A few days ago I was working on a new sermon, which is based in Luke 7:36-50. In this passage we read how a feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee was disturbed by a woman who had somehow gained entry, poured costly oil over Jesus’ feet and dried his feet with her hair. We also are informed that the woman was known in the city as a notorious sinner, but that Jesus’ told her that all her sins were forgiven.
It is a beautiful subject for a sermon. We all are sinners, like this woman. But at the end of the story Jesus’ regards her as a forgiven sinner. The point of the story is that Simon could only see this woman as a despicable sinner, but that Jesus changed her status in that of a sinner who had received forgiveness. This greatly encourages us. Whatever people may say about us, the only thing that really matters is how we are seen by God.
Working on this sermon I was once again made aware of the differences we notice in the descriptions of the gospel writers of particular events. This is certainly also true for this story. In this case the differences between the four versions of the gospel writers are such that most commentators have concluded that there must have been two similar occurrences. Matthew, Mark and John place this event just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, while Luke places it towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
So, the question is: are we dealing with one event or two different events? In reading the book The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, one quickly discovers that this author regarded it as one and the same occurrence. For many Adventists that settles the question. Many feel that Ellen White has the final say with regard to the interpretation of the Bible. Others, like myself, question this view. But whatever be the case: Those who maintain that the stories all describe the same incident, must take considerable liberties with the text and just ignore some significant differences.
It is interesting to see how Ellen White fuses the different versions of the story. Just one example of this is the description of what this woman actually did. Did she pour her oil over Jesus’ head, as Matthew and Mark tell us, or over his feet, as we are told by Luke and John. Ellen White solves this problem by simply stating that the woman poured her oil on Jesus’ head as well as over his feet.
Should something like this worry us? That depends. It is no problem for me. My definition of inspiration is broad enough to accept that the Bible writers may not have remembered every detail of the events they describe, or may have used sources that were not totally correct oreer incomplete. But those who defend a much more strict theory of inspiration and are convinced of the so-called ‘plain reading’ approach to the Bible, do have something to explain. They must face the fact that there are clear discrepancies between several biblical passages about one and the same event that cannot be simply ignored. And they will have to explain how one can, following the ‘plain reading’ method, fuse different stories without dealing with these clear differences. It seems to me that this leads to the conclusion that Ellen White took certain liberties with the text that can hardly be defended from a ‘plain reading’ perspective.
In my sermon I will not dwell on the many technical issues concerning this story from Luke. I will also leave the question of the identity of this woman aside. John is the only evangelist who mentions the name of Mary. Was she the sister of Martha and Lazarus (as the Desire of Ages tells us) or does the story in Luke perhaps point to Mary of Magdala? My sermon will emphasize the underlying message of the story for me and for the people who will listen to me, namely that we are also forgiven sinners and not just sinners. But those who push the ‘plain reading’ theory should give it considerable thought how they can reconcile the differences in the versions of the four gospels.