In his article "The Structure of Gratitude," New York Times columnist David Brooks notes what he's learning about thankfulness, saying,
I'm sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel. I have certain expectations about the service that's going to be provided. I get impatient if I have to crawl around looking for a power outlet, if the shower controls are unfathomable, if the place considers itself too fancy to put a coffee machine in each room. I'm sometimes happier at a budget motel, where my expectations are lower, and where a functioning iron is a bonus and the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat.
He says, this little phenomenon shows how powerfully expectations structure our moods and emotions, none more so than the beautiful emotion of gratitude. Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, especially when it is undeserved.
The structure of gratitude as Brooks calls it. And I think that’s in some ways what today’s passage is all about, yes, it’s about a Pharisee and a sinful woman, but maybe even more so, it’s about the structure and nature of gratitude, and maybe even in addition, the relationship between forgiveness and love, God and ourselves, ourselves and others, expectations and thankfulness and how gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds our expectations, when it is undeserved.
After taking a two week break or so to celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter, we now pick things back up right around where we last left off – here in Luke chapter 7 as we resume our months-long sermon series through the Gospel of Luke.
And over the past few weeks we’ve seen time and time again the Pharisees trying to pick a fight with Jesus. They’ve witnessed Jesus forgive people’s sins, something only God had the authority to do, they’ve witnessed Jesus eating meals and associating himself with tax collectors and sinners, the unclean and unworthy, the people you’d least expect, he’s even challenged one of their most sacred institutions, their understanding of the Sabbath day itself.
And it all seems to crescendo into our story today, with Jesus yet again at another meal, this time with Simon the Pharisee, his fellow dinner guests and an uninvited sinful woman.
And Jesus is going to use the actions of this uninvited woman as an unforgettable teachable moment, all to drive home the structure of gratitude, this relationship between God’s forgiveness and our love.
The idea being this – the more we recognize our need for God’s forgiveness, the more we recognize our own sin and unworthiness, the greater the gratitude and greater the love we will have both towards God and towards one another upon accepting it.
The greater the forgiveness, the greater the gratitude. The greater the forgiveness, the greater the love.
Or if I were to really boil this story down to its essence, in a single phrase that might be a little too pithy, I’d say it like this.
The greater love known, the greater love shown. The greater God’s love for us is known, the greater our love for God and others will be shown.
So with all that said, let’s dive in, using that short phrase, we’ll dive into the passage itself, and then having done that, we’ll dive deeper and deeper into the application and what it all means for you and me.
The Greater (God’s) Love Is Known, The Greater (Our) Love Is Shown
Let’s first try and reimagine the scene here. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus over to dinner. Why exactly he does, we’re not totally sure. Maybe this is a “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer” situation, it also may just be that the Pharisees want to better understand who this Jesus is and why he’s doing what he’s doing while they break bread together. It’s tough to say.
Regardless, all of a sudden, crashing the party is a woman from the town, who we’re told lived a sinful life. And apparently, her sinful life was public knowledge, which leads some to wonder, maybe she was notorious in town for some kind of major sexual sin. Again it’s all a bit of conjecture.
But the force of the story so far, would translate roughly to this approximate modern day equivalent: The Chancellor at Montana Western invites a renowned guest speaker in town over for a fancy dinner, like two forks kind of fancy, salad fork and dinner fork, and then what do you know, look who’s coming to dinner, it’s the town prostitute. Even if the details aren’t exactly right, the story has that level of shock and awe to it.
And as for this woman, 38 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.
Imagine everyone in the room there that night, just sitting there in stunned silence and suspense, waiting to see how Jesus responds to this one. What will he do? What will he say? Sure, he’s been known to eat dinner with tax collectors and sinners, but this has to cross the line, right? An uninvited woman intruding on dinner? Jesus is going to defer to the wishes of the host, right? Actually, no. Jesus does nothing. He just lets this woman do what she came to do.
And it’s at this point that we get the inner thoughts of Simon the Pharisee which speak volumes, thinking 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.”
So what all is going on here? What are we seeing play out here? Well, greater love known, leads to greater love shown.
Consider this woman. Clearly somewhere, somehow she’s heard about this Jesus, a Jesus who has the power to forgive sins, who eats with tax collectors and sinners, she’s heard his message about bringing good news to the poor, and maybe for the first time in her life, despite her sordid and lousy reputation in her community, she’s experiencing a glimmer of hope, the promise of a better future, all because of this Jesus.
Her actions of kissing his feet, wiping them with her tears, pouring expensive alabaster oil on them, all point to a woman who is overflowing with gratitude.
She seems to have a profound awareness of her sinfulness and unworthiness and her need for forgiveness, which in turn, creates within her a greater understanding of God’s love for her, and so altogether, her greater knowledge of God’s love for her and for sinful people everywhere naturally results in greater love from her being shown, as she storms in unannounced at Simon’s house that night.
And yet, Simon the Pharisee, on the other hand, seems to be exemplifying the opposite of this principle.
He does not have a very clear understanding of his own sinfulness, as exemplified by his inner thoughts, saying to himself in effect, “this Jesus should know what kind of woman this is who is touching him – she’s a sinner.”
Of course, by using that label to define her and not him, he’s revealing to us how he sees himself – he’s not a sinner, she is. And in doing so, Simon is showing to us that his definition and understanding of sin and sinner is far, far too limited and narrow. She’s a sinner, he’s not.
You see, because Simon does not see his sinful condition for what it is and his need for God’s forgiveness like everyone else, he has very little grasp or understanding or knowledge of God’s love for him, and therefore, his lesser knowledge of God’s love being known, leads to lesser love being shown, both towards Jesus and towards this woman.
He shows little love towards Jesus, as evidenced by what Jesus tells us later on in the story. In contrast to this woman, when Jesus entered Simon’s house, Simon offered Jesus none of the customary marks of hospitality of the day, neglecting to wash his feet, or welcoming him with a kiss or pouring oil on his head – he offered no such courtesies. His actions reveal the structure of gratitude in his own heart. He doesn’t see himself as a sinner, or in need of God’s forgiveness, at least not in any meaningful way, therefore, he’s not grateful for what Jesus can offer, he has no understanding of God’s amazing love towards sinners like him, therefore, he loves little in return, showing little love towards Jesus, his guest, and also this woman as well.
The Greater (God’s) Love (for us) Is Known, The Greater (Our) Love (will be) Is Shown
And all together, this brings us to this question, how do you and I grow in our understanding and experience of God’s love for us? How do you and I begin to cultivate a deeper and more accurate awareness of our own sinful condition, more fully recognize our own need for Jesus, and therefore be people of greater love ourselves, towards God and towards others?
Well, I think the inner thoughts and outer actions of this Pharisee and woman from long ago, show us that the answer is rather simple in theory, yet takes a lifetime of intentionality and practice.
We need to fix our eyes and look in the right places and in the right order. Looking first to Jesus, then to ourselves, then finally to one another. Or in other words, we need to look upward, then inward and then and only then, will we truly be able to look outward.
By looking upward and inward before we look outward, we help guard ourselves from one of the most dangerous games of all, the comparison game.
Oh, it’s so tempting and so easy to play the comparison game, and to judge and justify ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. And when we play this game, we always find a way to come out on top and skew the results in a way that make us look good or better than those around us.
Look around long enough and we can always find someone who we deem as worse off than us: someone who loves less than us, serves less than us, gives less than us, someone whose sins and flaws and shortcomings are more evident and visible than ours.
Look outward first and our love is sure to be lacking. Both our understanding of God’s love and our need for forgiveness, and secondly our love for one another.
Instead we need to look upward and inward first, fixing our eyes of Jesus’s love for us despite our own sinful condition. We can do that through Sunday worship and personal or shared bible study and prayer. We do that especially when we share the Prayer of Confession, a prayer not meant to drive us deeper into guilt and shame, but rather deeper into the loving arms of Jesus. As we look upward and inward in that moment, we rejoice in the amazing truth that God can and does forgive even the unseemly and unsightly moments of our past week.
While the Pharisees sees his sinfulness in comparison to this woman, and sees very little of It, the woman sees her sinfulness in light of Jesus, in fact, as she crashes this dinner party on this night long ago, you kind of get the sense that she’s oblivious to everyone else in the room as she makes a straight beeline for Jesus.
Look upward, then inward, then and only then, will we truly be able to look outward.
Because here's the beautiful, upside down, counterintuitive nature of it. It’s by first fixing our eyes on Jesus and his love and reflecting inward on our own sinfulness that we will be best positioned to love others well.
For example, last week I was visiting a few residents over at Pioneer and as I was finishing up visiting with one of them, I asked this woman, like I often do, hey, how can I be praying for you? She said, “Pray for me that I would grow in patience.” That’s a great prayer request and I was happy to pray for it on her behalf. Who among us, after all, couldn’t use a little more patience?
And as we were praying it got me thinking … how does a person grow in patience? I feel like having kids has increased my patience, maybe I could let her borrow my kids for a couple hours, but that’s not really a working solution, someone who’s child raising years has come and gone. Maybe I could recommend that she take a patience class, if that were even a thing, a class specifically designed to help people increase their patience, a class where the professor continuing delays and withholds giving out the final exam, as a test of, well, patience. She could do that, but chances are that probably wouldn’t be all that effective either.
But how about this? What if she were to reflect on God’s patience towards her? What if she were to read scriptures and bible stories that showed God’s patience on display? What if she were to think back to past moments in her life of stubbornness and pride and her inflexibility towards God and others, and reflect on God’s gracious, patient, forgiving love towards her? Now, I like her chances. To look upward at God’s patience, inward towards our own need for it, then finally outward in sharing it. After all, why oh why, would we bother being patient towards others if we believe that God’s never had to be patient with us?
The apostle Paul gives us this simple formula: accept one another, just as Christ has accepted you. Forgive one another, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love one another, just as Christ has loved you. Be patient with one another, just as Christ has been patient towards you.
So friends, look upward and inward, then outward. The Greater (God’s) Love (for us) Is Known, The Greater (Our) Love (will be) Is Shown.
And I’ll ever so slowly begin to finish with this –
With this pressing question and revealing question: Does God’s love ever make you cry? Does Christ’s love for you ever move you to tears?
There’s one detail in this story that grabs my attention above all the rest and that is, this woman washed Jesus’s feet with, of all things, her tears.
Here she was on this night long ago, she’s watching from the outside in, watching this dinner party unfold, she likely notices that Jesus hasn’t been honored and revered as he should, he hasn’t received the customary and hospitable greeting that he should as a guest in another man’s home. He’s come in from the dirty, smelly, dusty streets and his host hasn’t even bothered to see to it that his feet be washed.
And yet, here comes this woman, here to wash his feet, to give him the honor that he’s due, but not with a bucket of water. That certainly would have done the job, but no, she’s got something better, far more profound, she’s brought her tears.
She is so moved by what this Jesus has done for her that brings her to tears. Tears are something that are uniquely and distinctly human, that though some other species shed tears reflexively as a result of pain or irritation, we humans are the only creatures whose tears can be triggered by their feelings.
And this woman is crying out of gratitude and love for Jesus, all because of the forgiving love that Jesus has shown towards her.
Friends, I want to be careful to not communicate that if you get weepy easily, it’s because you love Jesus, and that if tears never stream down your face, it’s because you don’t.
But yet, I confess that I have cried just as much if not more while watching a rom-com or gulp, yes, even a moving sports documentary as I have during a worship service.
Maybe that's a coincidence, but maybe not.
So I’ll ask you, does God’s love ever make you cry? Does Christ’s love for you ever move you to tears?
My sense is that if we really understood the height and depth and breadth and width of the love of God for sinners like you and me, maybe, just maybe, it would.
So friends, let’s plumb the depths of the Father’s love all the more. It’ll change the way we look at ourselves, at one another, and yes, even change the way we look at Jesus himself.