Why did Jesus speak in parables? The disciples wondered just that (Matthew 13:10). The Holy Spirit records four answers. First, Jesus used parables because not all would receive the mysteries of the Kingdom by direct revelation (13:11). Further, He did so because many hearts were dull and eyes and ears were closed (13:13-16). Those with faith would accept His teaching, but unbelievers would not understand. Then, He used parables because the prophets foretold that He would (13:34, 35). Finally, He did because there were things hidden from the foundation of the world that He must reveal (13:35).
What relevance, then, do the parables have for the modern Bible reader? Now, the parables exist as part of that written revelation. Through them, one can see prophecy fulfilled. The mystery that has been kept secret for long ages past (cf. Romans 16:25) can now be known. Thus, the parables are of paramount importance as practical instruction today.
Jesus’ parables come out of many settings. He spoke them during private talks with the disciples, in public sermons, and on the occasion of miracles and healings, but maybe the most effective parables were borne out of situations where His enemies tested him. The parable in Luke 7:41-42 is such a one. Consider four key words that aid one to better understand the so-called “Parable of Two Debtors.”
The actual parable is two verses in length, as man has divided scripture. Jesus expended a total of thirty Greek words (43-NIV; 40-KJV; 34-NAS). The parable is filled with simple images that are easily comprehended. He presents the characters, a moneylender and two debtors. He presents the situation, that one owes about 500 days wages while another owes 50. He presents the predicament, namely that neither had the ability to repay their debt. He presents the lender’s response, who graciously forgives both of them. He presents the debtors’ reactions, which is left for the hearers to interpret but is easily discerned.
Two men in debt needed help beyond their ability to resolve. The lender is also the forgiver. Jesus uses financial problems to illustrate spiritual problems. How appropriate, since most people, regardless of time or geography, have suffered financial reverses. One national survey found that seventy percent of all worries involve money (Collins, Christian Counseling, 531). Suppose a person owed a single creditor $100,000 and the creditor called in the entire debt at once. The debtor is unable to pay, and the creditor sends back news that the entire debt is totally expunged from the record. How would that person feel toward the creditor, compared, say, with one who owed $1000 but whose debt was also forgiven. The parable teaches the principle of greater debt, greater appreciation, and lesser debt, lesser appreciation.
The setting of the parable gives it its meaning. Jesus uses the parable to illustrate two very different people before His eyes. Consider them.
The first person is a Pharisee named Simon. One scholar points out that:
The Pharisees were the largest sect of the Jews. They grew out of an older party, the Chasidim, the Pious ones, and became the “Separatists” of ancient times. They took the name “Pharisee” probably during the rule of John Hyrcanus, BC 135-110. They favored a narrow religio-political policy, in distinction to the Sadducees who wished to see the Jews a nation among the Nations (Robertson, na).
If the Jews labeled themselves “conservatives” and “liberals,” it could be commonly agreed that the Pharisees were the former and the Sadducees the latter. While Jesus had no quarrel with their strict interpretation of the Law (cf. Matthew 23:3), He often rebuked their heart and attitude (Matthew 23:3-5). Simon the Pharisee apparently had no glaring, outward sin problems, but was guilty in Luke seven of some severe heart problems.
The second person is a woman of the city and a known sinner. Some have theorized that she was a prostitute, but nonetheless not likely to have been on Simon’s “A” List. She brings an alabaster vial of perfume, a long neck bottle Jewish women wore as an accessory around the neck and broken when festive occasions called for its use. Simon had invited Jesus for a meal, but she had “crashed” the party. It took a lot of courage for her to come where she was obviously not welcome.
When Jews ate their meals at dinner parties, they would have reclined on low couches. They leaned on their left arm with the head toward the table and the body stretched out away from it. They removed their sandals before taking this position. This is the way the woman would have found Jesus. Her emotions seemingly overcome her and her tears fall on His feet. She wiped His feet with her hair, which means she would have had to unbind her hair. This was a social taboo for Jewish women. By this point, one sees that she cared more about honoring Jesus than pleasing the crowd. She performs a slave’s task, tending to His feet.
After the parable, Jesus asks a remarkable question: “Do you see this woman?” Obviously, Simon knew she was there, but he did not see her properly. G. Campbell Morgan writes, “Simon could not see the woman as she then was, for looking at her as she had been.” There are a lot of Simons in the world who refuse to let those who become Christians forget what they once were (cf. 1 Pet. 4:4). Yet, the worst Simons can be in the church, refusing to let penitent, forgiven brothers and sisters forget their past.
The story ends with Jesus informing Simon that He had forgiven the woman’s sins. In Matthew 9:3, when He forgave the paralytic’s sins, the scribes thought Jesus a blasphemer. Yet, He does not gloss over the woman’s apparent immorality. He calls them her “many sins” (Luke 7:47). In this, He rebukes Simon for “loving little” and implies that He stood unforgiven.
One owed much and one owed less. Both of them, however, are sinners and are in a greater debt than they can repay. Such has always been the case, as it is today (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:10; Romans 3:10,23; 1 John 5:19). Yet, the difference between the two debts is obvious.
One was forgiven much and one was forgiven less. The word “forgave” (Luke 7:42) is different from “forgiven” in verse forty-eight. “Forgave” (7:42) is from the same word family as the word translated “grace” throughout the New Testament. The word “forgiven” means “let go” or “release,” and when used in legal terms meant to be freed from an office, marriage, debt or obligation. The forgiveness Jesus offered was an act rather than a nebulous concept. It was a conditional gift she could enjoy eternally. She sought forgiveness, while Simon did not. She received it, but he did not.
One was humble and one was proud. Jesus praises the sinner and condemns the religious leader. Why? In a word, “Attitude.” The parable in Luke eighteen illustrates this well, verse fourteen pronouncing the sinful tax collector justified and the pompous Pharisee not justified. Jesus saw great potential in a “Big S” sinner who knew it than in a “little s” sinner who did not.
One loved much and one loved little. Jesus implies this in the parable and makes Simon explicitly admit it. The natural response of every forgiven person should be “much love” (cf. 1 John 4:19).
Consider some practical lessons one can glean from that parable for today.
No one is worthy of forgiveness.
Both debtors in the parable did nothing to merit forgiveness. No one today is worthy (cf. Titus 3:5). To understand God’s grace, one must see himself as a sinner in need of it.
Not all sinners grasp the seriousness of their sinfulness.
Simon was no less a sinner, but he acted like he was. Likewise, some of the hardest people to win to Christ are good, moral, but unsaved people (cf. Matthew 7:21-23).
No one can repay his debt.
Not just the two fictional characters in the parable. Not just Simon and the woman. Everybody needs Jesus (Micah 6:7).
Sins of attitude are as deadly as sins of action. Ask the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Among the lusts of the flesh, wherein is listed murder, adultery, and fornication, one also finds outbursts of anger, disputes, and envy. Sins of attitude will keep one out of heaven as surely as will sins of action (cf. Romans 6:23).
Jesus freely forgives those who seek it.
That is the good news and bottom line of this parable. Jesus’ forgiveness is available to everyone (Titus 2:11; 1 Timothy 2:6). Yet, one must seek it like the sinful woman did!