I grew up in central Wisconsin. As a teenager, I was a big fan of Brett Favre (along with 5 million other people in the State). I know his stats starting from 1992 to present. I would pretend to throw like him my backyard. I’ve read all his Sport Illustrated cover stories. I worked at a Sporting Goods store so I could collect his memorabilia. I can even tell you the name of the town he lives in down south (Kiln, Mississippi). I have never met Brett, yet I feel like we’re buds. I know a lot about Brett Favre (probably more than most of you), but I really don’t know him. I love to watch him fling a football, but I don’t really love him like those closest to him.
Sadly, some in the church think of Jesus like I thought of Brett Favre. Now I am not comparing Jesus to Brett Favre (although I know some fanatics who might). You can be just a fan of Jesus. You can know a little about Him, and love things about Him. But you might not really know Him or love Him as He desires. This leads to the question in the title: Is it better to know Jesus or love Jesus? No, it’s not a trick question, but the answer may surprise you.
When Jesus came He called for faith and followership from the least to the greatest, the poor to the rich, the sinner and the religious. Jesus came to save the good, bad, and ugly. We see this in Luke 7. As we step into the story it begs us to ask another question: Who am I most like in the story?
1. Am I like Simon the Pharisee? He’s got a lot knowledge of God, but no intimacy [Luke 7:36].
In Luke 7, Jesus is invited over for dinner by a Pharisee named Simon [v.36]. Ironically, Simon invited Jesus over just after He scolded the Pharisees for not accepting either John or Himself. And the Pharisees just accused Him of being a party boy with the tax collectors and sinners [7:34]. But Jesus didn’t play favorites. He accepted dinner invitations from the Pharisees too, without asking about their motives [cf. 11:37; 14:1].
What is a Pharisees? In the Bible, they are a group of Jewish religious leaders. In its title, Pharisee, means, “separated ones.” They built ‘fence laws’ (traditions) around God’s law to help them keep God’s law and to protect their personal image so that they appeared holy and separate from the sinful world. They hung holiness around their neck like Mt. T wore gold chains. Their fence laws were often stricter than God’s law. They were good law keepers and made sure others saw it. Their fence was painted and polished on the outside, but inside it would not meet any inspection codes. Pride and hypocrisy are the failures of fence law’s. They knew a lot about God, but they really didn’t know Him. In Matthew 15:8. Jesus describes the Pharisees as “people who honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.”
Simon invitation to have the traveling rabbi over for a meal would have been considered a religious brownie point. Jesus should have been considered the guest of honor. In the Middle East during those days there were certain rules of etiquette. First, a customary greeting would be given of a kiss on the cheek or hand. To neglect the kiss of greeting would be like having a person come into your home and not saying, “Hello!” or shaking their hand. Second, in a shoeless culture, the washing of feet was mandatory before meals. Normally the host or his servant would wash the feet or at the very least they would give water to the guests to wash their own feet. Third, for an especially distinguished guest, some (inexpensive) olive oil was given for anointing their head.
When Jesus comes to the house of Simon, there is no kiss (greeting), no washing of feet, and no oil for his head. The reason is not certain why Simon did not do these courteous gestures. But from Jesus’ words later on, Simon didn’t really know Him. If Simon really knew who He was he would have honored Jesus more extravagantly.
It’s not that Simon did not know God. He knew a lot about God. As a Pharisee, he spent his life studying the Scriptures. By the age of 12 he had memorized the first 12 books of the Bible. He would squash the kids in your AWANA ministry! By the age of 15 he had memorized the entire Old Testament. Sadly, he committed to memory more than 300 OT prophecies about the coming Messiah, yet he didn’t even realize it is the Messiah who sat at his dinner table. He knew about Jesus, but he didn’t know Jesus.
He’s all knowledge, but no intimacy.
When I graduated from Bible College I had quite the chip on my shoulder. I read the Bible backwards and forwards many times for class. The Bible became a textbook. I knew enough Greek and Hebrew to look smart. I knew the Bible, but my head was the size of a hot air balloon and it was filled with pride. God used a lot of patient people in my first ministry to chisel away at my pride. And it’s still a temptation.
Pharisees often confused knowing God for loving God. In church, it is easy to get this confused too. We build systems that cater towards knowing about God, but not necessarily loving God. We have endless Bible studies with workbook and Bible curriculum with homework. Sermons notes with fill in the blanks. If you grew up in the church, you probably go to Sunday school, where you have a teacher. In the summer the kids may go to Vacation Bible school. All these programs help you know, but not always love God.
Hear me out (before you throw stones); I wholeheartedly encourage studying, teaching, and preaching God’s Word. It is a biblical mandate. It’s my calling. Even our example, Jesus, read and quoted Scripture as proof that He knew God’s Word. The problem isn’t knowledge. The problem is that you can have knowledge without having intimacy. In fact, knowledge can be a false indicator of intimacy. Obviously where there is intimacy there should be a growing knowledge of God, but too often there is knowledge without a growing intimacy.
Think about it this way, the proof that I love my wife is how much I know her. I know what kind of deodorant she uses. I know her favorite kind of Thai food. I know what makes her laugh or cry. So knowledge is part of intimacy, but just because there is knowledge doesn’t mean there is intimacy.
Probably the best biblical word for intimacy is the word “know.” But this knowing goes much deeper than knowledge. The Bible first uses this word to describe a relationship in Genesis 4:1, “Adam knew Eve his wife.” The Hebrew word for “knew” here is the word yada, which means ‘to know completely and to be completely known.’ Unabashedly, Genesis 4:1 is an intimate moment between a husband and wife. It’s a beautiful picture to help see what it really means to know God.
In Psalm 139, David uses this word yada to describe how God knows us, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.”
So the word used to describe a husband and wife is also used to describe how God knows you and wants to be known by you. This changes the way I think about knowing God. He’s not interested in a let’s-just-be-friends relationship; a noncommittal dating relationship; or a relationship where you define the terms; He is seeking the kind of commitment and intimacy best illustrated in a marriage relationship. Do you just know about Jesus or do you really know Him? Are you like Simon the Pharisee? He’s got a lot of knowledge of God, but no intimacy
2. Am I like the woman? She’s got little knowledge of Jesus and lot’s of love [Luke 7:37-38].
While Jesus is eating at Simon’s house a woman comes on the scene. She comes uninvited. To better comprehend the awkwardness of this moment, you must understand that she wasn’t just any woman. She’s “a woman of the city, who was a sinner.” [vs.37] Her reputation negatively precedes her. She’s done bad things that have damaged her reputation. Maybe she slept with her boyfriend, cheated on her husband, is in a same-sex relationship, or was a prostitute in the small town.
We are uncertain the specifics that drew her to Jesus. But in desperation she came to Him at Simon’s dinner party—a dinner she would never be invited to attend nor would she have interest in attending anyways. As she wandered in she felt the condemning glares from “holy men”. Nervous as she might be, she brushes off the glares and stares at Jesus.
Apparently she had heard Jesus teaching, maybe earlier that day. What about Jesus teaching made such an impact? Was it forgiveness? Perhaps while listening to Jesus she thought, “Can He really forgive my shameful past?” Was it redemption? Maybe as Jesus spoke she realized that only He could put back together the broken pieces of her life and make her whole. Was it love? Maybe she wondered, “Certainly Jesus knows how messed up I am; how the guilt of my sin stains me so deeply. Could He love me too?”
What she does next is impulsive, extravagant, and culturally unthinkable, especially to someone who did not know Jesus [v.38]. Can you feel the tension? The woman approaches the dinner table and stands at the feet of Jesus. The table is silent. Everybody is watching. Everybody knows who she is. They are thinking, “What is she doing here?” She looks around at the guests. She gets glares of judgment. She looks at Jesus. He looks at her. She looks to Him in faith seeking forgiveness for her shame. He looks back with a loving smile. She says nothing. Nothing needs to be said.
She is so overwhelmed, tears of repentance rain down. She falls and begins to kiss Jesus’ feet. Her tears begin to drip onto the dirty feet of Jesus. She sees the muddy streaks and suddenly realizes that His feet haven’t been washed. She can’t ask for a towel, so she lets down her hair. The dinner guests gasp out loud at her disgrace. Then she takes a costly alabaster jar of ointment. Perhaps in the past she used it drop-by-drop for many men. But now she empties it. She will not need it anymore. She pours out, her life, on His feet, and she kisses them over and over.
The woman does a gutsy and glorious thing, all at the same time. She faced her sin. Rather than running from it she runs to the only one who can forgive her. She is broken, grieved, and repentant. Her offering of worship is a sweet smelling aroma. In a moment, she moved from a life of shame to a member of the Fellowship of the Unashamed.
When is the last time you had a moment with Jesus like this woman? Repentant? Broken? Honest before God? When’s the last time you’ve poured yourself out before Him? When is the last time the shed tears over your sin and shame? When is the last time you demonstrated unashamed and extravagant worship?
Can you relate to this woman?
This sinful woman is a mentor to us all of a repentant heart and worshipful response towards Jesus. Unlike the Pharisee, who loves himself too much, she sees herself for who she is—a sinner needing forgiveness. Do you remember who you were before Christ? Do you see the seriousness of your sin? The closer I get to Jesus, the more sinful I recognize myself as being. I am the Pharisee when I forget I am like the woman. The woman didn’t know a lot about Jesus, but she knew He could forgive her sins. She didn’t love a bunch of things about Jesus. She really loved Him. Proof of her love was over-the-top worship. Do you love things about Jesus or do you really love Him?
3. Am I like Jesus? He’s got unbiased love and unconditional forgiveness [Luke 7:39-50].
It is easy to look at the two characters of the story and say, “I definitely don’t want to just know God like the Pharisee. I want to love God like the woman.” But you can assume or zoom by the third character in the story—He’s most important. His name is Jesus. He is the main character of not just this story but also the Bible. He is the one you most need to emulate. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2]
Notice how Jesus responds to Simon’s statement whispered under his breath [v.39 “If Jesus were a prophet He would know what kind of woman this sinner she is]. Jesus doesn’t blast him out of his boots by saying, “I heard that! Why would you say such a stupid thing, Simon! How dare you judge me? I am the Judge here.” No. But He doesn’t ignore Simon either. Listen to the tenderness in His voice: “Simon, I have something to say to you…” [v.40] In answer to Simon’s statement, Jesus uses His prophetic powers to read Simon’s heart. He told him a short parable. It is one of the smallest parables of Jesus (only two verses long), but it is hugely significant [vs.41-42].
In summary, a banker loans money to two men, one receives two year’s wages and the other receives two month’s wages. Neither man can pay back the banker. Unexpectedly, the banker shows grace and removes the debts from both their records. When each man should be bankrupt and file chapter 7 they are given a new start to life. Obviously, both gain new affection for the banker. But Jesus asks a crucial question, “Which man loved the banker the most?” Simon being no intellectual slouch has a ready answer [v.43]: “the one with the larger debt.” And Jesus acknowledged Simon has the right answer as a religious person would, but it did not mean he saw he was the one with the small debt.
Jesus’ story is not just for Simon, but it’s for all the ears at Simon’s table (including you and me). What is your place in the parable or Simon’s table? How would you respond to Jesus’ story? Would you sit beside Jesus and acknowledge only a small debt, or would you fall down at His feet and, in tears, begging for the forgiveness you do not deserve?
Now Jesus is ready to make His point [vs.44-47], “Do you (even) see this woman?” Jesus did not dispute the woman’s condition. They both agreed she was sinful. That’s not the point. The point: how acceptable is she before God? Simon is disgusted with her. He is also inhospitable with Jesus. But Jesus lets her touch, kiss, and wash His feet. Why? She loved much. She was a human in need of divine grace. She needed what only Jesus had to give—forgiveness and salvation. Ignoring any reply or reaction from Simon, Jesus spoke to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” [v.48]
Can you hear the dinner party guests gasp again? They began chattering around the table, “How could He forgive sins? That is God’s job. Who does this man Jesus claim to be?” [v.49] Precisely! God. As God, He can forgive. And Jesus’ words here are ultimately what get Him hung on the cross by religious people, like Simon. Again Jesus ignores them, and focuses solely on the woman, “Go on without worry. Live a new life. Your faith has saved you.” [v.50]
Jesus’ words are an invitation to Simon, and us all, to open our eyes to people around us who have been marginalized or ostracized. Before this moment, Simon failed to really see anything at all; he saw neither Jesus nor the woman. He was blind to her act of repentance and love. He only saw her sin. We don’t know if Simon changes. But we do know Jesus loves Simon as much as He loves the woman. He longs for Simon to see her not as a category (sinner) but as a person who, above all else, needs God’s love and forgiveness, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.”
The question of this text remains still remains, who am I most like? Simon? The woman? Jesus? The Pharisee and the woman are both sinners on opposite extremes of the pendulum. And Jesus gives them both what they need. The Pharisee needed truth in love. The woman needed forgiveness and assurance of His love. Jesus’ call to faith reaches out to people society deems as despicable (even the rapist, molester, cereal killer, stripper, or terrorist). But the church, unlike society, must show the sinner the way to Jesus and show His forgiveness and unconditional love. What can we do as a church or followers of Christ?
First, understand that faith often appears in the most unexpected places. It could be at your Sunday lunch and your waitress at Red Lobster, or the guy outside the bar, or the young pregnant gal walking to the clinic, or the uncomfortable and awkward outcast sitting in the pew near you. Let God bring salvation the way He chooses to the people He chooses. God can transform the worst of sinners and the greatest of the religious [cf. 8:1-3].
Second, beware of religious taboos such as never associating with sinners or shooing them away from the church. Yes, there is a place for protecting your church from false teachers, confronting sin, and “being in the world, but not of the world.” But how will they know unless you show love and forgiveness of the Light of the world? Our church creed must read: we are all equal in Christ who is our Head, though messy and sinful we are still His glorious Bride, everyone is welcome, for we are One in Him.
Third, cherish the truth that no one is worthy to receive what Jesus offers the woman. Know your place among the unworthy. What if God sent you a bill every month for your sin, what would you owe God? What would your debt be? Too much! Thank God, He sent Christ to forgive your debt. If you are in Him, He’s paid it all. Don’t you think that Jesus’ coming to earth, being obedient to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross is rather extravagant? My response is to pour out over-the-top gratitude. Be proud to be a member of the Fellowship of the Unashamed.
Fourth, believe Jesus alone has the power and authority to forgive sins and offer salvation. You can be the most religious or most sinful. The distance between you and God is repentance. Respond to Jesus in humble faith and accept His forgiveness and salvation. Today.
Is it better to know Jesus or love Jesus? It is best to know and love Jesus from your head all the way to your heart. Jesus said when asked by a Pharisee the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40]