THE THANKFUL PENITENT
Once I find Christ invited by a publican, now by a Pharisee. Wherever He went. He made better cheer than He found, in a happy exchange of spiritual repast for bodily.
Who knows not the Pharisees to have been the proud enemies of Christ; men over-conceited of themselves, contemptuous of others, severe in show, hypocrites in deed, strict sectaries, insolent justiciaries; yet here one of them invites Christ, and that in good earnest. The man was not, like his fellows, captious, not ceremonious: had he been of their stamp, the omission of washing the feet had been mortal. No profession hath not yielded some good. Nicodemus and Gamaliel were of the same strain. Neither is it for nothing that the Evangelist, having branded this sect for despising the counsel of God against themselves, presently subjoins this history of Simon the Pharisee, as an exempt man. O Saviour, Thou canst find out good Pharisees, good publicans, yea, a good thief upon the cross; and that Thou mayest find. Thou canst make them so.
At the best, yet he was a Pharisee, whose table Thou here refusedst not. So didst Thou, in wisdom and mercy, attemper Thyself, as to “become all things to all men, that thou mightst win some.” Thy harbinger was rough; as in clothes, so in disposition, professedly harsh and austere: Thyself wert mild and sociable: so
it was fit for both. He was a preacher of penance. Thou the author of comfort and salvation: he made way for grace. Thou gavest it. Thou hast bidden us to follow Thyself, not Thy forerunner. That, then, which politics and time-servers do for earthly advantages, we will do for spiritual; frame ourselves to all companies, not in evil, but in good, yea, in indifferent things. What wonder is it, that Thou, who camest down from heaven to frame Thyself to our nature, shouldst, whilst Thou wert on earth, frame Thyself to the several dispositions of men? Catch not at this, O ye licentious hypocrites, men of all hours, that can eat with gluttons, drink with drunkards, sing with ribalds, scoff with profane scorners, and yet talk holily with the religious, as if ye had hence any colour of your changeable conformity to all fashions. Our Saviour never sinned for any man’s sake, though for our sakes He was sociable, that He might keep us from sinning. Can ye so converse with lewd good-fellows, as that ye repress their sins, redress their exorbitances, win them to God? now, ye walk in the steps of Him that stuck not to sit down in the Pharisee’s house.
There sat the Saviour, and, “behold, a woman in the city that was a sinner.” I marvel not that she is led in with a note of wonder; wonder, both on her part, and on Christ’s. That any sinner, that a sensual sinner, obdurate in a notorious trade of evil, should, voluntarily, out of a true remorse for her lewdness, seek to a Saviour, it is worthy of an accent of admiration. The noise of the gospel is common; but where is the power of it? it hath store of hearers, but few converts. Yet were there no wonder in her, if it were not with reference to the power and mercy of Christ; His power that thus drew the sinner. His mercy that received her. O Saviour, I wonder at her, but I bless Thee for her, by whose only grace she was both moved and accepted.
A sinner! Alas! who was not? who is not so? not only “in many things we sin all,” but in all things we let fall many sins. Had there been a woman not a sinner, it had been beyond wonder. One Man there was that was not a sinner, even He that was more than a man, that God and man, who was the refuge of this sinner; but never woman that sinned not. Yet He said not, a woman that had sinned, but, “that was a sinner.” An action doth not give denomination, but a trade. Even the wise charity of Christians, much more the mercy of God, can distinguish between sins of infirmity, and practice of sin, and esteem us not by a transient act, but by a permanent condition.
The woman was noted for a luxurious and incontinent life. What a deal of variety there is of sins! that which faileth cannot be numbered. Every sin continued, deserves to brand the soul with this style. Here one is picked out from the rest: she is not noted for murder, for theft, for idolatry; only her lust makes her “a woman that was a sinner.” Other vices use not to give the owner this title, although they should be more heinous than it. .
Wantons may flatter themselves in the indifferency or slightness of this offence: their souls shall need no other conveyance to hell than this, which cannot be so pleasing to nature, as it is hateful to God, who so speaks of it, as if there were no sins but it; “a woman that was a sinner.”
She was a sinner, now she is not, her very presence argues her change. Had she been still in her old trade, she would no more have endured the sight of Christ, than that devil did which cried out, “Art thou come to torment me?” Her eyes had been lamps and fires of lust, not fountains of tears; her hairs had been nets to catch foolish lovers, not a towel for her Saviour’s feet; yet still she carries the name of what she was: a scar still remains after the wound healed. Simon will be ever the leper, and Matthew the publican. How carefully should we avoid those actions which may ever stain us!
What a difference there is betwixt the carriage and proceedings of God and men! The mercy of God, as it “calleth those things that are not, as if they were,” so it calleth those things that were, as if they were not: “I will remember your iniquities no more;” as some skilful surgeon so sets the bone, or heals the sore, that it cannot be seen where the complaint was. Man’s word is, that which is done cannot be undone: but the omnipotent goodness of God doth, as it were, undo our once-committed sins: “Take away my iniquity, and thou shall find none.” What we were in ourselves, we are not to Him, since He hath changed us from ourselves.
O God, why should we be niggardly where Thou art liberal? why should we be reading those lines which Thou hast not only crossed, but quite blotted, yea, wiped out?
It is a good word, “she was a sinner.” To be wicked, is odious to God, angels, saints, men; to have been so, is blessed and glorious. I rejoice to look back and see my Egyptians lying dead upon the shore, that I may praise the Author of my deliverance and victory. Else, it matters not what they were, what I was. O God, Thou, whose title is, “I am,” regardest the present. He befriends and honours us, that says, “Such ye were, but ye are washed.”
The place adds to the heinousness of the sin: “in the city.” The more public the fact is, the greater is the scandal. Sin is sin, though in a desert: others’ eyes do not make the act more vile in itself, but the offence is multiplied by the number of beholders.
I hear no name of either the city or the woman: she was too well known in her time. How much better is it to be obscure than infamous! Herein, I doubt not. God meant to spare the reputation of a penitent convert. He who hates not the person, but the sin, cares only to mention the sin, not the person. It is justice to prosecute the vice; it is mercy to spare the offender. How injurious a presumption is it for any man to name her whom God would have concealed; and to cast this aspersion on those whom God hath noted for holiness!
The worst of this woman is pastÂ—”She was a sinner;” the best is to comeÂ—”She sought out Jesus;” Where? in the house of a Pharisee. It was the most inconvenient place in the world for a noted sinner to seek Christ in.
No men stood so much upon the terms of their own righteousness; no men so scornfully disdained an infamous person. The touch of an ordinary, though honest Jew, was their pollution: how much more the presence of a strumpet? What a sight was a known sinner to him, to whom his holiest neighbour was a sinner! How doth he, though a better Pharisee, look awry to see such a piece in his house, while he dares think, “If this man were a prophet, lie would surely know what manner of woman this is!” Neither could she fore-imagine less, when she ventured to press over the threshold of a Pharisee. Yet not the known austerity of a man, and her mis-welcome to the place, could affright her from seeking her Saviour even there. No disadvantage can defer the penitent soul from a speedy recourse to Christ. She says not. If Jesus were in the street, or in the field, or in the house of some humble publican, or anywhere save with a Pharisee, I would come to Him: now, I will rather defer my access, than seek Him where I shall find scorn and censure; but, as not fearing the frowns of that proud host, she thrusts herself into Simon’s house to find Jesus. It is not for the distressed to be bashful; it is not for a believer to be timorous. O Saviour, if Thy spouse miss Thee, she will seek Thee through the streets; the blows of the watchmen shall not daunt her. If Thou be on the other side of the water, a Peter will leap into the sea and swim to Thee; if on the other side of the fire. Thy blessed martyrs will run through those flames to Thee. We are not worthy of the comfort of Thy presence, if, wheresoever we know Thou art, whether in prison or in exile, or at the stake, we do not hasten thither to enjoy Thee.
The place was not more unfit than the time: a Pharisee’s house was not more improper for a sinner, than a feast was for humiliation. Tears at a banquet are as jigs at a funeral. There is a season for all things. Music had been more apt for a feast than mourning.
The heart that hath once felt the sting of sin, and the sweetness of remission, hath no power to delay the expressions of what it feels, and cannot be confined to terms of circumstance.
Whence then was this zeal of her access? Doubtless she had heard from the mouth of Christ, in those heavenly sermons of His, many gracious invitations of all troubled and labouring souls; she had observed how He vouchsafed to come under the roofs of despised publicans, of professed enemies; she had noted all the passages of His power and mercy, and now deep remorse wrought upon her heart for her former viciousness. The pool of her conscience was troubled by the descending angel, and now she steps in for a cure. The arrow stuck fast in her soul, which she could not shake out; and now she comes to this sovereign remedy to expel it. Had not the Spirit of God wrought upon her ere she came,
and wrought her to come, she had never either sought or found Christ. Now she comes in, and finds that Saviour whom she sought; she comes in, but not empty-handed; though debauched, she was a Jewess. She could not but have heard that she ought “not to appear before the Lord empty.” What, then, brings she? It was not possible she could bring to Christ a better present than her own penitent soul; yet, to testify that, she brings another, delicate both for the vessel and the contents, “a box of alabaster;” a solid, hard, pure, clear marble, fit for the receipt of so precious an ointment: the ointment pleasant and costly: a composition of many fragrant odours, not for medicine, but delight.
The soul that is truly touched with the sense of its own sin, can think nothing too good, too dear for Christ. The remorsed sinner begins first with the tender of “burnt-offerings, and calves of a year old; “thence he ascends to “thousands of rams;” and above that yet, to “ten thousand rivers of oil;” and, yet higher, could be content to “give the first fruit of his body,” to expiate “the sin of his soul.” Any thing, every thing, is too small a price for peace. O Saviour, since we have tasted how sweet Thou art, lo! we bring Thee the daintiest and costliest perfumes of our humble obediences; yea, if so much of our blood, as this woman brought ointment, may be useful or pleasing to Thy name, we do most cheerfully consecrate it unto Thee. If we would not have Thee think heaven too good for us, why should we stick at any earthly retribution to Thee in lieu of Thy great mercies?
Yet here I see more than the price. This odoriferous perfume was that wherewith she had wont to make herself pleasing to her wanton lovers, and now she comes purposely to offer it up to her Saviour.
As her love was turned another way, from sensual to divine, so shall her ointment also be altered in the use: that which was abused to luxury, shall now be consecrated to devotion. There is no other effect in whatsoever true conversion: “As we have given our members servants to iniquity to commit iniquity, so shall we now give our members servants unto righteousness in holiness.” If the dames of Israel, that thought nothing more worth looking on than their own faces, have spent too much time at their mirrors, now they shall cast in those metals to make a laver, for the washing off their uncleanness. If I have spent the prime of my strength. the strength of my wit, upon myself and vanity, I have bestowed my alabaster-box amiss: O now teach me, my God and Saviour. to improve all my time, all my abilities, to Thy glory. This is all the poor recompense can be made Thee for those shameful dishonours Thou hast received from me.
The woman is come in and now she doth not boldly face Christ, but, as unworthy of His presence, she stands behind. How could she, in that sight, wash His feet with her tears? Was it that our Saviour did not sit at the feast after our fashion, but, according to the then Jewish and Roman fashion, lay on the one side? or was
it that this phrase doth not so much import posture as presence? Doubtless it was bashfulness and shame, arising from the conscience of her own former wickedness, that placed her thus. How well is the case altered! She had wont to look boldly in the face of her lovers; now she dares not behold the awful countenance of her Saviour. She had wont to send her alluring beams forth into the eyes of her wanton paramours; now she casts her dejected eyes to the earth, and dares not so much as raise them up to see those eyes from which she desired commiseration. It was a true inference of the prophet, “Thou hast a whore’s forehead, thou canst not blush:” there cannot be a greater sign of whorishness than impudence. This woman can now blush: she hath put off the harlot, and is turned true penitent. Bashfulness is both a sign and effect of grace. 0 God! could we but bethink how wretched we are in nature, how vile through our sins, how glorious. Holy, and powerful a God Thou art, before whom the brightest angels hide their faces, we could not come but with a trembling awe into Thy presence!
Together with shame, here is sorrow; a sorrow testified by tears, and tears in such abundance that she washes the feet of our Saviour with those streams of penitence: “She began to wash his feet with tears.” We hear when she began; we hear not when she ended. When the grapes are pressed, the juice runs forth; so, when the mind is pressed, tears distil the true juice of penitence and sorrow. These eyes were not used to such clouds, or to such showers: there was nothing in them formerly but sunshine of pleasure, beams of lust; now they are resolved into the drops of grief and contrition. Whence was this change, but from the secret working of God’s Spirit? “He caused his wind to blow, and the waters flowed; he smote the rock, and the waters gushed out.” O God! smite Thou this rocky heart of mine, and the waters of repentance shall burst forth in abundance.
Never were Thy feet, O Saviour, bedewed with more precious liquor than this of remorseful tears. These cannot be so spent, but that Thou keepest them in Thy bottle, yea, thou returnest them back with interest of true comfort: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Blessed are they that mourn.” Lo! this wet seed-time shall be followed with a harvest of happiness and glory.
That this service might be complete, as her eyes were the ewer, so her hair was the towel for the feet of Christ. Doubtless, at a feast, there was no want of the most curious linen for this purpose. All this was nothing to her: to approve her sincere humility, and hearty devotion to Christ, her hair shall be put to this glorious office. The hair is the chief ornament of womanhood; the feet, as they are the lowest part of the body, so the meanest for account, and homeliest for employment; and, lo! this penitent bestows the chief ornament of her head on the meanest office, to the feet of her Saviour. That hair, which she was wont to spread as a net to catch her amorous companions, is honoured with the employment of wiping the beautiful feet of Him that brought the glad tidings of
peace and salvation; and might it have been any service to Him to have licked the dust under those feet of His, how gladly would she have done it! Nothing can be mean that is done to the honour of a Saviour.
Never was any hair so preferred as this. How I envy those locks that were graced with the touch of those sacred feet, but much more those lips that kiss them! Those lips that had been formerly inured to the wanton touches of her lascivious lovers, now sanctify themselves with the testimony of her humble homages and dear respects to the Son of God. Thus her ointment, hands, eyes, hair, lips, are now consecrated to the service of Christ her Saviour, whom she had offended. If our satisfaction be not in some kind proportionable to our offence, we are no true penitents.
All this while, I hear not one word fall from the mouth of this woman. What need her tongue speak, when her eyes spake, her hands spake? Her gesture, her countenance, her whole carriage, was vocal. I like this silent speaking well, when our actions talk, and our tongues hold their peace. The common practice is contrary; men’s tongues are busy, but their hands are still. All their religion lies in their tongue; their hands either do nothing, or ill, so as their profession is but wind, as their words. Wherefore are words, but for expression of the mind? if that could be known by the eye or by the hand, the language of both were alike. There are no words amongst spirits, yet they perfectly understand each other. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” All tongues cannot speak so loud as they that have none. Give me the Christian that is seen and not heard. The noise that our tongue makes in a formality of profession, shall, in the silence of our hands, condemn us for hypocrites.
The Pharisee saw all this, but with an evil eye. Had he not had some grace, he had never invited such a guest as Jesus; and if he had grace enough, he had never entertained such a thought as this of the guest he invited: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what manner of woman it is that toucheth him, for she is a sinner.”
How many errors in one breath! Justly, O Simon, hath this one thought lost thee the thank of thy feast. Belike, at the highest, thou judgest thy guest but a prophet; and now thou doubtest whether He were so much. Besides this undervaluation, how unjust is the ground of this doubt! Every prophet knew not every thing; yea, no prophet ever knew all things. Elisha knew the very secrets of the Assyrian privy-chamber; yet he knew not the calamity of his worthy hostess. The finite knowledge of the ablest seer reaches but so far as it will please God to extend it. Well might he therefore have been a prophet, and, in the knowledge of greater matters, not have known this.
Unto this, how weakly didst thou, because of Christ’s silent admission of the woman, suppose Him ignorant of her quality! as if knowledge would be measured always by the noise of expression.
Stay but awhile, and thou shalt find that He well knew both her life and thy heart. Besides, how injuriously dost thou take this woman for what she was? not conceiving, as well thou mightest, were not this woman a convert, she would never have offered herself into this presence. Her modesty and her tears bewray her change; and if she be changed, why is she censured for what she is not?
How strongly did it savour of the leaven of thy profession, that thou supposedst, were she what she was, that it could not stand with the knowledge and holiness of a prophet to admit of her least touch, yea, of her presence; whereas, on the one side, outward conversation in itself makes no man unclean or holy, but according to the disposition of the patient; on the other, such was the purity and perfection of this thy Glorious Guest, that it was not possibly infectible, nor any way obnoxious to the danger of other’s sin. He, that said once, “Who touched me?” in regard of virtue issuing from Him, never said, whom have I touched? in regard of any contagion incident unto Him. We sinful creatures, in whom the prince of this world finds too much, may easily be tainted with other men’s sins. He who came to take away the sins of the world, was incapable of pollution by sin. Had the woman then been still a sinner, thy censure of Christ was proud and unjust.
The Pharisee spake, but it was within himself: and now, behold, “Jesus answering, said.”
What we think, we speak to our hearts, and we speak to God:
and He equally hears, as if it came out of our mouths. Thoughts are not free. Could men know and convince them, they would be no less liable to censure, than if they came forth clothed with words. God, who hears them, judges of them accordingly. So here, the heart of Simon speaks, “Jesus answers.”
Jesus answers him, but with a parable. He answers many a thought with judgment; the blasphemy of the heart, the murder of the heart, the adultery of the heart, are answered by him with a real vengeance. For Simon, our Saviour saw his error was either out of simple ignorance, or weak mistaking; where He saw no malice, then it is enough to answer with a gentle conviction. The convictive answer of Christ is by way of parable. The wisdom of God knows how to circumvent us for our gain; and can speak that pleasingly, by a prudent circumlocution, which downright would not be digested. Had our Saviour said in plain terms, Simon, whether dost thou or this sinner love me more? the Pharisee could not for shame but have stood upon his reputation, and, in a scorn of the comparison, have protested his exceeding respects to Christ. Now, ere he is aware, he is fetched in to give sentence against himself, for her whom he condemned. O Saviour, Thou hast made us fishers of men: how should we learn of Thee so to bait our hooks, that they may be most likely to take! Thou, the great Householder of Thy church, hast provided victuals for Thv family. Thou hast appointed us to dress them: if we do not so cook them, as that they may fit the palates to which they are intended, we do both lose our
labour and thy cost. The parable is of two debtors to one creditor;
the one owed a lesser sum, the other a greater; both are forgiven. It was not the purpose of him that propounded it, that we should stick in the bark: God is our creditor, our sins our debts; we are all debtors, but one more deep than another. No man can pay this debt alone: satisfaction is not possible; only remission can discharge us. God doth in mercy forgive as well the greatest as the least sins. Our love to God is proportionable to the sense of our remission. So then the Pharisee cannot choose but confess, that the more and greater the sin is, the greater mercy in the forgiveness;
and the more mercy in the forgiver, the greater obligation and more love in the forgiven.
Truth, from whose mouth soever it falls, is worth taking up:
our Saviour praises the true judgment of a Pharisee. It is an injurious indiscretion in those who are so prejudiced against the persons, that they reject the truth. He, that would not quench the smoking flax, encourages even the least good. As the surgeon strokes the arm ere he strikes the vein, so did Christ here: ere He convinces the Pharisee of his want of love. He graceth him with a fair approbation of his judgment; yet the while turning both His face and His speech to the poor penitent, as one that cared more for a true humiliation for sin, than for a false pretence of respect and innocence.
With what a dejected and abashed countenance, with what earth-fixed eyes, do we imagine the poor woman stood, when she saw her Saviour direct His face and words to her.
She that durst but stand behind Him, and steal the falling of some tears upon His feet, with what a blushing astonishment doth she behold His countenance cast upon her! While His eyes were turned towards this penitent. His speech was turned to the Pharisee concerning that penitent, by him mistaken: “Seest thou this woman?” He who before had said, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what manner of woman this is.” now hears. “Seest thou this woman?” Simon saw but her outside; Jesus lets him see that He saw her heart, and will thus convince the Pharisee that He is more than a prophet, who knew not her conversation only, but her soul. The Pharisee, that went all bv appearance, shall by her deportment see the proof of her good disposition: it shall happily shame him, to hear the comparison of the wants of his own entertainments, with the abundance of hers.
It is strange that any of this formal sect should be defective in their lotions. Simon had not given water to so great a Guest; she washes His feet with her tears. By how much the water of the eye was more precious than the water of the earth, so much was the respect and courtesy of this penitent above the neglected office of the Pharisee. What use was there of a towel, where was no water? she, that made a fountain of her eyes, made precious napery of her hair: that better flax shamed the linen in the Pharisee’s chest.
A kiss of the cheek had wont to be pledge of the welcome of their guests: Simon neglects to make himself thus happy; she redoubles the kisses of her humble thankfulness upon the blessed feet of her Saviour. The Pharisee omits ordinary oil for the head; she supplies the most precious and fragrant oil to His feet.
Now the Pharisee reads his own taxations in her praise, and begins to envy where he had scorned.
It is our fault, O Saviour, if we mistake Thee. We are ready to think, so Thou have the substance of good usage. Thou regardest not the compliments and ceremonies whereas now we see Thee to have both meat and welcome in the Pharisee’s house, and yet hear thee glance at His neglect of washing, kissing, anointing. Doubtless, omission of due circumstances in Thy entertainment may deserve to lose our thanks. Do we pray to Thee? do we hear Thee preach to us? now we make Thee good cheer in our house: but if we perform not these things with the fit decency of our outward carriages, we give Thee not Thy water. Thy kisses. Thy oil. Even meet ritual observances are requisite for thy full welcome.
Yet how little had these things been regarded, if they had not argued the woman’s thankful love to Thee and the ground of that love, sense of her remission, and the Pharisee’s default in both!
Love and action do necessarily evince each other. True love cannot lurk long unexpressed; it will be looking out at the eyes, creeping out of the mouth, breaking out at the finger’s ends, in some actions of dearness, especially those wherein there is pain and difficulty to the agent, profit or pleasure to the affected. O Lord, in vain shall we profess to love Thee, if we do nothing for Thee! Since our goodness cannot reach up unto Thee, who art our glorious head, O let us bestow upon Thy feet. Thy poor members here below, our tears, our hands, our ointment, and whatever of our
gifts or endeavours may testify our thankfulness and love to Thee in them.
O happy word! “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her.” Methinks I see how this poor penitent revived with this breath; how new life comes into her eyes, new blood into her cheeks, new spirits into her countenance, like unto our mother earth, when, in that first confusion, “God said. Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that beareth seed, and the fruit-tree yielding fruit;” all runs out into flowers, and blossoms, and leaves, and fruit. Her former tears said, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” now her cheerful smiles say, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ my Lord.”
Seldom ever do we meet with so perfect a penitent; seldom do we find so gracious a dismission. What can be wished of any mortal creature but remission, safety, faith, peace? all these are here met, to make a contrite soul happy; remission the ground of her safety, faith the ground of her peace, safety and salvation the issue of her remission, peace the blessed fruit of her faith.
O woman, the perfume that thou broughtest is poor and base, in comparison of those sweet savours of rest and happiness that are returned to thee! Well was that ointment bestowed, wherewith thy soul is sweetened to all eternity.
Bishop J. Hall.