Yesterday, submerged in the ocean of church and then of home fellowship, swimming about in Scripture. Or actually drifting through the deep blue light of the Gospels. The warm wine-dark water of the Gospels. And looking specifically at Luke 7:36-50.
Developing a sense of what may be going on. Listening to others. Listening to one’s mind. One’s heart. Entering the story. Entering into the presence of Jesus. Entering into the first century again. The radiant warmth of his presence again.
Jesus at the dinner party. The sinful woman at his feet weeping, wiping his feet with her tear-wetted hair. Then pouring perfume over them. Rubbing that in. With her hair. Weeping all the while.
The Pharisee—the host—thinking Jesus is grossly imprudent, allowing himself to be touched by a woman like this. A vile woman like this. Jesus discerning his thoughts—divining his thoughts, really. Then telling the Pharisee—Simon—a story of a moneylender and two men to whom he had loaned money. One he loaned 50 dinarii. The other he loaned 500 denarii. But neither could pay him back; so the man forgave their loans.
Who would love the moneylender more? Jesus wants to know. The one who owed the 500 denarii, the one with the larger debt, Simon says. And he’s correct, Jesus says.
Then Jesus turns to the woman but still speaks to Simon, pointing out how Simon has treated him badly over and over since his arrival but how the woman has treated him with gratitude. With love. Extravagant love.
Then Jesus says something very interesting to Simon and to the others: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
Right in Simon’s face. In the rude host’s face.
This is another example, I think, of Jesus turning the world upside down on us. Of sounding a little like he is conveying conventional wisdom when he’s actually dispensing quite abruptly and finally with conventional wisdom. And proclaiming a new way of thinking about God and love and sin.
At first, I thought. Oh. If you sin a lot—have a large debt like the guy who owed 500 denarii—like the sinful woman, you can be forgiven as long as you love extravagantly. And if you don’t sin very much—have a small debt like the guy who owed 50 denarii—like Simon, you can be forgiven as long as you love a little. Love Jesus a little. Love others a little.
But this analogous way of looking for the meaning here. Well, it just doesn’t work, does it? I mean, who throughout the Gospels does Jesus accuse of not knowing him at all and of oppressing the people, of spiritual arrogance, of cruelty, of callousness? The Pharisees don’t even love him a little, do they? And what about Simon? What about him specifically?
I don’t detect a bit of love there at all, do you? A coldness, certainly. A discomfort. An attitude of let’s get this over with and get this possible prophet and his sinful female hanger-on out of here.
So now that the expected parallelism doesn’t hold up—now that reasoning by analogy isn’t exactly working for us—where do we go? How do we understand what Jesus says?
Well, let me ask you, who is the greater sinner in Jesus’s eyes at this dinner party? Is it the woman, or is it Simon, the Pharisee? This question is left hanging there, isn’t it? Unasked and therefore unanswered.
I recall what Jesus makes plain elsewhere. All the Law and the Prophets can be reduced to two commandments: love God, and love one another. Has Simon given evidence of being at all faithful to either? How about the woman?
Isn’t Jesus suggesting that much the greatest sin of all is not to love?
What Jesus doesn’t say hangs there in the silence, doesn’t it? And one of the things he doesn’t say is that he who is not forgiven at all loves not at all.
And what is love in this story? Is it repayment in any sense? Does it balance the scales, so to speak? Oh, no. No, this isn’t the woman’s motivation, is it? Balancing the scales? Seeking forgiveness? Something has come welling up out of her in response to Jesus. To his person. A something Simon doesn’t seem to have. Or won’t allow. Or doesn’t recognize for what it is. Or worse yet, he doesn’t recognize Jesus as the One to love.
And this welling up. There’s nothing calculated about this is there? Isn’t it reflexive? Isn’t it straight from the heart? And so the woman is not thinking that she’ll love Jesus and therefore be forgiven. She seems to have only. Only what? Only love for Jesus in her. Working powerfully in her. Through her. Out of her. Nothing calculating. Nothing Machiavellian. The opposite.
And Simon? Well as I say. I think he’d rather Jesus put an end to his embarrassment and leave. The last thing Simon wants is to be associated with a man who consorts with sinners. Even though he might be a prophet.
And so this dinner party. What is this? I mean, why would this Pharisee invite Jesus? An insurance policy, perhaps? This man might be a prophet, and if he is, wouldn’t it be wise to be on his good side? Maybe a chance to take a good look at him. A good look at him with both eyes and the eyes of all his friends. And if he isn’t, well. It’s only one evening wasted.
So for Jesus. This love business. Isn’t this everything? For him, isn’t love of God and love of one another the full meaning of this enterprise? This adventure? Is there anything else? Well maybe. There’s spreading the Gospel. There’s paying attention to the Holy Spirit. But these are redundant, aren’t they? Or intensives? Well maybe not. Maybe the Holy Spirit is the means of making real meaning possible. Real love possible. Real possible love. Now that Jesus is. Well. Sort of gone.