Jesus, the Woman and the Pharisee
by Alan Crandall, Pastor of Care
“Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him . . . . When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that was Jesus eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:36-50).
Here’s a woman with a crumpled heart, and a Savior with a heart of mercy. Here’s a woman scorned by judgmental moralizers, but valued by Jesus. Here’s a disreputable, tainted woman who crashes an exclusive banquet for the upright, and Jesus honors her for it. She’s already fallen in love with the Galilean rabbi who unconditionally accepts shunned ones like her. Now she falls at the Savior’s dusty feet, and drenches them with tears of gratitude.
To fix an awkward situation she lets down her hair to dry those feet and anoints them with expensive perfume. Jesus tolerates her impulsive act, and the disgusted host condemns both Jesus and the woman. The Pharisee mutters, “Doesn’t he know what kind of woman is touching him?” Meanwhile, a sweet fragrance fills the room, permeating the senses of all those gathered around Simon’s table. Jesus tells his shocked companions that Mary loves much because she was forgiven much. Nobody, then or now, can miss the magnitude of her love for Jesus.
We have reason to think the forgiven woman is Mary Magdalene, who went on to join Jesus’ band of followers. She gave her time and treasure for God’s kingdom. Along with Jesus’ mother, this Mary was keeping watch near the cross when he died. She was the first to know Christ’s tomb was empty, the first to hear the risen One speak, the first to bear witness to his resurrection.
In this story, I identify with Simon the sanctimonious Pharisee. By nature, I’m conservative. I wear socks with my sandals and avoid bright colors. I’m in bed by ten and don’t like spending money. I steer clear of wild parties and people with questionable lifestyles. I have a four-drawer cabinet full of alphabetized theology notes to keep myself on the straight and narrow. I love boundaries.
Jesus is my friend, but he’s a problem for me. I mean the way he surrounds himself with cripples, misfits and scoundrels. People like Simon and me are restrained by common sense, but Jesus’s generosity goes to extremes. I’m cautious with my time, Jesus is extravagant. I keep a lid on love, he’s over the top. Simon and I believe in God’s grace, but Jesus goes overboard. Like a tsunami, his grace overruns all boundaries. He’s crazy. It’s love on steroids, and it makes me nervous.
Jesus’s compassion for lost ones is extravagant because he was sent by a God who passionately wills to heal every part of his broken creation. The God of Jesus is a Niagra Falls of inexhaustible mercy. He channels God’s irresistible love to everyone—rich/poor, Jew/Gentile, religious/irreligious, lovely/obnoxious, hero/schmuck, Simon the Pharisee and Mary the adulteress. Jesus is on a mission for God, backed by omnipotent Power that sooner or later reaches everywhere and penetrates everything.
This is clearly a story of three extremes: 1) the immensity of God’s grace to this woman, 2) the woman’s extravagant response, and 3) the explosive mission that resulted from this alchemy of grace and love. For short, let’s call these extremes Hyper-Grace, Hyper-Love, and Hyper-Mission (or H3).
The word hyper means “over” or “above” as in hyperactive or hypersonic. In the Bible it us used to describe the incomprensible greatness of God’s grace. The church is where Hyper-Grace (the experience of salvation) and Hyper-Love (the experience of Christian community) propel God’s people into Hyper-Mission (the experience of being God’s agents to transform everything).
Saul of Tarsus was once the sort of Pharisee who could line up with Simon in condemning a sinful woman. He was the strictest of the strict. His boundaries were tight. He was certain that Jesus was preaching heresy by granting divine mercy outside the Jewish law and temple regime. But one day while Saul was righteously persecuting the followers of an obviously “fake” messiah, Jesus himself appeared on the road and overwhelmed Saul’s stubborn unbelief.
Saul had always believed that God is gracious, for God’s loving-kindness is a theme found throughout the Torah. But for Saul, grace had to be “balanced” with Torah observance. The kind of grace Jesus offered, grace without works, grace without boundaries, seemed utterly insane to this pious Pharisee. Until, in a flash Saul realized that his supposed righteousness was like filthy rags, that his prideful goodness was the blackest evil. The very Torah that was supposed to reconcile him to God had made him the chief of sinners. Christ must save this wretched Pharisee by grace apart from law, by grace alone.
After that, Saul, re-named Paul, became a missionary to the far reaches of the Roman Empire and developed a special vocabulary to describe Christ’s redeeming work. He calls it “hyper-grace.” In science fiction, hyperspace is a faster-than-light, insanely fast, method of time travel. English Bibles translate “hyper” as “super-abundant,” “overflowing,” “incomparable,” and “immeasurable.” And this is not science fiction.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear him praying that people will be enlightened to know “the immeasurable (hyper-abundant) greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his great might . . . ” (1:19). He exults that God raised us up with Christ “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable (hyper-abundant) riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (2:7). He wants us to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses (hyper) knowledge . . . . who is able to do immeasurably (hyper) more than all that we ask or think, according to his power that is at work within us. . . .” (3:20-21; cf. Rom. 5:20-21).
Like the sinful woman, Paul recounts how he was once a hyper-blasphemer and persecutor of Christ’s followers, “but I received mercy . . . and the grace of our Lord (hyper) overflowed for me . . . . The saying is trustworthy . . . that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). For Paul, Jesus is the hyper-gracious Savior of hyper-sinners.
Too often, like Simon and Saul, we have a shrunken view of God’s grace. Although we felt overwhelmed by God’s mercy when we first became Christians, we’re doing quite nicely with our religion now, thank you very much, and we don’t need grace anymore. Consequently, our love for God is micro instead of hyper. Everything in moderation! We love little, because we are forgiven little. Our teensy-weensy sense of need for God generates micro-giving and micro-mission.
But we don’t need to despair. Jesus intends to transform all the big sinners like us. He did this for Simon by showing him how far his micro-love was from the mega-love of God. Then he, too, could repent of filthy self-righteousness and join Jesus’s community of unconditional grace. Simon couldn’t avoid the irresistible odor of love that filled the dining room that day. We have reason to believe he became part of Christ’s reconciling kingdom (that’s why his name is memorialized in Scripture).
I’m hoping we’ll all be swept along by God’s infinite grace in a community of crazy love that transforms our world into an unbelievable new creation. Let’s be extreme! Maybe if we trust Jesus to make us H3 Christians, “they’ll know we are (hyper) Christians by our (hyper) love.”
May you be a clown and a fool
in all that you give to the world.
May you love unreasonably,
wastefully and unjustifiably.
Let there be whimsy and improvisation in the grace of your gifts–
spontaneous, joyful, laughable and unpredictable.
Love weirdly in ways that surprise and subvert.
Stand before the calculus of this world
and be accounted a shock and an embarrassment,
the circus of your life a scandal among those with proper, tamer tastes.
May your love be wrong in all the ways that are right.