An interesting and difficult question regarding the harmony of the Gospels generally attaches itself to the exposition of this parable. Each of the four Evangelists narrates that a woman anointed Jesus while he sat at table; and it becomes difficult to determine with certainty whether they refer all to the same event, or some to one event, and some to another. In the narratives features of similarity occur; leading to the one conclusion, and features of dissimilarity leading to the other. The prevailing opinion now is that Matthew, Mark, and John, speak all of the same fact, and that Luke speaks of another. I have thought it right to mention, that this question has been often discussed in connection with our parable; but I shall do no more. The decision of it here and now is by no means necessary: the interpretation of the parable does not in any measure depend upon it. It is an inquiry belonging to a different branch of Scripture exposition, and to discuss it here would tend to distract attention from the subject in hand.
Assuming then without argument that Luke here records an event which is not mentioned by any of the other Evangelists, I shall proceed at once to examine its substance as the ground from which the parable directly springs. The husbandman at one time operates directly on the tree, and at another time directly on the ground in the neighbourhood; in both cases however, and in both alike, his aim is to increase the fruitfulness of the tree; it is thus that an expositor must in some instances turn his attention in the first place to the surrounding context which suggests and sustains the parable, as the best means of ascertaining the import of the parable itself.
A Pharisee invited Jesus to a feast: he accepted the invitation and joined the company at the appointed place and time. A woman who had been of bad character in the town, as soon as she learned that he was there, entered the apartment where the guests reclined at meat, and stood at his feet behind him weeping. Her tears rained down on his feet; she wiped them off with her hair, and then anointed them with precious ointment.
Let us endeavour to determine precisely the character of the several actors and the meaning of their acts.
The Pharisee, having formed, on the whole, a favourable opinion of Jesus as a prophet in Israel, and being, as he supposed, in a position to act the patron, with benevolent intent, but with a high estimate of his own character and position, invited to his house and table the remarkable Nazarene, whose miracles and doctrines were in every one's mouth. Doubtless he expected, also, that by closer contact, and by means of his own shrewd observation, he should be able definitely to make up his mind on the character of the new prophet, and so to favour or frown on him according to the result.
While her actions only are recorded in the narrative, we may, by the light of the Lord's subsequent declarations, also read without danger of mistake the emotions that were working in this woman's heart. She had fallen into a course of vice, and consequently lost caste in the community. Knowing that she had lost the respect of her neighbours, she had lost respect for herself. From a sinful act she had glided into sinful habits. Perhaps remorse from time to time made her inwardly sorrowful; but she put on a bold countenance, and tried to laugh down rebuke.
This woman, while in this state, crept one day to the outer edge of a crowd in the neighbourhood of the city, to satisfy her curiosity as to the cause of the concourse. In the centre stood Jesus of Nazareth preaching; and all the people in solemn silence hung upon his lips. She listened too, and heard some wonderful words; God loved the world; God pardons sin -- pardons freely, pardons it all; pardons chief sinners; loves to pardon; has given his Son to seek and save; this is the Son, revealing the Father, and inviting the prodigal to return to the Father's bosom. Hark; he says, "Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Peeping through openings in the crowd, she might see the love that beamed in the preacher's countenance, as well as hear the gracious words that came from his mouth.
The woman's heart is touched and taken; the woman is won. By that still small voice the devil's chains are broken, the rocky heart is rent. When the congregation dissolves, she steals away to her house alone. There her eye falls on some gaudy ornaments, the instruments of her sin, and the badges of her shame. Whence this sudden strong loathing? Perhaps she grasps them convulsively and flings them on the fire, shutting her eyes that she may not see her tormentors. She sits down, and searches her own heart, -- her own life. She discovers that it is altogether vile. Her own heart is the darkest, deepest pit out of hell; she is the chief of sinners. She never knew this before. She had often experienced twitches of conscience for particular acts of evil; but now her whole life and her whole being seem one dark, deep, crimson sin. What has done this? It was that word of Jesus; it was the pardon that he offered; it was the divine compassion that beamed on his countenance and glowed on his lips. She was melted. The old stony heart flowed down like water, and went away; and a new, tender, trustful, loving heart came up in its place. She is not the same woman that she was yesterday. She is a new creature in Christ Jesus; but she could not yet tell the name and describe the nature of the change that had taken place in her being, as a new-born child could not announce the fact and explain the nature of its birth. The infant will manifest its birth and life, by seeking sustenance from its mother's breast; and when the child has grown, the grown man will reflect on his birth, and perhaps understand in some measure its nature and importance. Such was the passing from death into life in the experience of that woman. Conversion in our own day often takes place as secretly, and as soon. The word of the Lord that proved itself quick and powerful then, liveth and abideth the same for ever; and this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto us still.
The natural history of conversion does not change with the lapse of centuries, any more than natural history in other departments; there were doubtless examples of secret regeneration in the time of our Lord and his apostles, as well as in our own time. He knew this woman's case as well as he knew the case of the woman who pressed through the crowd to touch the hem of his garment. That woman, when she was healed, would have kept her case secret at the time if she could; she was put about and ashamed when she was called in public, and her experience proclaimed in the crowd. It suited the purpose of the Lord to make known her experience on the spot; that method he saw would do most for his kingdom. But in the case of this woman who was a sinner, he did not act in the same way. There are diversities in his operation. He foresaw an occasion when her repentance and faith could be turned to greater account; accordingly he postponed the public announcement of her forgiveness till then. True to the new instinct that had been planted in her heart, this saved sinner, as soon as she heard that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, grasped the richest offering she possessed and hastened to the spot. Her plans, I think, were not fully laid. The impulses of a bursting heart drew her to the place where her Redeemer was; but she had not foreseen all the difficulties, and consequently had not prepared the means of overcoming them.
Arrived at the house, she entered the open door; and passing through the attendants, penetrated into the apartment where the company reclined at meat. The table stood in the middle of the hall, and sofas in a continuous line were placed near it on either side. On these sofas were the guests, not sitting as we do with their feet on the floor beneath the table, but reclining with their feet projecting a little behind, the sandals having previously been drawn off by servants, for coolness and comfort. Thus it was easy for one who entered the room, to walk up to any individual of the company and converse with him during the meal; and, so far from being out of the way and unnatural, it was the easiest and most natural of all things, that the woman, when she came to Jesus, should touch his feet. This was precisely the part of his body which she could most easily reach, and which she might bathe and anoint, while the meal proceeded, without difficulty to herself or inconvenience to him.
We shall fall into a mistake if we think either that the act as here narrated was altogether accordant with the habits of the time and place, or altogether contrary to them; it was partly the one and partly the other.
In the first place it was an act radically diverse from the intrusion of a stranger to anoint the feet of a guest sitting at dinner with his friend in our country and our day. Such an act among us would be so unprecedented, so difficult, so awkward, that it would shock every observer, if it were attempted, and bring the whole business to a stand. There and then, in as far as the entrance of a person unbidden is concerned, there was nothing to attract attention. There is abundant evidence that even at this day, it is common in the East for persons not of the party to enter the feast chamber during the progress of the meal, and sitting on seats by the wall, converse on business or politics with the guests that recline beside the table; and, further, from the position of the guests, it was not difficult, but easy to reach his feet. Thus far, all was accordant with use and wont. But as to the person who entered on that occasion, and the act which she performed, there was something strange and out of the way. It was fitted to attract attention, and to excite suspicion; and so indeed it did. A woman, coming in while the company sat at meat, and such a woman, habit and repute disreputable; and besides all this, the ardency of her emotions, and the familiarity of her acts, surprised the onlookers.
I think it important to notice these two sides of the case; so much of it was according to use and wont, that the entrance of the woman by itself did not surprise and shock the company; and yet so much of it was strange, that the curiosity of the company was aroused, and their attention arrested. The circumstances of the incident on both sides, were thus calculated to promote the design of Jesus, to instruct and reprove. There was as much of the ordinary in the act as prevented it from shocking the feelings; and as much of the extraordinary as awakened the interest of the spectators.
When she reached the feet of the Redeemer with the intention of anointing them in token of her adoring gratitude, her plan seems to have been deranged for the moment, by a sudden and uncontrollable flood of tears, as if the fountains of the great deep within her being had been opened, and grief and gladness, both at their height, had met and caused an overflow. From the position she had assumed those tears wet the feet of Jesus; and having no other towel, she, with a woman's sudden instinct, dried them again with her long flowing hair.
 "She was forgiven much; therefore she loved much. As soon as she had learned that Jesus was at table in Simon the Pharisee's house, her heart drew her thither to him, that she might offer him the expression of her gratitude and love, -- of her adoration and her joy. She took with her a phial of ointment, the costliest that she possessed, found an entrance into the Pharisee's house, and walked behind backs to the feet of Jesus, as he reclined at table on an elevated cushion. Arrived there, she is incapable of accomplishing her purpose. The thought of the greatness of her sin, and the greatness of the compassion of Jesus, broke her heart. She wept, and so unwittingly wet the feet of Jesus with her tears. Oh, salt, salutary tears! They are tears at once of repentance and gratitude. Now, she must first dry the Lord's feet again. But for this she had not prepared herself; for this she had nothing but her hair. So she wiped them with her hair; and kissed the feet of Jesus, and then anointed them with ointment. All this was the manifestation of her inward burning love to the Lord." -- Arndt, ii, 85, 86.
"Now, when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him." It was an acknowledged sign of a true prophet to be a discerner of hearts. Simon had this test before his mind, and was secretly applying it to determine the claims of Jesus. But another principle lay deep in the heart of the Pharisee, which he considered applicable to the case in hand: he counted, as a matter of course, that a prophet, while he might sit at table on terms of equality with himself, a good man, would not accept any mark of homage from a bad one. He believed that, by his knowledge of the town, he had gained advantage over the prophet of Nazareth, who was a stranger, and had found a ground on which he might reject his claims. Simon knew the character of this woman. Believing that Jesus, as a righteous man, would have spurned her away if he had known what she was, he thought he saw in the fact of his bearing with her an evidence that he was ignorant of her character.
The reasoning was this. Either he knows what sort of a woman this is, or he does not. If he does not know, he is not a prophet, because he cannot discern spirits; if he knows, he is not a prophet, for he does not cast the disreputable person away. On either alternative, therefore, he is not a prophet.
 The dilemma is well put by Dr. Trench.
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I proceed now, under the direction of the Lord's own words, to consider the spiritual meaning and the practical use of the narrative. The creditor is God, in whom we live, and move, and have our being -- from whom we derive all, and to whom we must account for all; the debtors sinful men; and the debts the sins which they have severally done.
Of the two, while both are in debt, one owes ten times as much as the other. A comparison of this proportion, with that which appears in the parable of the unmerciful servant, is interesting. Between the debt which the servant owed to his master, and the debt which a fellow-servant owed to him, there is no assignable proportion: so vast is the difference that we cannot form a definite conception of the relation. This is precisely what we should expect in order to show the disproportion, or want of all proportion, between sins against God and sins against a neighbour. In this parable, on the other hand, the debt in both cases is due to the master, and not in either due by one servant to another. We accordingly do not expect, and do not find a disproportion so vast; and yet, there is a great difference between the two sums. In the one case the debt is five hundred pence, and in the other fifty: the less is only one-tenth of the larger sum. Although there are aggravations in one case, and alleviations in another, I think the disproportion would not have been so great as in the parable it actually is, if it had been the design of the Lord here to teach us how much the guilt of one man may exceed that of another in the sight of God. From the circumstances of this case we may safely gather that these sums represent not the absolute quantity of sin-debt that stood against these men severally in the book of divine justice, but the estimate which they severally made of their own shortcomings. The fifty and the five hundred pence indicate the amounts which the debtors severally acknowledged, rather than those which the creditor might have claimed.
The plan of providence in the present life permits every man to keep his own accounts of debt to God: no neighbour is empowered to record the items, and sum them up, and keep a record of their amount against you. The Romish priesthood attempt to usurp this prerogative, but in its purpose it is boldly unjust, and in its results miserably ineffectual. They ought not, in point of principle, to make the attempt; and they are not able, in point of fact, to accomplish their object. Every man keeps his own account book; and no other man dare or can look into it, except in as far as the owner opens it of his own accord for the inspection of his neighbour.
Some teachers adopt this principle, with good effect, in the discipline of children at school. Each child has a book in which he marks, from day to day and from hour to hour, his own successes and his own failures; and according to this record the prizes are awarded or withheld. When the child is put upon his honour, it is expected that he will be honourable. Probably a large balance of advantage results from this contrivance where it is judiciously managed; but it is capable of telling two ways, and does tell in opposite ways with different persons. If the child deal fairly, the principle of truth within him will be strengthened by habit; but if he cheat, all of the sense of honesty that remained within him will soon be worn away. "To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken, even that which he hath."
But while each man is permitted to keep the account of his own sins against God, and no human being can rightfully possess a duplicate, there is a duplicate: another record is kept in the Book of God. That record is true; and woe to the self-deceiver who made false entries in his own favour all his life, when it is found that the two accounts will not tally in the great day.
Simon the entertainer kept account of his own debt to God -- his sins of omission and commission -- and balanced them from time to time against a column of merits which he possessed. The balance, he confesses, was against himself, and the difference he set down as the amount due: it is expressed by fifty. The woman, on the other hand, had during a course of wickedness lost all reckoning, both of her own sins and of God's mercies. Lately she had obtained a copy of the missing documents. A reflection of the charge had been suddenly thrown down from the archives of the Judge, upon the tablet of her own conscience. Without attempting to tax the account in her own favour, she accepted it in full, and expressed it by five hundred -- ten times as much as the Pharisee had laid to his own charge. He, taking his own reckoning for authority, counted his liability light: she, taking her data from God's law, counted her liability heavy.
In the story, as it is constructed by the Lord for the instruction and reproof of Simon, the love of both servants to their master is caused, and consequently measured by, the forgiveness which they had received: one having obtained the remission of a small debt, loved the forgiver a little; the other, having obtained the remission of a great debt, loved the forgiver much. In any such case, however, love springs up strong in proportion, not to the absolute amount of the debt remitted, but to the estimate of its amount which the debtor himself has formed. This principle must be kept in view when we apply the lesson of the parable to Simon. The Scripture does not concede that the amount of forgiveness that he needed and obtained was in respect to that of the poor woman as fifty to five hundred: the Scripture does not even determine that Simon was, in point of fact, forgiven at all. In its application to the case in hand, the Lord's instruction is equivalent to the conditional formula, If you have been forgiven fifty pence, and she five hundred, whether will she or you experience the more fervent gratitude to your common benefactor? This, I think, is the only true and consistent method of applying the parable to the experience of the woman and the Pharisee. The point on which all the weight should lean is not the absolute amount of guilt incurred by the sinner and forgiven by God, but the estimate made by the sinner of his own sin, and his consequent appreciation of the boon he receives when it is unconditionally blotted out. This view, besides being in itself right, possesses this practical advantage, that it steers entirely clear of the entangling question, If the greatest sinner, when forgiven, loves his Forgiver most, will not he be happiest at last who is the guiltiest now? There is no place here or elsewhere in the Scriptures for such a speculation: it is not admissible in any form. The conception which the parable produces when legitimately applied is at once beautiful and beneficent: love to the Saviour rises in the heart of a saved man in proportion to the sense which he entertains of his own sinfulness on the one hand, and the mercy of God on the other. Thus the height of a saint's love to the Lord is as the depth of his own humility: as this root strikes down unseen in the ground, that blossoming branch rises higher in the sky.
The woman did not speak of her own acts, either within herself or to her neighbours; but her acts are, notwithstanding, proclaimed and recorded. They are minutely catalogued (ver.44-46), by the Lord himself. Nothing is lost on him; his ear is open, and his eye. As in providence not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father's permission and regard, so in the new covenant not a tear falls for sin indulged, not a sigh rises for deliverance from its pollution, without attracting the notice and obtaining the approval of the Sinner's Friend. Love, burning as a night lamp silently in a penitent's breast, or bursting forth in impetuous praise, or calmly supplying the motive power of a useful life -- love in the heart of the forgiven sinner, serves and pleases the forgiving Redeemer.
One point still remains unnoticed, needing indeed some notes of explanation, but capable of being easily and fully explained; it lies in these words of Jesus: "Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins which are many are forgiven; for she loved much." A question has been raised here, Did the woman's love to the Lord cause him to forgive her, or did his pardon freely bestowed cause the forgiven woman to love him? To state the question is in effect to answer it. This announcement which Jesus makes in the close of his exposition is obviously meant to run in the line of the parable; but if you understand it to represent the woman's love as the procuring cause of pardon from the Lord, it runs right in the face of the parable from first to last. The love of the servants, the lesser as well as the larger love, is not the cause but the effect of the Master's kindness; and it would not only be out of harmony with the parable, but in sheer opposition to it in letter and in spirit, to understand it as countenancing the doctrine that the sinner's spontaneous love to God merits and obtains forgiveness.
Although, in sentences of this form, it is more common to express the effect in the first clause, and the cause, introduced by a For in the latter; yet the converse method is frequently employed and perfectly correct. You may say, Tan-waste is strewn on the street opposite this mansion, for a member of the family lies within it sick; or, A member of the family lies sick within this mansion, for tan-waste is strewn on the contiguous street. In the first instance you place the cause last, and in the second instance the effect, using precisely the same formula in both. Nor is it difficult to perceive why Jesus places the effect of forgiveness in the prominent position here, for it is the only thing that is visible to the Pharisee whom he desires to instruct. The pardon which this woman had obtained Simon did not and could not see; but her love being embodied in action was palpable to his senses. The energetic act of adoration was evidence of the heart-love from which it sprang. To this love accordingly Jesus points, and thence infers the existence of the great forgiveness which prompted it. In the end, He confirms and seals, by his own lips, the pardon which the repenting sinner had already secretly received. The Redeemer's forgiving love to sinners is the only cause of all their love to him. "We love him because he first loved us." Have you seen a broad, straight path of silver brightness lying by night upon a smooth sea, and stretching from your feet away until it was lost in the distance -- a path that seemed to have been trodden by the feet of all the saints who have ever passed through a shifting world to their eternal home. Oh that silver path by night across the sea, -- it glittered much: but it was not its brightness that lighted up the moon in the sky. Neither was it the love to Jesus trembling in a believer's heart, that kindled forgiving love in him. We love him because he first loved us; the love that makes bright a forgiven sinner's path across the world was kindled by the light of life in the face of Jesus; from him and to him are all things.
There is a peculiarly wise and tender adaptation to our need in that feature of our Lord's character, which consists in his desiring and appreciating our love. He is not a distant, cold, omnipotence. He lavishes love on the world, but he is disappointed when the world does not throw back a reflection of his own love, as the rippling sea throws up to heaven again, the light it got from heaven. When the ten lepers were cleansed, and one returned to lavish love on his healer, that healer, while he enjoyed the single penitent's devotion, permitted a sigh to escape his lips, articulated in the sad pensive question, "Where are the nine?" I love the Lord for uttering that complaint. It proves to me that he counts it no intrusion when we burst in upon him with our glad thanksgiving. In the bold in-bursting of this woman; in her premeditated anointing, and unpremeditated tears, the Lord Jesus sees -- tastes of the travail of his soul and is satisfied.