A Hospital, Not a Museum

“A church is not a museum for the saints—it is a hospital for sinners.”
― Abigail Van Buren

Much of America’s national theology in the 20th century came from syndicated advice columns, including the sentence quoted above. Though the phrase has been attributed to Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, and many others, its first recorded use actually occurred in a 1964 column by Dear Abby A couple calling themselves only “Sinners” wrote Abby to say that they had been living together without the benefit of clergy for 25 years and did not feel worthy to go to church. “The very fact that you are troubled by the way you have been living proves that you are worthy,” Abby wrote. “A church is not a museum for the saints—it is a hospital for sinners.”

It would not have been out of place coming from Augustine or Chrysostom, though, because the sentiment (factoring out the modern origins of both hospitals and museums) comes directly from Jesus. When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, they (quite logically) asked his disciples, “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard them and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:11-12, NRSV).

This is the short answer to the question. A much longer answer occurs in Luke 7, which is part of this week’s Come Follow Me reading. In this passage, Jesus is invited to eat with a Pharisee named Simon. This itself is a rare event. Most of Christ’s confrontations with religious officials occur in public settings—synagogues, street corners, marketplaces and the like. Rarely is he invited to the home of an adversary, which makes this something of a special occasion, either a particularly cynical trap or a genuine pastoral outreach.

When Jesus arrives, one of the other guests in the home is a woman that the text describes simply as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” The woman comes to Simon’s home because she knows that Jesus will be there, and she wets his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints his feet with expensive ointment. (Luke 7: 37-38)

The story that follows appears in all four gospels, and never in quite the same way. In Matthew and Mark, the host is Simon the Leper rather than Simon the Pharisee—though the categories are not mutually exclusive ( Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). And in John, the woman is Mary Magdelene (John 12:1-8). In all three other gospels, somebody—either the other guests (Matthew), the disciples (Mark), or Judas Iscariot (John)—asks Jesus why he allows the woman to anoint him with expensive oil that could be sold with the money given to the poor. Jesus’s answers contain an important lesson, but it is not today’s important lesson, since it is not the point of the story in Luke.

For Luke, the “gotcha” moment has nothing to do with the price of the oil, but with the sinfulness of the woman. She is, we are told up front, a sinner. We do not know what her sin is, though most people assume it is sexual (the fact that we assume that any unspecified sin must be sexual speaks volumes about our own spiritual maturity, but that, too, is a lesson for another post). What is important here is that her sins are public. She is not just a sinner (who isn’t?). She is a known sinner. So known that “sinner” becomes her major identity in the text.

To his credit, Simon does not blurt out his first thought. He says, only to himself, “if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner” (7:39). The irony here is off the charts, since Simon misunderstands everything important about the situation. It would not take a prophet to know that the woman was publicly seen as a sinner. That is the unimportant thing that everybody seems to know. Jesus is a prophet because he knows other things about her too. Unlike Simon and everyone else, he refuses to reduce her to her misdeeds just because they are more public than those of other people.

But Simon is looking straight past the woman’s actions and focusing on her reputation—and, in the meantime, she is treating Jesus with charity and kindness. Jesus quickly discerns what Simon is thinking and offers a parable

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” (Luke 7:40-43)

The message that Simon seems to draw from this story goes something like this: the woman was forgiven for greater sins, so it makes sense for her to have greater gratitude, which she demonstrates by physical tokens of her respect and affection. Simon, as one who is upright and righteous, requires less forgiveness and therefore shows less love. Jesus forgives the woman’s sins and people marvel that he has the authority to forgive sins.

But that is not really what is going on here. The lesson that Simon drew from Jesus’s words is not the message that we should draw at all. And Jesus gives us plenty of clues as to how we should read the story instead.

In the first place, Simon doesn’t really give the right answer. He has “judged rightly” only from his own perspective, which assumes that love and forgiveness are transactional—that God forgives us because we do stuff, and we love him back in proportion to the amount of forgiveness we receive. This is how the Roman Empire works, but it is not how the Kingdom of God works. The whole point of the parable of the vineyard workers (Matt 20:1-16) is that transactional logic doesn’t work in God’s Kingdom. God’s forgiveness is total, and our love is total, and it doesn’t matter how the credits and debits stack up.

Jesus also rejects Simon’s implicit assumption that publically known sins and sins of commission (like those of the woman) are worse than private sins and sins of omission (like the sins of Simon).

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. (Luke 7:44-47)

We must note both the profundity and the radical nature of this rebuke. Jesus tells Simon that his ommissions—his failure to show love and respect—are as serious as whatever sins the woman might have committed, sexual or otherwise. This should land with hurricane force for members of a denomination that sees uncorrelated sexuality as “the sin next to murder” and drinking coffee as a spiritually disqualifying act, while largely ignoring the failure to love and respect others because such things are more difficult to incorporate into objective measurements of worthiness.

Luke also takes great care not to say that Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, even though this is what the onlookers seem to hear. Jesus tells the woman that her sins have been forgiven and then, dismissing her, says “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” The clear implication here is that the love that the woman shows, and the trust that she has in Jesus, are the focus of God’s relationship with her. The relationship is constitutive and consequential rather than regulative and transactional. She does not love Jesus because he forgives her sins. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. Her genuine love and meaningful faith create an all-encompassing context for her relationship with God. Such a relationship simply has no reason to dwell on past mistakes.

And this, ultimately, is what it means to see the church as a hospital rather than a museum. The church is a place where people who know only how to love themselves—and other people only as extensions of themselves—can be transformed into people who love God with all their heart and their neighbor as themselves. To do this, the church cannot hide anyone in the corners or, worse, refuse to let them in the door. And we can’t make people so uncomfortable that they choose never to walk through the door themselves—either by acts of commission, or, more likely, by withholding our love and fellowship until they meet some arbitrary standard of worthiness. Nobody can actually meet such standards in any meaningful way, and everybody must be welcome anyway. That is how hospitals work.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    This is full of wisdom, insight, and inspiration.

    Thank you, Michael.

  2. What a great sermon, Michael. Thank you.

  3. Your best work! (And that is saying something).

  4. Michael, I like the ideals behind this, and the idea that when Jesus rebuked Simon it was to suggest that Simon had done worse than the woman, but think verse 47, which you omitted here, supports the traditional interpretation.

    In the same breath that Jesus says the woman’s sins are forgiven he says she loved much (a euphemism people logically understand to take to suggest is sexual sin, to address your question on that front), he says she has many sins and specifically attributes her outpouring of affection as the natural consequence of being forgiven a great debt.

    47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
    48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

  5. The trouble with the hospital analogy is that there are too many people in the church who think of themselves as the doctors, there to fix everybody else. They fail to recognize that they themselves are also sick and that Jesus is the only doctor. Nope, they are not even nurses, just patients who run around telling everybody else they are gonna die, and refuse to stay in their own rooms and take their own medicine.

    And I really did love your post, it is just that I am sad because the hospital doesn’t work because too many people think they have replaced Jesus, and they even tell us that they and Jesus are one and the same.

  6. Matt, I don’t think that the term “love” in this verse can be read as a euphemism for sex. The Greek word used here is a form of agape, the same kind of love that the KJV translates as “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13. So the text is saying something like, “she charitied much” or “she showed great caringness.” This pretty clearly refers to the way that she treats Jesus, not to the nature of her sins.

    As to the phrase, “her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much,” the text can be read as either “her many sins are forgiven and this is why she showed such great love” OR, “she showed great love, and this is why her sins were forgiven.” Both translations appear in various English versions. The KJV leaves it ambiguous. Either translation, I think, can support a non-transactional reading of the statement that she is forgiven.

  7. Pontius Python says:

    ^^ I’ve always read that verse to mean that she showed much love to Jesus by anointing him, washing his feet, etc, in a spirit of love, friendship, gratitude, worship, etc. Personally, it’s never occurred to me to read anything sexual into that verse. But what do I know? Nothing at all, really.

  8. Steve Marsh says:

    Nicely said.

  9. Kristin Brown says:

    Pontius, your thoughts are my thoughts.

  10. She loved much. Yes , Charity covers a multitude of sins.

  11. I have always interpreted this story in the same way–that this woman who recognized and loved the Messiah was forgiven of her sins.
    We don’t know what her sins were, or what dreadful situation might have forced her into the position of being publicly labeled a sinner.
    Additionally, I am constantly astonished by the number of women in the Bible who seem able to commit adultery all by themselves. I guess I’m just too naive to figure that one out.

  12. From your mouth to God’s ears, LauraN.

  13. “The church is a place where people who know only how to love themselves—and other people only as extensions of themselves—can be transformed into people who love God with all their heart and their neighbor as themselves.”

    Beautiful. And this is why that kind of love will take a lifetime. Love is not the easy way out, it is the grueling work.

  14. My takeaway from this lesson is whether it is Simon or the woman; as the Savior forgives our sins, our love for him grows. It is hard to say what her sins are since the scriptures do not tell us. I have many sins and many are known, but adultery is not one of them.

  15. Another thing is she wasn’t invited to the dinner. She just showed up. Part of showing her love for the Savior was that she came, even though others thought she should stay away. Nothing kept her from coming to Him.

  16. Nothing could be funnier to read this evening that Michael noting, as an aside to a very fine post, that “the fact that we assume that any unspecified sin must be sexual speaks volumes about our own spiritual maturity,” and then see Matt Evans, in the most predictable move ever, insisting that the woman’s unspecified sin just *has* to be sexual.

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