At first glance things don’t always add up. For instance, what if I began this morning’s sermon by saying, “A prostitute, a lawyer, and a priest sit down to dinner …” Would you brace yourself for an off-colour joke? You wouldn’t normally expect such a thing from your pastor would you? Especially in church! It’s not even a matter of accounting for different tastes. Beginning a sermon with such an off-colour joke just wouldn’t add up. But then again, when this particular prostitute, lawyer, and priest sit down to dinner, it is no joke. It is our text from the Gospel of St. Luke, and it happens to Jesus as He sits down to eat in the home of Simon the Pharisee.
Similarly, some of what Jesus says in this encounter might not seem to add up at first glance either … especially to our Lutheran ears. (47-48, 50) I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. And he said to her, Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you; go in peace.
Does it sound as if Jesus were saying that the reason the woman was forgiven was because of her lavish display of love? She washed Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with oil. The result – Jesus forgave her. But this not only contradicts the Bible elsewhere but even flies in the face of the very parable that Jesus told Simon right before He forgave the woman her sins. Neither debtor, you recall, did anything to merit the cancellation of his debt. Actually, quite the opposite. The reason the woman displayed so much love was because she had been forgiven. The lavish display of love toward Jesus was the evidence of a present forgiveness. Forgiveness is the cause, and love is the result – that is the way the Gospel has always worked. Consider what The Apology of the Augsburg Confession has to say about this very passage:
[Jesus] interprets his own words when he adds: “Your faith has saved you” (v. 50). Now Christ did not want to say that by her works of love the woman had merited the forgiveness of sins. Therefore he clearly says, “Your faith has saved you.” But faith is that which grasps God’s free mercy because of God’s Word … The woman came, believing that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from Christ. This is the highest way of worshiping Christ. Nothing greater could she ascribe to him. By looking for the forgiveness of sins from him, she truly acknowledged him as the Messiah. Truly to believe means to think of Christ in this way, and in this way to worship and take hold of him.
Moreover, Christ used the word “love” not toward the woman but against the Pharisee … He chides the Pharisee for not acknowledging him as the Messiah, though he did show him the outward courtesies due a guest and a great and holy man. He points to the woman and praises her reverence, her anointing and crying, all of which were a sign and confession of faith that she was looking for the forgiveness of sins from Christ. [Christ] charges him with irreverence and reproves him with the example of the woman. What a disgrace that an uneducated woman should believe God, while a doctor of the law does not believe or accept the Messiah or seek from him the forgiveness of sins and salvation!
In this way, therefore, he praises her entire act of worship … but meanwhile he teaches that it is faith that properly accepts the forgiveness of sins, though love, confession, and other good fruits ought to follow. He does not mean that these fruits are the price of propitiation which earns the forgiveness of sins that reconciles us to God.1
Perhaps we should look once again to the parable by which Jesus himself gives us an accounting of all this: (40-43) And Jesus answering said to him, Simon, I have something to say to you. And he answered, Say it, Teacher. A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more? Simon answered, The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt. And he said to him, You have judged rightly.
Talk about an intriguing correlation between sin and love! Which debtor in the parable loved his creditor more? The one who had the bigger debt erased from the books. Even Simon understands the basic idea. The more forgiven, the more you love. The less forgiven the less you love. How is that for a new way to confess our sins? Not just in sackcloth and ashes. Not just in crying “Mea culpa! Mea culpa!” Not just in confessional booths or all together in the beginning of each Divine Service. No, our deepest confession is not in these, but in loving. Every deed of love we do says in a way, “There’s sin in my past.” Now let us begin to add it all up. Is there a connection between the amount of our love and the amount of our sin?
Not in the sense that we should revel in our sin with the thought that such displays will somehow then cause love to shine forth. We do not add to our sin, that God’s grace must then increase. Nor do we take away from our love. Place a cap on how much love we show, lest the world realize just how big a sinner we really are. “For goodness sake, let’s stop loving before all our skeletons are hauled out for everyone to see!” Neither such response adds up to the truth we see at work in the Gospel. Keep in mind … it isn’t the sin that triggers the love, but the forgiveness of that sin. Every act of love we do rightly says, “There’s sin in my past, a lot of them in fact, but thanks be to Jesus, they’ve been forgiven!”
Likewise, it isn’t the amount of sin that counts but the awareness of that sin. The disreputable woman in our text was no more an evil doer than Simon the pillar of respectability. She was a sinner. So was Simon. The woman was just a little bit more obvious about it, that’s all. Simon had ways of hiding his sin, forgetting his sin, pretending like his sin wasn’t really sin. But sin isn’t measured by numbers. It can’t be reasoned away. It never remains hidden or forgotten forever. Sin is a state of being, a condition we all carry around with us whether we belong to the red-light district or the local country club. The only difference between these two debtors is that the woman knew her condition. And that makes all the difference in the final accounting. Because she understands her sin and looks in faith to the one who can forgive it, she comes out debt-free … forgiven and redeemed.
If our sins are many – and who of us would be foolish enough to claim otherwise? – there is hope for us. Hope, because Christ came to redeem sinners. To buy us back not with silver or gold, but with His precious blood. In His innocent suffering and death upon the cross, the debt of sin is paid in full. The sins of prostitutes, lawyers, you and me … all of it gone and buried just like our Lord was. Only He came back to life, to give us new life. A life of faith lived in the confession of love.
Since we have been forgiven of so much, we have the potential for loving much too. But only in proportion to how well we are aware of that “much”. In our sin, we are no different from the lawyer or the prostitute in our story. We are debtors before God. But, the question remains: Which one are we more like? Sometimes the new life we have been given and the life we live don’t always add up. The less we feel we need to be forgiven, the less we tend to love one another. How sad, that many Christians should still be accounted with Simon the Pharisee. Loved and forgiven, yet not fully appreciating either. Embarrassed, or unwilling, to throw themselves at the merciful feet of our Lord and Saviour and receive His unconditional, unfathomable love and acceptance.
How much better for us to find ourselves accounted with the un-named woman, who understood her place under the grace of God. How much better for us to look truthfully and honestly at the sin in our lives and bring it in faith to the feet of our Saviour. How much better that we should receive – fully – the love of Christ. How much better indeed! Not just for us, but for all who would then receive in turn the benefits of our lives of confession … our lives of service and love. How much better to hear Jesus say to us:
Therefore I tell you, YOUR sins, which are many, are forgiven—for YOU love much. Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.
1 Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Book of Concord (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: 1, III, 31-34). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
** With many thanks to Rev. Francis Rossow and his book “Gospel Handles: Finding New Connections in Biblical Texts” (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001)