When knowing the right answers isn’t enough
40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41 ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43 Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44 Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48 Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50 And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Those of us gifted with the ability to put our feet in our mouth know that having the right answer is rarely enough. Indeed, you can have the exact right answer at completely the wrong time. The right answer isn’t a guarantee of anything other, perhaps, than an argument. And this is before we even enter the realm of thinking we have the right answers, which is where most of us live!
Simon the Pharisee was much like us. When Jesus told him this little analogy of the two debts, Simon grudgingly conceded Jesus’ point. He wasn’t a stupid man – as he was a Pharisee, quite the contrary. He knew the law inside and out. He was in the business of knowing God. Little did that help him when he unwittingly invited God to dinner. And though Simon knew the right answer, he didn’t quite know the truth.
You see, though Simon acknowledged that of the two debts cancelled, the person with the bigger debt would be more grateful, he was unwilling to connect those dots with the sinful woman at Jesus’ feet. In contrast to Simon, this woman probably wasn’t adept at “right answers”. If we make inferences, we can in fact see that either she made poor choices or she didn’t have any choice but to make them. Either way, she was worlds apart from Simon the Pharisee; powerless where he was powerful; a sinner, where he was considered righteous; ignorant, where he was considered well-informed.
Yet it was her sins that were forgiven, and not Simon’s.
In my study Bible the footnotes for v41 indicate that both debts were significant, as a denarius was equal to a day’s wage. Since the two debts in this parable are equated with the sins of the nameless woman and Simon the Pharisee, we tend to assume that the bigger debt belonged to the sinful woman. But what if the bigger debt actually belonged to Simon, with his hard heart and his pride? Jesus says of the woman that she loves much because her sins, “which were many, have been forgiven” (v47). She had many sins, but most? That makes Jesus statement that “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” all the more incisive, because unlike the sinful woman, Simon didn’t realise he was a sinner, and he didn’t realise how great his debts were. Pride was his downfall.
A curious thing happens to us when we spend too much time thinking that we are right and righteous: we become inured to truth, because we (mistakenly) see so much of it in ourselves that we cease searching for it at its source, God. We become Simons, inviting Jesus into our lives in a cursory manner, not extending to him even the most basic of hospitalities. We acknowledge that he is right, but we fail to connect his truth to the realities and people in our lives. Our debts, though staggering, go unacknowledged.
How much better it is to be the woman in this parable! Forgiven and passionately grateful, finding the only true answer outside herself in Jesus, in his mercy. Anointing him with all she had and finding that she is enough. Finding her debt – though great – cancelled. She humbled herself in a way that must initially have been awkward, confusing, perhaps even painful. She didn’t have any “right answers” to fall back on; she could only fall to her knees. And she was lifted up. Unlike Simon the Pharisee, she goes forth in peace – in shalom – forgiven, healed, blessed, freed.
Let us put aside our “right answers” and instead rely on Jesus’ truth.
In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So our prayer inspiration for today is inspired by the Sinner’s Prayer. Pray it out loud if you can.