Turning the Tables on Pass/Fail Religion

In Luke 7:36–50, Jesus turns over the tables on “pass/fail” religion.

In pass/fail religion, the world is divided between those who are passing and those who are failing. In other words, good people pass and bad people fail. In this system, good people deserve to be rewarded with a good life while bad people deserve to receive coal and ashes.

This is how the New Testament Jewish sect called Pharisees viewed the world, diving people into two groups. Those who were passing and those who were failing. The good and the bad. Those deserving of blessing and the rest, who were deserving of judgment.

In their estimation of what it took to pass, Pharisees were sure that they had easily cleared the threshold.

In their eyes, they were “the good” people.

In Luke 7:36–50, one of these Pharisees, a man named Simon, invites Jesus over for dinner.

It is during this dinner that Jesus blows up Simon’s understanding of religion, showing us that the Christian message is not about good, deserving, righteous people (those who “pass’) being rewarded but is about bad, undeserving, unrighteous people (those who “fail”) receiving mercy.

If we repeated that statement five-hundred times every day, it would not be too much.

Because we forget. At least I forget.

There just seems to be something hardwired into the nature of humanity that causes us to operate on a pass/fail basis, where, depending on my moral aptitude that particular day, I feel like God either is smiling upon me approvingly or frowning upon me with disgust.

The result of that mindset is that I will swing back and forth between moral self-loathing when I fail to a sense of moral self-righteousness when I feel like I am passing.

The problem is that neither of these self-perspectives is able to see the cross.

Instead of seeing a crucified and risen Jesus, my eyes focus on either my apparent moral success or my obvious moral failure. On one hand, I am crippled by insecurity; on the other, I am deceived by the mirage of moral goodness.

What if you could see with new eyes? Not the eyes of a judgmental Pharisee or of a self-hating sinner, but with the eyes of someone who has received mercy?

Being the recipient of mercy would change not only how we see ourselves but how we see the world. It would affect how you view your spouse, kids, and every human.

No longer would I put people in a pass or fail category.

I’d see everyone as someone who needs the same mercy I need. That perspective would change everything, which is why Jesus turns the tables on pass/fail religion in Luke 7:36–50.

Let’s begin in verses 36–38.

1) An Uninvited Guest

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman of the city who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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.

It is fair to say that the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner would never have invited a “sinful woman” like this into his home. To say that a woman “of the city” had lived a “sinful life” is code that she had lived a “sexually immoral” life.

In that day, a poor, unmarried woman having to provide a living for herself would have found her options limited. Some turned to prostitution, which was not the vocational choice of any woman.

It would have been the absolute last resort, inevitably leading to a life of physical abuse and moral shame.

It’s possible that this woman had heard of Jesus’s kindness toward the down and out from others in her fellowship of moral outcasts. What we know is that when she heard Jesus was near, she grabbed her perfume and headed to the Pharisee’s house… without an invitation.

Upon arrival, she is overcome with emotion unto weeping uncontrollably. As tears of repentant gratitude fall upon Jesus’s feet, she bends to the floor to dry his feet with her hair. In the presence of the Savior, she expresses what can only be described as costly love when she pours out upon Jesus’s feet her only possession of any value.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a house servant to wash the feet of a guest. But to kiss the feet of the guest was nothing short of a scandalous public display of affection.

But she was not propositioning Jesus. She was worshipping Jesus — worship that was not coerced but compelled.

It is the same way that I will get up from whatever I am doing to run to embrace one of my kids at the door who returns home for the weekend. I don’t hug my children because there is a rule that says I’m supposed to get up to greet them. I love my children and miss them and run to embrace them motivated not by guilt but by love.

It is the same way with the woman in the story. Her actions were not motivated by guilt or fear but by love.

I know what you may be thinking. Isn’t she being a bit self-centered by making such a scene? Couldn’t she have waited until after the dinner party to approach Jesus? After all, this was a private residence and she was an uninvited guest defying all kinds of social protocols.

I think she was trying to hold back but the tears burst out and she just lost it — in a good way.

Because in the next five verses, we observe Jesus’s appraisal of the situation, where he tells…

2) A Purposeful Story

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, 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.” 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

Simon’s first reaction to the appearance of the uninvited guest is a self-righteous sneer of judgment.

Working from his pass/fail model of religion, he quickly places her in the failure category.

And he would be accurate in his assessment.

Where he has misjudged is in the evaluation of himself.

To correct Simon’s moral analytics, Jesus tells a story that is intended to make Simon realize a few things.

  1. Just like the sinful woman, he owes a debt.
  2. Just like the sinful woman, he can’t pay it.
  3. Unlike the sinful woman, he can’t see the magnitude of his debt.

With a simple story, Jesus blows up Simon’s pass/fail religion.

As Paul would say in Romans 3:10, “ “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

Then in verses 22–23, he says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile [or those who think they pass and think others fail], for all have sinned and fall short of the glory [or, the moral standard] of God.”

To be righteous is not just to pass; it is to be perfect. That is the standard. Not passing but perfection.

In one fell swoop, with a simple story, Jesus has shown his host that Simon himself was failing. He, himself, was a debtor in as desperate a moral condition as the sinful woman.

In fact, in the next three verses, Jesus makes it clear that Simon — the Pharisee! — is the one with an even greater need for forgiveness than the sinful woman for whom he had shown aversion.

Look in verses 44–46, where we see…

3) A Striking Contrast

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

While strange to our ears, it was customary in ancient Palestine to honor dinner guests by washing the guest’s feet, greeting them with the eastern double cheek kiss, and anointing the guest with a dab of scented oil or perfume.

Simon had not forgotten these basic practices of cultural hospitality. His neglect was intentional and would be taken by any other guest as an enormous offense.

In view of this striking contrast, rather than making Simon the example for the woman to follow, Jesus makes the woman the example for Simon to follow!

This “bad” woman has just put the “righteous” Pharisee to shame. If anyone has passed the test of love, it is the one who has just poured out her most valuable possession upon Jesus. He didn’t just dab it; she poured it all out for Jesus.

As if that wasn’t enough for turning the tables over on pass/fail religion, in verses 47–50 Jesus delivers…

4) A Shocking Verdict

47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Affirming that the woman’s “sins are many,” Jesus does not minimize her need for forgiveness. No doubt, she had a massive sin debt.

Nevertheless, he pronounces the entirety of her debt to be forgiven.

She has been forgiven much… and she knows it. This is the key to unlocking the power of the entire passage.

Her demonstration of love for Jesus is proportional to the degree to which she has been forgiven by Jesus.

When Jesus tells her that her “faith” has saved her, he acknowledges that she gets it. She understands that that forgiveness is not a denial of the debt but is a paying of the debt.

With the peace Jesus gives, she is no longer to be defined as a sinful woman but as a forgiven woman.

The crowds wondered how Jesus was able to grant forgiveness carte blanche. The answer is simple. The one who is able to pay the debt is entitled to forgive the debt.

A Massive Bailout

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act was passed by Congress in 2008 in response to a subprime mortgage crisis that threatened to implode the U.S. economy, as most of the nations’ big banks were on the verge of insolvency.

It was a financial crisis.

Known as Public Law 110–343, the Stabilization Act was conceived by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who proposed that the federal government give $700 billion to failing banks and automakers in order to keep the stock market from absolute collapse.

While the law itself is complex, it was simplified in the vernacular for the public, being called “the bailout.”

But that wasn’t the most substantial bailout in human history.

That title goes to Jesus, where the cross secured the payment of the incalculable debt of those for whom the Father had chosen to show mercy.

Just like the big bank bailout in ‘08, you and I did not deserve for someone to pay our debt. But that is what Jesus did.

  • While nailed to a cross, Jesus wept tears of sadness and grief so that you and I could weep tears of joy and gladness.
  • On a cross, he didn’t just wash our feet but cleansed our souls.
  • He didn’t just pour out expensive perfume from a jar but poured out priceless blood from his head, hands, feet, and side.

When Jesus invites us to come to him, he doesn’t just dab us with the scented oil of mercy, he pours it upon us, covering us with the beautiful, sweet aroma of his perfect righteousness as the dearly beloved — the dearly beloved — of God.

In receiving that gift-righteousness, we are given new eyes — not the judgemental eyes of a Pharisee or eyes of self-loathing, but the eyes of someone who has received the mercy of having our debt paid in full and lives with a conscious awareness of the present value of Jesus’s blood.

In his book, The Finished Work of Christ, Francis Schaeffer speaks to the present value of Jesus’s blood, saying, “I’m convinced…that this is when we begin to make our forward steps as Christians: When I know through experience that I can lay hold of Christ’s blood by faith to cover my sins this morning, and then to cover my sins this afternoon, even if they’re the same sins — when I know this, the preciousness of Christ’s blood becomes a tremendous reality, I begin to live in the light of His presence and in the light of His work — not just in the past or in the future, but in the present.”

Covered. Cleansed. Forgiven.

In the present. In the now.

Will you believe that with me today?