Scripture: Luke 7:36-47
Sometimes when Jesus tells a story, he tells it in general, to crowds that have gathered to hear him preach. Sometimes, though, his stories have an occasion, and are meant to make a point to a specific person in a specific context. This is one of those stories.
The occasion is a dinner party at the house of a man named Simon the Pharisee. That isn’t really his name, of course. He is just Simon, and he is a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect that emphasized following religious law to a tee. Jesus – especially as Luke tells it – doesn’t hold the Pharisees in very high regard. Still, he does go over to Simon’s house for dinner. We all know that Jesus liked to hang out with the socially questionable, but here we are reminded that he also sometimes hung out with the pillars of the community – when they would have him. And sometimes they did have him, whether out of genuine hospitality or morbid curiosity.
But Simon the Pharisee is not a hero in this story.
On this night at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, the table is richly set, the pillars of the community are gathered, and Jesus has just taken his place at the table, reclining – as they did in those days – when a woman walks in, and silence falls over the crowd, and all heads turn toward her. It isn’t that she crashed the party. Dinner parties in Jesus’ day weren’t the private events that they usually are now. So it’s not that a woman walks in, it’s that this woman walks in.
Because this woman is a sinner. And everybody knows.
Don’t you want to know what she did? Oh, but we can guess. What kind of thing tends to get women labeled as “sinful,” anyway? I don’t mean just in those days.
It would have been one thing if she was just there to get a look, if she had kept well enough to herself. Then all the heads would slowly turn back away and the conversation would gradually resume, and this woman would remain on the fringes in more ways than one. Certainly that’s what Simon is hoping. Instead, with all eyes on her, she begins to cry. The people stare. Then, impulsively, she falls down by Jesus and lets her tears wash over his feet, and she shakes her long hair loose and – still crying – wipes the tears away. By now mouths are slightly agape as she kisses his feet over and over. Finally she takes an expensive bottle of perfume that she has brought, opens it, and begins to pour.
At this point Simon the Pharisee is no doubt pretty embarrassed, this scarlet woman making a spectacle of herself at HIS dinner party. And there Jesus is, just going with the program. Defensively, Simon mutters to himself. If this guy who I invited to MY dinner party was really a prophet, he says – which I doubted from the beginning, then this wouldn’t be happening at MY dinner party, because he’d know what the rest of us know, that this is a dirty woman making a scene at MY dinner party.
Did he mention it was HIS dinner party?
Jesus turns and looks right at him. “What was that?” Jesus asks innocently, but in such a way that you know he knows.
“Oh—nothing!” Simon the Pharisee says, surprised and a little confused, because he didn’t think he had spoken out loud.
“Simon,” Jesus says, sitting up a little, never withdrawing his gaze, “let me tell you a little story.”
This is the story Jesus told.
Once upon a time there was a creditor with two debtors. One owed him the equivalent of fifty days’ worth of wages – let’s say $3000, if you make a little above minimum wage. The other, more unlucky, one owed him $30,000. His debt had been amassing interest for quite some time, you see. But neither one of them could pay. So instead of breaking their knees, the creditor forgave both their debts – the $3000, and the $30,000, and they all lived happily ever after.
“Uh huh,” says Simon the Pharisee.
He has a couple questions, you see. Simon has respect for the letter of the law, and people who borrow money willingly sign onto certain terms that they should be held to. Whether it’s foreign aid we’re talking about, or a subprime mortgage, or $150,000 for a master’s degree in fine arts, or turning in your car title for a 300% interest loan because that’s your only way to make rent this month, the fact that you will have to pay they money back is no secret. People, he thinks, should stop living beyond their means.
As for the creditor, what kind of precedent would it set to just let these two debtors off the hook? Then wouldn’t everyone just borrow money from you knowing they wouldn’t actually have to pay it back?
Sure, there might be some good reasons to forgive debt. Like maybe if it was a service loan, and you’ve completed your time in the nonprofit sector, fulfilling the terms of your agreement. Or maybe a business might settle for a lower amount, with the thought that it’s better to get paid something than nothing at all. Even then they should probably throw in some sort of financial accountability class that you have to complete, to assure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
But show me a creditor who forgives loans just because the borrower is going to default and I’ll show you a creditor who isn’t going to stay in business for long.
So says Simon the Pharisee – I imagine, at least.
But that’s not where Jesus is going with this story – what the creditor should or shouldn’t do isn’t really the point. The creditor’s decisions are not ours to question. Right or wrong, the debts are forgiven.
So which one, asks Jesus, do you think was more grateful? Which one loved that creditor more?
“Well,” says Simon the Pharisee, “I guess the one who owed $30,000.”
“Exactly,” says Jesus, and Simon furrows his brow, not quite sure what his point is.
Unlike with some parables, here Jesus will spell it out for him.
“You see this woman here?” he asks. Well, of course Simon does. Everyone saw that woman.
It turns out that even though she was a party crasher, she was a better host than Simon the Pharisee, because even though he invited Jesus over, he didn’t kiss him or offer him water to wash his feet or anoint his head with oil. These were standard gestures of hospitality, like offering to take someone’s coat, perhaps, or asking what they would like to drink. Jesus is Simon’s guest, but again, it might not be an invitation issued out of genuine hospitality.
But this sinner of a woman refuses to keep Jesus at arm’s length. He wants a kiss? She has thousands. Dirty feet? She has tears enough for washing. Anointing oil? Only the most expensive, poured with abandon from an alabaster jar.
It turns out it’s not really about money at all.
Simon the Pharisee is an upstanding citizen, and he doesn’t owe anything to Jesus or to anyone.
But this woman knows that out of all the people at that party, one can tell her her sins are forgiven, and that they don’t have to define her anymore. And she owes him her life.
Do you see yourself in the story now, Simon? You look at this woman and you see a debt to God and society that can’t be paid back, but what Jesus sees is divine possibility.
Have you ever experienced grace like that?
In October of 2012, I got in a car accident. It was my fault. I was pulling into a parking space at the Williamsburg Target on a Friday morning, and somehow, I hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and ended up sailing over the curb and the grassy strip in front of me, hitting a moving car on the other side, and then swerving into a tree. I still don’t entirely know what happened, but as I told my parents, if it had happened to one of them I would have said it was maybe time to take their keys away. (For those of you who have ever been in a car with me, I assure you it had never happened before, nor has it happened since, and the dent in my car door is only from the concrete pole next to my parking space at my old apartment building.) Luckily no one was hurt. I still get a little nauseous thinking about how much worse it could have been.
I got out of my car and the woman in the other car got out of hers.
“I’m SO sorry,” I said, preparing myself for her reaction. Would she yell? Cry? Stand there in shock?
Instead, she stood with me and pleasantly made small talk while we waited for the police. “What do you do?” she said, and I told her, and instead of making a snide remark about the example I was setting for my congregation, she said, “Oh, my parents go to that church!”
Actually, it turned out later that her insurance guy was our Chair of Trustees. That’s not really what you want, but, in any case, it was all my fault and I was so upset, and this woman who I could have really hurt was so nice to me. I actually wrote her a thank you note later. It seemed like so much more grace than I deserved.
In June of 2013, just before I moved to Arlington, I got in a car accident. That year was a bad year for car accidents, but this one was not my fault. I was innocently driving home from church one day when a woman made a left turn right into me, sending my car across another lane of traffic and leaving my bumper in its wake. My car was totaled. Again, though, luckily, no one was hurt.
The woman got out of her car, visibly upset. “I’ve never been in an accident before,” she said.
But I had. And because I had, I knew what I was supposed to do. “It’s happened to me,” I told her, and I stood and made small talk with her while we waited for the police.
I like to think that even if that first car accident hadn’t happened, I still would have been nice to the woman who caused the second. I’m not a monster, after all. But the truth is I might not have been that nice. I don’t think I would have yelled or tried to make her feel worse than she did. But I doubt I would have cared about making her feel better. Except – I owed it to someone to.
I couldn’t pay her back, so I had to pay it forward instead.
That’s not always how it works, of course. Jesus tells another story, this one in Matthew 18, about a man who owed money to a king. This man, also, was going to default, and this king, also, forgave his debt. But there was second man who owed money to the first, and after getting let off the hook, the first man went and demanded that the second man pay up. When he couldn’t, he had him thrown into prison. The king, you can imagine, was not happy.
Simon, the question isn’t whether God forgives. The question is, do you know that you are one of the debtors? And if so, what will you do with that?
Because with God, there is no $3000 and $30,000. There is only human brokenness and divine wholeness. There is only sin and salvation, and I don’t think God is up there counting pennies. And if only you knew what a debtor you were, maybe everything would be different.
One night a woman crashed a dinner party, and all eyes turned toward her, and what they saw was a sinner. All, that is, except one. Jesus looked at her and saw all the divine possibility of a forgiven life lived in love and gratitude. A life of generosity, and hospitality, and forgiving the debts of who wronged her – maybe even a certain Pharisee.
All the perfume in the world couldn’t repay her debt. So, instead, she’d live life paying it forward.