On one occasion in the ministry of our Lord, Jesus accepted a dinner invitation from a Pharisee named Simon (Luke 7:40); interestingly, a woman with a reputation for being a “sinner” had heard of Jesus’ arrival and interrupts the dinner by cleaning his feet with her tears and hair, and anointing them with oil (Luke 7:36-38).
Simon recoils at the woman’s act, and has an internal monologue which essentially questions the validity of the Lord’s ministry: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39 ESV).
As in other occasions, Jesus answers this unspoken criticism (Luke 7:40; cf. Matt 9:4, Mark 2:8). The Lord responds with a “parable of two debtors” (Luke 7:41-43), which has as its main thrust the point that “our sense of forgiveness will evidence itself in love and service.”
There are points in the narrative which suggest that the woman and the Lord had known each other previously. The woman’s act of service and love (Luke 7:44-46) is a demonstration of her gratitude. This gratitude is based upon the fact that her sins “are forgiven” (Luke 7:47-48).
In the first instance, Jesus speaking to Simon the Pharisee states that this woman’s sins “stand forgiven” (v. 47). The phrase is one word in the original and is in the perfect passive indicative form. The verb reflects that her sins were forgiven at some point previous to their encounter at Simon’s house, and remain to be so. This would explain her great demonstration, of which Simon was critical.
In the second instance, Jesus turns to the woman and speaks the exact same phrase (v. 48). This time, the Lord encourages her – your sins remain to be forgiven. The woman “stands saved” (Grk. sesoken) because of her faith in the Lord; consequently, the Savior could send her into a life of “peace” (v. 50). The Lord emphasizes the abiding results of her forgiveness received prior to this dinner.
Moreover, Jesus concedes the point that the woman’s life had been ravaged by sin: “her sins, which are many” (v. 47). This strikes at one of Simon’s criticisms raised by the woman’s action, and Jesus demonstrates his full knowledge of the situation. He knew “what sort of woman” she was. Now, she is different; now, she is saved and forgiven, commissioned to live a new life embraced by the peace of God (Rom 5:1).
If Service is the Symptom… Stay Sick
It ought to go without saying that this encounter with our Lord is one that should pull at our heart, for we share, as Christians, the same plight as this woman. Knowing the debt of forgiveness we owe to our God, knowing that the Lord went behind enemy lines to rescue us from a calamity worse than death, we too should be of similar passions to show our love through service.
The idea of service is not an abstract notion that we subscribe to, service is an expression of love. It is a symptom of our love for God. Consequently, if service is a “symptom,” then love and gratitude generated by salvation is the “infection.” And in this analogy, we would rather be sick than cured.
The Christian, therefore, should never be complacent in their service to God. Packed pews look nice, but if that is all we offer to God, we have failed. Service, as demonstrated by this woman, sacrifices time, resources, energy, and offers it to her Lord. Can we do any less?
When there are cards to mail, people to visit, broken hearts to help mend, and souls to invite to our Father’s promises in the Gospel, it should be done by our hands – not by the hands of another. The most natural explanation for this behavior is our gratitude and love for our Lord.
Lessons to be Learned
Besides the principle emphasis from this passage that forgiveness leads to a sense of gratitude which showcases itself in acts of love and service, there are a few other lessons which may be observed.
(1) This passage highlights the divinity of Jesus, bearing witness that He has the right to forgive sin.
Jesus’ claims to divine authority are well documented in the New Testament, and even was a basis for the plots against his life (John 5:17-18; 7:1).
In Luke, Jesus declared that the woman’s sins stand forgiven (7:47-48), and this offended the group of Pharisees among the dinner party. They reasoned, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” (v. 49). They understood Jesus’ claims were not idealistic (mere wishful thinking), but were literal claims to divine authority (cf. Luke 5:17-26).
(2) A person’s new life may be overshadowed, for a time, by their past moral failures.
We know virtually nothing about this woman only that she is labeled as “a woman of the city” (v. 37) and “a sinner” (vv. 37, 39). This is not just a note from Luke, the narrator, but this was the Simon’s understanding of who this mysterious woman was.
Nevertheless, critics will come and go, but the peace of God lasts forever (v. 50). The unrelenting critics who so often affirm, “you’ll do it again”, will be silenced and shamed by service to God (1 Pet 3:13-17; 2:11-12). We do not serve to prove others wrong, we serve to love God. The motivation behind our service must be fueled by our gratitude; as it is written:
Now which of them will love him more? Simon [the Pharisee] answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” (Luke 7:42b-43)
(3) A life troubled by the ravages of a sinful life can become a life of peace devoted to godly service to God.
The change of life brought about by a new way of thinking in light of God’s forgiveness has the overwhelming power to transform a person (Acts 2:38; Rom 12:1-2). Experiencing the grace of God, understanding that we who were once dead are now made alive in Christ brings tremendous peace, for our Lord never leaves us (Heb 13:5-6; 1 John 1:7).
Indeed, Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This new birth (John 3:4-5) brings with it the “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” (Phil 4:7); moreover, this peace guards our hearts and minds. In this new life, in true appreciation of the grace of God we are qualified not only to experience a heavenly reward (Col 1:12) but are also sanctified for service (Eph 2:10; 1 Cor 6:19-20).
There is no person that God cannot use in holy service, especially his children whom he has “delivered… from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son” (Col 1:13).
I remember seeing an article entitled, “Sluggish Slumbering Saints”, and the essence of the piece was to wake up Christians and call them to their responsibilities as servants of God to serve their Lord (Rom 6:16-18). Indeed, perhaps one of the more critical questions we must ask is this: if the lack of service is the symptom, then what is the infection? The sad answer is: lack of love and ingratitude for all of God’s demonstrations of love.
This spiritual malignancy will only go into remission once we see afresh the great debt we owe our Lord. Should it be that a renewal of this kind is needed in the Christian’s life, then we are to seek Him in repentance and faith knowing that He will receive us and reward us (Heb 11:6; Acts 8:22).
You can be a servant like this wonderful woman, who despite her sin-filled past has been immortalized in the pages of God’s book for posterity so that all may see their own story of salvation and love, and be moved to faithfully serve Him from whom all blessings flow.
- Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile: Exegetical Outlines of the Parables of Christ, rev. ed. (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 1998), 70.