Introduction: In the Bible there are a number of metaphors used to express the meaning of the forgiveness of sin. For example, forgiveness can be described as the hiding of sin (Ps. 32:1), as the taking away of a burden (Ps. 32:1, 5), or as the wiping away of a stain (Ps. 51:1, 9). But we will see how in this parable Jesus makes use of the metaphor of a debt being remitted in order to express the meaning of forgiveness. As a matter of fact, this idea was both common in ancient Judaism and prominent in Jesus' ministry.
As Klyne Snodgrass aptly observes in discussing this parable:
The idea that sins are debts to God is well known in Judaism and appears elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus [e.g. Matt. 18:21-35]. Canceling of debts may have been subversive to some since it went against the inequality and hierarchy of the client-patron relationship, but it would not have been subversive to Jews familiar with Deut. 15:1-3 [about granting release of debts every seven years] and the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10-55), both of which call for canceling of debts. Jesus' adaptation of Isaiah 61 recorded in Luke 4:16-21 is almost certainly to be understood as an announcement of the eschatological Jubilee, and this parable, like the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, assumes that the Jubilee has begun and that God is in the process of canceling debts, i.e. forgiving sins. This parable expresses the grace and the goodness of God. When it comes to forgiveness, God is like a moneylender who does not care about money. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 87)
I think this description really brings out some of the rich background of this parable, which helps us to have the right mindset when we read it. So let's examine the parable together. In doing so, we will look at 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the consequences of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable
The context of the parable is found in verses 36-39.
NKJ Luke 7:36 Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat.
Ever the friend of sinners, Jesus went even to the house of a Pharisee, who had invited Him to supper. But, as we shall see, this Pharisee had the same problem so many other Pharisees had, namely that he didn't seem to get just how sinful he was himself. But the important thing to recognize here is that Jesus didn't necessarily spurn the self-righteous, since they too needed a Savior. If a Pharisee showed any openness to Him, Jesus was apparently inclined to try to reach him where he was, just as He would any other sinner.
NKJ Luke 7:37-38 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, 38 and stood at His feet behind Him weeping [Pres. Act. Part. > κλαίω, continually weeping]; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped [Impf. Act. Ind. > ἐκμάσσω, NASB appropriately has kept wiping] them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.
Here we have a description of very lavish and humble acts of service toward Jesus. This woman has obviously been greatly affected by Jesus, given her persistent weeping and the tenderness of her actions toward Him. But we will not see until later in the text exactly why she was so overwhelmed with emotion. We only know at this point that she was a known sinner, so we might assume that her tears were those of repentance and remorse for her sins. But we will see further on that her response is due to far more than this!
NKJ Luke 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
Notice that the Pharisee seems utterly unconcerned by the woman's persistent weeping. All he seems concerned about is the fact that she is a known sinner and that Jesus is apparently flouting the Pharisees' fastidious purity regulations in even allowing her to touch Him! How, he wonders, could Jesus possibly be a prophet if He doesn't seem to know just how bad a person is touching Him?! But we will see that this Pharisee is wrong on several levels when we we look next at the parable itself.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The communication of the parable is found in verses 40-42a.
NKJ Luke 7:40 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
Here we finally find out the Pharisees' name – Simon – when Jesus addresses him, and this indicates Jesus' personal focus. He has picked up on Simon's attitude and thinking, and He is going to tailor His remarks to suit Simon's personal issues and needs.
But we also see that – in spite of the fact that he questions whether or not Jesus is truly a prophet – Simon does show Him some respect, which is indicated by his calling Jesus “Teacher.” However, as the story unfolds, we will see that his use of this title of honor is not all that sincere.
NKJ Luke 7:41-42a There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave [χαρίζομαι, NASB has graciously forgave] them both.
Now, there are at least three significant points to notice in this parable.
First, it is significant that there are two debtors, which, given the context, would appear to stand for Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman. The debtor who owed the most would represent the sinful woman. The debtor who owed the least would represent Simon the Pharisee.
Second, it is significant that neither debtor could repay the debt that was owed. The implication is that Simon was just as incapable of paying his debt as the sinful woman was of paying hers. However small he may have thought his debt was in relationship to her debt of sin, he really was in the same desperate situation she was in.
Third, it is significant that both debtors were freely forgiven. Simon should have realized that, whether he viewed his own sins as being as great as the woman's or not, forgiveness for both can only come as a free gift and not something that is earned. In fact, Jesus emphasized this idea with the very word He used to describe forgiveness, the Greek verb charízomai, which comes from the noun charís, meaning grace. It definitely carries the meaning, then, of freely forgiving or, as in the NASB, graciously forgiving.
All of these ideas are clearly communicated in this parable, although Jesus will highlight not so much the meaning of the forgiveness communicated in the parable, but rather the response one should have to such forgiveness, when He goes on to press Simon regarding what He has said.
III. The Consequences of the Parable
The consequences of the parable are found in verses 42b-47.
NKJ Luke 7:42b-43 “Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him,“You have rightly judged.”
Here Jesus asks a question that has an obvious answer, but one which Simon needed to consider. What is surprising about the question, though, is that it doesn't really focus on the issues highlighted by the parable. Simon definitely needed to consider that, despite his own thinking of himself as a little sinner rather than a big one, he still couldn't pay his own sin debt, and thus he still needed the grace of God. But Jesus focuses instead upon what a person's response ought to be when he has been so forgiven. For a person's response reveals just how much he has been forgiven, if at all. And it reveals just how deeply a person realizes how much he has been forgiven.
We are not surprised, then, when Jesus openly does just what Simon has been doing in his own mind – He compares Simon to this woman who was a known sinner. But, as we shall see in the next few verses, Simon doesn't fare so well when Jesus is done making the comparison!
NKJ Luke 7:44-46 Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.”
Notice the emphasis Jesus put on the contrast between Simon's actions toward Him versus those of this sinful woman. Simon clearly thought he was better than her, but Jesus indicated that she had shown him up in his own house! And Jesus did this for the obvious reason that Simon was oblivious to what had really been going on.
Klyne Snodgrass is again helpful when he notes the significance of Jesus' having to point out the woman to Simon, even though He already knew that Simon had seen her there:
After Simon answers [Jesus' question] correctly, Jesus asks if he sees “this woman.” Clearly Simon sees her reputation, not her, and is this not frequently still the problem, that we see systems and concerns but not people? This is not to say that concerns about sin or other issues are not important, but if Jesus did anything, he actually saw people. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 87)
But not only did Simon fail to really see her, he also completely failed to see the significance of her actions toward Jesus, actions which revealed her own love for Jesus and served as an indictment on himself. You see, like so many of us can do at times, Simon focused solely on the woman's past and allowed that to eclipse the present. He couldn't see who she was now, because he couldn't get past who she had been.
NKJ Luke 7:47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.
There are a couple of points that need to be highlighted here.
First, when Jesus emphasizes the fact that “to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little,” we cannot miss the focus on Simon. It is Simon who has been forgiven little and who therefore loves little. And this is why he has shown little – if any – love for Jesus and absolutely no love for the woman! Now, I do not think we ought to assume that Simon actually had sinned very little in his life up to this point and thus needed very little forgiveness. In fact, Jesus is highlighting a pretty egregious sin on his part in the very telling of this parable and the ensuing discussion. The point really seems to be that Simon did not realize the gravity of the sins he had committed or the fact that they could only be forgiven by God's grace.
Second, when Jesus says of the woman that “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much,” He is not saying that she was forgiven because she loved much. On the contrary, the context of this statement makes it clear that He is saying that her great love is the evidence that she has been forgiven much and that – unlike Simon – she obviously realizes this.
And here we find the ultimate reason for the woman's tears. They are tears of joy from a woman who is used to being treated as Simon had treated her, but who has found acceptance in God's grace, for He has forgiven all her sins. She had a debt that she could not pay, and she knew it. She understood just how great that debt was, so she also knew the greatness of the grace that had been bestowed on her.
Conclusion: I would like to conclude my teaching about this parable by asking a diagnostic question of all of us. I would like each one of us to ask himself or herself this simple question: “Does my love for Christ and for others demonstrate that I realize just how bad my sins are and that they have only been forgiven by the grace of God?” After all, if the greatness of our love – especially toward sinful people – is the true test of how much we have been forgiven – or, rather, whether or not we realize just how much we have been forgiven – then I think we ought to think about it, and I hope you all will go on thinking and praying about it today and in the days to come.