“Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.” (Luke 7.41-43)
In the last blog entry we looked at this important dinner conversation that Jesus had with Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman of the city. Despite both people taking a risk to get near Jesus, and despite both showing some level of genuine interest, Jesus responds completely different to them. One he rejects, and the other he holds up as a model to emulate. One leaves the encounter stagnant, unchanged, a bit annoyed. The other leaves the encounter alive, transformed, and worshipping.
What was it that the woman discovered that Simon missed?
Jesus wants to be clear to elucidate the difference, so he tells this parable. There is a lender in the parable, and that represents Jesus. There is a debtor that owes 500 denari (roughly a year’s wages) and can’t pay it back. This is the woman. There is another debtor that owes 50 denari (roughly a month’s wages) and can’t pay it back either. This is Simon the Pharisee. It is a parable about sin.
Why did Jesus tell this to Simon? Simon was not denying he was a sinner. As a law-abiding Pharisee he took sin seriously, or so he thought. He assumed that sin was breaking the 10 Commandments and failing to adhere to the commands of God. Through this parable Jesus is trying to show him that while that understanding of sin is true, it is also nowhere close to deep enough.
The point of this parable is not that one of them was roughly 10 times the sinner as the other. That is what Simon thought when he looked at her. The key to the parable is V42: “Neither of them had the money to pay him back.”
That is the point Jesus is making with the parable, and it is the genius of the illustration. If this parable was 2010, maybe one can file for bankruptcy. But this is 1st century, and if you couldn’t make good on a debt you went to a prison. The debt could be 50 denari or 500 denarii or 5,000,000 denari. It didn’t matter how big or small someone’s debt was – legally you were in the exact same position.
Timothy Keller uses a helpful analogy. Imagine two people are dead. Someone took a stiletto to the first person and punctured their ribs and they died. The second person was gunned down by a machine gun and has hundreds of bullets through their body. Which one is more dead? Maybe one is 50 denari dead and one is 500 denari dead, but they are both dead. One person’s dead body might look a little better than the other, but they are both dead.
That is what Jesus is saying to Simon. He is telling a Pharisee – someone who is incredibly attentive to moral behavior/obedience and that is unusually religious – that he is in the exact same position as this woman. She cannot make good on her debt, and he cannot make good on his debt. She is dead, and he is dead. His dead body might look a little more fancy than hers, but they are equally condemned.
We are less than a month away from the observance of Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday. As we move towards both the low point and high point of the Christian calendar, perhaps this parable can help soften your heart towards the significance. Jesus did not have to be crucified to set a moral example for you and I. Jesus had to live and die and rise again to bring life to those who are dead in their sins.