"Grace: The Power to Transform"
Scripture – Luke 7:36-50
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 12, 2016

Today's text is a snapshot of an awkward incident at a dinner party. Several have gathered at the home of a respected man known for his devout nature. Identified only as Simon the Pharisee, he is hosting a dinner party for a handful of friends. And, to add a little zing to the affair, he has invited a special guest – a controversial rabbi. None other than you know who.

We are curious to know why Jesus has been invited. Perhaps Simon has heard all the buzz Jesus has spawned and desires a close encounter. Or, perhaps he has caught wind of some of Jesus' radical teachings and hopes to challenge him – perhaps embarrass him – in front of an audience. Whatever the reason, the evening fails to unfold as the host would have wished.

Before taking a closer look, we need to deconstruct one of our preconceived notions. Christians have become accustomed to hearing the word "Pharisee" and immediately slapping on the synonym "hypocrite." This is not the connection the original audience would have made.

When Luke says this man is a Pharisee, he is signaling that this is a devout man with impeccable moral standards. He is – as the Boy Scout oath states – "mentally awake and morally straight." Simon adheres to every scrupulous detail of the 613 laws in the Torah. "You shall not steal, kill, commit adultery or covet." Check. "Have no other gods, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother." Check. He not only obeys the law, but is such a stellar example of keeping it, that he welcomes being on display. I imagine that when he walked through the village, mothers would drag their sons over for a look and say, "I hope you will grow up to be like this fine man."

So, the highly esteemed Simon is entertaining guests in his home and with Jesus at the table, expectations are high. Yet the evening turns even more intriguing when a woman of the city described as a sinner enters the scene. She has learned that Jesus is dining at Simon's house and shows up with an alabaster jar of ointment.

In our day it would be strange for an uninvited guest to appear at a dinner party. But in first century Palestine, it would not be unusual for the host to leave his doors open allowing beggars and curiosity seekers to wander in.1

This woman is not a complete unknown because her sin is public knowledge. The implication is that she is a harlot. She represents the person whose sin is obvious – the mayor whose infidelity has been splashed across the front page of the paper; or the high school principal who has racked up three DUIs. There is no need to name the person's moral lapse, everyone knows.

It is readily apparent we have two people who represent the opposite ends of the moral spectrum. On one end, Simon the Saint; on the other end, Charlotte the harlot.

If you do not know the Jesus story very well you might expect him to point to Simon and say, "Here is an example for you to follow." Then, point to the woman and say, "This is not."

However, if you are familiar with Jesus, you are not surprised to find him tossing out convention and giving expectations a novel twist.

As the story unfolds, we discover that Simon is the perfect fit for Mark Twain's clever snippet regarding moral character. "He is a good man in the worst sense of the word." Simon is overly impressed with his personal credentials, he is blind to his own shortcomings, and he is harsh in his judgment of others.

The story is brief, but includes just enough details to make its point. Once all the guests are at the table, the woman with the jar of ointment appears. At the sight of Jesus, her tears flow. They are a mixture of sorrow and joy - sorrow for her behavior, joy for Jesus' forgiveness.

His feet would have been dirty from walking the dusty roads, so she uses her tears to rinse his feet clean. The elation she feels is so overwhelming that she cannot contain her emotions. She bathes his feet, she wipes them clean with her hair, she kisses his feet, and she anoints them with ointment.

The spectacle is too much for Simon. He points his finger at Jesus and says, "If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is that is touching him. She is a sinner!"

It would have been wonderful if at this point she would have approached Simon with her ointment. He would have recoiled in horror and fallen backwards out of his chair!

Simon's chief concern is his reputation. He wants to make it clear that he does not hang out with women of her ilk. But he over does it. He publicly shames her and is poised to cast her out of his house, when Jesus speaks up. He tells a mini-parable. "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?' Beginning to see where this is going, Simon stutters, 'I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.' And Jesus said, 'You have judged rightly.'

Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; that is why she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.'"

Simon's natural response to sin is to chastise. Jesus' natural response to sin is to forgive. Simon wants to punish. Jesus wants to transform.

The woman is all too familiar with her sin. A mountain of guilt weighs on her soul. That is why she cannot stop crying in the presence of Jesus. She takes to heart his forgiveness and in her liberation from her past, she pours out her love for him.

Simon is aghast at her behavior because he is blind to his own sin. He does not understand her effusive praise because he fails to recognize his own need for forgiveness.

However, Jesus does not allow Simon to remain so oblivious. Jesus points out that the woman has shown him great hospitality, but Simon the host, treated him rudely. Jesus makes it clear to everyone at the dinner that you can keep all the rules but still treat others with disdain.

Simon is fond of pointing out the sinfulness of others. Why? Because he hopes to puff up his own stock by making the comparison.

All of us know people whose primary way of conversing is to criticize others. For them, biting comments about someone else is as routine as talking about the Phillies. Sadly, most people who carp about others have no idea that making derogatory comments has become their default position. If you secretly taped their conversations and played them back for them, they would be horrified.

This portrait of Simon that Luke has painted prompts us to take a close look at ourselves and consider how often our comments about others are disparaging or uplifting. The next time you catch yourself making snide remarks, ask yourself why. How are you benefiting by cutting down someone else?

A piece of this story is a reminder that none of us is perfect. We all fall short of the ideal. However, that is not its central thrust. At its core, this is a story about forgiveness and second chances. It's about recognizing where we fall short so that we can embrace God's love for us and respond in new and beautiful ways.

Simon represents the human urge to condemn. He has honed his ability to highlight the failure in others. Yet, while Simon rushes to judgment, Jesus is slow to condemn and quick to forgive. Jesus peers beneath the surface into a person's character and sees a greater potential than we often see within ourselves.

Words are powerful. Judgmental words can be devastating. Routinely tell a person she never does anything right and she is likely to keep screwing up. Tell someone he does not measure up enough times, and he likely will fulfill the prophecy.

However, condemning words are not the only words that exert influence. Words of forgiveness can also carry great force. Generous words of affirmation can boost someone's confidence and unleash hidden potential.

Jesus' pardon and affirmation of the woman is reflected in Les Miserable when Jean Valjean, recently released from prison, steals the silver forks and spoons from a priest who has provided him shelter and food. The police capture Valjean with the stolen goods and drag him to the priest so that charges can be pressed. But the priest turns the tables when he says, "But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

This incredible act of grace transforms Valjean's life. Words of kindness rather than condemnation, unleash the potential within Valjean to live a life of honor. For the remainder of his life, his words and actions are motivated by a grateful heart. Having been touched by grace, he treats others with a generous spirit.

A friend remembers a moment in his childhood when his father said something that had a powerful impact on him that he has never forgotten. Their family "owned a cottage on a lake in Iowa and the family would spend their summers there. One day the whole family was sitting around the table and he was directly across from his dad. Something came up, over which he and his father disagreed. This was back in the day when disagreements between parents and children were not settled by negotiation but by parental decree. He said something to his dad, and his father responded, 'If you believe that you'll be a failure.' The cottage suddenly became very quiet. He shot back to his dad, 'Then I'll be a failure!' Nobody moved. The atmosphere was so tense that the boy expected the earth to open up and swallow him whole. He was looking directly at his father and almost immediately, he saw his dad's eyes shift. They softened. Looking at his son, the father said, 'No, you won't.' The whole cottage breathed a sigh of relief."

"If you asked my friend exactly what happened between the two of them, he cannot put it into words. But he knew in that instant, his father had given him a great gift – a gift he has drawn upon many times throughout his life."

"With those words 'No, you won't,' his dad swept away his son's youthful impetuousness and pride, swept away his anger, swept all that away because his father saw something deeper and better in him. Not only did he see it, but he lifted it up so that his son could see it as well."2

It was similar to what Jesus did for the woman in our passage. He saw beyond her failings to potentials the woman had not yet claimed. Can you remember a time when someone was generous in her evaluation of you? Can you recall a time when you were not at your best, and someone purposely peered beyond your shortcomings and highlighted your gifts? Such a moment provides a powerful urge to live into your strengths and to tap into your potential.

What would happen if all of us made it our intention to point to the great potential in each other?

I wonder what would happen.


  1. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 91.
  2. Laird Stuart, "God's Justice," June 16, 2013.


Prayers of the People ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson

Loving God, how lavishly you pour out the gift of your grace upon us. We give thanks that you claim us as beloved children, that you welcome us into your embrace, that you receive us home when we've strayed. We come to you now, bringing our joy and our fear, our hope and our sorrow. Hear the whisperings of our hearts, we pray...

We pray for this world that you love so tenderly, and lament the brokenness we see. We lift before you those weighed down by injustice, those who seek work, those who are hungry or homeless. We pray for neighborhoods torn by violence, and communities striving to rebuild. We pray for those who are grieving, and those lost to despair. This day we especially name before you the people of Orlando, and our whole nation, as we reel from another mass shooting, and we grieve this act of terror and the senseless loss of life. Have mercy on us, O God! Be present in the midst of pain and suffering that all for whom we pray may know peace, and comfort, and security.

We give thanks for glimpses of your Spirit at work in the world – in lives transformed or communities healed. We see you when hearts that are heavy dare to hope again; when people choose compassion over indifference; when a child is claimed as your child and welcomed into the family of faith.

We pray, O God, for the church – for all you have called into your service. We give thanks that your Spirit is at work among us, breathing into the Body of Christ, sustaining your disciples and empowering our witness. Help us to respond to your call with gratitude, with courage, with compassion, with limitless mercy, and with joy, so that we might take part in the transformation of your world. We lift these prayers in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together saying, Our Father...