Good morning! This is Mothers’ Day, so let me warmly greet you if you’re a mother – and I want to include you if you’re a mother figure like a step-mother, guardian or foster mother. I hope today is special for you, and that you feel appreciated.
For me today brings a range of emotions. I remember my mother, who died 15 years ago. I still miss her. I celebrate with my wife, who is mother to our four children. My oldest daughter is now a mother, so I share in her joy with her young son. As a pastor, today during our worship services at church we recognise mothers and express appreciation to them. So for me, and for most of us, Mothers’ Day brings mixed feelings of sadness and joy.
One thing we can all celebrate today is that Jesus Christ made a huge difference in the way mothers and women are valued. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect, which was quite different from the general attitude of men in his day. This morning let’s reflect on one encounter Jesus had with a woman, recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
In the days of Jesus most men looked down on women. Both Roman men and Jewish men viewed women as inferior. Women were seen to have little worth, and their status was constantly bracketed with children and slaves. How revolutionary Jesus was in his relationships with women! He valued women – he treated them with dignity and worth. The Gospels report numerous encounters Jesus had with women both in public and in private. In each instance he didn’t regard women as inferior to men. He ministered freely and lovingly to women. This morning, on Mothers’ Day, let’s focus on one encounter which is fairly representative.
This encounter is recorded in Luke chapter 7. Jesus had been invited to a meal at the home of Simon, a member of the Pharisee party. Simon and his friends were Jewish religious leaders, and they were hoping they could trip up their dinner guest, Jesus. As it was, an incident occurred which shattered the decorum of the occasion and could only be considered embarrassing in the extreme.
A woman from the town who had a certain reputation entered the house. She would have easily been able to enter as the door would have been open for the many comings and goings of the guests and servants. She was known for having ‘lived a sinful life’ (v.37). The Pharisee had the measure of her and labelled her ‘a sinner’ (v.39). That was all anyone needed to know about her. The term marks her out in her vocation as a prostitute. She was not the normal class of person you would have found on Simon’s guest list! We do not know, of course, what led her into prostitution but many women were, and are, driven to it because of poverty. Almost certainly she would have had no parents to support her and no man to love her and provide her with any security. Her presence shocked Simon and his guests. She was seen as impure, a kind of disease which threatened them with contamination.
Having gate crashed the dinner, she proceeds to behave in an outrageous and what would have been judged to be an offensive manner. Jesus would have been stretched out on a couch at the table as was customary at such dinners, rather than sitting in an upright chair, so his feet would have been accessible to her. But that was no invitation for what followed. Luke records: ‘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’ (v.38).’ The action could only be interpreted in the culture of the day as ‘erotic.’ Loose hair was the sign of a loose woman who was worthy of condemnation. Her display of uncontrolled emotions and her flow of tears were nothing compared with the way in which they would have interpreted her massaging of Jesus’ feet. This was how a prostitute would treat one of her customers. Simon and his friends were shocked that Jesus would allow such behaviour. In Simon’s eyes the reputation of Jesus had just shrunk dramatically.
After the next song, let’s see what Jesus did in response to this woman and these critical men.
This morning on Mothers’ Day we’re considering an encounter Jesus had with a woman. We see how Jesus treats women with dignity and respect, as having real value and significance in God’s sight. But the host of the meal, Simon, was offended by the behaviour of the woman who had entered his house uninvited, weeping at Jesus feet, loosening her hair to wipe his feet wet with her tears, kissing his feet and pouring perfume on them. Her actions confirmed to Simon that she merited the label ‘sinner.’ She was worthless and devoid of any qualities which could be admired. She was a woman to be avoided, not welcomed into your home!
With typical shrewdness, Jesus does not at first challenge his host directly but tells a story that removes his defences and enables him to see the truth. Two men owed a creditor money, one a little and the other a lot. When neither could repay him, ‘he forgave the debts of both. “Now”, Jesus asked, “which of them will love him more?”’ (v42). The answer is obvious – ‘the one who had the bigger debt forgiven’ – and Simon gives that answer correctly, marching straight to the logical conclusion which Jesus wanted.
Now, Jesus explains, dramatically looking at the woman so as to force people to look at the real woman while still addressing the Pharisee (v.44), the same is true in relation to people’s sins Simon thought he had few sins to be forgiven, and so showed little love towards Jesus. Indeed, when Jesus entered his house Simon didn’t even observe the basic rules that governed how to entertain guests courteously. He offered no refreshment for Jesus’ feet, extended him no kiss of greeting and didn’t anoint his head. In contrast, the sinful woman more than made up for his neglect by washing his feet with tears, smothering his feet with kisses and pouring perfume on his feet. Underneath it all, the difference was simply this: unlike Simon, she realised that she was a great sinner in need of great forgiveness. And such forgiveness resulted in the expression of a great, even extravagant, devotion, that refused to be hemmed in by the respectability of religious niceness.
In case there should be any doubt that this woman was a recipient of God’s extraordinary mercy, ‘Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven”’ (v.48) and added ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ (v.50). We can only guess what impact that had on her subsequent life, although it’s not unreasonable to assume her future was transformed by this encounter. Where would she go after this? She surely couldn’t go back on the streets to earn her living as once she had done. She needed to belong and find support in a new community of ‘forgiven and forgiving sinners’. Whatever her future, she was just the sort of person that Jesus came to save. He came to be the Saviour for all people, including those at the bottom of the pile like this woman. The respect Jesus showed this woman was a profound shock to the onlookers, many of whom could only continue to debate who Jesus was and what right he had to forgive sins, rather than benefit themselves from God’s grace (v.49).
On Mother’s Day I hope all women, mothers included, can appreciate their value and worth. Women are valuable not just because they produce children and care for their children as mothers, but because God sees every woman as equal to men, having real value and dignity. In the encounter Jesus had with this woman which we’ve considered this morning, we see how Jesus valued her. The other men at the dinner, including Simon the Pharisee, looked down on all women as inferior. Especially this woman, who was a prostitute in the town, and shocked the onlookers by her uncontrolled tears, loosening of her hair, wiping Jesus’ feet, kissing his feet, and anointing his feet with expensive perfume.
Jesus is such a contrast! Contrary to the custom of the man’s world in which he lived, Jesus engages with this woman, in public. First, he accepts her scandalous actions as a sign of authentic devotion. Secondly, he releases her from her sinful past. Thirdly, he singles her out as a model of faith and of the way God longs to furnish women with his peace, however corrupted God’s image has become within them.
There are important lessons we can learn from this encounter between Jesus and the woman. These lessons apply to all of us, whether we are woman, mothers, whatever. We can experience the love and forgiveness which Jesus offers. Later in Luke’s Gospel we read that Jesus suffered for our sin, allowing himself to be nailed to a cross as he died in our place. He bore the penalty for our sin which we deserve. If we turn away from our sins and failures, and trust in Jesus as our crucified Saviour and risen Lord, we can know his pardon and his peace. That’s what this woman experienced as she turned from her sinful past and trusted in Jesus.
Another lesson is that when we are forgiven by Jesus it’s fitting to express our love and gratitude to him. A moving part of this story is that this woman was so thankful to Jesus for transforming her life that she expressed her love without worrying what others might think. As she began to weep, loosen her hair, wipe Jesus feet, kiss his feet, and pour her perfume, she would have been aware of the scowls and murmurs of the onlookers. But Jesus had become so important to her that expressing her love and gratitude to him was what mattered most.
A related lesson is none of us need ever feel we are second class citizens in the new community being formed around Jesus. This woman was used to being treated as inferior by her culture and society. The mutterings of Simon were typical of the attitude of men toward her. Yet Jesus treated her, as he did all women, with dignity and respect. He saw her as having real value and significance in God’s sight. He shows she is capable of receiving the full blessings of God’s healing and peace for herself without the need for it to be channelled through a man. No woman, or mother, needs to feel undervalued when they know the Lord Jesus and belong to his family.
Today on Mothers’ Day, if you’re a mother or mother figure, I trust you will feel appreciated and valued. Your value and worth, however, does not just come from whether or not you’ve been a good mother. Jesus made it clear that every woman and every mother has value and worth in his sight. In his encounters with women, Jesus treated them with dignity and respect. He was unusual in his own day, and still in our time. We can all be thankful today to the Lord Jesus for the difference he made in the value and status of woman and mothers.
Let me pray for you: ‘Thank you, Lord God, for the value you place on all people, including women and mothers. Enable us to treasure the love and forgiveness that Jesus has made possible, and help us to treat all people, including women, with dignity and respect. In Christ’s name, Amen.’
Acknowledgment: Ideas for this message were borrowed from The Message of Women: creation, grace and gender, by Derek & Dianne Tidball [The Bible Speaks Today Bible Themes; IVP, 2012; pp.161-171]