Luke 7:16-50, The Friend of Sinners

[June 7, 2009] If we read the Gospel on our own, it helps to situate a reading in its context. With this reading, Luke 7:16-50, we are at the point where the first section of Jesus’ ministry has concluded and a new section begins.

The First Part of Jesus’ Ministry (Luke 4:14—7:15)

In the first section, Jesus announced that He is the Lord of the Jubilee. The promises of God are fulfilled in Him. He liberates individuals from what-ever has them in bondage and calls them to Himself. When He calls them, He makes them a special kind of community and calls them “blessed.”

Jesus—who He is—has called and liberated and gathered us, and therefore this story (Luke 4:14—7:15) is our story. It is about us. Have we heard the Gospel in such a way that Jesus has personally called us? Do we know Jesus as the Liberator from that which puts us in bondage? This may not be so clear, because after Jesus begins to liberate us, we discover that many things keep us in bondage, and because of our lack of faith, we begin to compromise our discipleship and accept our captivity. We are captured by the world—its pressures and allurements—but also by our psychological history. It is the culture we live in, but it is also individual. So life becomes a journey of liberation in which we struggle with Jesus and know Him deeper and deeper—unless we turn our backs to Him. We also need to know that when Jesus calls us, He calls us to gather us. Are we interested in being His church, or do we just want to “go to church,” which is just a cultural thing and has little to do with that new thing which Jesus calls into being by the presence of His own Person? So the first part of Luke is about us. Can we read it and apply it to ourselves?

Who Is Jesus? The Question (7:16-29)

Now we come to a new section (7:16—9:50). We have already discussed most of this section. Again, have we been paying attention? In this section one theme is woven throughout and brought out fully. This is the question: Who is Jesus? In 9:20 Jesus asks us who are listening, “But you, who do you say that I am?” How do we answer this question? Not, can you give the right answer, because even when we say what we have figured out, we still don’t get it (we don’t), because God does not think the way we do. Who Jesus is has to do with the cross, and whether we “get it” depends on whether we can lose our soul in order to save it (9:24). No, the question is not whether we can come up with the right answer. The question is do we KNOW Jesus? Who is He to us?

After Jesus raises the only son of a widow from the dead, the people say, “A great prophet has been raised up among us,” and “God has visited His people” (7:16). Is it true? They thought the age of prophets had ended. It was replaced by the age of sages and saints. At the end of the age, Elijah would return and prepare the way for the Messiah. Prophecy would come back. So, Jesus is a prophet!

Then John the Baptist asks, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus answers John by reminding Him of the prophecy from Isaiah 61 with which Jesus inaugurated His ministry in 4:18-19. Then He says to the people that John is a prophet, but also much more than a prophet (7:26), for John came to prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord whom John proclaimed is Jesus, who is greater than John.

The Confusion of Moral and Religious People (7:30-35)

But those who should have recognized Him, the Pharisees and the lawyers (the scribes), do not. What prevents them is their self-reliance. They have a little knowledge and have basically replaced the reality of God in their lives with their own knowledge and their practice of morality and religion. Morality and religion replaces a real experience of God. “They are like little children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, who say, ‘We have played the flute to you, and you did not dance; we have sung a dirge, and you did not weep’” (7:32): children play-acting weddings and funerals; it is not real. The point is not to judge the Pharisees, but to recognize the temptation in ourselves. When we come to church, when we judge others, are we play-acting or do we know the reality?

Ah, but what is the reality? They say, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” This is their judgment. But Jesus says, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (7:34-35). Who is Jesus? A prophet? More than a prophet? Yes. But who He is, is God come among us in a most surprising way. He has come to be “a friend of sinners”! A friend of the immoral and irreligious.

Of course this is not what we expect, if we are at all successful at being moral and religious. After all, the immoral and irreligious are failures. God judges them, and we feel we must try hard to please God. We are partly right. Really, sin is not the breaking of social standards and codes of behavior. Sin is rebellion against God—a rebellion that ruins us, that makes us utterly miserable (though we get used to it). If God does not judge sin, then it means God does not care about us. In fact God is so utterly holy, so utterly righteous, that in our sinfulness we cannot come near to God without being burned. The divine nature is a consuming fire—and no one who sees God can live. So the Pharisee is trying his hardest to be a good person, the kind of person God wants him to be. Does it not make sense? But then it does not make sense for Jesus to be a friend of those people who don’t even care about God.

The Case of the Pharisee named Simon (7:36-39)

Well, a Pharisee named Simon—Simon was an extremely common name back then—he hears about Jesus and wants to understand Him better, so he invites Jesus to his house for a meal. He sympathizes with Jesus because Jesus’ teaching agrees with the Pharisees’ (it does). And he recognizes that Jesus is a faith healer—like others who roamed around Galilee. But he also heard the rumors—that Jesus is a great prophet, like John the Baptist. He suspects that Jesus may be deluded about His self-importance. After all, a person should be humble.

A woman crashes the party uninvited. She is known as a “sinner.” We don’t know what that means. It does not have to mean she was a prostitute, though she might have been. A sinner is just someone who could not care less about the Torah. She was a nonreligious Jew. To the Pharisee, it was all the same. In any case, since she was non-kosher, there was a good chance that she was ritually unclean, and if she touched you she would make you unclean until sunset. So, normally you would not let people like her, or a Gentile for that matter, into your home. She came in anyway. Obviously, she felt so comfortable around Jesus that she did not care about social conventions. If He was there, she felt like she could go to Him, it did not matter whose house He was in.

The Pharisee allowed it to see what Jesus would do. Apparently, Jesus does not know what kind of woman this is or else He would not allow her to act that way. If Jesus were a prophet, He would know. So, obviously Jesus is not a prophet. Jesus surprises him, however. Not only does Jesus know who this woman is, He knows who Simon is too, and He knows what Simon is thinking!

The Sinner: a Child of Wisdom (7:37-48)

It is true that God’s nature is so holy that God is like a consuming fire and no person is holy enough to stand in that Presence. It is true that God’s nature cannot tolerate sin. But sin is not the kind of thing that can ruin God if God touches it. Rather, God’s nature is such that it can conquer sin, which means not only that God can obliterate it, but also that God can heal the sinner.

God’s nature, considered apart from His Person, is impersonal. It is what it is. But when God reveals Himself, He shows His face. In order for God to show His face, His Person, He turns us into persons by encoun­tering us face-to-face. In our sin, we are alienated individuals, creating connections with others the best we can, but since we are operating from a false self, a false center, we never quite succeed. But God—as a Person—addresses our true self, and by doing so, makes us “persons.”

When God reveals Himself, He comes to us as One who loves us. This is what happened to this woman. She probably did not know that she was forgiven. All she knew was that in Jesus she encountered God, and that rather than rejecting her, rather than giving her up as hopeless, He loved her.

We do not know our sinfulness until this happens. We may condemn ourselves. We may have standards of perfection that we can never at­tain. But our standards are based on our own ideas or the expectations of others. Simon may have been humble in his own way. He may have been aware of how difficult it was to keep all the commandments.

But what happened to this woman? When Jesus loved her as only God loves us, she saw what sin really is. Sin has to do with our relationship to God. It really has nothing to do with breaking rules—those are just symptoms to let us know something is wrong. Our sin is much deeper, at the core of us. It throws everything into question. Keeping rules is just hypocrisy. When we see our sin, we realize that we have nothing left, at least, nothing of our own. What is left is our real self, created by God and like a mirror looking back at God. To be touched by the love of God, which happens when Jesus calls us, is utterly devastating because it makes us know our sin.

But what makes us know our sin is the love of God, which is utterly healing. The One who condemns us is the One who loves us and wants us for Himself. You cannot know your sinfulness in your own light, but only in the light of God’s love. You do not know the love of God if it does not at the same time devastate you.

If we know the love of God, it slays us but it also makes us fall in love with God. We become humble, but also so grateful. And it is this gratitude that changes us. What changed this woman was not the knowledge that her sins were forgiven—so she felt like a better person—but the knowledge of Jesus as One who loved and welcomed her. Her focus was all on Him, not on herself. Knowing, through Jesus, that God loved her, she was restored in her relationship to God. She could draw near to God in a way that Simon could not.

She poured out her affection on Jesus as if only He mattered to her—not what other people thought. She did not just fawn over Jesus. It says she wept at His feet. What was that about? Her heart was broken over Him and she could not do enough for Him. She cleaned His dirty feet with her hair and kissed them with her lips and anointed them with oil that she spent her money on. Is your heart broken like hers? Do you realize how you have betrayed God, and yet He has not turned His back on you but calls you in love and woos you back to Himself?

Are you the woman or the Pharisee? Jesus shows us how to tell. “Her sins which are many are forgiven, because she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, he loves little” (7:47). The Pharisee does not know the depth of his sin, and so he loves little. The woman does know it, and so she loves much. The difference between them is that she has been genuinely touched by the love of God—because God loved her in her sinfulness, while the Pharisee was trying to earn God’s love by his efforts at morality and religion. He did not know his sin enough.

If our love for Jesus were genuine, He would be the only object of our hearts. We would only have a place for Him—for the God whom we discover in Him. And there would be nothing we would not do for Him. Nothing else is worth anything anymore. We see the true value of things. This is what makes the church. The church is made up of those transformed by the love of Jesus so that we can genuinely love Him in our love for one another.

They say that Jesus is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Yet wisdom is justified by all her children. This woman is a child of wisdom.

Who Is Jesus? (7:49-50)

Jesus pronounces the woman forgiven—by God. The people ask, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Let us pray to know who Jesus is.

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