A Different Angle (Luke 7:36-50)

Yesterday I posted a fairly egg-heady look at Luke 7:36-50. That is pretty easy for me to do – I’m basically an egg-heady kind of guy. But, today I want to look at the same passage through a different lens, a different angle. Today I want to look at the story through the eyes of the woman.

Have you ever wept uncontrollably? I don’t mean just the run of the mill sniffles that you get at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t even mean the tears that flow at a funeral for someone you really love. I mean the uncontrollable, rib-wracking, heart crushing weeping that makes breathing difficult if not impossible.

I think I have had that experience just once, and I’ll not bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that once in a lifetime is enough. I cannot describe the pain, the uncertainty of if, not just when, it was going to stop.

The backstory of the woman in Luke 7 intrigues me. For what, exactly, was she grieving? What drove her to Jesus’s feet? How did she manage to get through the phalanx of (primarily male, I would assume) dinner guests to get so close to Jesus? Luke simply identifies her situation as being a “sinner,” but what did that entail? Was she a prostitute? If so, had she been forced into selling her body because of a financial ruin? Was she a widow with no other means of support? Was there some other sin that she was sold to that made her a pariah?

Interestingly enough, Luke – ever the historian and careful observer of human emotions, fails to tell us anything more. Simply that the woman came to Jesus with what we would assume to be a very expensive flask of ointment (Luke does not comment that detail, either.) So, her visit to Jesus was not “spur of the moment.” It was planned. And, at the moment she arrives and is able to gain admittance to Jesus, she begins to weep, and by Luke’s description, I would add the word “uncontrollably.”

It is one thing to weep to the point tears run down our face. It is something else entirely when tears are so profuse that they could actually wet the feet of someone reclining in front of us. This is no ordinary grief. This is profound, all-encompassing grief. To use a word common in our culture today, this was epic grieving.

Once again I ask – for what? What was it in her life that drove her to such sorrow? For how many mistakes and how many failures and how many sins was she repenting? How many years of wasted life was she recounting? What losses were in her life’s ledger?

We can look at this story through many lenses, from many angles. The gospel in this story is that Jesus does not focus on her past, does not force her to recount her failures. He recognizes her love and forgives her sins. How many times do we stare at the sin, and refuse the love?

We can learn many things from this anonymous woman. We can see the change of heart her plan to go to Jesus indicated. We can see the cost of true repentance in the selfless manner in which she used her “alabaster flask of ointment” to rub on Jesus’s feet. We can see the emotional cost of serving Jesus in the description of her tears wetting the feet of Jesus. And, lest we overlook the words of Jesus, we can see her unbridled love for Jesus that all of these actions indicate.

This story grips me, intrigues me, challenges me. How often I want to think that Christianity is simply and solely a rational venture. How often I fall back on my reason and my intellect to convince me that I am right. This story in Luke 7 is not about reason or rationality or intellect. It is all about love, and sorrow, and repentance, and selfless worship. It is a picture of the Christian walk that confounds me in many ways, because all too often I brace myself against this kind of emotion.

Egg-heady guys like me need to read this story, hear this story, meditate on this story, immerse ourselves in this story. Otherwise, I fear we will end up far more like Simon the Pharisee than we want to be.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.