Jesus said: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Debts made need to be repaid. That is how lending works. But what happens when the debtor cannot make payments? This is what we have been witnessing much in our nation during the past several years. The economy is down; jobs are being lost; savings are being depleted. But the lenders will get their money. The contract still stands. The debt is still there. And it’s not just private lenders who are going after what is owed, even the Commonwealth’s Revenue Department will be finding its debtors.
Jesus’ parable speaks about debt. He tells it to illustrate how forgiveness works. For sin incurs debt. Every transgression against God’s Law must be repaid. Divine Justice is an unyielding lender. Each sinner owes something, for their ledger is filled with red ink. Compared to the level of righteousness demanded by the Lord God, the level of obedience and compliance offered by humanity is woefully short. There is much owed.
This is shown in a very real way with the woman who crashed the Pharisee’s party. This was a great social event. Simon had opened his house up to many, especially to Jesus: “One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him, and He went into the Pharisee’s house and took His place at the table.” Jesus was welcome guest; Simon wanted Him there. But Jesus’ presence at the banquet causes something totally unexpected: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed His feet and anointed them with the ointment.”
The sinful woman’s actions were shocking! To many, they were totally inappropriate, totally uncouth, totally wrong. Or at least, that is what the host of the banquet thought: “Now when the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself: ‘If this man were a prophet, He would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’” The party-crasher was not just any common sort from the city; she was a sinner! She was a loose woman, one whose actions were not matter for polite conversation. The host doesn’t want her even close to his house, but there she is with one of the honored guests. The host doesn’t want her to be welcomed in any way, but there she is being received by Jesus.
What drove this sinful woman to sneak into the Pharisee’s house? What motivated her tear-washing of Jesus’ feet? It was her sin—her sin that Jesus forgives. It was her faith—her faith that Jesus forgives. It was her love—her love of Jesus’ forgiveness. For this sinful woman was a debtor. Her ledger was as scarlet as her dress. Her credits in the bank of righteousness were as low as her reputation. She had nothing and owed everything. But she knew that Jesus remedies her situation. And having received the great mercy that Jesus provides, receiving His righteousness that restores her, the woman worships Him in the greatest of honor through the lowest of humility.
Jesus welcomes this, though the Pharisee does not. And that is the point that Jesus makes with His parable: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” The sinful woman is the debtor that owed the five hundred denarii. She cannot repay the debt. But Jesus is the moneylender who cancels the debt. He forgives sinners. That’s His purpose and will. Instead of demanding repayment, Jesus absorbs the debt. But what Simon the Pharisee must learn from Jesus’ parable is that he also is a debtor. The moneylender had two debtors, and even the one who owed fifty could not pay. The moneylender cancels the smaller debt, too. Though smaller in size, the debt was still real and could not be repaid, no matter how much the Pharisee would try to keep the Law. Simon must have Jesus’ forgiveness to live.
This reality is what St. Paul described in the Epistle to the Galatians: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law no one will be justified.” Debts must be repaid, but the debtors could not repay it. And yet, the lender absorbs the cost: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” That is what Jesus does: He becomes accursed; He absorbs the debt, so that sinners may have life and forgiveness through faith in Him.
Now why is this so important for Simon the Pharisee to learn? And why is this incident in Jesus’ life so important for the Evangelist to record it for generations to come? Because the concept of debt and forgiveness is not just a theoretical idea. It isn’t simply an illustration for a story. No, it describes your reality. You are debtors. You owe God, and your debt cannot be repaid by you. It doesn’t matter how big the debt is, how many sins have been committed, how bad on the scale of sin your actions have been. You still are a debtor. And what do you have to offer in payment to your Lender? Nothing of value, nothing of worth. This is what Jesus wants you to understand and understand perfectly.
It is an important lesson for you to learn, for it is knowledge that leads you away from misguided self-righteousness. Such was part of the problem with Simon the Pharisee. He was right about the woman at Jesus’ feet: she was a sinner. But so was he. He was indebted. He also had a red ledger. Though Simon may not have “owed” as much as the sinful woman at Jesus’ feet, he still had a debt that he could not repay. None of Simon’s keeping all the details of the Torah could have made up for what he had done in breaking God’s Law. For Simon to be made right with God, he needed to have what Jesus said to the sinful woman be true for him: “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Simon’s problem is so often yours. There are few in this room that would be recognized as public sinners like the woman who came to see Jesus. No, that’s not typical. You have your foibles and faults. You have your occasional transgressions and peculiar sins. Some may even be known to others: public outbursts of temper, being sources of gossip, talent of telling bawdy jokes, perhaps even a double-cross here or there. But rarely would you be kept out of the company of others because of your reputation. And yet, those sins are real and kill. They still are red marks on your ledger. You still have the “fifty denarii debt” on your record. Because of that, you have no right to consider yourself greater than another, but have every reason to receive what Jesus has to give.
But precisely because you have no ability to repay, Jesus grants you His gifts. That is, if you recognize your need for what He has and that He has the ability to waive your debt. That is what the sinful woman shows in her actions. Simon the Pharisee doubts that Jesus is a prophet because Jesus permits the woman to perform her act of worship. But the woman knows that Jesus is more than a prophet! She rightly recognizes Him as the source of her salvation, the One who can forgive and make her right in God’s eyes. And that is the same belief that must be found in you. For you need to have what Jesus said to the sinful woman be true for you: “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Such words do not come to any random person, but to those who are called to believe that they are debtors but that Jesus forgives them.
And that is what Jesus has done again this day. That is what He has spoken through His ministers to you. The truth is that you have been forgiven much, everything that you owed. So your reaction should be like the woman who was also forgiven much. And in truth, that also is done this day, as you have come in your humility, recognizing nothing truly good in you and that the Lord alone is most high. You kneel before Him and receive His favor. You take the same position as the sinful woman. And in that mode, Jesus welcomes you into His presence. He welcomes you, so that you may hear His words: “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Hear them and believe the One who says them, for they are true for you.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.