Bible Study Ideas and Commentary on Luke 7:40-50
Jesus tells a story about two people in our passage, but it turns out to mean the opposite of what we would have assumed. Yes, the one who has been forgiven more will love more. But the one who loves less simply doesn't understand what he needs forgiven.
Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much. Luke 7:47
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The Roundaboutest Opening Discussion Topic of All Time
In our passage this week, Jesus uses a story about debt forgiveness to explain a point to a Pharisee: the person who is forgiven more is more grateful (but much more about this below). So, I immediately thought to suggest modern examples as an opening discussion idea. But every one fell short (or made the wrong point). So, in my roundabout way, let me explain why I felt like my examples fell short and then try to use that thought process as the opening discussion. (I know, it's weird, but stay with me.)
We all kind of innately get the point of Jesus' illustration. A person who has been forgiven a larger debt will be more grateful than the person who was forgiven a small debt. Of course, right? (Jesus will put an amazing twist on it, but we will get to that when we study the passage.) But in our modern world where most people don't think about debt like they used to, I'm afraid we lose the impact of the illustration. [Seriously. They didn't have bankruptcy protection in Jesus' day -- if they got into real debt trouble, they eventually became a slave. But now, do people even really care about debt at all? If our country can throw another trillion dollars around, it must not be that big of a deal. The debt levels of the US and other countries are absurd.] So, here's my challenge:
Can we come up with a modern illustration that we think makes the point we think Jesus is making?
I know, this is not my normal way of starting these articles, but let's make the discovery process our "things to think" about idea.
Here's what first came to mind: student loan debt (because it was such a focus during the campaigns) and credit card debt. But I think they fall short.
Student Loan Debt
Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, with the average borrower owing about $35,000. That's staggering -- second only to mortgage debt. (To be fair, more than half of borrowers owe less than $20,000.) This became a major campaign issue, with multiple Democratic candidates proposing massive forgiveness actions, "weaponizing" the debt as in this graphic. (If you're interested, Biden is at odds with them for reasons this CNN article explains): Student loan debt forgiveness: Biden again rejects $50,000 plan pushed by other top Democrats - CNNPolitics
So, imagine all of your student loans suddenly being forgiven. Wouldn't that make you so grateful? Well, maybe?
This is probably a poor illustration of the kind of forgiveness Jesus talks about in our passage. Why? First, it doesn't apply to everyone evenly, and as Biden said above, people voluntarily go to a more expensive school. Further, here's how I interpreted the campaign debates. (1) People think that students are being overcharged to go to school. I.e. not fair value. (2) If people can talk about forgiving this debt, then it can't be that big of a deal. I.e. forgiveness not seen as generous. (3) The debt owners are nameless, faceless institutions. I.e. no one to be grateful to. And then all of that stirs together in the ultimate reason why this illustration just didn't work for me: (4) People now feel entitled to that forgiveness.
Credit Card Debt
In looking for updated information about this, I was pleased to find that credit card debt per household is actually down from last year, to about $7,000 per household (about $400 billion in total; well less than even auto loan debt). Part of the reason is that household income has been outpacing the cost of living, so people have been able to pay down debt and put money into savings. (Great!) About half of families have tapped into those savings during COVID, but that's usually better than going into debt.
Still, wouldn't it be amazing if your credit card company wrote off your cards? Well, maybe.
Here's why I think this isn't a great example -- basically the same reasons as above. It's a very impersonal debt. How exactly would you show your gratitude if it were forgiven? Also, interest rates tend to be raised with little notice, literally compounding the debt for reasons outside the control of the borrower. Finally (and this is actually good), credit card debts on average are probably too small to really appreciate on the level Jesus suggests.
So, if those aren't appropriate illustrations, what is?
My Version of the Modern Illustration
Here are the threads I latched on to. You may come up with something different! For the point I think Jesus is trying to make, I'm looking at these factors:
The debt has to be meaningful; difficult to pay back.
There have to be consequences to failure to pay back.
There has to be a personal connection -- an avenue for gratitude.
It has to be a voluntary gesture on the part of the benefactor.
So, mandatory debt forgiveness handed down by the government just doesn't get to it. That made me think of this idea: paying off someone else's debt as a gift. That's different than a debt being forgiven! But I wonder if it helps us understand Jesus' point.
If you think that idea applies, it really opens the door for examples. You could ask a question like: "do you have any feel-good stories of someone having a debt paid off?"
The widow who was saddled with her late husband's legal fees that he had never resolved.
The person with a medical problem that insurance wouldn't cover and resulted in significant hospital bills.
The single mom caring for a special-needs child.
If you really need hep with examples, just go to GoFundMe and you can read plenty. (It's such an industry that they even have pages explaining how best to write a GoFundMe application.) While some GoFundMe campaigns seem to be more deserving (not sure what word to use?) than others, the stories of people having their crippling medical or legal debts paid are quite inspiring. Their gratitude is palpable.
(Please be circumspect of any local stories! Remember that some generous people we know prefer to remain anonymous.)
If You Need an Easier Topic, Try "Ingratitude"
Here's an easier topic. I didn't start with it because I've used it before. Jesus contrasts two kinds of people: someone who has been forgiven little, and someone who has been forgiven much. There's absolutely an irony at work in Jesus' words -- the person who thinks he has been forgiven little is actually the one in the most trouble! So, that leads to the easy topic:
Do you have any examples of being ungrateful? Or perhaps someone being ungrateful to you?
Of course. We all do! And we should all have examples of us being ungrateful. I remember as a child receiving a pretty cool racecar track from a relative who saved up for a while to give it to me for Christmas. I just wasn't that impressed. Bad vibes! (Of course, let me hop on my soapbox -- if you're giving a "gift" so the recipient will be grateful, is that really a gift?) And there have been plenty of things we've done for our kids that were basically taken for granted. It's just a part of life.
But here's where I would want this discussion to go: what does "ingratitude" say about the person? And where does it lead the person? In other words, the person who is always ungrateful and allowed to be ungrateful, what kind of a person does he/she tend to be? And that leads to...
This Week's Big Idea: God's "Conditional" Forgiveness
I don't think I can share this truth enough. We all know "The Lord's Prayer": "Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
But the very next line in the Bible is this:
For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses. Matthew 6:14-15
THIS IS HUGE. (And it ties directly to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18.) The wording is crystal clear: God's forgiveness is conditional. But what is that condition? Do some thinking about this: what does this passage seem to be saying is the condition of God's forgiveness? And then, what does the Bible say is the limit of Jesus' sacrifice? (I.e. are there sins that the cross doesn't cover?)
The Bible is also clear that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven . . . except for the sin of failing to acknowledge your need for forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ. So, how does that fit in? Here's how I describe it: failing to forgive someone else reveals that you don't understand how much God has forgiven you. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the point is that God has forgiven us an incalculable debt of sin, and therefore we live our Christian lives in gratitude and generosity and mercy. If we do not, that indicates that we have not experienced God's forgiveness in the first place. In other words, the condition "if you don't forgive others" is actually a diagnostic of your salvation. People who are saved have a forgiving nature.
So then you reply with the obvious concern: "wait, there have been times I have not forgiven someone else for what they did to me!" Well, that's why I'm calling this "the big idea" for the week. It's a big, difficult topic. The long and short is this: Christians are supposed to forgive every wrong done to us. But (1) that doesn't make it easy or instant. And (2) "forgive" does not mean "excuse" or "enable" or "ignore". You can even forgive someone without reconciling with them.
Sometimes, Christians struggle with forgiveness because they have an unrealistic idea of what it should look like. Jesus isn't talking about the person who is struggling to offer forgiveness. He's talking about the person who doesn't care.
God has forgiven us more than we could ever know, and it cost Him more than we could ever understand. And that should make us grateful in all things. And that's really what Jesus is talking about in this passage.
Where We Are in Luke
It's time to expand our working outline of Luke:
Jesus begins to build a new community (5:1-6:16)
Calls the first disciples (5:1-11)
Heals and forgives (5:12-26)
Calls Matthew and eats with sinners (5:27-32)
Overrules the old rules (5:33-6:11)
The Twelve Apostles (6:12-16)
Jesus sets the values for this new community (6:17-49)
What "blessing" means (6:17-26)
Love your enemies (6:27-36)
Do not judge (6:37-42)
Bear fruit (6:46-49)
Build on the right foundation (6:46-49)
Jesus shows what His community should look like in action (7:1-8:21)
Faith in Jesus (even the Roman centurion has it!) (7:1-10)
Compassion for the lowly (raising the widow's son) (7:11-17)
Speaks the truth to power (lesson of John the Baptist) (7:18-7:35)
Friend of sinners (the sinful woman) (7:36-50)
Sharing the gospel (Parable of the Sower) (8:1-15)
Shining the light (8:16-18)
Not restricted to family (8:19-21)
Jesus demonstrates His authority as the leader (8:22-9:50)
Calms the storm (8:22-25)
Releases the demon-possessed man (8:26-39)
Raises the dead (8:40-56)
Sends out the Twelve (9:1-9)
Feeds the five thousand (9:10-17)
Is the Messiah (9:18-36)
Heals the demon-possessed boy (9:37-43)
Least and greatest (9:44-50)
Surprisingly, we skip over a lot of this in Lifeway's outline of Luke. However, a lot of it is stuff we covered when we went through Matthew:
The thing to note is that we are now in the section of Luke in which Jesus is demonstrating to His new community what they're supposed to be about. We might think of it as Jesus giving examples of what His values look like in action. (Ministry to all people, including those you thought were your enemy. Compassion for all people, especially when they cannot repay you. Being a friend to sinners just as Jesus was a friend to you, and so on.)
This week's passage builds on truths highlighted in the previous verses on John the Baptist. John the Baptist was great, and yet the leaders complained that he was too ascetic. Jesus is greater, and yet the leaders complain that He befriends sinners. It simply proves that their hearts had hardened. (Luke says this explicitly:)
But since the Pharisees and experts in the law had not been baptized by him, they rejected the plan of God for themselves. Luke 7:30
And what's the very next passage? A Pharisee who did not understand his own need for forgiveness and his unforgiving heart for a sinful woman!
Part 1: Love's Intensity (Luke 7:40-43)
Jesus replied to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He said, “Say it, teacher.” “A creditor had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Since they could not pay it back, he graciously forgave them both. So, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one he forgave more.” “You have judged correctly,” he told him.
For the love of all things, please just back up three verses and start reading there. They tell you what's going on. That's where we learn we are in the house of a local Pharisee named Simon, that this woman came into the home with an alabaster jar of perfume, and that Simon cared much more about her past reputation than her current actions. (We could spend an entire lesson just talking about how we still do that today.)
I have this painting hanging just outside my office. It helps us try to see what's going on in this home. It makes some assumptions that the Bible does not clarify, but they don't obscure the truth of the passage. It's very simple: a person who was forgiven more will be more grateful.
A denarius was a coin more or less was equivalent to a common laborer day's wages. So, perhaps it would be easier to think of this as one person who owed two month's salary, and a person who owed two year's salary. (But even that's not really the point because both of them were unable to pay.) Jesus is not (yet) suggesting that the person who owed less was un-grateful, just less-grateful. (Later, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus flips this idea on its head and scandalously makes the bigger debtor un-grateful.)
Let's dig further. Jesus called the lender a "creditor", a word used for someone in the money-lending business. This means they would certainly charge interest. While Mosaic law told Jews not to charge interest on loans to other Jews (Lev 25:35-37), that didn't always happen (Neh 5:6-11). But this could also be a Roman lender -- they were allowed to charge up to 12% interest. Furthermore, they didn't forgive loans. Simon would have been shocked by this detail in Jesus' story.
That should not surprise you! After all, the term "loan shark" is embedded in our cultural consciousness for a reason, right? Jesus is not implying that the creditor was a loan shark, but if that helps you understand how unexpected this idea of loan forgiveness is, then I think it's okay to go with this image. Then you can start thinking about what happens to people who can't pay back the loan shark. Are the "punishments" worse the more you owe?
Then, once the parable is in your head, ask this question: what do you think Simon thinks of Jesus' story? It obviously has something to do with this woman, so how do you think Simon analogizes the woman into the story, and where does he think he fits into the story?
(Note: I'll talk more about "love" and "forgiveness" in the final section.)
Aside: The Sinful Woman, the Alabaster Jar, and Mary Magdalene
As I said above, we don't know anything about this woman, but that hasn't stopped a lot of rumors from circulating: (1) this is a prostitute; (2) this is Mary Magdalene.
All right, let's investigate. First, Simon knows that she is "a sinner". That implies a reputation. In that culture, women typically were not able to have many types of reputations, if that makes sense. But this would be circumstantial evidence at best.
Second, she has an alabaster jar filled with perfume. This was an Egyptian mineral coveted as a perfume jar because it was relatively soft and easy to shape. It would not have been cheap. (Some of these jars were sealed by the craftsman for one-time use.)
-- Important Clarification --
Now, here's where things get confusing. In Matthew 26:6-13, we learn of a woman who came to anoint Jesus with an "expensive perfume" from an alabaster jar in the house of a man named Simon. In Mark's version, Mark 14:1-9, we learn that the perfume was made from nard and worth a year's wages. In John's version, John 12:1-8, we learn that it was Mary sister of Martha who did it. But that's a different event! (That Simon was a leper, so he could not have been a Pharisee. And just about every other detail is also different from our passage.)
Some scholars have said that prostitutes would carry around such perfumes to make their encounters more enticing. That may be true, but that would be again circumstantial.
The best evidence I know is still circumstantial. In the Parable of the Two Sons, Matthew 21:31-32, Jesus' wording echoes our passage in Luke:
31 "Which of the two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him.
Perhaps Jesus singled out prostitutes in that parable because He was thinking of our event?
Second: Why Mary Magdalene? This is time to end the slander. It is folk tradition to believe that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and the woman in our passage this week. But there is no biblical evidence to say that. She had demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2; perhaps the fact that Luke mentions her in the next chapter made people read her back into this incident?). That's all we know. Well, she is also usually listed first in lists of women, meaning that she was important/people knew who she was.
In summary: this may have been a prostitute, but we aren't told that. And this probably was not Mary Magdalene.
Part 2: Love Demonstrated (Luke 7:44-47)
44 Turning to 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, with her tears, has washed my feet and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with olive oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Whoa! Savage! When we read this, we certainly see the generosity and love of this woman. But the much more pressing issue is the selfishness and self-centeredness of Simon! Did Simon just want the glory of having a teacher in his home?
The things that Jesus describes the woman as doing were customary for the host (though they were not in the "law" anywhere). Dirty feet from walking in sandals on dirt roads would be washed at the entrance. A drop of oil/perfume on the head would be refreshing (and hide the B.O.). A kiss of greeting as respect. But Simon did none of that for Jesus. And apparently he didn't even consider it! It's a bad look for our guy Simon.
So, how'd she get in? It was actually not uncommon for someone to "crash" a banquet. (1) If a teacher were dining, people would gather 'round to hear him teach during and after supper. And (2) poor people were allowed to come and take home the leftovers. If you're like me, you find both of those strange.
[By the way, what do we know about Simon? Nothing, really. Simon was a common name. There are at least nine distinct Simons in the New Testament. He was a Pharisee. Hosting Jesus for dinner doesn't give us any indication of his wealth or status.]
So, let's set the stage as best we can. Jesus had a meal with Simon. They were both reclining at table, which means that Jesus would have been propped up on his arm next to the table with His feet extended back, away from the table. Sometime after the meal, this woman appears and does for Jesus the things He described. Simon, knowing the woman's reputation, decided to use Jesus' reaction as a means to judge Jesus. (I know, right?) And he decided that Jesus must not be a prophet. (Incidentally, Jesus was reading his mind at the time.) After all, Simon knew what God's prophets must be like.
It's a very sterile reaction to a very un-sterile event. This painting more than any other clarified the incredible emotion of this moment. Unimaginable joy and sorrow all at the same moment as she was released from a lifetime of sin and guilt.
Become an observer in the house. What's going through your mind as you watch this?
Clearly, the woman knew Jesus. Maybe Jesus had said something to her. [Please set the textual issues aside and indulge me -- doesn't this scream out the sinful woman in John 8:1-11, "Go and sin no more"? I can totally picture her going home, realizing how right Jesus was, and rushing to find Him anywhere and thank Him. The truest love.]
She produced a jar of (likely) expensive perfume. I wonder if when Jesus "randomly" came up with the number "500 denarii", He was actually identifying the value of this perfume. Even if it were olive oil-based, it could have been that valuable. And here's where we begin to see the real lesson of Jesus' story. Think about it -- Simon had honored Jesus with what was, I'm sure, a fine meal. But this nameless woman poured out love and honor in ways that were measurably more valuable than the meal. Now, re-read Jesus' story. Jesus knew how Simon would interpret the story -- who he was in it and who the woman was.
The woman is the "winner" in our passage, but the true focus is actually on Simon. Jesus makes sure that we celebrate this woman, but Luke wants us to learn the lesson of Simon.
Part 3: Love and Faith (Luke 7:48-50)
Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Indeed, the woman was a sinner. Simon was right. But her sins were forgiven, and she demonstrated that in her love for Jesus. (The Greek phrasing explains that she loved because she was forgiven, not the other way around.) We've talked about forgiveness a lot in Luke. Is there anything more blessed, more freeing than being forgiven? And do you remember the moment when you finally understood what God had forgiven you in Jesus?
Yes, this woman had been forgiven much. And so she loved much. When we truly understand what a gift forgiveness is, we will have great love for the one who gave it. She certainly loved Jesus more than Simon did!
But did Simon really have a smaller debt to be forgiven?
No. His sin against an infinitely holy God was just as heinous as hers. Perhaps even moreso -- because he did not appreciate it! He did not realize his need for forgiveness, and so he stayed on his road to hell, separated from God. Whereas the woman went home freed, rejoicing, life changed, Simon and his Pharisee friends stewed, caring more about what they would have said to the woman than what God wanted to do for all of them -- forgive all who repent. Yes, this is a story of sin and righteousness, but opposite the way we think. The sin is Simon's. The righteousness is the woman's, a gift of Jesus through His forgiveness.
This is now the second time we've heard about faith in Luke's Gospel. You remember the first -- "Seeing their faith, He said to the paralytic, friend your sins are forgiven." And now, "Your faith has saved you." Luke will develop the idea of "faith" a lot more in his Gospel. Right now, it's basically "belief that Jesus can forgive sins". Isn't that a great starting point for faith? Especially for people who do not yet know how Jesus will accomplish that? But they believe He can. That is faith. And this woman's faith in Jesus made her right with God. Now she can go in peace because she is at peace with God. (And remember -- if we are not at peace with God, we cannot be at peace with ourselves.) (Also, echoes of "go and sin no more", eh?)
Jesus turned her regret and shame into her past. What a tragedy that Simon did not let Him do the same.
I've asked you to put yourself into this story in a bunch of different ways. Where has it left you? Do you have sin that needs confessing? Self-righteousness? Regret? Bitterness?
When was the last time you demonstrated your love and gratitude to Jesus?
Now is as good a time as any!