“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
These statements aren’t parallel, and that bothers me. She loved much, so she is forgiven much. Another is forgiven little, so loves little.
The first is love->forgiveness, and the second is forgiveness->love.
I suppose the real way to think of it is circular.
The woman knows she has much to forgive—she’s (most likely) a prostitute, and likely not a very attentive Jew. And she knows that Jesus is… something special. It’s hard to guess quite what she thinks He is. But special, definitely. And He preaches, like John, repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Of which she has many.
So knowing this, she loves Him, because He can forgive her sins. And out of this love, she serves Him, worships Him by washing His feet and kissing His feet and drying them with her hair.
By this love, Jesus sees in the flesh the fruit of her heart, her sincere desire to be forgiven and made whole, so He announces out loud what has already been done for her: “You are forgiven.”
We know from the Lord’s Prayer that the forgiveness from God comes first, and everything we do is a response to that. The difference is that this woman had faith first that God, in Christ, would (could) forgive her sins, while we in 2018 have Biblical assurance of this truth, and instead of starting with it, we seek the faith to believe with our hearts and not our minds only.
What about the Pharisee, Simon?
He seems to be an all right guy. Most Pharisees spit on Jesus and try to figure out ways to kill Him. But Simon invites Him in for supper.
A brief aside on Simon’s motives: every time I read this passage, I begin to suspect that Simon is just playing nice, that Pharisees are “supposed” to invite great leaders into their houses, or that Simon is really part of the greater conspiracy, and he’s seeking to get close to Jesus to betray Him.
But I’m pretty sure, from Jesus’s words here, that Simon truly believes Jesus’s call to repentance; he just also believes that he doesn’t need much repenting. It’s even possible he’s invited Jesus over for some nice affirmation: “Check me out, Jesus, and see if you can find any sins to forgive.”
I have to believe there were indeed Pharisees like this, who had a sincere faith, who knew the Lord and were driven by the desire of their hearts and not the greed of their pockets or a lust for power, and all they needed was a face and a name to go with the faith they already had.
We revile the Pharisees, but they were the good guys in Jewish culture. They were the Sunday school teachers, the lay leaders, the door holders, the greeters, the Communion stewards, This Simon probably had more in common, in his own culture, with your youth pastor than with the enemies of Jesus we tend to think of.
Anyway, Simon doesn’t think he has much to forgive. And out of that small bit of love, he responds with a small act of kindness: from his abundance, he invites Jesus to supper.
This is a good thing to do! Please invite your elders, or maybe your youth pastor, to supper! She will appreciate it. She probably eats too much pizza and fried chicken with the students and could use a nice home-cooked meal.
But then Simon shows he doesn’t quite understand, yet, because he thinks to himself, “Boy, I’m glad I’m better than that prostitute—how does this great teacher, this miracle-worker, not see who she is?”
Jesus, of course, perceives his misunderstanding, and, being Jesus, begins to teach.
So in my estimation, the Pharisee and the prostitute are very similar: they both know they need Jesus; they both wish to honor Him in their own way; and they both don’t quite understand what’s going on.
But the prostitute knows she needs much forgiveness, so she falls on her knees; the Pharisee thinks he only needs a little, so he just serves dinner.
And Jesus says, “Look, Simon, she has it more right than you, not because she is more righteous than you (necessarily), but because she has a more visceral understanding of her predicament.”
If you squint, this is the same story as the woman with two copper coins who gave more than all the rest (Luke 21:1–4). And it’s the same as when Jesus said He came not for the righteous but the unrighteous (Luke 5:31–32). And it’s the same as the rich young ruler who can almost, but not quite, pass a camel through the eye of a needle (Luke 18:18–30). And it’s the same as when we say today that the church should be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
The Pharisee isn’t wrong in terms of direction but in terms of magnitude. (Some of the other Pharisees are wildly wrong on all counts, but I think we know those people in the modern church, too.)
Can You Be A Great Saint Without First Being A Great Sinner?
Doesn’t it seem like many of the “most saved” people in this world are those who were “least saved” in their former lives?
This phenomenon is so powerful, so prevalent, that a former youth pastor of mine brought in a guest speaker one time specifically to reassure the kids that it’s possible to be saved without first being a prostitute, or a drug addict, or a thief.
They had this idea that, growing up in the church, they couldn’t be used the way the former criminal could. They thought—on some level—that they had to be Saul the murderous anti-Christian zealot before they could be St. Paul the Evangelist. Frankly, it’s easy to get there from “the last shall be first.”
Jesus appears to affirm that here! He sure praises the prostitute more than the Pharisee. But I think what He really means is that it’s harder to see your need for Jesus when it looks like your life is going well without Him.
Rest assured, you need Jesus. Paul is clear that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Not just prostitutes or Baal worshipers, but all humans who are not literally Jesus. And falling short of glory by one hair is equivalent to falling short by Mount Everest. That Pharisee needed Jesus just as much as the prostitute did. It was just easier for her to see it.
But also—in case you’re still wondering along with those kids—while you cannot be great in the kingdom of God without first humbling yourself as a servant, that’s a heart movement, not a life movement. You can be humble without a life of sin and vice.
Paul’s protégé Timothy is a great example: he’s a third-generation Christian fewer than three generations after Christ! His grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice were both Christians (2 Timothy 1:5)—he may have had the longest Christian pedigree of anybody alive. He had known the Scriptures from childhood (2 Timothy 3:15). And yet, he was apprenticed by St. Paul, and he grew into an evangelist himself and leader of the church at Ephesus. He co-authored some of Paul’s letters, and two of Paul’s letters to him are Scripture themselves.
Timothy is incontrovertible proof that someone who grows up in the church is just as capable of greatness in the kingdom of heaven as someone who grows up persecuting the church, or ignoring it.
The Cycle of Repentance and Forgiveness
The prostitute knew she needed Jesus badly, that only He could forgive her depth of sin. So she came to Him weeping and washing and worshiping. And her outward display of need for Jesus reflected her inward repentance.
Simon the Pharisee knew he needed Jesus a little, that He was the true teacher who could get him home. And his outward display of generosity from abundance reflected his inward understanding of his need for a little help from this man of God.
Neither knew, the way that we know, that Jesus is the Christ, the only way to the Father, the sole forgiver of sins. Both knew Jesus was special, that they needed Him in their lives. And they responded according to their estimate of that need.
The prostitute was right—she needed Jesus deeply, to forgive her infinite offense against Yahweh.
Simon was right—he needed Jesus to forgive even the “minor” offenses he had committed. What he didn’t know was that those “minor” sins were similarly infinite when compared to a God who is all-holy. As I said before, he was wrong not in direction, but magnitude.
You and I are sinners. Like both Simon and the prostitute, we have committed infinite sin against an infinite God. It’s not wrong to invite Jesus to dinner—it’s just not enough. We need to recognize our sin, that we need forgiveness, and that Jesus is the only way out. And in response to His offer of forgiveness, we should repent of our sin and fall at His feet and worship.
In response, Jesus will indeed forgive us. And He will wash our feet. And He will invite us to rise and join Him at the table.