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Simon was a Pharisee who asked Jesus to dine with him one day. A woman, known to be a “sinner,” interrupted the meal. She kissed Jesus’ feet, washed them with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with fragrant oil. Simon was disturbed that Jesus allowed this “sinner” to behave in this manner; surely, a prophet would know what kind of woman this was. Jesus, knowing Simon’s thoughts, responded with the parable of the “Two Debtors.”

A creditor was owed 500 denarii (over one year’s wages) from one debtor and 50 denarii (over one month’s wages) from another debtor. The creditor forgave them both. Jesus asked Simon which debtor would love the creditor more. Simon rightly chose the one who was forgiven more. A misinterpretation of this parable might lead one to think that it is better to sin more so that one is forgiven more, and therefore loves more. Jesus never encourages us to sin, and His lesson for Simon and us is quite different from that misinterpretation.

Some context is helpful in understanding this parable. It was culturally courteous in Jesus’ day to greet guests to one’s home with a kiss, a foot-washing, and an anointing with fragrant oil. These were customs indicating acceptance of and respect for a guest, perhaps similar to us hugging, shaking hands, taking someone’s coat, and offering refreshments today. Simon had done nothing to welcome Jesus. The “sinner” had. But it was not Simon’s social faux pas that Jesus was reacting to, but rather the condition of Simon’s heart. Simon did not recognize the enormity of his debt. As a Pharisee, he was secure in his standing in life, as shown by his condescending attitude toward a woman of ill repute. He loved “little” because he felt he owed little. “Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Matthew 9:12)

In contrast, the woman demonstrated her attitude by her heartfelt sorrow, her willingness to use her most prized possession, her hair, to dry Jesus’ feet. She knew her very best was less than Jesus’ very least. She knew the extent and depth of her unworthiness and debt. She, like the Apostle Paul, considered herself to be the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), wretched and in need of deliverance. She loved much because she knew she was forgiven much. Her debt was paid in full.

Jesus forgave the woman’s sins and was quick to point out that it was her faith-not her anointing, kissing, or washing-that had saved her. She was told to “go in peace” (Luke 7:50), to live her life as one redeemed by Jesus’ precious blood, free of the debt of sin.

Are you Simon or the “sinner”? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that too often we resemble Simon. We compare ourselves to those we feel are worse than we are and look down on them. We rely on our own works to make us feel better about our spiritual state. We do not welcome Jesus into our homes the way we should. We do not love much because we don’t appreciate the enormity of our sins. We are tempted to take partial credit for the gift of grace we have been given.

Let us learn from this parable to emulate the humility of the sinful woman. May God’s Spirit convict us through the Law so that we recognize the magnitude of our debt, and by the Gospel strengthen our faith to believe in the promise of redemption in Jesus, and thus hear the words of comfort- “Go in peace.”

It was her faith-not her anointing, kissing, or washing-that had saved her. She was told “go in peace.”

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.