By Peter Amsterdam
July 27, 2013
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The parable of the two debtors, or as it’s sometimes referred to, the parable of the Pharisee and the sinful woman, is told in Luke 7:36–50. This is a beautiful story of love, mercy, and thanksgiving. One New Testament scholar describes it as one of the “treasured religious possessions of the Western world.” The parable portion of the story is very short, only two verses sandwiched in the center of the action and dialog surrounding Jesus’ visit and meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Brief though the parable is, it sheds a bright light upon God’s forgiveness and the proper response to it.
The story begins with:
Now one of the Pharisees was requesting [Jesus] to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
This seems like a fairly straightforward statement of events. However, it’s what doesn’t happen that is one of the central aspects of the story. Those who were present would have immediately understood that a terrible breach of decorum had occurred, and that it was deliberate.
The custom at the time dictated that when a guest entered a home, the host would greet the visitor with a kiss, either on the cheek or hand. Next, water and olive oil would be brought to wash the guest’s hands and feet. One of the uses of olive oil in those days was as soap. In some instances the host would anoint the head of the guest with the oil. None of these courtesies were extended to Jesus by Simon. It was a terrible breach of protocol and manners.
Pharisees regarded their dining tables at home to be like the altar of the temple; they strove to maintain the state of ritual purity required of priests in the temple within their households and among their eating companions. They only ate with those who were also in a ritual state of purity. Simon’s invitation for Jesus to eat with him showed that he considered Jesus to be in such a state.
Later in the story he calls Jesus “teacher.” According to early Jewish writings, to host a teacher or scholar in one’s home was considered an honor. Having been invited to Simon’s house, the least Jesus could have expected was a kiss of greeting, some water for His feet, and olive oil to use in washing His hands. But none of these were offered, and the other guests would have noticed this. At this point Jesus could have rightfully said, “I am not welcome here,” and left in anger. But He didn’t. Though Simon’s lack of hospitality would have been considered an affront, Jesus absorbed the insult and reclined at the table, with unwashed hands and feet.
The fact that they reclined at the table would indicate that the meal was a formal one. At such meals the diners reclined around a central table on couches which would most commonly be arranged in a U-shape. At these formal meals it was expected that there would be discussion of serious subjects of mutual interest, and in this case, since the meal was in the house of a Pharisee, the expectation would be discussions involving scripture.
The next scene of the story now unfolds:
And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that [Jesus] 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.
The woman, who was known within the city to be a sinner, learned that Jesus was going to be eating at Simon’s house that day, so she was present when Jesus arrived. The most widely accepted interpretation is that the woman was likely a prostitute. Now, how is it that this woman was allowed to attend the meal at Simon’s house? No Pharisee would have her as a dinner guest, as evidenced by the fact that the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with sinners. So the presence of a prostitute, and her subsequent actions, was extremely offensive to the Pharisee and his other guests. She was, however, allowed to be there.
One author explains:
At traditional Middle Eastern village meals, the outcasts of the community are not shut out. They sit quietly on the floor against the wall, and at the end of the meal are fed. Their presence is a compliment to the host, who is thereby seen as so noble that he even feeds the outcasts of the community. The rabbis insisted that the door be open when a meal was in progress lest you ‘lack of food’ (i.e., lest you shut out the blessings of God).
The woman was there not as an invited guest, but as one of those who were allowed to observe the meal, but not join in on the meal. But why was she there? What was her reason for attending? In all likelihood, she was there because she had heard Jesus speak earlier and was transformed by what He said. All of the research material I read in regard to this parable brought out that the woman must have had an encounter with Jesus prior to this meal, and that this encounter changed her. While this isn’t specifically stated in the Bible, it is inferred, and it becomes clear as the story develops.
Most likely both Simon and the woman had heard Jesus speak while He was in their town. Simon invited Jesus for a meal, which would have been a normal courtesy extended to a visiting teacher or rabbi. The woman enquired where Jesus would be, and when she learned that He had been invited to dine at Simon’s house, she went there. Later in the story we hear Jesus tell Simon, “From the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet,” which shows that she was there before Jesus, or that she had arrived in time to witness the discourteous reception Jesus had received upon His arrival.
The woman may have heard of Jesus’ reputation for being willing to mix with sinners. She probably heard Him speak about forgiveness of sins, that God loved her and those like her, that His grace was available to her even though she was sinful. She received what He said and was transformed by it. She was joyful that her sins were forgiven, that she was set free, and she came to the house to show her gratitude to the one who had shared this good news with her.
We are told that she brought an alabaster flask of ointment. Alabaster is a soft stone which was crafted into small vials to hold fragrant oil. In some translations, the word ointment is translated as fragrant oil or perfume. Women would wear a vial with perfumed oil around their neck, which hung down between the breasts, used to both sweeten the breath and perfume the wearer. Such perfume was very expensive at the time. When the woman found out where Jesus would be, she took the perfumed oil with her in order to anoint Jesus’ feet as an expression of gratitude for what Jesus had done for her.
However, witnessing the cold and rather insulting reception that Jesus received by Simon deeply saddened her. The one who had set her free with His message of God’s love and forgiveness was being humiliated. Simon hadn’t washed Jesus’ feet, a sure sign that he considered Him inferior. He hadn’t even made water available for Jesus to wash His own feet. No kiss of greeting was given. Upon seeing this, the woman weeps. What could she do to make up for the obvious lack of hospitality shown to the man who had changed her life?
Looking at the scenario, we see Jesus reclining at the meal, lying on His side, leaning on His left elbow, eating with His right hand. His feet were at the end of the couch facing away from the table, near the woman since she was sitting against the wall. Looking at His unwashed feet, she decided to do what Simon had not done, so she used her tears to wet His feet. She didn’t have a towel to wipe and dry them, so she let down her hair and used it to dry His feet. She then kissed His feet. The Greek word used for “kiss” in this instance means to kiss again and again, over and over. So she showered kisses upon Jesus’ feet.
The dinner guests are shocked by this display! They would see this as wrong on a number of levels. A woman letting her hair down is an intimate gesture which would never be done in front of anyone other than her husband. According to some rabbinical writings, if a woman let her hair down in public, it was considered grounds for divorce. And here is an immoral woman, doing that very thing in the presence of a dinner table full of men. To make matters worse, she is touching a man who is not a relative; this is something that no moral woman would do. For Simon and his dinner guests, this would have been completely unacceptable.
Then, in a beautiful gesture of gratitude, she uses the perfumed oil from her alabaster vial to anoint Jesus’ feet. It seems that anointing His feet with the oil was the reason she came to the house where Jesus was dining, as she wanted to demonstrate her gratefulness. The acts of washing His feet with her tears and drying them with her hair were most likely spontaneous responses to the incivility Jesus was shown by the host. Since Jesus had received no water to wash His feet, then she would wash them with her tears and dry them with her hair. Since He had received no kiss of greeting, she would kiss His feet over and over.
Kissing Jesus’ feet was a public sign of deep humility, devotion, and gratitude. In the Talmud there is a story of a man accused of murder who kisses the feet of the lawyer who got him acquitted and thus saved his life.
The woman is deeply grateful for the forgiveness of her sins; she has repented and her life has been changed. She brought expensive perfumed oil and used it to anoint Jesus’ feet in gratitude for what He had done for her. Since she felt hurt by the way Jesus was treated, she goes further in her public demonstration of gratitude and honor. Her actions are seen as scandalous by those in attendance, just what they would expect from an immoral woman. They have no idea she has been forgiven; they see her only as an unworthy sinner. They can’t believe Jesus is allowing a woman of such ill repute to do these things to Him. But He is.
The story continues:
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.”
Having been shown up for his failures as a host doesn’t seem to affect Simon in any way. Instead, he is silently criticizing Christ. Having heard Him preach and teach, Simon was probably wondering if Jesus was a true prophet or not. He seems to be rejecting any idea that He might be, because in Simon’s mind, if Jesus were a prophet He would know that the woman touching Him was immoral and was thus defiling Him.
Perhaps Simon’s intention in inviting Jesus to a meal was to test Him, to see if He truly was a prophet. After viewing this display and mentally noting what he felt was a deep lack of discernment on Jesus’ part, Simon was probably convinced that Jesus didn’t meet the spiritual standard one would expect from a prophet of God. No man of God would put up with the behavior of this woman.
But Simon is wrong. Jesus does know the spiritual state of the woman. He knows she has been a sinner, for He later states that “her sins are many.” He also knows that she has been forgiven for her sins because she believed, by faith, the words about God’s forgiveness that she had heard Him speak earlier. Besides that, Jesus shows He is a prophet by discerning Simon’s thoughts. Though Simon hasn’t verbalized his thoughts, Jesus nevertheless responds to him.
And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
The phrase “I have something to say to you” is a classical Middle Eastern idiom that introduces blunt speech that the listener may not want to hear. And this is exactly what follows.
It’s at this point in the story that Jesus tells the short parable of the two debtors.
“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?”
One denarius was an ordinary day’s pay for an ordinary day’s work. Therefore, one debtor in the parable owed the moneylender the equivalent of 500 days’ pay, the other debtor 50 days’ pay. Quite a difference. The moneylender generously cancels both debts when the borrowers are unable to pay.
Author Kenneth Bailey said:
In both the Old and New Testaments the phrases “canceling a debt” and “forgive a debt/sin” overlap and indeed at times are expressed with the same words.
In this case the verb used for canceling the debt has its root in the Greek word charis, which is often translated as grace. Throughout the New Testament the verb “to forgive” is used both as a financial term, as in forgiving a debt, and as a religious term, as in forgiving sins. Jesus was speaking in terms of financial debt in the parable, but as we will see, the creditor/debtor language is being used in reference to God and His forgiveness of sin.
To the question of who will most love the one who forgave the debt:
Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Simon, realizing that the parable is somewhat of a verbal trap that he has been caught in, answers rather weakly, with “I suppose.” Despite being treated poorly, Jesus commends Simon for his correct answer.
The point of the parable is that love is the correct response to grace, to undeserved favor; that the one who has been forgiven the greater debt would love the most and would show the most gratitude. Having made that point, Jesus then delivers the blunt speech to Simon.
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.”
These words were spoken to Simon, but Jesus turned to face the woman as He spoke them. He asks, “Simon, do you see this woman?” He was trying to get Simon to look at her as a person, not as a sinner. Jesus wanted to transform Simon’s view of the woman in particular, and through that, of people in general.
Simon saw the woman’s actions as offensive, out of place, and in alignment with his low opinion of her as a sinner and a prostitute. He didn’t understand that she was a forgiven person who was loved by God. Jesus was trying to help him to see the woman as He did, as someone who has been forgiven for much and who therefore loves much, and demonstrates her love and gratitude by her actions. He wanted Simon to realize and accept that her sins had been forgiven, that she was no longer a prostitute. Because if he and the others at the table accepted this, she could be welcomed back into the community, no longer as a sinner, but as a child of God.
Jesus verbalized Simon’s failures, those things which he had omitted, where he had fallen short. He contrasted Simon’s omissions with the woman’s noble actions—actions that went far beyond what Simon should have done, but didn’t.—Actions which were extravagant. Actions based on her love and gratefulness. Jesus then linked her great love to the multitude of her sins that had been forgiven.
And [Jesus] said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus wasn’t saying that He was forgiving her sins right then, but rather that her sins were already forgiven. The love she showed and her emotional outpouring of gratitude was in response to the forgiveness she had already received upon hearing Jesus speak earlier. From what He said, it’s evident that she understood that God’s grace, His forgiveness, is received by faith and not by one’s good works. Learning that God graciously forgives sin even when the person needing forgiveness is not holy and religious, brought her great joy and freedom.
The woman’s response was one of deep thankfulness. She wanted nothing more than to see Jesus, who had delivered this beautiful message to her, in order to express her profound appreciation.
The other guests at the table missed the point completely. They were focused on the wrong thing and misinterpreted what Jesus said.
Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
Though Jesus did forgive people’s sins throughout the Gospels—something the religious leaders felt was blasphemous—He wasn’t forgiving the woman’s sins at that moment; they were already forgiven.
And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Her faith saved her. She believed in God’s grace; she accepted it. She knew she didn’t deserve it. Her sins were many. There was nothing she could do to merit salvation. She believed and accepted what the Lord had told her—that her faith, belief, and acceptance were sufficient.
That’s how the story ends. There is no indication of Simon’s response. Does he get the point? Does he see that he was wrong in his judgment of the woman? Does he accept that she was one who had many sins forgiven and therefore loved much? Does he see himself as one who loves little? Does Simon understand he’s a debtor as well—that he’s a sinner in need of God’s love and forgiveness—or is he only focused on the sins of the woman? Does he accept that the woman is forgiven, that she’s now changed, and will he accept her back into the community? These questions aren’t answered; instead, we who read the story are left to ponder and to draw our own conclusions.
When thinking about what transpired in Simon’s house, questions arose in my mind as to how I treat the Lord and others. It’s healthy to reflect on these matters. Questions like: Can we accept that those who have greatly sinned can be forgiven and can change, becoming new creatures in Christ? Do we still respond with thankfulness and gratitude at our own salvation? Do we praise and thank God for our redemption? Do we remind ourselves of what it cost Jesus to take the punishment of our sins? Have we lost the joy and wonder of our salvation?
Having invited Jesus into our lives, how do we treat Him? Do we treat Him as Simon did—coldly, with disrespect? Or do we give Him the honor and respect He deserves?—Our time, our attention, our love. Do we take the time to both listen to His words and to absorb them? Do we apply them? Do we obey them? Do we give back to Him through tithes and offerings, through showing compassion to the poor and needy?
The woman had that deep joy which comes when you realize your sins are forgiven. Her appreciation was manifested in her actions. Are we appreciative enough to act on the knowledge of our forgiveness and salvation both internally through praise and externally through obedience?
Do we look at others in the manner that Jesus did, recognizing that He died for them too, and wants them to receive the great gift of salvation? In gratefulness for our forgiven debt, are we motivated to help others find that same forgiveness?—To love them, to speak to them, to give of ourselves, our time, effort, and energy to bring them to salvation? No matter who they are?—The poor, the rich, the young, the old, the unlearned, the intellectual, the unlovely, the lovely, the sinners, the pious, the outcasts, the accepted? Jesus seeks to save them. Are we doing our part to make that happen?
Does our love and thankfulness translate into action? We have all been forgiven for much. Do we love much?
The Two Debtors, Luke 7:36–50 NAU/ESV
36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
37 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,
38 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.
39 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.”
40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
44 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.
45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 C.G. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1927), 2:437, quoted in Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 77.
 Luke 7:36 NAU.
 Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 796.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 243.
 Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 799.
 Luke 7:37–38.
 Luke 15:2.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 246 footnote 15.
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 390.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 247.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 10.
 Luke 7:39.
 Luke 7:40.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 12.
 Luke 7:41–42.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 252.
 Luke 7:43.
 Luke 7:44–47.
 Luke 7:48.
 Luke 7:49.
 Luke 7:50.