People in California were going about their lives this week, and then the earthquake came. It just happened. Just as men went to work this week and were called into the boss's office, and they sensed that the boss was a little uneasy and they were fired. It just happened. This lady went to her mailbox and she leafed through the mail, and found one from an attorney. It contained divorce papers. Somebody else this week got a phone call from a doctor, who was reporting the results of a loved one's it was malignant.
These things just happened. Lifejust happens. There are all kinds of things going on that you can do absolutely nothing about at all. They are totally outside your control. Of course, there are other things over which we have some control, but let's face it. Probably all of us could testify right now to circumstances that this week affected our lives and just happened.
Of course, we can simply conclude, Well, if life is just going to happen, I guess the thing to do is just let it happen. Nothing I can do about it. Just be as much of a stoic as you can and just assume that "che sarÃ , sarÃ " is the way to go, and just drift. The problem with that, of course, is that it isn't just that life happens but it is that there is something inside us that has a tendency to make things happen badly. If we simply allow life to happen and allow this inner bias that we have to happen as well, all kinds of problems can develop in our lives.
Anyway, the Bible tells us that while there is no question that life happens, we are responsible to live wisely and well while our life is happening. Now, the question is, Where do we find out what to do while our life is happening? The answer to that, of course, is from the Word of God. We find out what to do from the Word of God, which presupposes we have a high regard for it, we take the trouble to learn it, and having learnt it because we have a high regard for it, we are obedient to it and we mix it with faith. That's what we do while life is happening.
We're to start in the Word of God. If you're talking about the teachings of Jesus, some of his simplest and most powerful teaching is found in his parables.
Jesus had dinner with Simon the Pharisee.
Let me set the scene for you.
First of all, there's an invitation from Simon the Pharisee to Jesus to come and have dinner. There's something rather unusual about this; there was no meeting of minds between the Pharisees and Jesus, simply a butting of heads. The Pharisees had started out as earnest people. The term Pharisee gives you the clue. It means separated ones. They were so concerned about the drift in their society and they would have nothing to do with it. They stood against it, and they tried to turn things around. They understood that the law of Moses was the way to go, and they were careful to obey it as best they could.
In fact, so careful were they to obey the law of Moses that they wanted it to be amplified. Basically the law of Moses said to love the Lord your God with all your heart and might and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. That was basically it. Now, Moses had given them ten ways to love God and love their neighbors. However, that wasn't enough for the Pharisees. They were so intense on insuring that they kept the law; they did not want to break it inadvertently.
Let me give you an example. One of the aspects of the law that would help them show that they loved God was that they would remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. They would set aside one day in seven for the Lord. By doing that they would be saying, "Lord, look how much we love you. We're going to turn away from all the other legitimate things, and this is your day." Now, the question that some of them asked was, "Well, okay, how do we keep the Sabbath day holy?" The rabbis came back and said, "You don't do any work." So some of them said, "Well, what exactly constitutes work?" The idea seems to have been that the expenditure of energy constituted work.
So the Pharisees said, "How would you measure the expenditure of energy? You have to expend some. How much is legitimate?" So they said, "Well, you should not walk too far." They said, "How far is too far?" They said, "Well, in the Old Testament there was a law that the Holy of Holies should be situated two thousand cubits from the nearest habitation. Therefore, presumably it was legitimate for people to walk two thousand cubits to worship. Therefore, on the Sabbath day you must not walk more than two thousand cubits (three thousand feet, one thousand yards)." So one thousand yards, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, became a Sabbath day's journey. That was as far as you could go.
Now, remember the point of this was, how do we show we love God? Answer: Keep the Sabbath day holy. Now, they have got this thing down to such a fine art that you showed you loved God by not walking more than a thousand yards on a Sabbath day. Then the problem was that they began to watch each other to make sure nobody was going a thousand and one. They began to measure it to make sure that they weren't going more than a thousand yards. Now remember, the intent originally was to love God. But the means to this end had become an end in themselves.
Then matters got worse. Some of the people said, "A thousand yards isn't much, and we have a lot of things we need to do. Is there anything we can do about this?" So the rabbis said, "Well, yes. What we could do is decide that you don't measure from your house, but you measure from the border of your city. So that will give you a few more yards." Well, that was great, but then some folks came and said, "Is that the best you can do for us?" They said, "Well, no. What you can do if you really want to is on the day before the Sabbath get some food, take it a thousand yards, put it under a rock, and we will regard that as your domicile; so that on the Sabbath you can walk there and you're still in your house, and you can measure from there."
Now this may sound ridiculous. It may sound amusing. It's called religion. It's amazing how people can start out with a view to love God and love their neighbors as themselves, and if they are interested and serious and earnestand praise God for interested, earnest, serious peoplehow they have a tendency to get more and more meticulous about it till in the end they lose track completely of loving God and people. Now that's what happened to the Pharisees.
The Lord Jesus pointed this out to them, and they were not happy about that. He simply went back to the original thing and showed them what it really meant to love God and love people, and he actually told them that they were into rank hypocrisy. He said, in effect, there's nothing new about this and he quoted the prophet Isaiah to them. "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men" (Isaiah 29:13). Now, you can understand how Jesus exposing their hypocrisy, exposing the hard shell of their religion and the soft underbelly that lacked real love for God and people was not popular with the Pharisees. Therefore, it was rather surprising that the Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner.
What was Simon the Pharisee's motive? Was he wanting a confrontation? Was he going to put the young preacher right? Was he interested in reconciliation? Was he saying, "Look, butting our heads is not going to get us anywhere. Let's agree to disagree"? Was he expressing genuine spiritual concern? In all fairness to the Pharisees, many of them did. We'll never know because then there was a remarkable intrusion.
A promiscuous woman poured perfume on Jesus' feet, wept, and kissed his feet.
Let me set the scene for you again. It was normative in those days when there was a dinner party for people to recline on cushions on the floor at a low table. They would recline on their left sides with their feet facing away. They would prop themselves up on their left elbows, and they would eat with their right hands. It was also customary in those days for there to be many servants; and if there was a celebrity coming to dinner, the servants would bring their families and friends to watch the celebrity eat. So you'd have a crowd of people standing around, looking through the windows.
On this particular occasion while Jesus is in the Pharisee's house, in the crowd is a woman with an unsavory reputation. She's called a sinner. It's a very specialized term, meaning she is known for her sexual promiscuity. She is either a adulterous or the town prostitute. To everybody's amazement this woman comes from the crowd, stands at the feet of Jesus, takes the alabaster container of perfume suspended around her neck, which women wore as ornaments, she took it and she broke it and she poured it over his feet and seemed so overcome with this action that she burst into tears. Terribly embarrassed about this, she began to wipe the tears and the perfume off his feet with her hair. Would you believe? Then she fell down, and in an act of abject submission and gratitude, she began to kiss his feet.
We've set the scene. Now let's examine the events.
The first thing we need to notice is Jesus' intuition. Simon the Pharisee, it says in the text, said to himself, If this man were a prophet he would know who this woman is and he would know what kind of a woman she is. Now we see Simon cogitating about his cynicism and his skepticism. We know that he has a low view of Jesus. He suspects that he isn't a prophet, and now he's got proof for his presuppositions.
Here's the intuition. It says in our text, "Jesus answered him." I love it. He hasn't said anything, but Jesus answers him anyway. So the Lord Jesus says to Simon, "May I tell you a story?" Here we come to an illustration. Simon is gracious. He says, "Tell on, Teacher," the word teacher being a courteous term. So Jesus tells his story.
Simon, there was a moneylender and this moneylender had two clients, one of whom borrowed from him five hundred denarii and the other fifty denarii. Unfortunately, both of them fell on hard times economically, and to their chagrin were unable to repay their debt; so they went to the moneylender, where they got the most incredible response. The moneylender said he would cancel their debt.
Now, let's make sure we understand what's going on here. You probably haven't found many denarii in your pay as of late. A denarius was the wage for one day's work for a laboring man. Given that, they worked six days a week, which would amount to about three hundred denarii a year. Five hundred denarii, therefore, is twenty months' labor. That's debt. Figure out how much you earn in twenty months and decide whether you'd want to go to a moneylender, who would rip you off at exorbitant rates. You would say I would have to be in deep financial straits to do that. The other one it was just two months, nowhere near as bad. In other words, these two clients are really in trouble.
Notice also that when it says the moneylender canceled the debt, the words used are, he forgave them, for to forgive is basically to cancel a debt. But remember, when the moneylender realizes that he's not going to get his money back, he has to bear the cost himself. That's the essence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just saying, "Forget it"; forgiveness is saying, "I no longer hold you responsible and I will assume the loss myself."
So Jesus tells his story. Then he begins an interpretation. He says, "Simon, let me apply this little story, just in case you haven't already done so. Simon, who do you feel of those two people would be the most grateful and would express their loving gratitude to the moneylender the most?" Simon rather reluctantly says, "Well, I guess the one who was forgiven most would love most." He said, "You're absolutely right.
"Now then, Simon, let me point something out to you. When I arrived here today at your invitation for dinner, I was rather surprised not to be greeted by you with the customary kiss on the cheek. Not only that, no servant came to the door with a bowl of water and a towel for me to wash my feet. Not only that, but it was rather unusual that you did not bring the customary oil for me to anoint my head. In other words, Simon, [as they would say today in America] you didn't come to the door, you didn't shake my hand, and you didn't show me where I could hang my coat and freshen up. In fact, you weren't anywhere to be seen.
"Now then, Simon, in marked contrast to that, you didn't give me a bowl of water to wash my feet. This woman has been washing my feet with her tears. You gave me no ointment to anoint my head. She poured perfume on my feet. You did not welcome me with a kiss. However, she has been consistently, persistently kissing my feet.
"Simon, do you get the point? This woman made an exaggerated, expressive exhibition of love. I didn't see anything from you, Simon. Yet you criticize her? Simon, has it ever dawned upon you that those who really understand the wonders of forgiveness are the ones who demonstrate loving gratitude? Simon, I wonder. Could it be that the reason that you are expressing so little love for me is that you have little concept of your need for forgiveness and the forgiveness that I have to bring you?"
He then turns to the woman and he says, "Woman, I want you to know something. Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven. I want you to go away in peace. I also want you to know that I deeply appreciate your expressions of gratitude."
There's the story.
Jesus told this parable to teach some lessons.
Now then, are there any lessons we can learn from this? Always remember, Jesus told stories that we might learn some simple lessons. Here's the first lesson we can learn from this story.
There are different kinds of sins because there are different kinds of sinners. It is perfectly obvious according to our story that Simon needs to be forgiven. It is equally obvious that the woman needs to be forgiven. But there's no similarity between their lifestyles. The one is a reprobate; the other is highly respectable. Which leads us to a very simple conclusionthere are two kinds of sins and two kinds of sinners. There are reprobate sins committed by reprobate sinners, and there are respectable sins committed by respectable sinners.
Now, that's a hard lesson for us to learn. You see, the thing that Simon didn't grasp and the thing that so many people don't grasp is thisif you live your life according to socially acceptable norms, it does not mean you are in the clear with God. Granted, there are some people who have made an incredible mess of their lives, but that does not mean that those who haven't destroyed their lives to this extent are guiltless.
I was watching the lava flow out of Mt. Etna the other day on television. I thought to myself, volcanoes are very interesting. They are mountains with a crust that are full of molten lava. Sometimes the crust is so strong and so thick that he molten lava is kept inside; but sometimes cracks and fissures form in the crust, and the molten lava will flow out.
Now, if you'll pardon the illustration, we're like volcanoes. There's a certain crust to our lives. There's a conformity in our lives. But inside the crust of conformity of our lives is a molten mass called sinin all of usthe Pharisee and the prostitute, all of us. If that is hard for us to understand, it is because we don't understand that sin is not initially action against people; sin is initially attitude towards God. There is in all of us a molten mass of independence of God and disobedience to God.
Now, the crust may be such in some of our lives that the lava rarely bursts out, but there will be times when it will. Sometimes a little religious crack will form in our thick religious crust, and guess what will come out? Lavaa flow of pride; an unforgiving flow; an unloving attitude; an independent attitude toward God; a polite, socially acceptable disobedience to God; unresolved anger. You could have a list as long as your arms of socially acceptable lava flows.
It just depends what has happened to you, as to the kind of crust you have. Where the cracks develop depends on what has happened to you. But the crust and the cracks are not important; the lava is.
I wonder what made Simon the Pharisee a Pharisee. My guess is he probably was born in a pharisaic family. I wonder what made the woman we spoke of sexually promiscuous. I don't know. Maybe she was abused as a child. Maybe she had a desperate and longed for acceptance. Or it could conceivably be that her husband had announced that he was divorcing her and had thrown her out on the street, and prostitution was her only way of making a living. I have no idea. But something had happened to her that had caused certain cracks to appear in her crust, which meant that the lava that flowed out of the Pharisee one way, flowed out of her in another way.
If there's one lesson we can learn from this story it is this: There's a wide variety of sins because there's a wide variety of sinners. But the one thing we all have in common is that inner sinful attitude towards God, which needs to be forgiven.
The second lesson we can learn from the story is thisGod in Christ is prepared to forgive our sin, whether it is of the reprobate variety or the respectable variety. He's prepared to forgive our sin the way the moneylender forgave the people who couldn't repay himby assuming the debts himself. That costly cross is the point.
Another lesson we can learn from this story is that the only way you receive forgiveness is by faith. "Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven." We cannot earn our forgiveness. The moneylender offers it at great cost by himself, and we accept it with humble hands.
The next lesson we can learn from the story is thisthat those whose sins are forgiven are commanded to go in peace. They are commanded to go away from that experience of forgiveness with that great load of guilt and shame lifted from their shoulders; so they now no longer need to pretend and be paranoid. They can simply be openly, thankfully saying what they are. I am a sinner saved by grace, nothing more and nothing less. Like the clergyman seeing the man taken to the gallows in England centuries ago, they simply look at other people and say, "There but for the grace of God go I."
The final thing we notice about this story is that it teaches us that it is perfectly understandable and appropriate that those who understand gracious forgiveness find within them a tremendous upsurge of gratitude, which expresses itself sometimes in extravagant and sometimes expensive ways, but always expresses itself.
When I was in banking years ago, a friend of mine said to me one day, "Stuart, I never go to the church because the church is like a banker's banquetcold and correct, decorous and dead." I said, "Often you're right, and I'll tell you why. Often in the church there are people like you who don't understand your sin and have no perception of forgiveness." If I don't understand the immensity of my sin, respectable as it is, religious as it has been, and it has not been reprobate; if I don't understand my capacity for independence, if I don't understand my capacity for disobedience, I don't understand myself. If I don't understand my sin, there's no way I can understand the incredible grace of God in forgiving me. If I don't understand that, how will I be grateful? I will simply be cold and correct, decorous and dead, adhering to a religious system without any expressive love to the Lord Jesus at all.
It's a simple story, but a powerful one. It tells us what to do while our life is happening. It tells us to be grateful.
Stuart Briscoe has served as pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin since 1970. His radio broadcast Telling the Truth is heard daily in many parts of the world.