IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT’S PROBABLY JESUS
- Jesus brings forgiveness to every repentant sinner
- Jesus inspires thanks from every grateful sinner
Text: Luke 7:36-50
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s a good rule of thumb for life. If you hear about a job that only requires ten hours of work a week but promises to triple your current income, it’s too good to be true. If you receive an email message inviting your participation in an international transaction and promising that you’ll receive thousands of dollars for your trouble, it’s too good to be true. If you hear about a religion that teaches that the way to heaven and a relationship with God involves absolutely nothing on your part—God does all the work from start to finish—then it’s too good to be true … or is it?
If you don’t believe every magnificent-sounding offer that crosses your path, most people would say that you have a healthy skepticism. That’s a good principle for life, but not for eternal life. In the Gospel for today, we hear a story from Jesus’ ministry that sounds too good to be true. Would Jesus really forgive a woman who was well-known for her immorality? And if Jesus forgave her, doesn’t that have implications for you and me? If Jesus would forgive this person, could that mean that he will forgive me for all the dirty and disgusting things that I’ve done? If you are truly honest with yourself and your autobiography, that might sound like the very thing your soul is looking for. But the skeptic inside you is probably thinking, “Nah – it’s too good to be true.” But in this case, if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably Jesus. That’s what we’ll learn as we study the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. It may sound like it’s too good to be true, but it’s not. Jesus brings forgiveness to every repentant sinner. Jesus inspires thanks from every grateful sinner.
If you listened carefully to the Gospel, you may have been surprised to hear about Jesus’ dinner invitation. A man whose name we later learn was Simon, a man who belonged to the religious group called the Pharisees, invited Jesus over for dinner. The Pharisees, as you may know, were not exactly members of Jesus’ fan club. That’s why it seems strange for a Pharisee to invite Jesus over for dinner at his home. Were they starting to change their tune? Did this man begin to think that perhaps Jesus had something worth listening to?
Maybe not. Yes, Jesus received an invitation, but he did not receive a warm reception. It was common courtesy for a host to offer water so that his guests could wash their dirty, dusty feet. That was about as basic a courtesy as inviting someone to your home today and offering them a beverage. It was also customary to greet someone with a kiss, the equivalent of a handshake today. But Simon the Pharisee did not offer Jesus even one of these common courtesies. It’s quite likely that Simon had not invited Jesus to rub shoulders with him or get to know him better. Luke gives us a possible clue into Simon’s motives one chapter earlier in Gospel, when he wrote, “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely” (Luke 6:7).
If that was Simon’s motive – to find a reason to accuse Jesus – then he thought that he found a golden opportunity when an unexpected guest arrived. “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was 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. 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.’”
We don’t know much about the woman who entered into the home. What we can say—and this would be an understatement—is that she had a bad reputation. This was probably the kind of woman who made her living in the “red light district.” She was the kind of woman with whom no decent, moral person wanted to associate.
But she was the kind of woman for whom Jesus came into this world. Had she recently heard Jesus preach to a large crowd? Perhaps. Somehow she came into contact with Jesus and heard a message that she would have never dreamed possible. God forgave her; yes, in spite of her slimy, scummy, disgusting past, although she could have labeled herself the chief of sinners, God had sent his Son into this world to remove her guilt once and for all, and Jesus was the One who would make that happen. It sounded too good to be true, but it was true! And this knowledge was made personal when Jesus said to her in front of the entire gathering in Simon’s house, “Your sins are forgiven. …Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Jesus personally and lovingly brought forgiveness to the repentant sinner who was brought to tears at that news.
I don’t think there is a single person in this room who would like to have his or her complete life story laid out for everyone to hear and see. If you think you would like that, you either have a highly selective memory or you’re lying. Few people do not have skeletons from their past that they want to hide. How foolishly we are tempted to play fast and loose with God’s gift of sex when we were young. How arrogantly we let those stupid words fly out of our mouth—words that we cannot erase. How presumptively we pass judgment on others when we don’t even know the basic details of their story and situation. How shamelessly we drag God’s name through the mud and show no respect at all for the One whose name saves. And when we take a good, hard look at our past and present, what conclusion can we come to except that we’ve got a long future in hell heading our way?
With all of that baggage weighing us down, Jesus comes to us unexpectedly with news that sounds too good to be true. Sins forgiven, guilt erased, shame removed, past mistakes and present blunders deleted from our record, and all without one penny’s worth of effort or cost to you and me. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it’s all from Jesus. He replaces the guilt and shame of your sinful life with the honor and perfection from his holy life. His nail-scarred hands bring you forgiveness from all your past sins and freedom from all your present and future fears. No sins from your past can ruin your relationship with the Lord, because you have been made white and pure in the red blood that Jesus shed on the cross. No fears can ruin your future with the Lord, because the risen Savior promises to raise you also. It might sound too good to be true, but it’s not too good to be true. It’s Jesus! It’s real! And through faith in his sacrifice, it’s yours!
We see a little glimpse of Jesus’ power as God in this Gospel. The “scandalous” woman enters the home and approaches Jesus. The host, Simon the Pharisee, saw this and began to think some uncharitable thoughts about Jesus, but Jesus knew exactly what he was thinking and he knew exactly how to respond. “When the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’”
Jesus was a master teacher, and like any good teacher, he found ways to illustrate his point so that you couldn’t miss the message. He tells a short parable about two men who owed money to a moneylender. One owed a little less than two months’ salary, and the other about 18 months’ wages. Both men could not afford to pay back the loan when it came due, so the benevolent moneylender forgave their debt with no strings attached. Not a bad deal for either person!
Jesus’ follow-up question to the story was intended to get at the heart of the matter between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman who had entered his home to show gratitude to Jesus. “Which of them will love him more?” Jesus asked Simon. “Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’” Can’t you hear how begrudgingly he answered Jesus’ question? “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” Really, Simon? Are you sure? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure this out! Of course, the man with the larger debt would be far more grateful; he had much more for which to be grateful!
I think Simon didn’t want to answer the question because a part of him knew that Jesus’ story was just an object lesson to explain the woman’s genuine gratitude and Simon’s glaring ingratitude. “[Jesus] 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. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’”
Simon was probably the kind of fellow that would make a good neighbor. He was a decent and respectable man by anyone’s estimation. But his outward righteousness kept him from seeing his need for Jesus. On the other hand, the sinful woman who came to find Jesus knew her need for Jesus. There was no hiding her sin. And there was no hiding her gratitude for Jesus’ grace, either. She came to Jesus in tears—tears of gratitude. In verse 38 and again in verse 44, Luke says that the woman rained tears on to Jesus’ feet. She was so moved that God could and would love someone as unlovable and unworthy as she. The news of her heavenly pardon seemed too good to be true, but it was true, and so Jesus’ grace inspired her thanks as a grateful sinner forgiven by a gracious God.
In verse 47 of our Gospel, the translation causes a bit of confusion; it sounds like the cart is before the horse, so to speak. In that verse, Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” The translation makes it sound like our forgiveness is contingent upon how much we love God. Actually, Jesus said it the other way around. The woman in this account loved Jesus deeply as a result of her many sins being forgiven. Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you,” not “Your love” or “your actions have saved you.” Simon, on the other hand, had no love lost for Jesus because he didn’t acknowledge or even see his need for forgiveness.
Our Sunday adult Bible class during the summer months is a study of the Augsburg Confession. Our Lutheran forefathers produced the Augsburg Confession in 1530 as a statement of faith against the false teachings and notions that had infiltrated the church in the sixteenth century. Article XX of the Augsburg Confession discusses the good works that a Christian does. Just like today, Lutherans in the sixteenth century who focused so strongly on the message of the gospel, the good news of salvation in Christ, were accused of downplaying the Christian life. What the Augsburg Confession states so clearly is that faith is what matters before God, but faith is never without expressions of gratitude, that we call “good works.”
This teaching concerning faith is not to be censured for prohibiting good works. On the contrary, it should be praised for teaching the performance of good works and for offering help as to how they may be done. For without faith and without Christ, human nature and human power are much too weak to do good works: such as to call on God, to have patience in suffering, to love the neighbor, to engage diligently in legitimate callings, to be obedient, to avoid evil lust, etc. Such lofty and genuine works cannot be done without the help of Christ, as he himself says in John 15: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Have you ever noticed how a newfound understanding of the gospel inspires people to express their thanks to God? Some of the best evangelists in any congregation are often the newer members, people who have not had a complete understanding of the gospel since they were little. But once they come to that understanding, they are eager to share it with others—friends, family, coworkers, associates. I have seen that occur right here in our congregation. Members have told me about the people in their lives that they are trying to share the gospel with. What’s so beautiful about that is that no one told you, “You better do this.” No one demanded a quota. No one from the evangelism committee called you up and demanded that you start witnessing. You were just so thankful for the gospel that you wanted to express that thanks as a grateful sinner whom Jesus set free.
If you see an advertisement for an offer that sounds too good to be true, don’t hesitate to be a little skeptical. But if you hear about God’s no-strings-attached forgiveness, don’t assume it’s too good to be true. It is true. It’s yours through Jesus. He offers you pardon for your sin and at the same time inspires your highest praise and thanks. Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably Jesus! Amen.