Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Nothing of the Gospel

“Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ So he said, ‘Teacher, say it.’ ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged.’ Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.’ Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace’” (Luke 7:36-50, N.K.J.V.).

Oh, be careful how you read, hear, and meditate on this narrative, beloved! The easiest thing in the world is to miss the Gospel in it. That doesn’t seem possible, right? There is a woman who is a notorious sinner, broken and adoring Jesus at His feet. Jesus praises her above the religious leader and announces her forgiven. Gospel, right? Not if you miss the most important point.

You see, we’re tempted to give too much value to the woman’s actions (7:38,39,44-46). There is a tendency to see her humble, even humiliating actions as the merit by which she receives her forgiveness. She’s worthy of forgiveness, we all-too-easily consider, because she has abased herself in front of the people in Simon’s house and even Jesus Himself. If we come to that conclusion, though, we miss the Gospel entirely. The woman’s tears, kisses, hair, and perfumed oil do not merit her forgiveness. Not even a little bit. Don’t make bad theology because of the powerful emotional tug of the moment. I fear – given our emphasis on musical/emotional experience in worship and the most popular books Christians are apparently reading – that the dear woman’s actions can be misunderstood as being the ladder on which she is able to climb from the pit of sin up to an intimate relationship with the great Lover of souls, and that’s just not true. In fact, if this is our assumption, we miss the Gospel, and, no matter how sweet the situation is, missing the Gospel is an eternally deadly error.

Merely using our imaginative senses to dwell in the woman’s actions isn’t enough. This will lead to an anti-gospel in which emotional is the new law and spiritual sensuality is the new legalism. Just as in every gathering of the people of God in Christ for worship, the actions of adoration are capable of damning us unless there is doctrinal explanation in the preaching. We have that in this text, too. The guiding principle by which we understand the woman’s actions and the grace Jesus grants her must be His explanatory parable in 7:41,42.

“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”

What did the debtors offer to get out of debt? Nothing. “...they had nothing with which to repay.”

As far as the woman’s infinite, eternal debt to God for her sins (her sins before God are unendingly more serious than her reputation in her community for those sins), her tears, hair, kisses, and perfumed oil are “nothing.” Does that seem harsh? If it does, we’ve cleansed the story of the Gospel in our reading of it.

This woman’s actions, no matter how sweet and tender they are, do nothing to gain her forgiveness before the divine Creditor she has offended in her sin. In the same way, there is nothing any of us can do, no matter how good-intentioned or sincerely sentimental or religiously disciplined, to “repay” the debt we owe because of our sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

It is the great grace of the creditor, when he “freely forgave them both,” that is the Gospel in this story. They had “nothing with which to repay,” and he “freely forgave them both.” Anything else is not the Gospel, and will not save.

In response to the graceful forgiveness of the Gospel, which she believed by faith (7:50), she lives out a response by weeping, drying, kissing, and anointing – she “loved much.” Her actions are beautiful, touching, and appropriate to what she has received in the grace of the Gospel.

It is not our adoration that is the saving power of the Gospel, but His kindness on behalf of those who have “nothing with which to repay.”

“...when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

This is Good News, and merits our own humble acts of love forever and ever. May we love much, for we have been graciously given forgiveness for much.
"The Anointing with Oil and Tears," by Sadao Watanabe (1979)