Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Two Debtors


Luke 7:36-50

The setting was an oriental banquet. Simon the Pharisee had invited Jesus home for dinner because Jesus was a prophet. Perhaps he had heard him preach in the local synagogue. In those days prophets were rare in Judea. Ever since the days of Ezra, they had not had a real prophet except perhaps for John the Baptist. But this man was greater than John even by John's own admission. Simon was smiling and happy as he introduced his friends to his celebrity guest. They seemed to be duly impressed.

It was time to dine. They reclined at low tables, legs and feet extended beside them. Jesus reclined near Simon as the guest of honor. Onlookers milled about who were not guests. This was not unusual. When the time came to eat, Simon looked about with satisfaction at his admiring friends and especially the prophet, Jesus Christ. Everything seemed to be going on so smoothly. Simon anticipated a lovely evening.

Then someone caught his attention. He recognized her immediately as a sinner. She was probably a prostitute or a woman married to a man engaged in a dishonorable occupation. What was she doing at his party?

He reasoned, "She's just passing through like the rest of the strangers. Just woman's curiosity. She'll be gone in a minute. She's coming my way. What is she up to? She probably just wants to get a good look at the food. She'll be gone in a minute. Now she's stopped right at the feet of my honored guest! I'll call my servants and have them move her out before she becomes an embarrassment!

"Wait a minute. I wonder what Jesus' reaction will be. If he's really a prophet he'll know what kind of a woman she is and he'll get rid of her. I'll wait awhile and see what happens. I don't think any of my guests have seen her yet. I know some of them know her.

"Oh my, she's beginning to cry. Her tears are falling on Jesus' feet. This is beyond embarrassment! Jesus must feel those tears and yet he's not saying or doing anything. He must not be a prophet. A prophet would surely know who she was. Look at what she's doing! She's loosening her hair and letting it down in public, and she's doing it in my party! Now she's wiping his feet with her hair. Unbelievable.

"Jesus is smiling at her. He's definitely not a prophet. What's that smell? She's poured a jar of ointment on his feet. Unbelievable! Everyone smells the ointment! Everybody's staring! They've stopped talking!

"Nobody's going to say anything now, though after their bellies are full and the evening is over, it will be the talk of the town. Jesus doesn't seem to mind. He's accommodating her in fact. Now everybody's looking at me. I'll act as if nothing unusual is going on. It's not the first time I've been made a fool of."

Simon had not said a word. These were only his thoughts. But just as he concluded that Jesus was not a prophet, Jesus turned to him and said, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "What is it, Teacher?" he answered with less respect than he would have earlier. "A certain lender 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 cautiously, "I suppose the one to whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Simon was relieved he gave the right answer but wondered what it was all about.

Simon thought Jesus did not know the woman. But Jesus knew her far better than Simon knew her. He had in fact brought her great deliverance from a sinful life. She had been forgiven much. Because of that she had come with her jar of ointment to anoint Jesus. But standing at his feet, grateful for what Jesus had done for her, she could not keep back her tears of joy. She did not mean for her tears to wet Jesus' feet. She was shocked that this had happened and so, forgetting herself, she loosened her hair to wipe away her tears. This was an act that respectable women only did in private, but her love for Jesus made her forget about herself. She had brought the ointment to anoint his head. Now she poured it on his feet. In her gratitude she began to kiss his feet. Kissing someone's feet was another astonishing gesture of gratitude, an extraordinary demonstration of love and appreciation. And that was exactly what it was. This woman loved much because she had been forgiven much.

Simon ponders the parable. "What is Jesus telling me? Obviously Jesus has forgiven the woman a great sin and she is grateful. But is he implying that there is something wrong with me because some prostitute isn't washing my feet with her hair? That's ridiculous! I've paid my tithes of mint, dill and cummin. I fast twice a week. I wash my hands ceremonially before I eat."

If Simon were living today, he might be saying, "I go to Sabbath School and church every Sabbath. I pay my tithes and offerings faithfully. I send my children to the church school."

Simon continues: "Anyway, he's not accusing me of anything. It would be rude to even suggest that I need forgiveness. It's just an attempt to excuse the inexcusable-just another story from the mouth of a charlatan."

But then Jesus pointed to the woman and said, "Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet [a common courtesy and ordinary kindness or a towel to wipe them], but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss [on the cheek], 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 sins, which were many, have been forgiven; that's why she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

Jesus reprimands Simon for hypocritical behavior that is so lacking in love that it demeans an honored guest and is critical of a loving act.

It is obviously true that a person who is forgiven much does not always love his benefactor. Jesus' comment should be understood as a proverb or wise saying that contains a probable truth. Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one came back to thank him. Neither is Jesus is saying that the woman is a worse sinner than Simon. He said to the Pharisees in Mathew 21:31 that "the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."

What Jesus was saying is that the woman realized more truly and genuinely the reality of her sin. She had a greater debt not because she was a greater sinner than Simon but because she had a greater sense of her sinfulness. The lesson Jesus draws is that the sinner who has a realization of the heinousness of sin will love much when forgiven. Simon, because he has no sense of his own sins, cannot understand the joy and thankfulness that comes with forgiveness.

The only cure for Simon's type of indifference is the recognition that forgiveness and salvation are God's gifts. Paul was stoned, imprisoned, beaten, whipped, and suffered countless dangers and ignominy serving the Lord who loved him. Paul loved much because he knew he had been forgiven much.

A.J. Cronin's son who was studying medicine at McGill University told him the story of a patient whose life was saved by a blood transfusion. Later the patient asked: "Isn't there any way I can discover the name of the donor and thank him?" He was told that names were never divulged. After the discharge, this patient returned again and again to donate blood. When someone commended him for his splendid record of anonymous service, he answered simply, "Someone I never knew did it for me. I'm just saying `thanks.'" 1

Jesus' life was poured out to deliver us from the depths of sin and bondage. He gave us a blood transfusion that saved our lives. How are we saying thanks?

1. A. J. Cronin, "The Grace of Gratitude," Reader's Digest, March 1953, p. 68.

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