opinions and prejudices? Such attitudes are born out of ignorance and apathy. Are prejudice and stereotypical assignment of people to self-defined pigeon-holes a Godly or a sinful act? Obviously, such attitudes are not based on love either for God or for the people being mistreated, and Christians must surrender these attitudes. How is this done? We see that Jesus held no such prejudices that are so blatantly exposed by Simon. It is only in Jesus can we look past the differences and truly love one another as God intends.
As the modern church grows, it is becoming more culturally diverse. Christians must be vigilant against the unholy spirit of division that can arise in such a setting. A church that is to be known best by its love for one another must be certain that this love is extended to all of their community. Sometimes some affirmative action is needed. That is, we need to go out of our way to make sure that those who are different from ourselves are welcomed, loved, invited to take part in our fellowship and worship, etc. Though our disdain for this woman might not be as adamant as that of the Pharisee, our failure to reach out can be interpreted as apathy, disinterest, and even prejudice.
Jesus knew the ignorance, arrogance, and prejudices of the Pharisee, as we will see by the character of the parable that Jesus used to answer Simon's thoughts.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. 41There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. 42And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? 43Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
Jesus answers Simon's concerns by presenting him with a story about forgiveness. Two debtors are forgiven a debt. One debt is that of roughly the wage that a professional worker would earn in a day or two, and the other is roughly the amount one would earn in a month. In today's inflated dollars, the debts would be about $300 and $3000, respectively. The balance of each debtor's loan was called, and neither could repay. The creditor then chose to forgive them the debt that they owed. Of the two, who would love the creditor more? Which one would tend to demonstrate such appreciation the most? Even the worldly Simon, who did not understand the nature of forgiveness, could understand that if he were himself forgiven a great debt he would have suitable motivation to show appreciation to the creditor.
Jesus, by using the
example of money, or mammon, possessions of this world, communicated
with Simon directly in an area of his own understanding. He then
proceeded to teach Simon the true nature of forgiveness by turning the
attention from the response of the debtors to that of the woman.
And he turned to the woman,
and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou
gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and
wiped them with the hairs of her head.
45Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath
not ceased to kiss my feet.
46My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath
anointed my feet with ointment.
And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. 45Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. 46My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
Simon, a Pharisee, was proud and self-confident. He was confident enough to bring Jesus into his home under the pretext of a kateklithe meal assuming he could easily maintain the ruse. Jesus' next statement must have been very clear to Simon as Jesus pointed out that he had not been treated by Simon in the manner that tradition dictated. Simon did not wash Jesus' feet. Simon did not greet Jesus with a kiss. Simon did not even anoint Jesus with a droplet of cheap olive oil. If anyone in the place knew that this was the appropriate greeting for the celebration Simon did, and his failure to do these things clearly exposed his hypocrisy and true motives. Jesus made it clear to Simon that He was aware of Simon's true heart.
Jesus points out that while Simon, who considers himself above reproach, failed to show due honor to Jesus, this woman whom Simon despised did all these things spontaneously, lavishly, and with true sacrifice. Even had Simon followed the kataklithe tradition when Jesus arrived, it would have been done in a minimal, traditional, and meaningless manner. This woman went far beyond a ceremonial kiss on the cheek as she repeatedly kissed his feet. She went far beyond the ceremonial washing when she went so far as to moisten his feet with the tears of her emotions and then dry them with her hair. Finally, she went far beyond the ceremonial anointing when she, instead of placing a small droplet of olive oil on Jesus' head, poured out the expensive ointment on him, filling the entire place with the strong aroma. Where a small droplet would be noticed by few, the pouring out of this expensive oil would be quite pungent, and noticed by all. Where a small droplet is a very small sacrifice, this woman chose to use it all for Jesus, giving to Him what could have been as much as her entire life savings.
There was no sincerity in
Simon, and there was no limit to the sincerity of the woman. There was
no repentance in Simon's arrogance, yet this woman was the very
characterization of repentance. Jesus made this
clearly evident to Simon. Simon's true heart was exposed. Simon
was one who classified people, and by these classifications he chose to dismiss
others as being of lesser value than himself. This one and that one is a
sinner. Another is just one of the crowd. Yet another does not
know the fine points of the Law. One-by-one each person around Simon
is subjected to his prejudice, and so subjected becomes despised by him, and
devalued by him. Simon is free to despise everyone around him for one
reason or another. Simon has already classified Jesus, and treated Him
with even the minimum honor than is required by tradition. He does not
see that there is anything that Jesus can do for himself, so he cannot
understand the love lavished on Him by this despised woman.
Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. 48And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. 49And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? 50And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
Up to this point, all Simon could now understand was that this woman fulfilled the traditional greeting that was neglected by Jesus, and did so in a very unusual way. Simon's sin was exposed as Jesus clearly lifted the love and devotion of this unclean woman above that which he would have expected his guest to attribute to himself.
To help Simon understand, Jesus put this act in the context of a debt that was forgiven. What do the two have to do with each other: debt and forgiveness? With the context established, Jesus turned directly and firmly to Simon ("Wherefore I say ..."), and defined the nature of the debt. Reminding Simon that her response was the spontaneous display of a love that came from being forgiven a great debt, he turned to the woman who came seeking forgiveness from that debt and announced to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
Such a statement was not well-received by Simon and his colleagues at the table. Under their law and understanding, only God has the authority to forgive the kind of sin that had characterized this woman. The word for "sin" used here, hamartia, refers to sins of volitional choice, the type of sins that produce in us feelings of guilt and despair. These are the sins of omission and commission that we choose to do. The sacrifices of the Old Testament law provided only for sins of error, not sins of choice. This is why King David had no sacrifice that he could offer that would atone for his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. David could only cry out for forgiveness in the same manner that this woman did, with a sincere and repentant heart. Rejecting Jesus' authority to forgive sins, Simon and those at the table could only hate and despise even greater this one who speaks such blasphemies of their own beliefs. Simon and his colleagues would leave the meal in anger and turmoil, seeking to destroy Jesus rather than seeking forgiveness themselves.
However, the woman, who turned to Jesus in faith, found herself fully restored. She found her sins forgiven, and could leave with the kataklithe with a peace in her heart that she had never ever before experienced. God had given her a fresh start.
There is so much in this simple even for us to learn and to gain from. First, lets not miss the point of Jesus' parable. The woman undertook these acts of love because she had already grasped and appropriated Gods forgiving grace. She was not forgiven because she loved, but loved because she was forgiven. The Pharisee, unconscious of his sins, sought to approach God in a totally different way: a way of works. While the way of works enabled him to take pride in his supposed righteousness while condemning the woman as a sinner, it blinded him to the nature of grace and his true need for forgiveness. He was blinded to his own sinful state. Likewise it is easy for people to think that they are good, or are better than someone else, and by virtue of their level of goodness, without a need for forgiveness. However, just as this woman had sinned, all people have sinned and come short of the righteousness required by God for acceptance into his presence (Eph 3:23). All people are in need of forgiveness whether they be like the sinful woman or like a hypocritical Simon who has lived a life of good works, but never turned to God in faith. People at both ends of the social spectrum of virtue are in need of forgiveness.
Each of us is a "has been." We "has been" this, and we "has been" that. All people have been sinners. All people have sinned and are in need of forgiveness. It is not what a person has been that is important. Jesus did not drag up this woman's past and throw it in her face. He simply forgave her. Jesus was not concerned with who she had been. Jesus' concern is for who this woman is and who she can become. What a person can become through an experience of Gods forgiving grace is what truly counts. The overflowing generosity of this woman of the street stands as a permanent reminder of the power of Christ's forgiveness to utterly transform a life.
There is some of the Pharisee and some of the woman in all of us. Like the Pharisee, it is all too easy for us to classify others and dismiss them, rather than see them as individuals and love them. Like the woman, we have been forgiven much and out of that forgiveness we are free to love Jesus and love others. The woman understood her need for forgiveness, repented from the sins of her past, and turned to Jesus. Her life was renewed. Other parallel accounts of this event imply that this woman is Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala. We see a lot of this Mary throughout later scriptures as she stood out as one of the most devoted of Jesus' disciples. We tend to forget the kind of woman she was before she met Jesus, and this convenient forgetfulness is meaningful, as we learn of the new Mary. As she continued to follow Jesus, she put her past behind her. However, by her failure to marry, it is evident that she accepted the consequences of her past life. Like Mary, all people come to Jesus with sin in their lives, and like Mary all can find forgiveness through the sincere act of repentance and faith.
Just as God has forgiven us of our repented past, we must also forgive ourselves and others, placing the guilt and shame in the past, never again to have our attitudes toward ourselves, to God or to others, diminished by those sins. We may be required to live with the consequences of some of our actions, but we are not required to continue to be condemned by them. We may live with the consequences, but there is no need to live with the guilt. God will not bring up your past in order to tear you down, only the unholy spirit does this. The penalty for the sin of a Christian has been paid. God paid the debt He did not owe for a penalty we could not pay so that we would be free. Why do we so tenaciously hold onto the guilt that would deny us freedom's joy?
Let us not allow the unholy spirit to diminish the joy of our Christian walk with reminders that we sinned, nor be burdened by the battle we continue to have with sin. Let us love, praise and worship God, and put our focus on the relationship of love that we have with Him and with others, likewise forgiving others of any transgressions that they might have experienced, just as God has done. This way, we will be able to run the race of the Christian life unencumbered by the burden of guilt, or the burden of guilt we hold against others. This is God's plan. Let's get with the plan.