Worship Services




 “When a Debt Is Cancelled”

A sermon by

The Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Nagel

Sunday, March 11, 2018


TEXTS: Luke 7:36-50


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. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’


Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 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.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’




The scene is a dinner party.  A prominent Pharisee in Galilee has invited Jesus to dine.  His name is Simon.  The Pharisee is curious about this Jesus.  He has heard of his teachings, received reports of his miracles, and understands he has a reputation as a prophet.  Is he a prophet?  He wonders.  Some even hint that he may be the Messiah.  Could he truly be?


We shall see.


The Pharisee is wealthy.  It is a big house.  There are about fifteen invited guests.  They recline on raised platforms, their heads toward the triangular table, the triclinium, where the food will be placed.  Their feet extend toward the walls, leaving enough room for servants to pass as they bring the platters of food to the table.  There is also enough room for those who have not been specifically invited to stand, as was the custom, to hear the teaching of a famous rabbi.  Some might listen from the street, hoping to catch some of the conversation.  Why would they come if they were not getting any food?  Perhaps entertainment or instruction was the answer.  Some had probably heard Jesus speak and wanted to hear more.


As the dinner progresses, the crowd hangs on every word that comes from Jesus’ lips.  No one notices her.  She stands directly behind Jesus.  Suddenly, a tear drops falls on Jesus foot, then another, and another, making cleans spots in the dust from his walk through the streets.  He doesn’t stop speaking.  Nor do the tears stop falling.


The woman quietly weeps. 




We do not know the reason for her tears.  Silently, she removes her head covering.  She kneels.  She unbinds her hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet.  A decent woman never took her head covering off in public.  She would never let down her hair.  She displays no shame.  The woman kisses Jesus’ feet.  There is much gratitude in the room, but only Jesus notices.  To kiss a person’s feet is a sign of humility and great appreciation, the kind of gratitude one would show a person for saving his life.


The conversation around the table goes on unabated.  It is noisy.  There is discussion, sometimes laughter.  Still, no one notices this woman. 


Around her neck is a small vial of perfume.  It is an alabastron.  Women in Jesus’ time often wore them.  Like the later nosegays and tussie-mussies, the alabastron was a defense against the odors that constantly accompanied people who bathed rarely, if at all.  


The woman opens the vial.  She pours the contents on Jesus’ feet, still bathing them with her tears and wiping them with her long, dark hair.  Suddenly, the room is redolent with the odor of the perfume. 


The Pharisee turns and looks at his own feet.  As the guest of honor, Jesus would have been seated to his right.  Until now, his focus has been Jesus.  What kind of man is he?  As he looks toward the end of the reclining couch he sees the woman.  So, does everyone else.  How did she get in here?  He withdraws his feet and pulls them up onto the couch.


He knows this woman.  Everyone knows this woman.  She is a sinner.  Bible scholars tell us that she is most likely a prostitute.  We know nothing of her background.  It doesn’t matter.  Her reputation precedes her.  She has apparently encountered Jesus before.  She has heard his words and responded in faith. 


It’s why she is here.  She wants to hear more.  She loves this man who has forgiven her and raised her to a new life.  She expresses her love in tears, by kissing Jesus’s feet, anointing his feet with oil, and drying his feet with her hair.  Can you imagine enduring the stares of the people in this room?  By now she is weeping and sobbing.  Yet, she never turns from showing her love and gratitude to Jesus in this way.


The Pharisee is lost in thought.  He jumps to a logical conclusion.  If Jesus doesn’t know about this woman, who she is and what she has done, then he obviously is no prophet.  A prophet would know these things.  On the other hand, if he knows who she is and welcomes this woman’s attention, then he is condoning her sin.  Either way, the Pharisee thinks, this Jesus cannot be the Messiah some claim him to be.


Jesus saw the subtleties of his host.  Nothing was said.  Nothing needed to be said.  The awkward silence, the withdrawn feet, and the look of disdain said it all.


Jesus breaks the silence by telling his host a story.  The story is specifically addressed to him.  Everyone listens in. 


The story is the tale of two men.  Both owe money to the same person.  The first owes a huge debt of 500 denarii.  The second owes 50 denarii.  A denarius was the typical wage for one day’s work by a skilled labor.

To make the point a little clearer, one man owed a debt that would take five hundred days of labor to pay off . . . one year, four and a half months.  The other man owed a debt that would take almost two months to pay off.  Either way, both are debtors.  Either way, both owe more than they can pay.  One owes ten times more, but both owe a debt they cannot pay.


What could they do?  Beyond finding a way to pay off their debt, borrowing from others or seeking help from family, there was only one option.  They could sell themselves into debt slavery until the debt was paid.  They are bound for debt slavery unless an alternative solution is found.




The creditor, amazingly, forgives the debt of both men.  Now, Jesus poses the clincher question.  Which debtor will love him more?  The Pharisee sees the trap.  “I suppose the one who had the biggest debt forgiven.”


I suppose! 


Even now, the Pharisee has difficulty understanding.  However, Jesus commends his answer.  He has gotten the point of the parable.  He just doesn’t see how it applies to him.  He doesn’t understand his own lack of love.


Jesus now looks directly at the woman.


“Do you see this woman, Simon?”


“Yes, of course I see this woman, Jesus.”


“Really, Simon?  Do you really see this woman, or do you only see her sin?  Do you only see her reputation?  Do you only see what she was, or are you able to now see her for who she is? She is one whose debt has been cancelled.  Do you see this woman?”


In the end, the cancelled debt is all about love and gratitude.  Jesus now contrasts how this woman has welcomed him as proof of the cancelled debt, validation of her forgiveness.


Hospitality in Jesus’ time had certain protocols.  An honored guest, any guest, would be welcomed with a basin of water and towel and given opportunity to remove the dust of the journey from his feet.  We do not know whether the other guests were welcomed in this way, but Jesus received no basin in which to wash his feet.  The woman, however, bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 


Guests would normally be welcomed with a kiss of greeting and welcome on both cheeks.  We do not know if the other guests received such a greeting, but Jesus did not.  The woman constantly kissed Jesus’ feet.


Guests would normally be given scented olive oil with which to anoint their heads.  We do not know whether the other guests received such an anointing, but Jesus did not . . . until the woman anointed his feet with the perfumed ointment.


Jesus ties gratitude to God’s forgiveness.  Those forgiven much, love much.  Simon obviously doesn’t understand the immensity of his own debt.  He fails to see that he is a debtor, too.  Jesus helps him see that being forgiven much, the woman loves much.  Being forgiven little, Simon apparently loves less.

Jesus teaches us to pray in this way.  We Presbyterians say “debts” instead of “trespasses.”  In an ecumenical gathering we somehow mumble our way through, yet the point is an important one.  Sin is sin.  Debt is debt, and we are all debtors.


We are quick to relativize sin.  We are hoping that God is going to grade on the curve because we know that some sins are worse than others.  We console ourselves with the false dignity of thinking, “Well, at least I haven’t done that!”  When we do that, we keep company with Simon.  We know that someone else needs to be forgiven because their sin is obvious.  Our sins are less so.  We work so hard to hide them well.  We also fail to see that our sin is just as bad, if not worse, because we cannot even recognize them ourselves.


The great 20th century preacher, Fred Craddock observes: “The reader is inclined to see in the story one sharp contrast, that which is so evident between Simon and Jesus.  Here are two religious leaders suddenly in the presence of a sinful woman.  One has an understanding of righteousness that causes him to distance himself from her; the other understands righteousness to mean moving toward her with forgiveness and a blessing of peace.  However, … the contrast Luke has in mind is [actually] between Simon and the



woman in response to Jesus…The irony here is that even though Jesus is a guest in Simon’s home, it is a sinner who extends hospitality.”


Jesus concludes the story by wrapping it all up.  Those who are forgiven much love much.  Those who are forgiven little love little.  Joachim Jeremias, the Lutheran scholar argues that there was no word for gratitude or thankfulness in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, so the Greek word agapan was used to express the idea of grateful love in this story.


The woman has called attention to herself.  She did not do so because she wanted to be the center of attention.  She couldn’t help it.  The aroma of the perfume, her weeping, and her other actions caused scandal.  They brought the attention of the crowd upon the woman.  She was focused totally on Jesus and what he had done for her.


Now Jesus calls attention to the woman.  He says that her sins, though many, have been forgiven.  Jesus affirms a previous encounter with this woman by saying, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Then Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”


There it is.  Past.  Present.  Future.  Your faith has saved you. Past.  Your sins are forgiven.  Present. Go in peace.  Future.


Lenski, the great Greek Scholar ended his commentary on this passage by saying, “For myself, I want no more than what Jesus gave this woman – then he quoted in Greek what Jesus effectively said: Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you . . . Now go, into peace, forever.” [1]


Somewhere, because of her previous encounter with Jesus, this woman had received forgiveness of her sins.  She had turned away from her former life.  It was evening.  She would normally have been plying her trade in the streets, but not anymore.  Now she sat weeping at the feet of Jesus, anointing his feet with oil, and wiping his feet with her hair.


She loved much because she had been forgiven much.


There is a story of a man in England who was troubled with guilt.  He had a very checkered past, had been in jail numerous times and was no longer welcome in many of the town’s businesses.  One day, he was resting behind a hedge and soon heard two women talking.  They were discussing a sermon they had heard.  One of the women said, "I heard him preach once, and I shall never forget one thing that he said.  It gave me a big lift." The other woman asked what the preacher had said, and the woman replied, "The world will always say, you made your bed and you must lie in it'; but One greater than the world has said, "Take up thy bed and walk.  Your sins are forgiven.'" The despairing man on the other side of the hedge heard that good report, the discouragement lifted, and he went on his way rejoicing.


In every one of Jesus’ parables, Jesus intended that his hearers find themselves in the story.  Who are you in today’s story?  Have you experienced God’s forgiveness and are so taken with Jesus that you forget yourself in gratitude and worship of him?  Has such forgiveness enabled you to see beyond the labels to the persons who are loved by God?  Or are you assuming that your personal righteousness gives you the license to look down on everyone who is not quite up to your personal standards? 


Are you Simon or the weeping woman?


Soli Deo Gloria.  To God alone be the glory. AMEN

[1] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Augsburg Publishing House, 1946), p. 438

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