We all get surprises. We may be traveling the road of gospel living quite contentedly when we bump into something disturbing—a policy that doesn’t make sense to us, a doctrine that bothers us, a historical quirk that unsettles us, or a leader whose actions or positions we question. If we find ourselves wrestling with such concerns, we can learn a vital lesson about the one thing that matters most from Jesus’ experience with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).
When Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, the host’s disdain was obvious. He did not greet Jesus warmly. He did not embrace Him. He did not show even the fundamental signs of hospitality. After all, Simon had only invited Jesus to get a closer look at this man who was the talk of the town. How was a rough Nazarene with messianic dreams to be taken seriously?
Yet there was an unmistakable serenity about Jesus. Simon wondered if Jesus was just that clueless.
Simon led Jesus into the courtyard where his pharisaic colleagues were already seated. The crowd in the street tussled for position in the dusty street hoping to get a view of Jesus’ encounter with the local Pharisees. Simon was glad the rabble would see him best this popular street preacher.
The uncomfortable group was settling into the business of their midday meal when a commotion pushed through the crowd in the dusty street. There was shoving and shouting before a disheveled woman broke through. By her appearance and the crowd’s disdain, it was obvious that she was a woman held in low regard by the crowd.
The Pharisees gasped. The street rabble were not invited to the meal and a woman of her character was never welcome in any Pharisee’s presence!
The woman stumbled toward Jesus and fell at His feet weeping. She opened the one thing of value that she owned, an alabaster box of ointment. Her tears bathed His feet. She dried them with her hair. Then she anointed His feet with the precious oil. Jesus looked on her with gentle compassion.
The Pharisees were both horrified and delighted. They were horrified by the maudlin scene. They were delighted to see Jesus defiled by such a woman. If He had the least respect for the Law, He would not have allowed her to touch Him! The crowd stared wide-eyed at the battle between tradition and compassion.
As the woman adored Jesus, the Master turned to Simon to answer the accusation in his heart. “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.” Simon was curious how Jesus would justify His contamination.
Jesus told a story: “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”
Simon wondered what this rube was trying to say. “I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.” Simon did not recognize the trap. If the woman was the debtor who owed five hundred pence, he was the debtor who owed fifty. While her debt might have been burdensome, he was a debtor just the same. He also had need of forgiveness. (I wonder whether Simon was actually the greater debtor with His cool condescension and judgmental distance. His exacting rules were a poor substitute for a relationship with the Divine. )
Jesus answered Simon, “Thou hast rightly judged.” Jesus gestured to the humble woman and said to Simon, “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”
Jesus turned toward the rumpled woman. “Thy sins are forgiven.”
Simon and his buddies did not see the woman’s humility and earnestness or Jesus’ compassion or His graciousness. They saw only one thing: Jesus presumed to forgive sins! Who does He think He is?
Jesus then taught a great lesson to all who would learn it. He said to the woman, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
His message to the crowd, the Pharisees, the woman, and to us was clear. Regardless of the size of our debts, our devotion to Jesus, our love for Him and our faith in Him open the floodgates of His refreshing, renewing, and transforming grace.
Think about it. The woman who was famously a sinner was in better standing with God than the religious leader whom all revered.
The question that emerges from this story for each of us traveling the road of gospel living is whether we will be a Pharisee who judges Jesus, His message, His children, and His work or whether we will be a repenter who kneels at His feet offering heartfelt devotion to Him and His work.
We can’t do both. We must choose. And our choice determines our path.
How then does this become an instructive story for those of us who find ourselves dealing with concerns along our journey of discipleship? The vital lesson is that during troubling times, making the choice to put Jesus at the forefront of our lives changes our priorities and provides a path forward.
Let’s consider the analogy of marriage relationships. In any marriage, we encounter times when we are tempted to become annoyed or frustrated with our partner. I have found that when my relationship with, love for, and admiration of my wife Nancy are at the forefront of my mind and heart, then I respond productively during those times. Maybe I make the choice to ignore or minimize whatever it is that threatens to disrupt our relationship. Maybe I make the choice to focus on the many ways she blesses my life instead of upon a momentary frustration. I choose to honor the covenant we have entered into and the bond we have built. In contrast, if I choose to focus on my desire to have her act in ways that make sense to me, the relationship takes a backseat and I am likely to become judgmental and critical. Of course, that thought process would not be very helpful and would damage a covenant relationship that means everything to me.
Those same choices are before us during times when we question our covenant relationship with the Church. When we encounter a troubling policy, doctrine, historical episode or leader, we take our concerns seriously, but we should put our relationship with the Savior at the forefront of our minds and hearts.
We choose not to be like Simon focused on his narrow and rigid expectations. Instead, we choose to be like the woman in this story—focused on adoring Jesus.
Simon’s expectations were that holiness was to be found by following a severe and inflexible set of rules. Since Jesus did not adhere to Simon’s interpretation of doctrine, Simon became critical and judgmental of Jesus because Jesus emphasized saving people rather than categorizing or condemning them. Simon did not question his own assumptions. Because of that, he completely missed seeing that he was sitting in the presence of the Savior of the World. He was so caught up in his own critical viewpoints, he wasted the opportunity to be blessed and ministered to by the Redeemer.
We, too, tend to have our own expectations of what church policy, doctrine, history and leadership should look like. If we don’t perceive those expectations align with the reality we perceive, we might develop concerns. My core message is not to ignore those concerns. My core message is that during times of concern, we strengthen our relationship with Jesus. We work through our concerns with His guidance, rather than from a place of criticism and negativity. When He is at the forefront of our mind and heart, we have the right outlook to receive perspective, insight, and peace.
In contrast to Simon, the humble woman came to Jesus filled with faith and love. Her deepest desire was to connect with her Savior. As a result, she emerged from the encounter renewed and transformed.
If we come to Jesus filled with faith and love, He will transform and renew us as well. The one thing that changes everything is going to Jesus as our dearest Friend and only Hope.
While critical thinking and scholarship are important aspects of understanding and living the gospel, they cannot replace a relationship with the Savior. When we fill ourselves with His magnificence, His goodness, His grace, His doctrine, His story, we are changed. Rather than becoming preoccupied with doctrinal uncertainties, confusing aspects of history, or leaders who are not meeting all our expectations, we can turn in devotion to the one who saves us. We go boldly to “the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). We sit in His presence and receive His peace.
If you are interested in applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to finding greater happiness, a better marriage, or more effective parenting, I recommend my new book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. See Deseret Book or Amazon to purchase a copy for you or someone you love.
Abundant thanks to Barbara Keil who refined the message of this article.