Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Story of the Two Debtors

Last weekend, my family and I were in Little Tokyo in downtown LA where my daughters were hula dancing. As they were getting ready to perform I wandered around the outdoor festival looking at the various booths and vendors.  At one point someone offered me a brochure on Buddhism which I accepted and began to read.  What I found was a description of Buddhism and its relationship to Christianity and other religions that surprised me.  This is what I read: “Christians and Muslims believe that they will live in eternity with God if their life on earth has been spent in worthy and useful pursuits…. Buddhists on the other hand…believe that life is an everlasting cycle of birth and rebirth, that what is done during a lifetime determines the kind of life one will have in a future incarnation unless a person liberates him or herself from the cycle" (from "Some Important Things to Know About How Buddhists Think," copyright by The American Institute of Buddhist Thought). According to this brochure…Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have something very significant in common…we are all redeemed or achieve enlightenment by our good deeds. Now this is my question to those of you who profess to be Christians: Is this the gospel message?  Does this accurately describe the message of Jesus?  I’d like to return to that question and Little Tokyo a bit later…but for now, let’s go to the house of a Pharisee in Luke 7: 36-50 where Jesus is treated with incredible disrespect on the one hand and surprising love on the other...it’s where we learn about the one sure sign that we have heard Jesus' message and received God's saving love....

36 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. 37And 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. 38She 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. 39Now 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.’ 40Jesus 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. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

The Story begins with the Rudeness of a Religious Professional (7: 36).  Jesus was invited to eat at the house of Simon the Pharisee (the pastors and bible teachers of Jesus’ day). Now the scene of this story is the courtyard of Simon’s house. Pharisees were well-to-do, and the home of such a person was built around an open courtyard. In that courtyard there might be a garden and a fountain, and meals would be eaten there in warm weather.  It was customary when a Rabbi was invited to such a meal, that many people were in attendance. Guests would enter, taking off their sandals or slippers and leave them at the door, taking their places around a low table or large wooden bowls of food placed in the center of the room. At such a banquet, they would rest on their left elbow, with their feet stretched out behind them. Servants would stand behind the guests, where they would place wide, shallow bowls, and pour water on their feet. In addition to the guests and servants, villagers would crowd in to the area to hear any pearls of wisdom that the visiting Rabbi might be sharing. While you and I would not appreciate having the neighborhood crowd into our living room as we entertain a visiting guest, this was not thought to be rude… it was expected.

It’s ironic that Jesus is twice referred to as an invited guest (36,39) in this story. For Simon failed to show him even minimal hospitality.  He did not wash Jesus’ feet, which was considered the minimum gesture of welcome. Nor did he kiss Jesus on the cheek: a sign of respect that was always given to a rabbi. Finally, when a guest entered, a sweet smelling incense was often burned, or an aromatic oil was placed on the head. But Simon didn’t do this either; setting the stage for what is to come….

For we read next about the Kindness of a Professional Sinner (7. 37-40). As I said earlier, it was not unusual for a crowd of curious onlookers to gather in the courtyard on such an occasion, which explains why this “woman of the city who was a sinner” (a prostitute) was able to get in (37). Jesus had been preaching and teaching all around Galilee and she, like many others, had learned of the forgiveness that he offered, and came to repent and be cleansed. One grammatical detail here that is worth pointing out. The Aramaic word for sinner (hayyabta) also means debtor (as in "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," a line from The Lord's Prayer). This woman was both a sinner and a debtor to God. This detail will be important as the story unfolds…

Luke tells us that she brought with her a flask of ointment, as all Jewish women did. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why such a flask was important to a prostitute. But she no longer needs it – she has turned to Christ -- and so she comes to pour out her perfume on his feet. The point is that she was prepared to do something profoundly meaningful as she entered Simon’s house. Deciding to turn from her old life and to put her trust in the Messiah, she wanted to anoint Jesus with oil as a symbol of a changed heart and her gratitude (38). Imagine then, how this woman must have felt, having come to honor Jesus, when she sees the insult Jesus receives. Simon deliberately omits the kiss of greeting, and the foot washing. Perhaps the whole assembly has noted this harsh treatment, and is waiting to see what will happen next.

Meanwhile, the woman is totally overcome with emotion, her anger and her devotion mixing together at this point. She completely forgets that she is in the presence of a group of men, and rushes forward toward Jesus. She cannot kiss him on the face. This would be misunderstood, but she can kiss his feet (a mark of respect, especially to a rabbi)! Then she literally bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and because she has no towel, she wipes them with her hair (a very intimate gesture, for letting one’s hair down in the Middle East was something only done in the presence of a close friend or husband); and anoints them with the perfume. She offers Jesus her love, while trying to compensate for his insult.

Simon’s true suspicions about Jesus emerge now as he watches. He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman” this is (39). She is a “sinful woman.” Obviously, Simon doesn’t believe Jesus is a prophet -- and this confirms his suspicions. Prophets don’t hang out with Prostitutes. His presupposition is that godly people don’t associate with hayyabta (sinners/debtors to God).  Knowing Simon’s assumptions about who is a sinner/debtor (hayyabta), Jesus finally speaks up: “Simon, I have something to say to you” (40). This exact phrase is still used all over the Middle East to introduce a blunt word that the listener may not want to hear (see Kenneth Bailey's excellent commentary on this passage in Poets and Peasants and Through Peasant's Eyes). “Rabbi” says Simon, “Speak up!” (41)

At this point Jesus reveals the Difference Between these two Debtors with a simple story (7. 41-50). There were two debtors.... Understand the wordplay, Simon.  I'm talking about two sinners (41)! One owned 500 denari and the other 50 denari (Remember that a single denari was equivalent to a days labor).  Thus the one owed his master more than a year and half's worth of labor.  Because they were not able to pay him back, says Jesus, he forgave/ canceled the debts for both of them (42a). A similar parable, if told today, might go something like this: 

Once upon a time there were two couples, each owning a home. One older couple, retired medical doctors, have lived in their house for 29 years…and have one more payment to go before the house is finally paid off. The other couple newly married, who happen to care for ten disabled children, have lived in their dream house for five years. Six months ago their adjustable rate loan payment skyrocketed due to the current mortgage meltdown. Fearing they might lose their house, they’ve begun working double shifts and weekends at the factory to make their house payment. 

Yesterday, the retired couple went to the mail box to find a letter from their mortgage company. Dear Valued Customer: In recognition of your excellent 29 year credit history, we are waving your final loan payment and giving you full title to your home. You’ve earned it! Congratulations! On that same day, the second couple also found a letter in their mailbox. Dear Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Greatly moved and inspired by your dedication to the community as foster parents of ten disabled children, Extreme Home Makeover has selected you from a list of more than a thousand applicants to receive a complete home remodel. In addition, we want you to know that we will be paying off your current mortgage loan. Congratulations!

Now “Which of them will love him more, will be more grateful?” asks Jesus (42b) -- the couple whose mortgage lender waved their last payment, or the couple who just got a new home debt free? Which of these would likely invite their benefactor over for dinner once a week for the rest of their lives if they could? Simon says “The one I suppose who was forgiven more.” He can’t escape the logic of the parable. “You have judged rightly” Jesus says (43). Then Jesus goes on to explain that this woman’s actions were a sure sign that she had experienced the saving grace and forgiveness of God. By contrast, your lack of love (your lack of hospitality & judgmental spirit), shows that you don’t really see yourself as a sinner who needs God’s mercy and love…. For you gave no water for my feet, the minimum gesture of hospitality (44). You did not kiss even my cheek, but she has kissed my feet (45). You did not anoint my head with oil..." (The Greek word here that Jesus uses is elaion, the word for common household oil); but she anointed my feet with costly perfume (Greek: muron...myrrh, perfume, v. 46)!

Now we come to a critical verse in this story which we must interpret correctly. The NIV reads: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins (debts), have been forgiven – for she loved much….” (47-48). The NIV could be misunderstood to be saying that this woman was forgiven because she loved much: that is, because she showed so much love to Jesus.  Was she forgiven because she loved much, or did she love much because she was forgiven? The latter. Her love was the evidence that she had experienced God’s forgiveness, not the basis for it. How do we know this? Because it’s the whole point of the story of the two debtors!  As I said earlier, this woman discovered God’s mercy through Jesus, which is why she had come to see him. Her acts of love were in gratitude for the gift of God’s healing. This is why the NRSV translates the Greek conjunction hoti with the word "hence" and not with the word "for."  “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Back in Little Tokyo I received a brochure that said that Christianity, like Islam and Buddhism, pins it eternal hope on “a life on earth spent in worthy and useful pursuits.” Now before I go any further I want to say that I believe in the free exercise of religion in our country…and that we need to defend that freedom, because if it is lost for one group it is endangered for the rest of us. I’m glad that a certain Buddhist had the freedom to give me that brochure, and I’m grateful for the freedom I had to talk with him openly about it.  But in this situation I had to not only listen and try to understand, but eventually point out that the Christian message is actually the opposite of what was stated in that brochure!  That is, eternal life is not something human beings earn -- if that were even possible -- by their own good deeds, or by an accumulation of good lives lived in successive reincarnations.  It is received as a free gift when we come to God by faith in what He has done for us through his Son. It is received today, just as that repentant woman received it two millennia ago.  

Now here is the big surprise…as I got to know this man, I found out that he once attended church, and for some reason, he never heard or understood this message of God’s grace. My eyes opened! Instead of hearing the message of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus…he was still trapped in the notion that only his good works could save him…that after another thousand reincarnations or more…he might succeed in liberating himself from the wheel of karma. As I said to my Buddhist friend, it’s not that Christians don’t believe that good deeds are important. Every major religion believes that doing good is important because -- as C. S. Lewis once argued -- we are all endowed with an innate sense of right and wrong from the Creator.  But the Christian message is that while our so-called "good deeds" can never amount to anything that could possibly earn our own salvation; they can be a humble response to God’s saving grace…as the woman in this passage demonstrates.  Indeed, the presence of self-giving love in us is the surest sign that God's love has penetrated our hearts and begun to work its transforming power: "We love because He first loved us"  (1 John 4: 19). Certainly if we claim to know Christ…and have no love or forgiveness in our hearts – then we must ask ourselves if we truly know him.

By the way, in the course of our conversation, my Buddhist friend said that in his former church he was never allowed to ask questions or voice the kind of doubts he was sharing with me. I sincerely hope and pray that you never encounter that kind of attitude among Christians; that you find instead the grace and truth of Jesus, who invites sinners and doubters like us to follow him. I left that man with my email address and invited him to contact me again if he’d like to talk further).

Friends, I don’t want anyone to be mislead like the man I met in Little Tokyo…still trying to earn his or her way into God’s good graces, and confused about the whole point of the gospel. But let’s return briefly to the final verses of this passage where those who heard Jesus forgive this woman’s sins -- ask a question: “Who is this who even forgives sins” (49) Regardless of how Simon and the others will respond, each of us must answer that question for ourselves.  But hear Jesus’ final words to the woman: “Your faith has saved you” (not your good works, or your Bible studies or perfect worship attendance, or your careful attention to social justice, or your fasting and prayer, or your one thousand and twenty first reincarnation). "Faith in who?" we may ask.  Faith in Jesus, as this woman's actions clearly testify: faith in Y'shua the Messiah and Lord (50).  May we share with this woman both a simple faith in Christ…and a deep and extravagant love that is the surest sign our debt has been paid in full; and that we have truly received God’s forgiveness and healing grace.

O to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
Robert Robinson, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

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