7th Sunday after Epiphany February 24, 2019
456, 398, 371, 46
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
In 1976 I traveled to Israel with a group of Christian friends. While in Nazareth, I purchased an olivewood statue of Jesus. I was fascinated by the intricate detail: the long, flowing hair, beard, and robe; the compassionate face; the sandaled feet; the hands raised in benediction. Of all the souvenirs I brought back from that trip, the olivewood statue of Jesus was my favorite. I gave the statue a place of high honor on my office bookshelf, next to my Bibles, commentaries, and concordances.
Over time, however, the scent of the olivewood faded, and so did my interest in the statue. In fact, I seldom noticed the olivewood Jesus any longer, unless cleaning my office. One day, while dusting the statue, I had a terrible thought. How many times had I treated the real Jesus like the olivewood Jesus: ignoring Him until I needed Him. Then, figuratively speaking, taking Jesus down, dusting Jesus off, and once my dilemma was solved, returning Jesus to the shelf of my indifference?
The word “indifference” comes from the Latin word indifferentem, which means ‘not set apart;’ that is, not different, nothing special. Indifference is not rejection, it is neutrality, tepidness, inattentiveness, or a lack of interest. What causes indifference? Many factors may contribute such as the passing time, fading appearance, declining value, personal detachment, or taking someone or something for granted.
Is it possible for Christians to become indifferent to Christ—indifferent to Scripture, indifferent to church, indifferent to evangelism, indifferent to each other, indifferent even to forgiveness? Sadly, the answer is ‘Yes.’ In the Book of Revelation, Jesus admonished two Christian congregations for their spiritual indifference. He said to the church in Ephesus, “Yet, I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” (Revelation 2:4) And to the church in Laodicea He said, “You are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.” (Revelation 3:16) The loss of first-love is indifference. Being lukewarm is being indifferent.
Luke 7:36-50 is one of the most endearing accounts in the New Testament. Here we read of a sinful woman who expressed her love and gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness by washing His feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. But this text is also an important study in overcoming spiritual indifference. The woman in our text was completely devoted to Christ, while the Pharisee in the text was completely indifferent to Christ. So, what made the difference? What was the difference in the indifference?
The occasion was a banquet, with Simon the Pharisee as the host and Jesus of Nazareth as the guest. Wealthier homes of that era and area were often designed with a courtyard facing the street. When dignitaries attended dinner, the townspeople were permitted to enter the courtyard and politely observe. On this occasion, all went well at first. But then, a most unwelcome guest entered the courtyard: a “woman who had lived a sinful life in that town.” (Luke 7:37) This woman who was likely a prostitute. Imagine a prostitute in the home of a prominent Pharisee! Imagine the whispers, sneers, and tongue-clicks of disgust. Imagine the faith and courage required to enter the courtyard and ignore the stares—so great was this woman’s desire to see Jesus.
And rather than keeping her distance, the woman approached Jesus who, as custom dictated, was likely reclining on a dining sofa, lying on His left side, supported by pillows, with His legs extended. According to Luke, the woman stood behind Jesus, that is, directly over His feet. And “weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them.” (Luke 7:38)
And Jesus did nothing. Jesus said nothing. Jesus made no objection. Despite the surprise on some faces and the disgust on others, Jesus allowed this woman to go on wetting His feet with her tears, then drying His feet with her hair, kissing His feet and applying expensive perfume. In other words, Jesus compassionately allowed this sinful woman to go on rendering her grateful service to God. Ironically, it was this welcoming acceptance of the woman by Jesus, and not the woman herself, that truly scandalized Simon the Pharisee. “If this man were a prophet,” thought Simon, “He would know who is touching Him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
At times, we fool ourselves into believing that God only hears what we say, and not what we think. But this is wrong, isn’t it? Not a single syllable or stray thought escapes the omniscience of the Almighty. Notice that in Luke 7:41-43, Jesus addressed what Simon the Pharisee was THINKING, not what Simon was saying.
“Simon,” said Jesus, “I have something to tell you.” Simon replied, “Tell me, Teacher.” So Jesus offered this parable: “Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” And Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
For a moment, consider all the striking contrasts in today’s text: a man named Simon and a woman with no name; a proud Pharisee and a penitent prostitute; a wealthy host and an uninvited guest; the town’s best and the town’s worst. But the starkest contrast between these two individuals, the Pharisee and the prostitute, lay in their respective attitudes toward Jesus Christ.
Simon the Pharisee was completely indifferent toward Jesus, indifferent toward the Savior’s teachings, indifferent toward extending Jesus the common courtesies of water to wash His dusty feet and a kiss to welcome His arrival. Simon was even indifferent toward answering the question Jesus posed about the two debtors in the parable. “Now which of them will love him more?” asked Jesus in Luke 7:42. How did Simon respond? Across the miles and centuries, his tone of indifference is still unmistakable, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” (Luke 7:43)
By contrast, the woman in Luke 7:36-50 was the very opposite of indifference. In her actions she displayed the greatest love, greatest humility, and greatest gratitude. As Jesus explained to Simon in Luke 7:44-46, “Then He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give Me any water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing My feet. You did not put oil on My head, but she has poured perfume on My feet.”
So, what made the difference? Why was the self-righteous Pharisee indifferent and the sinful woman grateful, humble, and devoted? We don’t have to guess. Jesus Himself provided the answer in Luke 7:47, saying: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Do we understand? According to Jesus, a person who has been forgiven little, that is, who thinks he has little that needs to be forgiven—like Simon the Pharisee—will have little love and little gratitude toward God.
So what if we find ourselves growing indifferent toward God and His word? There are signs of this, whether blatant or subtle, whether admitted or denied.
Take, for instance, what King David wrote in Psalm 84: “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God…Better is one day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere,” Psalm 84:1-2,10.
I wonder, would we say the same about being in God’s house this Sunday? Do we display the same joy, the same yearning, to hear the Scriptures and sing hymns and speak prayers? Do we still communicate frequently with God, knowing that communication is an important part of every relationship, including our relationship with God? Or do we only speak to God when we need Him—figuratively removing Him from the shelf like a certain olivewood statue of Jesus, dusting Him off, then putting Him back until the next problem and the next predicament?
And we can’t rightly say, “Yes, well, I talk to God, but He never talks back to me.” Yes, He does. Every day, every hour, every minute, every second, God is speaking to us through His holy word, the Bible. The real question is: How willing are we to open our Bibles and to listen to God speak? How then do we overcome spiritual indifference in our lives, our ministries, our marriages, and our churches? On the basis of today’s text, let me offer two brief answers.
First, to overcome spiritual indifference, we must recognize how desperately we all need Jesus Christ as our Savior. Simon the Pharisee was one of Israel’s religious elite. The very name Pharisee meant ‘separated one;’ that is, one better than and superior to all others. Simply recall how in Christ’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18, the Pharisee boasted, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
This is how Simon the Pharisee viewed himself, namely, as morally superior to other people. In his mind, Simon was nothing like that woman. Nothing. Unlike her, he deserved God’s love and salvation. And if Simon deserved salvation because of His own works, work, merit, and righteousness, he had absolutely no use for a Savior. He had no need for Jesus Christ.
Only, we can’t save ourselves because all of us are sinners. Imagine the names Simon the Pharisee and other guests at his banquet may have privately called that uninvited woman: “Harlot. Tramp. Trollop. Scum. Homewrecker. Unfit. Unholy.” Yet, dear friends, if God’s Law were to judge us—not only our actions, but our words and our thoughts—what names would the Law have for us?
Is there anyone in church today who has never said a bad word, never had a bad thought, never committed a bad deed? Conversely, in there anyone in church today who has always loved God above all things and always loved his neighbor as himself? No. The reality is Psalm 14:3, “There is no one who does good, not even one.” The reality is Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The reality is Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, we all desperately need Jesus Christ as our Savior. And when we understand this desperate need for Jesus Christ, we will not grow indifferent toward Jesus Christ.
Second, to overcome spiritual indifference, we must also recognize how much each of us has been forgiven through Jesus Christ. The accusation constantly leveled at Jesus by the scribers and Pharisees—‘This man eats with tax collectors and sinners’—was absolutely true. Jesus did associate with sinners, because Jesus came to save sinners, all sinners, including the town-prostitute who realized this and the self-righteous Pharisee who did not.
Jesus Himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Mark 2:17) And in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” And as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
Think about that prostitute in today’s text. Her life must have been dreadful. She must have felt so used, despised, worthless, and guilty—until one day she heard Jesus Christ teaching what He repeated to her at the Pharisee’s banquet, “Your sins are forgiven,” and “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48&50)
After a life like hers and forgiveness like Christ’s, do we really wonder why this woman stood humbly and gratefully at the feet of Jesus, wetting His feet with her tears, drying His feet with her hair, and anointing His feet with expensive perfume? Was this woman ever indifferent toward Christ?
“Therefore, I tell you,” said Jesus in Luke 7:42, “her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Our many sins have also been forgiven by the same Jesus. While our sin abounds, His love and grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). May our love abound, mindful of how we have been forgiven much. Mindful of how we have been forgiven much will guard us against indifference toward our Savior.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.