* Editor’s Note: Today we move to examining Luke’s parables. I find it interesting that there must have been many stories that Jesus told, but that the individual Gospel writers chose just some of those to illustrate their perspectives of Jesus. Of course, that brings up all kinds of questions – Why did they choose the particular parables they chose for their Gospels (Ten of the parables are unique to Matthew’s Gospel; fourteen are unique to Luke’s Gospels; Mark has but one; nine are common to both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels; four are common to all three of the Synoptic Gospels; and John records none.)? When comparing the parables held in common, why do Matthew’s depictions appear to be more stringent? Why didn’t John, who was the most literarily creative of the writers, include any parables at all? Curiosities aside, Luke’s parables seem more grace-oriented than Matthew, projecting the softer side of Jesus. That noted, we move into the next couple of weeks listening to Jesus through the words of the author of Luke’s Gospel.
These stories have a bit of a different slant than the other gospel writers. For one thing, Luke is a gentile and he sees things differently than his Jewish gospel cohorts. And another thing to note is that Luke is a physician, one whose calling requires paying attention. Thus, the perspectives from Luke are a bit different. For instance, he places most of Jesus’ parables as responses to criticisms he has received — primarily criticisms about the people with whom he dined. And what is more than a bit unsettling to me is that these stories are, by and large, directed at the more religious people, people like you and me.
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 canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward 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.” –Luke 7:36-50
There’s a lot of talk these days about small business loans. The basic idea is to assist small businesses by loaning them enough money to keep solvent during these days of the pandemic, and that these loans will be forgiven if the businesses use the money to keep their employees on the payroll. There are lots of discussions about who qualifies for such a loan (e.g. The Los Angeles Lakers were approved for a loan, and they pay two of their players over 20 million dollars a year to play basketball! When called to task, they gave the money back.) Today’s parable speaks to the topic of creditors and debtors, words much on our minds in this day and time, but the deeper topic is forgiveness, one which, if we admit it, is every bit as pertinent in this time of intense emotion and heightened debate about right versus wrong.
The parable is told in the midst of a dinner given in honor of Jesus by a Pharisee by the name of Simon. We should not be surprised that Jesus is eating with a Pharisee. Luke’s Gospel reveals Jesus doing that at other times (e.g. 11th & 14th chapters). Furthermore, if Jesus refused to eat with Pharisees, wouldn’t he have been committing a reverse discrimination?
Simon’s home and a brief description of the dinner might be of interest here. Houses of well-to-do people in that culture were built around an open courtyard in the form of a hollow square. Often in the courtyard there was a fountain and a garden where meals were taken during warm weather. It was the custom in that culture when a rabbi was at a meal in a house, all kinds of people came in or sat at the gate in order to listen to the pearls of wisdom that fell from the rabbi’s lips. Another custom that will help us better understand this story was that when a guest entered a house three things were always done: (1) The host placed his hand on the guest’s shoulder and gave him the kiss of peace. This was nearly always done, but most certainly would have been done upon a rabbi’s visit. (2) Because the roads were dusty and sandals were the shoes of the day, cool water was poured over the guest’s feet and wiped clean by a servant. (3) Either a pinch of sweet-smelling incense was burned, or a drop of attar of roses was placed on the guest’s head. All of these three things were required etiquette by any sophisticated person, none of which were done to Jesus.
In addition, in the Middle East, the guests did not sit at the table, but reclined. The table was low, and guests rested on their left elbows and ate with their right hands, all with their feet stretched out behind. This would explain why the woman would have been at Jesus’ feet. She comes in and lets her hair down, which would have been considered an erotic act in that culture (…and even today in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern locales), one that would have been seen as scandalous to those in the room. Jesus wouldn’t have had to have been a mind-reader to pick up the disdain of Simon and his friends. It is in this setting that Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors, a parable that has about it justice and mercy.
When Jesus finishes the parable, the artistic Luke makes a literary pivot that is so descriptive. He has Jesus turning to the woman while at the same time speaking to Simon, and the turn is more than physical. He turns the attention to the concern of forgiveness by comparing the woman’s sins to the question of Simon’s sins. Jesus points out that what the woman has done is essentially what Simon should have done. Instead of rushing to convict her of her sins of commission, Jesus turns to Simon’s sins of omission. But less we miss the point here and think that this story is one of proper protocol or appropriate manners, Jesus staggers all in that room with his words to the woman: “I forgive you your sins. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” That line from Jesus must have sucked the wind right out of that room. Pharisees at every place at the table probably said, “Did he just say, what I think he said? Who in the world does he think he is?” They didn’t know, but the woman did. The woman’s faith was displayed in her coming to Jesus. She saw in Jesus something that Simon, for all his religion, couldn’t see. Jesus came to invite the lost to be found.
Luke’s Jesus is much like the Brazilian mother that Max Lucado describes. Her small house was simple but adequate. It consisted of one large room on a dusty street. Its red-tiled roof was one of many in this poor neighborhood on the outskirts of a Brazilian village. It was a comfortable home. Maria and her daughter, Christina, had done what they could to add color to the gray walls and warmth to the hard dirt floor: there was an old calendar, a faded photograph of a relative, a wooden crucifix. The furnishings were modest: a pallet on either side of the room, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove. Maria’s husband had died when Christina was an infant. The young mother, stubbornly refusing opportunities to remarry, got a job and set out to raise her young daughter. Now, fifteen years later, the worst years were over. Though Maria’s salary as a maid afforded few luxuries, it was reliable and it did provide food and clothes. And now Christina was old enough to help out.
Some said Christina got her independence from her mother. She recoiled at the traditional idea of marrying young and raising a family. Not that she couldn’t have had her pick of husbands. Her olive skin and brown eyes kept a steady stream of prospects at her back door. She had an infectious way of throwing her head back and filling a room with laughter. She also had that rare magic some women have that makes every man feel like a king just by being near them. But it was her spirited independence that made her keep them at arm’s length. She spoke often of going to the city. She dreamed of trading her dusty neighborhood for exciting avenues and city life. However, the mere thought of this horrified her mother. And Maria was always quick to remind Christina of the harshness of the streets. “People don’t know you there. Jobs are scarce and life is cruel. And besides, if you went there, what would you do for a living?”
Maria knew exactly what Christina would do, or have to do for a living. That’s why her heart broke when she awoke one morning to find Christina’s bed empty. Maria knew immediately where her daughter had gone. She also knew immediately what she must do to find her. She quickly threw some clothes in a bag, gathered up all her money, and ran out of the house. On her way to the bus stop she entered the drugstore to get one last thing . . . Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for streetwalkers or prostitutes. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture – taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs that morning, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” And Christina did.
Being the helpless, hapless romantic, I love that story. And I love Jesus’ stories about forgiveness – prodigals, Zacchaeuses, little lost sheep. But what becomes a bit more difficult is to realize that Jesus wants us to be like him, and that means “forgiving.” And that reality confronts the Simon in me. Perhaps Frederick Buechner’s words will nudge me to a fuller understanding: To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.” To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride. When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.
Turning to the woman, Jesus says to me . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Can you remember a time when you were in the wrong and you’ve been genuinely forgiven? How did that make you feel? Thank God for the lesson shared and learned.
Have you ever been able to truly forgive someone who caused you pain or hardship? How did that make you feel about the other person? Yourself?
Is there anything that stands between you and God? How might prayer help you know that that barrier is of your own construction, not God’s?
Two Artistic Guides for Prayer:
John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Forgiveness”
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong; So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men, One summer Sabbath day I strolled among The green mounds of the village burial-place; Where, pondering how all human love and hate Find one sad level; and how, soon or late, Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face, And cold hands folded over a still heart, Pass the green threshold of our common grave, Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart, Awed for myself, and pitying my race, Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave, Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!
Thoughts from Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter”
These times are so uncertain There’s a yearning undefined People filled with rage We all need a little tenderness How can love survive in such a graceless age? Ah, the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness They’re the very things we kill, I guess
And the more I know, the less I understand All the things I thought I’d figured out I have to learn again I’ve been trying to get down To the heart of the matter But everything changes And my friends seem to scatter But I think it’s about forgiveness Forgiveness
There are people in your life Who’ve come and gone They let you down You know they’ve hurt your pride You better put it all behind you baby ‘Cause life goes on You keep carryin’ that anger It’ll eat you up inside baby I’ve been trying to get down To the heart of the matter But my will gets weak And my thoughts seem to scatter But I think it’s about forgiveness Forgiveness