All my life I’ve tried to do the right thing. I listened to my parents (for the most part). I paid attention when my teachers were talking. I didn’t nick fruit from the farmers’ market. I didn’t squelch on my chores. It always bothered me when the other guys talked about women like they were there for the taking. Like I said, I always tried to do the right thing.
Most of all, I’ve always had a hunger for God’s teachings. From the very beginning, when my grandfather told the stories of Adam and Abraham, Moses and David, something stirred within my heart. I learned countless psalms by heart so that I could sing them as I walked along the road or worked on my grandfather’s farm.
As I grew into a man, I began to spend more and more of my time in serious study of the Bible. I became more and more serious about doing exactly what God teaches us to do. I longed to prove myself to God as faithful follower.
God’s ways are so beautiful and so good. They have captured my heart. Sure, God’s way is demanding, but isn’t that the point? If it was easy, everyone would do it. As it is, God’s blessings are reserved for those who are willing to work for them. At least, that’s what I’ve always believed.
Like I was saying, I’ve always had this hunger for God’s Word. I’ve made it a habit to listen to all of the great teachers. God’s Word is so deep and so profound that I don’t think we will ever get to the bottom of it. We’ve always got to keep learning.
About 10 years ago, word started to spread that there was a new teacher who had all these fresh perspectives on God’s ways in our world. He taught from the same Bible, but the word on the street was that he was able to get at the heart of it more than anyone in recent memory. Some said he was the greatest preacher in our generation. Others said he might even be a real-deal prophet, like in the olden days.
The truth is that he was a rather controversial character. He was ... um ... unconventional. He challenged some of our long standing traditions and called out some national leaders as fakes. But he put on such humble appearance that many wondered if he himself was a fake. Some people said he was just one more socialist in a long string of power-to-the-people types.
But I wasn’t willing to be put off by other people’s criticisms. Reformers are always unwelcome - especially for the people who need to be reformed! I wanted to see him for myself. I wanted to ask a few of my own questions and to see him with my own eyes. If he was a real teacher or even a real prophet, I wanted to learn everything I could from him. At the very least, I figured we’d have some interesting discussions.
So I invited the teacher to come to my house for dinner and conversation. I also invited many of my friends - especially those who were also serious about living God’s way. Some of them weren’t necessarily excited about sitting down with a controversial teacher, but maybe they came for the sake of curiosity, that and the off-hand chance that this guy might be for real.
So we were all gathered together for the meal, and it was a real feast, with several appetizers, fruit and cheese trays, a main course, and then tea and dessert. I wanted to make sure that we would have plenty of time for a nice long conversation. (And of course, I wanted everyone to think well of me for hosting such an excellent meal.) It was a beautiful night, and we were relaxing at the table, leaning on our cushions in the style of our day.
Some people of the neighborhood had gathered in the courtyard of my house to kind of listen in and maybe to get a bit of the food passed their way after it was removed from the main table. I didn’t take any offense to that. To tell you the truth, I was honestly happy that they had come. A large crowd was both an honor and an opportunity to show my generosity.
As the dinner progressed, I began to feel pretty good about myself. This was shaping out nicely. This big-name preacher was here in my house and had created quite the buzz. His take on the Bible was quite astute. He definitely knew it inside and out. So far, he hadn’t said anything to make even my most conservative friends uncomfortable. The dinner was going perfectly.
Then, everything fell to pieces. I heard some strange mumbling among the people nearest the door. Some movement caught my eye. To my horror, I saw the town prostitute enter the room ... into my house ... to my table. Oh, this was terrible. This was a disgrace. Would people think I had some kind of relations with this awful woman?
What happened next seemed to surprise everyone. This sleazy hooker knelt down behind this famous preacher. Why him? Of all my guests, why him? I wondered if some of my enemies had paid her to do this. Were they standing in the streets laughing into their sleeves at my disgrace? Were they cackling among themselves about how I could never rescue my house from this shame?
Things went from bad to worse. She started to cry - not just a few tears running down the cheeks. She started to cry buckets. She was raining her sin-infected tears all over the preacher’s feet. God only knows what she was thinking. Her body was shaking and tears were pouring out of her just as if she’d poured a cup of water out on his feet. Then, she seemed to have noticed that she was getting the preacher wet, so she took down her hair and tried to dry off the tears ... with her hair!
Now, I had heard that this controversial preacher was a “friend of sinners,” but nothing prepared me for this. This went beyond all propriety - way beyond all moral bounds. A woman was not even supposed to touch a man in public, and her hair was a private treasure of her husband. A good woman would keep her hair tied tightly at all times outside her own home. Of course, she was anything but a “good woman,” but none of us had ever seen a woman act like this.
As if all of this was not enough, she made it a full-blown social scandal. She took out a jar of extremely expensive perfume, and she proceeded to give him a personal foot massage complete with unlimited kisses on his feet - right there in front of God and everybody. Gasps went throughout the crowd. We were horrified. This was ... this was ... obscene!
Well, I decided right then and there that there was no way in God’s creation that this guy was a prophet. If he was a real prophet of God, he would know who this woman was. He would know that she was a slut! He would know, and he would tell her to get away from him. If he were a prophet, he would not allow himself to be defiled by her. If he were a man of God, he wouldn’t just sit there and let her rub her sin all over him. No way. No way at all. This man was far from a prophet. No matter what he said, no matter how slick his words were, there was no way this man could ever speak for God.
I have spent the rest of my life thinking about what happened next. In all of my many years, those next few moments have changed me more than anything else.
Jesus, the famous preacher, looked at me and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” The sinful woman was still there kissing and crying and massaging his feet, making a fool of herself and insulting us all.
I looked at Jesus, and I thought that nothing could make this night any worse, so I might as well hear what he has to say. “Go ahead, Teacher. I’m listening.”
Then, he started telling this story, and my first thought was: “You’ve got a woman from the streets crying behind you and rubbing her lusty perfume all over your feet, and you want to stop to tell me a story?! You are off kilter, dude. Your elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top, preacher man.”
But he keeps on with his story. It was pretty simple, and I’ve fairly well got it memorized, since the scene keeps replaying in my mind all the time. “There were these two men who both owed money to a banker. One of them owed 500 pieces of silver, and the other one owed 50. But neither one could pay up, so the banker cancelled both their debts. Which one would be more grateful?”
And I’m thinking, “Bankers, debts, who cares?! You are being defiled right here before our eyes. Your reputation and mine are sinking to the gutter, and you want to tell a story about some losers who couldn’t pay their debts?” But I pushed those thoughts to the side, and I decided to continue to play his game - whatever his game was. “I suppose the one who was forgiven the larger debt would be more grateful.”
Then, Jesus piled insult upon injury. He turned away from me and looked at the woman at his feet. He looked at her, but he was speaking to me. He said, “Do you see this woman here?”
Duh! Everyone saw that woman there. Try as we might, we couldn’t NOT see her!
Then, he began to cut into my heart. Jesus’ words were like knives cutting away all my defenses, removing all the shields and barriers that protected my inner self from the outside world. Jesus exposed my naked self.
“I am in your home as your guest, but she is acting as the host. You are playing the role of great hospitality, but yours is hollow. Hers is real. You fed me a big meal, but you left my feet dirty and dusty from the walk over. When I arrived, you didn’t give me the customary kiss of greeting, but she can’t stop kissing my feet. You offered me nothing to help me freshen up after walking in the heat, but she has willingly covered my feet in expensive perfume - filling the whole house with the aroma of her love.
“You sit there and judge her because of her history. Yes, I know all about her past. I know all about her sins, but they are forgiven. We all know how bad her record was, but her slate has been wiped clean. She has been given a fresh start, and that’s why she’s here. She is grateful. Forgiveness fuels her love. Extravagant forgiveness leads to extravagant love. Minimal forgiveness leads to minimal love.”
That was the pivot point of my life. My life folds like a book on that moment.
Before that moment, I was proud and sure of myself. I was sure that Jesus didn’t know who that woman was. I was sure that I was better than him (and better than most other people, too). I was sure that Jesus was NOT a prophet and surely didn’t have anything valuable to teach me. I was more sure than ever of my own righteousness - even if these two had brought me into an unfortunate scandal. I was already thinking of ways to reestablish my public integrity.
After that moment, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is a prophet of the most high God. First of all, Jesus had looked into my heart and read my thoughts. He saw me more clearly than I saw myself. I had accused of him of not knowing who the sinful woman was, but the real truth was that I didn’t even know my own self. Jesus knew who she was, and he knew who I was, too.
Secondly, Jesus showed that he understood the depths of God more than any of us had ever imagined. At heart, the one true God is a God of mercy. Just as David sang many years ago, “The sacrifice [God desires] is a broken spirit. [God] will not reject a broken and repentant heart” (Psalm 51:17).
I have thought and thought about this beautiful disaster of a dinner. I have tried to figure out what led this woman here to my house to offer such an outrageous sign of love. She was obviously a woman with a bad history. Everyone in town knew that she made her living through sexual favors, and apparently she was quite good at it. She must have spent a small fortune on that perfume.
Obviously, this was not the first time she had met Jesus. She was deeply grateful to him for something. As the scandal hit the rumor mills, some people said that Jesus had saved her from stoning. Others said that Jesus had set her free from the oppression of demons. Still others said that she was simply a prostitute trapped in her profession until Jesus showed up.
Jesus had this amazing habit of loving every single person he saw. And this amazing love gave people strength and hope. Jesus’ love and unconditional forgiveness gave them hope that they could “change their stars” - to put it in pagan terms. Jesus’ love somehow connected them with God’s love, and that changed their lives.
Knowing God’s ultimate forgiveness seems to set people free to become the people they were originally created to be. Forgiveness on that deep level causes an inner revolution. It changes people. They aren’t stuck. They don’t have to prove anything to other people. They are loved. They know it deep in their bones, and that love makes them free.
I spent weeks and months and years thinking about this sinful woman’s great experience of forgiveness and great outpouring of love. I thought about Jesus’ words: “Extravagant forgiveness leads to extravagant love.”
And always, always, I remembered Jesus next words that burst like a bomb within my heart: “Minimal forgiveness leads to minimal love.” Minimal is the worst possible criticism for one who is called to: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” God calls for our maximal love. God asks for everything.
And I’ve been trying to give God everything. Like I said, I’ve always tried to do the right thing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more serious about doing the right things in the right ways at the right times. I keep the rules. All the time.
Yet, Jesus’ simple story and explanation revealed the hollow truth of who I am. I’ve been trying to prove myself to God. I’ve been trying to earn God’s love by giving him my sacrificial obedience. I’ve been trying to show God how good I am so that he will accept me ... so that others will accept me ... so that I can accept myself. I have stood in my religious house, wearing my religious clothes, reading my religious texts, judging everyone who is less religious, less disciplined, less holy, less together. I maximized others’ faults and minimized my own.
All my life I have gone through all of the religious experiences of forgiveness. I go to the Temple. I give my offerings and sacrifices. I sing of God’s mercy. I listen as the priests announce God’s forgiveness for his people. But it was all ceremony. It was all outside, not inside. I knew it in my head but not in my heart. After all these years of religion, I still did not believe deep in my heart that God forgives me.
But through that short moment with Jesus, I saw that God accepts me just as I am. God has this unlimited forgiveness that is available to every person who has ever breathed. There is only one condition: unconditional acceptance. The only condition for receiving God’s unlimited forgiveness is that we accept it freely. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it. We can’t build up to it. It is radical. It’s extravagant. The truth is it’s scandalous. God’s amazing grace is the same for prostitutes and preachers, crooks and monks. God loves us all. God forgives us all.
Oh, how many times I have wanted to replay that dinner at my house. Of course, I would show Jesus hospitality from the depths of my heart - with a warm embrace and a kiss. I would gladly wash his feet myself. I would give him the best perfume money can buy. But most importantly, when that sinful woman came in, I would welcome her as a guest of honor. She is another who is loved by our extravagant God. I would sit with her next to Jesus and say, “Here is one like me.”