For centuries, traditional morality had us—all of us—in its suffocating grip. Year after year the same old rules, chained to the past, heaped shame on ordinary men and women (and boys and girls) whose only crime was being different. Enemies of the human spirit, these bankrupt ideologies befriended bigots and encouraged the spiteful. They nurtured a seedbed of hypocrisy and offered safe havens to perpetrators of abuse.
The Bible made the same point as the sexual revolution more than 2000 years ago.
In a few powerful sentences, Glynn Harrison sums up the protest of the sexual revolution. It is a story that is already familiar to most of us; the social-sexual revolutionaries have been brilliant in their communication and relentless in their activism. But what might be new to you is the fact that the Bible made the same point more than 2000 years ago.
Traditional Morality in the Bible
In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 7, we read this story.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” (Luke 7:36-40)
Simon represents the traditional moralists of his generation, the Pharisees. His condemnatory and bigoted attitude is plain to see; his sense of superiority over the woman is searingly clear. To him, she is just that sort of woman: it’s not just the things she has done; it is who she is. She is a sinner. She belongs in the class of people who are not good enough for him, or for the community to which he belongs (the Pharisees). That’s why Simon is identified first as a Pharisee and only later do we discover his name.
This is the story told by the sexual revolution: there is a moralism that crushes and destroys. But what is a critique of it doing in the Bible? Isn’t the Bible the book that fosters and breeds this dark condemning attitude? And the questions only intensify because Jesus is about to give Simon the verbal equivalent of a slap.
Will the Life of Freedom Give Us What We Want?
But before we hear Jesus’ exposé, there is something else to see here about the woman. Simon accuses her of being a sinner—a known sinner; a public sinner. This leads many Bible readers to suspect she may have been a prostitute, plying her trade on the streets.
But whatever she has done, there is no doubt it hasn’t worked out for her. She may have rejected the dead hand of traditional morality with all its hypocrisy and guilt. But that rejection has failed her too: it hasn’t led to her to freedom or flourishing and, she knows it.
So she stands behind Jesus’ feet …
… weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
Here is a woman, broken and in need. That’s why she has come to Jesus. Her story indicts both moralism and sexual license.
No Moral Code?
But some argue that the way forward is just more liberation: if only the woman could see that there’s no moral code and that she isn’t bound to anyone or anything, then her guilt would just float away.
Is that right? Surely the evidence of experience testifies that we all know the grief and sadness of not meeting our moral obligations. Though cultures might differ here and there on what is right and wrong, no culture denies that there is a moral standard outside of ourselves.
And this matches with what Jesus thinks. His offer of forgiveness only makes sense because he thinks that God has a standard that can be broken. There is right and wrong. And the reason Jesus knows this is that he is God the Son, incarnate—he knows the very mind of God.
Jesus Offers Forgiveness
It is clear to this woman that she needs something she doesn’t have. But Jesus tells her that, though her sins are many, they are forgiven. And then in a beautiful moment of simultaneous restoration and rebuke, Jesus looks at the woman while speaking to Simon.
“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Simon is a moralist because he doesn’t think he has a debt to God. Thus he condemns the woman—and even Jesus: “if this man were a prophet …” This is the profound problem of moralists. They think they meet God’s standard. But they don’t really—all they’ve done is redefine it to suit themselves; to allow their sins to remain unexposed. They use moralism to hide their wickedness and sin. They have no idea of their true debt to God. In an ironic twist, they too are trying to make their own freedom.
Moralists think they meet God’s standard. But they don’t really—all they’ve done is redefine it to suit themselves
On the other side, the woman has lived her life without reference to God. She has sought freedom. We don’t know how this started but we know the result has been a disaster. And the woman knows it. But she knows that she needs Jesus, and she shows her need by her love. With a scandalously intimate act, she wets his dirty feet with her tears and cleans them with her unbound hair. She loves Jesus because she knows Jesus came, to seek and save the lost.
And this love for the lost, whether they be condemning moralists or freedom seekers is what takes Jesus to the cross. The cross proves finally that not one of us meets God’s standard—if we did then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to die to bring forgiveness (and the moralists would have been right after all). But instead, Jesus offers forgiveness for us all; makes forgiveness possible for us all by his death.
This is the new life of freedom. Through forgiveness we are given the true freedom and peace we need. This is a scandalous offer of freedom: freedom from oppressive morality and freedom from our failed search for freedom.
First published at risenchurch.org.au