This is the seventeenth installment in a yearlong series. You can find the previous installments here.
We often hear about how Christianity is a relationship with God. This is definitely true, but what does that relationship look like? What are the parameters that define this relationship? What is the role of each party, and how should we view God in such a relationship? To find the answers to these questions, we need to look at a very special woman in the New Testament.
Luke 7:36–50 He Who Is Forgiven Much, Loves Much
“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss 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 are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
This is one of the most emotional passages in Luke. The woman is shamelessly weeping and worshiping her savior in public, and Jesus defends her in front of everyone. It is also one of the few passages that appears in all four of the gospels. The woman remains unnamed in Luke’s account, but she is described as “a woman of the city” and “a sinner.” Based on this description, and the way the dinner host reacted to her presence, there is a good chance that this woman was a prostitute. Matthew, Mark, and John shed more light on the story. They all indicate that Jesus was in the town of Bethany. We find out in Luke that the host’s name was Simon (verse 40); Matthew and Mark tell us that Simon was a leper (Matt. 26:6; Mark 14:3). John talks about this story twice. In chapter 11, John tells the story of Lazarus, who had two sisters, Mary and Martha, and it was Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet (John 11:1-2). Then, in chapter 12, we actually see John’s account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet (12:1-8). Unfortunately, identifying the woman as Mary does not clearly indicate who she was. This Mary is often called Mary of Bethany because she lived in Bethany, but we do not know if Mary of Bethany is the same as Mary Magdalene- who is sometimes believed to be the woman of this story because she is thought to have been a prostitute. Fortunately, knowing exactly who each Mary was and what each of them did is not the most important concern regarding our study of the gospels.
Jesus’ words are always profound, but the things he says to Simon in this passage are an important lesson for all of us. Jesus tells a brief parable in which two men owed separate debts to the same moneylender. The amount they owed was recorded as denarii. Denarii is the plural form of denarius, which was a day’s wage. One of the debtors owed five hundred denarii, and the other only owed fifty. The moneylender, for whatever reason, decided to rescind both debts. Jesus then asks Simon “Now, which one of them will love him more?” Simon correctly answers that the man who had the greater debt will love the moneylender more. From here, Jesus compares the way Simon and this woman have treated him during the dinner party. Simon failed to extend loving hospitality to Jesus, but the woman’s actions mimicked that hospitality: Simon did not offer Jesus any water to clean his feet, but the woman washed them with her hair and tears. Simon did not great him with a customary kiss on the hand or cheek, but the woman would not stop kissing his feet. Simon was not willing to offer Jesus any of his oil, which was used as both a sign of hospitality and as a lotion for the skin and hair, but the woman poured her ointment on his feet- one of the dirtiest parts of the body. The actions of Simon and the woman represent the love they each have for him in their hearts, and that love is rooted in gratefulness. If Simon and the woman were the two debtors from Jesus’ parable, Simon would be the one who owed fifty denarii, and the woman would owe five hundred. Simon did not feel as though he had been forgiven very much, which resulted in a low level of gratefulness. The woman, on the other hand, believed she had been forgiven much, which resulted in a high level of gratefulness. Those who know how much forgiveness had to be extended for them to be saved are grateful for that forgiveness and love the source of that forgiveness, Jesus. Those who do no know how much forgiveness they need to be saved are not grateful and do not extend love to Jesus but are actually offended.
Forgiveness is required for salvation, but we only accept that forgiveness when we feel the weight of the debt. The debtor who owed 500 denarii needed to give 100% of his wages to the moneylender for slightly less than a year and a half. The debtor who owed fifty probably only needed to work for a few weeks and then scrounge up the rest of the money elsewhere. We feel the weight of our debts when we know there is no way to get out of them without some sort of pain: time, hunger, servitude, oppressive working conditions, money, etc. A smaller debt that we can wiggle out of without experiencing pain does not impress upon us the actual weight of the debt. We get out of it somehow, and we move on without thinking twice about it. When it comes to God, all of us are in the situation of the man who owed 500 denarii. We cannot get out of it, and we cannot pay it. The only way for us to survive is for it to be forgiven. Recognizing the reality of our desperate situation results in us falling at Jesus’ feet and accepting the forgiveness he extended to us.
It is easy for us to view forgiveness and grace as a mutual agreement drawn up between two equal parties; “I agree that God deserves to be recognized as God, and, in turn, he grants me salvation.” This is not how it works. We owe a debt to God that we cannot pay back. Forgiveness and grace will be placed in their proper perspectives when we get their meanings through this passage. The reason this passage is one of the few that appears in all four gospels is because it reveals to us an unmistakably vivid picture of how we ought to understand our relationship with God and how to feel grateful towards him.