The One About the Two Debtors (A Sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

This is one of my favourite parables. I’ve brought it up over and over again here on Sunday mornings and because I think in it lies truths that we all need to hear over and over again and not just having sitting on the back burner. Let’s read from Luke 7:36-50

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

The setup for this story is most likely a banquet which is setup to honour Jesus. The way it would have worked is that normally traveling teachers would have been invited, after they had preached, to the Sabbath meal. When Luke tells us that they reclined at the table, it would have hinted to a formal occasion. Women did not usually eat with men at banquets. In the Middle East banquets would tend to be a little less private than what we have now. The houses would be open and uninvited people could come in and observe from the sidelines among the servants. Women and slaves would have stood outside the circle of tables and near the feet of the guests.

Then this woman walks into the scene with tears flowing, hair flowing and expensive perfume flowing. We are not told the reason for this woman’s tears, and so we should probably leave it undecided. All we know is that there is lots of gratitude because to kiss and person’s feet is a sign of the most heartfelt gratitude, such as a man might show to one who had saved his life. She also unconsciously took off her head covering and unbound her hair in the presence of men. Which according to some rabbis of this time, this was enough reason for divorce. To anoint Jesus’ feet and to kiss them repeatedly, and dry them with her hair would have been considered an erotic and shameful act. She was evidently so grateful at having smothered Jesus with her tears, that she completely forgot her surroundings.

Anointing with oil would have been a pretty regular thing to do. What was not normal was anointing with expensive perfume. What was also strange was anointing feet with perfume and most certainly offensive. If the woman was a prostitute, which we aren’t certain of, the perfumed ointment would have been used in her profession. We have to understand again where the Pharisees are coming from. These people were extremely concerned about ritual purity. One rabbi (T. Yoma) argues that uncleanness is worse than bloodshed. This helps us see the gravity of the situation, defilement was a much more serious matter among ancient Jews than we can imagine.

The beginning of this parable is loaded with hints to let us know that this woman is in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. It would be the equivalent of a stripper walking into this room right now and doing a lap dance for Ron over here, but she would be crying out of gratitude for whatever reason. What would be the thoughts that would be flying through our head?

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is-that she is a sinner.”

Luke has a specific agenda in his gospel. Luke has a very special concern for sinners. This story is a very clear example of Jesus’ association with and reception by sinners. If you read straight through Luke tonight and pay special attention to all the time where he points out the division between the religious authorities and the sinful people attracted to Jesus you will find verse after verse of Luke making this distinction for us. Here we have the division not even being brought on by Luke, but by the Pharisee himself.

The Pharisees had a concern for purity at meals that we can hardly appreciate. With such purity concerns, Simon, the host, was convinced that Jesus’ tolerance of contact with this known sinner proved that eh could be neither righteous nor a prophet. Two passages from Sirach help to understand the Pharisee’s conclusion: 12:14, “So no one pities a person who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in the other’s sins”; and 13:17, “What does a wolf have in common with a lamb? No more than a sinner with the devout.” One of the most certain facts about Jesus is he associates with the wrong people, people others thought caused defilement, but Jesus did not fear becoming unclean by contact with the unholy. He thought holiness was stronger and more contagious than defilement, and he accepted the woman’s actions as righteous and loving.
–Klyne Snodgrass

This Pharisee allowed for the possibility that Jesus may be a prophet and now because of the entire situation his mind has been made up.

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii , and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

In typical Jesus style, the text said that the Pharisee said to himself, and then Jesus speaks to his thoughts and gives us his name. Teacher is a highly respected term and you wouldn’t throw it around lightly, but Simon is still able to give him this kind of respect.

Then Jesus jumps into the story. It is a very simple one. It is only two verses long. We’ve got this money lender, who obviously doesn’t care about money at all. He has two guys who owe him a large amount and a smaller amount and then based on nothing at all, he just cancels the debts. Hearers in this time would have been familiar with this idea of canceling debts. In Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 we find out about the year of Jubilee, where everyone’s debts are canceled. So it may have been a subversive idea to some, but it would not have been to Jews, because this idea of canceling debts was already ingrained into their belief system.

And like many parables, this one ends with a question requiring that the hearer passes a judgment. The answer to the question is extremely obvious but as Simon answers the question, he doesn’t realize he opened up a back door for Jesus to come in and pull out some karate moves.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Jesus is brilliant. Once Simon answers the question, the answer we all would have given the conclusion cannot be evaded. Obviously the person forgiven the greater debt should love more or possibly be more grateful. Jeremias, one of the authors we are reading for this series, argues that no word for thank or thankfulness existed in Aramaic, and therefore the Greek word for love (agapan) was used in the sense of gratitude or grateful love. So it’s not so much love that we are looking at here but it is the idea of grateful love.

Jesus then takes this opportunity to show that Simon hasn’t done anything to express any care at all. Where the women was over the top in her love expressed. The extravagance it seems Jesus took as either evidence of or grounds for forgiveness. The contrast places the woman in a much more honourable position than Simon and marks Simon as the one who loves little.

Underneath this story are questions of identity of everyone that is part of the story. To the Pharisee, Jesus could not be a prophet since he did not understand what kind of women touched him, but with some irony in the narrative, Jesus shows that he is a prophet because he knows what is in the Pharisees heart, and more than a prophet because he announces forgiveness.

The identity of the women is at issue. The Pharisee is sure she is a sinner, Jesus is sure she is a forgiven sinner.

The Pharisees identity is also in question. Is he as pure and right before God as he thinks? Directly related to issues of identity are issues of value and honour. Jesus’ understanding of the value and honour of people is at direct odds with that of Simon.

The sinner woman is better off than the Pharisee.

This parable is about identity and understanding our true identity. It is difficult to be gracious and generous people if we don’t understand our true identity.

I want to show a clip of a movie called Ordinary Radicals. I will leave a copy of the movie here in case anyone wants to borrow it, it’s a beautiful film. This clip helps exemplify what I’m trying to say about understanding our identity and who we are supposed to be.

Question: Could you have had the same position as the Amish? How did this clip make you feel?

I wanted to show this clip because I think it relates back to the forgiveness that we talked about last week. Forgiveness becomes part of a lifestyle that we decide upon ahead of time. After studying these parables I think we should have done this one first because I think it sets us up for last week’s parable. We all know that forgiveness is a good thing but to leave us with a parable like last week in that it basically says forgive or you won’t be forgiven, it’s sort of intimidating and it doesn’t leave us with a whole lot of answers to the question ok so what do we do now? In fact we sort of admitted to ourselves, at least some of us did, that we don’t want to forgive, or at least we don’t forgive everyone especially when they do something that hurts our kids.

I think if we were honest with ourselves we would see ourselves as the Simon of this story. We’ve somehow managed to elevate ourselves above those who are troubled and as we deem less than us. So when that stripper walks into the room (or that guy who drinks too much, or that marriage that barely works, or those crappy parents) we instantly have judged them and put them in their place in our minds. We don’t really think about it all that much. We don’t see it as a big deal. But then Jesus tells this story, and he leaves it just hanging there. He once again reminds us that the people we judge, the ones we think we are better than are the ones who he came to save. They are the ones who understand the kingdom. They are the ones that are blessed. So the question isn’t how can we be like Simon in all of our religious pride, but how can we be like the women who interrupts the dinner to express gratitude?

The difference between the women and Simon was their understanding of who they were. The difference between the two of them is their understanding of their debt that had been forgiven. The woman knew her place. She was desolate in the presence of Jesus. Her entire existence was in gratitude towards Jesus and who he was. She knew the kind of person she was and how much in need she was of Jesus and his forgiveness. Simon on the other hand was more like us. He kind of stood back and silently judged. He had spent his entire life making sure he was better than this woman and now look at this gross display of disrespect and her parading of her sin. How could Jesus even stand to be in the same room as this girl?

And wham. Jesus lays it on him. He flips his world upside down. Everything that Simon thought meant honour and righteousness was now working against him. Simon was so caught up in his own righteousness that he could no longer see the great debt that he had that was wiped away. Simon’s problem wasn’t that he hadn’t sinned enough; it was that he didn’t realize how much of a sinner he really was. Simon had reduced sin and sinfulness to an equation that made him greater and the woman less.

Q: Do we do this? Do we have scales of how bad something or someone is? Should we? Should we hold the view that all sin is equal or is some sin worse?

While I realize that there needs to be a strong stance against specific types of sin in our life. I’m not convinced God has reduced all of our actions down to sinful ones or righteous ones. If we truly believe in what Paul was saying that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, then I don’t know why we insist so much on labeling every action has a sinful one or righteous one. What if instead we looked at our entire lives and saw it as in need of God’s grace and slowly being transformed by it? If we did, then we wouldn’t end up in the same boat as the Pharisee thinking that there are actually two types of debts. This parable is an analogy, not a picture of reality. Jesus didn’t tell us this story trying to show us that there is two different kinds of people out there each having being forgiven a specific amount. He told this story to trap Simon in his own game. There is no greater debt and smaller debt in this life. We all have the greater debt. What there is though, is people who think they have a smaller debt and those that have a larger debt. We are all in the same boat. We all owe the 500 denari, none of us are in the position to say well I only owe the 50 so I guess I can’t love more.

This narrative is left open. It just sits there again, like most do. Challenging us to reconsider our stance and identity, as it challenges Simon to reconsider his. Then, once we can truly see our own stance and where we stand with God and each other, forgiveness will be easy. No one will have earned their forgiveness or their place with God. We will be no better off than the stripper that walks in here. The story of the Amish community all of sudden starts to make sense now. They have their roots founded in a place where they understand who they are.

Forgiveness really isn’t about the wrong doing that was done. Forgiveness is about us and our security in which we are. If we find our security in ourselves and our own works and what we’ve accomplished then we will not be able to forgive others, it just won’t happen. If we can see the truth though, in that God has forgiven me, us, the massive debt and see ourselves as sinners in need of grace, well then forgiveness and gratitude becomes natural.

I think we can leave this parable with the same challenge that Simon was given. If we can’t see ourselves as needing as much forgiveness as the person who we can’t stand the most, then we don’t understand our own depravity. Simon didn’t get it. He had the hierarchy already set up in his head, and he found his security in his own pursuit of righteousness, not in God.

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