The greatest commandment is to love God (Matthew 22:36–37). But what that looks like can shock us, as it did Simon in Luke 7:36–50.
He had the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 54:5) in his house, reclining at his table. The Prophet that Moses had foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15) was sharing dinner with him. The Lord of glory, the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25), was speaking with him face to face. The great climactic moment of history he claimed to be living for had arrived. It should have been a deliriously wonderful, breathtaking honor for Simon to host the Messiah.
But Simon was not amazed. As he looked at Jesus, all he saw was a dusty Nazarene whose claims could be interpreted as, well, delusional.
And Jesus’ feet were still dirty. Offering foot washing to guests had been a deeply ingrained custom for Near Eastern peoples for thousands of years. To not offer it was to dishonor one’s guest. It’s not likely that Simon simply forgot.
But Jesus showed no sign of offense. And with the meal on the table, superficial pleasantries were exchanged. A few polite questions were asked.
Suddenly all eyes facing Jesus were filled with confused concern, focused toward his feet. Jesus looked back.
A woman was standing near him, clearly not part of the household. She was looking intensely at him, cradling a small jar in her hands. She began to sob and dropped to her knees. And as her tears flowed, she leaned over and let them drop on Jesus’s soiled feet and wiped them off, along with the dirt, with her hair.
Then she kissed Jesus’s feet.
Gasps and murmurs were heard around the table. This woman had a reputation known to all the local guests. It was improper even to speak openly about what had given her this reputation. She was simply called a “sinner.” Everyone knew what was packed into that word.
So everyone was mortified by her clearly inappropriate, even intimate contact. Except, apparently, Jesus. He did not seem shocked. And he did nothing to stop her.
An alarmed servant moved toward the woman but Simon waved him off. This was a revealing moment.
As Simon watched the woman pour fragrant oil from her jar on Jesus’s feet, he felt both contempt and pleasure. His appraisal of Jesus was being vindicated before his eyes. Nothing spoke more eloquently of the falseness of this so-called prophet than his stunning lack of discernment regarding this immoral woman. No holy man would have let her pollute him with her touch. He began to rehearse what he would report to the Council.
“Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus’s words snapped Simon’s attention back. “Say it, Teacher,” he replied.
“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.”
Then turning toward the woman Jesus 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.”
Then looking back, penetratingly into Simon’s eyes, Jesus said, “But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” A shocked silence hung in the air.
And then with tender authority Jesus spoke to the woman: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
As a Pharisee, Simon enjoyed a reputation as a godly man. He had significant theological education, had memorized extensive portions of Scripture, exercised rigorous self-discipline, prayed religiously, and tithed meticulously. The sorts of things men admire.
The woman’s reputation was sleazy. Her law breaking was public knowledge. No one mistook her as a servant of God. Though men had desired her, no one admired her.
Yet in front of all the dinner party guests Jesus declared that the debauched woman actually loved God much, while the ritually clean Pharisee loved God little. Why? Simply because the woman believed that she desperately needed the forgiveness Jesus offered in his gospel, while Simon did not.
“He who is forgiven little, loves little.” This little sentence reveals a mammoth truth for us: we will love God to the degree that we recognize the magnitude of our sins and the immensity of God’s grace to forgive them.
That is what Jesus is looking for. This is the kind of worshipers the Father is seeking (John 4:23).
For at its essence true worship is a passionate love for God, not moralistic rule keeping or feats of self-discipline. For sinners like us, the fuel of that love is a profound realization, in the words of former slave trader-turned-pastor, John Newton, “that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”1
This meditation is included in the forthcoming book Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith (Crossway, April 30, 2013).
1Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 347.
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