This time of year feels like one continuous holiday. It seems we go from trick-or-treat to turkey to tree decorating at break-neck speed. Lost in the holiday trifecta of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas is another important day. Reformation Day commemorates the religious reform movement initiated by Martin Luther. The Reformation began when Luther nailed “The Ninety- Five Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Many reasons are offered for Luther’s bold move, such as the sale of indulgences, widespread corruption in the priesthood, nepotism in church leadership, and the growing gap between clergy and laity.
However, Luther’s desire for reform was more existential than the reasons listed above. His motivation for Reformation was directly linked to his personal feelings of guilt and inadequacy. He believed that the Church had neglected a central tenet of the Gospel, justification by faith alone. He had a deep awareness of his own sinfulness and knew that he needed forgiveness. He found the system of confession and penance inadequate.While serving as a monk, he practiced confession so often that the priest hearing him is rumored to have told him: “Either find a new sin and commit it or quit coming to see me.”
One of the most significant moments of history stemmed from one man’s acknowledgment of his sin and his earnest desire for true, genuine forgiveness. Though many try to deny it, we all know deep down that we are inadequate, that we are failures, and that we are unable to meet God’s standards. The Greek word for sin used throughout the New Testament is hamartia, an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” Even the best archers only hit the bulls-eye occasionally; so the idea is that God’s standard is so stringent that our best efforts often miss the mark. However, it is actually worse. The Bible teaches that we are so misguided that we stop aiming for the mark. We will shoot our arrows at the wrong targets, and we will take aim at others.
This paints a fairly grim picture. We have no desire to do good (Romans1:21ff). And, even if we change our minds and want to please God, our best efforts miss the mark (Romans 3:23). Now, we understand why we need Jesus as Savior and Forgiver. Our deepest need is forgiveness, and God sent his Son to fulfill that need. We can not make ourselves right, but we can accept the One who can. Pop-culture philosophy says “You just need to forgive yourself.” The Gospel says “You need Someone to forgive you.”
Jesus’ forgiveness is extensive and all-inclusive. Even those directly responsible for inflicting the pain of the cross were pardoned by the dying Christ. If He could forgive those who lashed his back, nailed his hands, and spat in his face, there are none of us that are beyond hope. Paul puts it beautifully in Colossians 2:13 “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” My deepest longing and most felt need is forgiveness, and I am so thankful that God sent the Great Forgiver.
Luke 7:36-50 presents a story that personifies the principle of forgiveness and shows us the only barrier to receiving Jesus’ forgiveness is thinking that we don’t need it.The first character in the story is the Pretentious Simon, a Pharisee who tediously kept the religious rituals and tended toward self-righteousness. He hosted a dinner party and invited Jesus to attend. The meal was served in an open courtyard where the invited guests reclined to eat and the uninvited guests stood close by to listen to the dinner conversation.This was quite common when rabbis visited homes. The important people of the community had a seat at the table, while others would gather to glean the wisdom of the traveling teachers.
The counterpart to Pretentious Simon is the Penitent Sinner. Her reputation preceded her. Everyone knew her as a notorious sinner; most likely, she was a prostitute. She showed incredible courage by showing up to the dinner party. Our love for Jesus often propels us into places where the fear of man would otherwise prohibit us.
In Jesus’ days, there were three common acts of hospitality offered to visitors. First, the host would kiss the guest. It was the equivalent of the modern-day handshake, a warm greeting that expressed friendship and gratitude for the guest’s visit. Secondly, the host would offer the guest either perfume or oil to freshen them up after the long journey. Finally, the host would offer to wash the guest’s feet. The dusty roads left the traveler’s sandaled feet dirty. The oil and the foot-washing would make the guest feel clean and comfortable for the duration of his stay.
The Woman probably had no intention of crashing the party and causing a scene. She likely came only to hear Jesus’ message of hope and forgiveness, to see Him for herself, to spend time in the presence of the One who had the power to change her life. However, her role shifted from observer to participant when she noticed the dishonor directed toward Jesus. The host of the party, Pretentious Simon, withheld the most common of courtesies from her rabbi. He offered no kiss, no oil, and no foot-washing. Jesus, the supposed guest of honor, would now recline to eat with parched skin and dirty feet. She could not let this happen. He meant too much to her. If Simon would not honor Jesus, she would have to. There was probably a moment of trepidation as she pondered parading in front of the pious. However, our love for Jesus often propels us into places where the fear of man would otherwise prohibit us.
She took inventory of what she had to bring Jesus honor. Her lips could provide the kiss that Simon withheld. She didn’t have a bucket of water, but she had a reservoir of grateful tears. She had no towel, but her long hair would suffice. In the first century, Jewish women often carried a vial of perfume around their neck. Even though it was good enough for her face, she gladly used it on Jesus’ feet. Maybe, she realized that her acts were taboo and had a sexual overtone. But, our love for Jesus often propels us
into places where the fear of man would otherwise prohibit us.
Simon was offended that his party had been commandeered by such a sinful woman. 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.” The Pharisee not only thinks himself better than the woman; he thinks himself better than Jesus! Jesus quickly showed that he was indeed a prophet because he read Simon’s mind. He told a brief parable where two constituents owed a debt to the king. One had a relatively small debt, and one had a relatively large debt. But, both were equally forgiven. He asks Simon which of the debtors would love the king more, and Simon reticently admits that it would be one with the bigger debt.
The story ends with Pretentious Simon shamed in front of his guests and the Penitent Sinner honored and forgiven. From Jesus’ perspective, the prostitute was greater than the Pharisee. The woman was told that she could “Go in peace,” while Simon was left in his self-righteous turmoil. Jesus came so that we all could be forgiven for all of our sins. The only people that don’t receive God’s forgiveness are those that don’t realize they need it.
My prayer is that we always resemble the Penitent Sinner more than we do the Pretentious Simon. Our deepest need is forgiveness. May we come to Jesus pitifully, and leave peacefully. And may we always love Jesus much.