THE PARABLE OF THE TWO DEBTORS.
[Jesus the forgiver; the self-righteous pharisee and the repentant prostitute]
Luke 7v36 – 50.
THEME: The Kingdom of God is for the needy, the disadvantaged & the outcast as well as for the rich, the privileged & the elite. There is no social class structure within the Kingdom of God.
INTRODUCTION: [Setting the scene]
There is a banquet at the house of a pharisee, named Simon, and Jesus is invited. We generally get the impression from the NT that the pharisees did not want to have too much to do with Jesus. Why then did this particular man invite Jesus to his house for a banquet — and why, if the pharisees were so obsessed with ritual righteousness, was there a prostitute present. Jesus criticized the pharisees many times so why did he accepted the invitation?
Without an understanding of the customs and practices of Palestine at that time much of the meaning this story will be lost to us.
It would seem that Jesus had preached in the town and the pharisee having heard him wanted further discussion OR Jesus’ reputation had preceeded him and the pharisee had invited him to a meeting at his house.
This was not uncommon – a travelling teacher or sage would be invited to dine and a lecture would preceed the meal and then discussion would continue over the meal and long into the night.
This is probably how Jesus came to be at the pharisee’s house. V36 says that He went to the pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. To speak of reclining at table implied a formal banquet.
ILLUS.: Today there is a difference in formality if you say “We are going out to supper” or “We are dining out”
These meal were not held behind closed doors – the gate to the courtyard and the door would stand open. Long low tables would be placed down the centre of the room. The guest would be placed around the table in order of rank.
The guests would lean on there left arm and their feet would be behind them away from the table. The sandals would be removed on entry and servants would wash the guests’ feet. To omit to wash the feet was to indicate that the guest was of a very low rank.
Behind the servants the villagers would be free to crowd in and observe the proceedings – this was not considered intrusive – it was quite acceptable.
This would explain how the woman, a prostitute, was able to get into the house.
So the scene is set – Jesus who is known in the community is invited to the banquet for futher discussion. At such settings in the ME the doors are open and the uninvited are free to wander in and listen.
The host had failed to treat Jesus as he should have – he had failed to have his feet washed – he had failed to kiss him [either on both cheeks or on the had as a teacher/Rabbi would be] — he had failed to anoint him with oil [olive oil was usually used as it was very cheap] By treating Jesus this way Simon, the Pharisee had shown contempt for Jesus and considered him to be of inferior social position.
In every culture their are ways of making people feel welcome:
ILLUS.: In English society – A welcome at the door and an invitation to come in. – taking coats etc .. – Extending an invitation to sit down. – offering a cup of tea.
To deliberately ignore these conventions as Jesus’ host had done was an unmistakable insult. Something which Jesus in his graciousness chooses to pass over.
Who is this sinful woman of the city [town]? She is clearly someone who is well-known in the town – and she is known because she plies her trade of prostitution – she is part of the community yet an outcast from the religious aspect of life. She is an undesirable, sinful, ritually unclean woman.
When you consider the pharisee’s fanatical obcession with ritual cleanliness we can gauge something of the discomfort of Simon the pharisee.
Jesus, the pharisee and this prostitute are the main characters in the story.
1. UNBRIDLED DEVOTION IS THE PROPER RESPONSE TO CHRIST’S LOVE.
This sinful woman has heard Jesus – either she has heard him in the town or having heard about him has come to the banquet and hovered in the background listening to this teacher proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom. She has understood that inspite of her sinful life she can be forgiven and enter into the Kingdom.
She is so overwhelmed with love and gratitude for this gift of forgiveness that she falls at Jesus’ feet and her tears of repentance and joy flood over his feet. This was probably a spontaneous action as she is unprepared, not having a towel, so uses her hair to dry his feet.
For a woman to let down her hair in public was most improper — to expose her hair was considered on a par with exposing her breasts – it was unthinkable – according to some rabbis this would have been grounds for divorce – and to do it in the house of a pharisee was adding insult to injury. The guests at this banquet would have found this action highly offensive.
She cannot greet him with a kiss – that would be inappropriate and surely misunderstood — so she kisses his feet. She kisses them again and again – smothers them with kisses.
She then pours perfume over his feet – A small flask of perfume was often worn around a woman’s neck — this was used to sweeten the breath and perfume the body — it doesn’t take much imagination to see how important such a flask would be to a prostitute. She pours it out on his feet – she doesn’t need it any longer.
Here is a deep act of devotion – she is unconcerned about what people will think of her. Her focus is on Jesus and what he has done for her.
How have you responded to Christ’s love and forgiveness. Is your response one of unashamed devotion. Have you ever been in a situation when you could have expressed your faith in Jesus BUT have been too embarassed – too ashamed. What will every one think of me. I’ll be a laughing-stock!! The opportunity is gone – and you have failed your Lord! I am guilty – So often we allow what people think to over-ride what Jesus thinks of us.
But when we do express our devotion to Christ – and praise him that he does enable us to be bold! We can be sure that there will always be those who misunderstand – and we end up being mocked and ridiculed or simply ignored.
The actions of this woman in the story got a reaction –
2. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS MISJUDGES.
READ v39 – 40.
It is clear that the woman has been deeply touched by Jesus – the whole orientation of her life has been redirected. There seems little doubt that she is truly repentant.
It is also clear that Simon who lives in the same city is known to her and she to him.
The whole drama of what has just happened in front of him has passed him by. He has clearly misjudged the situation.
Jesus does know who this woman is and what kind of woman she is. But Simon is so blinded by his self-righteous prejudice that he can’t see that here is true repentance and here too is the one who has the authority to forgive sin. In Simon’s eyes this woman is still a sinner and he still rejects her. She doesn’t measure up to his legalistic righteousness.
Jesus’ response to Simon’s reaction comes in the form of a parable. The parable of the two debtors.
3. TRUE FORGIVENESS IS COMPLETE NO MATTER HOW GREAT THE DEBT.
500 denarii was about a years wages. The one’s debt is 10x greater than the other. The point of the parable is abundantly clear. Both debtors are reduced to common ground in their inability to pay. They are both indebted to the moneylender and they are both in need of grace.
Is this not where we all stand as sinners, in relation to God – you see, while we need to live respectable lives and be good citizens, when it come to our standing before God, we are all on level ground. We are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. Until we come to that point of recognising our sinful state and our unacceptability to God in that state, we remain outside the Kingdom of God.
Simon in his self-righteous law-keeping considers himself to owe God very little. He considers that he needs minimal forgiveness and consequently feels minimal gratitude.
There may be a lesson here for those of us who have grown up in Christian homes and have always gone to church and never committed any, what we might consider, serious sins – maybe the lesson is that we need to recognise that we all need the same forgiveness. Maybe our expression of gratitude to God is lacking because we have failed to grasp the seriousness of our own sinfulness.
What Simon failed to see was that this woman’s actions were a response to God’s unmerited grace to her in forgiveness and that he was in need of the same forgiveness.
4. CHRIST’S VIEW OF THE PHARISEE AND THE PROSTITUTE
– [a comparison]
The focus has been on Jesus “How could he allow this sinful woman to touch him. Doesn’t he know who she is? If he was really a prophet as he claims he would not allow her to come near him!!”
We need to understand the cultural expectations of hospitality to understand how powerful Jesus’s words are.
Simon should have made sure that all Jesus’ needs as his guest were met. He had failed to do that.
Jesus is not bound by the culture of his time. It was normal for the guest to praise his host. To compliment him on the trouble he had taken!
For Jesus to attack the quality of Simon’s hospitality – esp. in such a direct way – would certainly arrested the attention of the listeners.
Jesus faces the woman BUT addresses Simon.
“Do you see this woman?”
This woman who you despire!! Consider what she has done. Consider her kindness in comparison to your bad manners.
Remember that women were not held in very high esteem – it was a male dominated society. Yet Jesus compares the two – inspite of what the men in the house think of her she is a noble woman – and inspite of the high opinion this pharisee has of himself he is a man of ignoble character.
There are three things that this woman does compared to three things that Simon, the host, has failed to do.
FOOT WASHING –
Simon had failed to give Jesus water to wash his feet. Jesus was his guest and Simon did not even show common coutesy by giving him water to wash let alne actually wash his feet for him.
This woman by contrast, has herself washed Jesus’ feet, not with water but with tears and what is more she has used her hair, the crown and glory of a woman to dry them.
She has magnificently compensated for Simon’s failure.
Simon did not kiss Jesus when he arrived. What Simon was meant to kiss is not mentioned. Equals kissed on the cheek. Students kissed their teacher’s / Rabbi’s hand. Simon had greeted Jesus as Teacher / Rabbi so he should have kissed his hand. He acknowledges that Jesus is there but fails to treat him with the honour he deserves.
There are many who still treat Christ the same way. They may acknowledge that he existed but there is no confession of who he really is.
By contrast the woman “covered his feet with kisses” Simon had not given one kiss but this woman had given many — And on his feet which was the supreme gesture of devotion.
Christian, how deeply do you express your devotion to Christ?? It is so easy to become blasé about our faith and to take Jesus Christ for granted.
ANOINTING WITH OIL — olive oil was commonly used to anoint the head of a guest. It was cheap and plentiful. They anointed the head because being the crown of the person it was considered worthy of anointing.
This Simon had failed to do.
By contrast the woman had anointed, not Jesus’ head, but his feet — and not with olive oil but with very expensive perfume.
ILLUS.: Many there may have considered the pouring out of this expensive purfume on Jesus’ feet wasteful. Sometimes as Christians we can be guilty of the same attitude. God will be happy with second best. No he won’t!!
Once I was preaching at a church – preached on missions – had challenged people to be prepared to give their lives in mission work abroad if God called them. After the service a father said to me in conversation “I don’t want my son to waste his life on the mission field.”
What are your ambitions for your children.
Nothing given to God with the right motives is wasteful.
On all three counts the superiority of the woman over Simon is glaringly obvious.
5. LOVE: THE ONLY APPROPRIATE RESPONSE TO FORGIVENESS
The impression that you could get from the NIV translation is that she is forgiven because she loved so much. That is not so. The parable sets the scene and forgiveness of the debts comes before responsive love. Also “the one who is forgiven little, loves little…” The context and the original text are clear that the love is a response to forgiveness.
The Jerusalem Bible translates this verse very well:-
For this reason I tell you that her sins,
her many sins, must have been forgiven her,
or she would not have shown such great love. [v47]
Her out burst of unashamed love is because she has already been forgiven — she has heard Jesus’ mesage of Gods’ forgiveness and she has responded to it!!
What Jesus is making plain in this passage is that this woman is not a defiling sinner who is contaminating him by her touching his feet — she is forgiven and has a full appreciation of her evil ways but also now something of the grace of God in her life. She has been freely forgiven.
Simon, on the other hand, considers himself to be righteous as far as the law goes and thus thinks he needs little forgiveness – consequently his love for God in minimal. He has little awareness of his sin and has therefore not repented.
YET his very actions and attitudes belie his belief about himself. His failures [debts] are obvious. There is in his heart a deep level of pride and arrogance and hostility — He has a very judgemental spirit, he is hard-hearted, he has little understanding of what really defiles a person’s life — he is insensitive and guilty of sexism and most of all he does not understand the nature of God’s forgiveness.
The great defiled and unrepentant sinner in the story is not the prostitue, it is Simon the pharisee. The tables are turned and he is exposed.
We asked at the beginning why Jesus went to Simon’s house in the first place. He is the friend of sinners, that’s why!! And Simon was as much in need of God’s forgiveness as was the prostitute.
The story ends without us being told what Simon’s response was! Maybe that is deliberate because the offer of God’s forgiveness is still available!
Whether you are a sinner like this prostitute who has committed some of the grossest immorality OR you are a respectable member of the community like Simon — you are still in need of God’s forgiveness. Simon could respond by accepting forgiveness and responding in love or he could be offended by what Jesus said.
So today there are only two possible responses to Christ — accept or reject , there is no middle ground.
Sometimes it is hardest for those who consider themselves to be righteous to accept that they are sinners but until you reach that place God’s forgiveness will not come.
Jesus showed in this story that before God we are all equal, men and woman, socially respectables and social outcasts – God is no respector of persons.
It is only through Christ that forgiveness is possible because it is in his death and resurrection that sin is dealt with and forgiveness is made possible.
If you are a Christian, as most here are, what is your love response to Him. Are you responding in humble and costly devotion to him??
How far will you go in your devotion to Jesus? Are you prepared to stand against the crowd? Are you prepared to endure embarassment for Christ’s sake? Are you prepared to be misunderstood, criticized and written off as a weird religious person?
OR have you drawn a line in the sand – you have developed a workable compromise in your life – you go to church, you do your religious bit but basically it is not God’s kingdom that you live for BUT your secular lifestyle with a religious comparment.
Forgiveness is not just a gift available at salvation – it’s availability is ongoing and when we fail Christ, which we do, he is always willing to forgive a repentant sinner. Don’t be satisfied with second best!!
The kingdom of God is mercy and grace;
the captives are freed and sinners find place,
the outcast are welcomed God’s banquet to share;
and hope is awakened in place of despair.
[Let’s Praise #194] [Bryn Rees]