HOWEVER much admiration and honour was given to our Saviour by many of His contemporaries during His life on earth; however powerfully a yet greater number were struck, at least for the moment, by His exalted character; still just His greatest words and His noblest deeds often remained dark even to the noblest and best around Him, and seemed to the rest a piece of insolent pretension. When He spoke of His eternal relation to the Eternal Father, even His more intimate disciples asked in childish perplexity, Lord, show us the Father; while the mass of the people were shocked at His words as at a blasphemy. When He spoke to an unfortunate the great word, Go, thy sins are forgiven thee, they murmured among themselves and said, Who is this that forgiveth sins?
And even the ideas they had of Him were inconsistent with each other. Daily they heard from Him and His disciples that He had come to set up the kingdom of God: could they wonder, then, that Ho who affirmed this of Himself, also claimed the right to forgive sins? Could they believe in the possibility of a kingdom of God in which the great word, Thy sins are forgiven, would not be spoken to every one belonging to it? Did they believe that through their sacrifices they found forgiveness of sins, although no power could proceed from them to elevate and advance men so far that they should not be always needing forgiveness anew and as much as ever; and yet did it seem to them a strange thing that now at last this greatest and most comforting of all assurances so necessary to them, should proceed from the depths of this divine heart, from Him who so mightily moved the souls of men?
We all feel that true love to the Saviour could have struck no deep roots in hearts that could so marvel.
It is of course different with us, my Christian friends. We acknowledge Him as our Mediator with His and our Father, through union with whom the forgiveness of sins comes to us once for all, and who pronounces it to us ever anew in His word, and by the special manner of His presence with believers. But while those people long ago asked, Who is this that forgiveth sins? it well befits us to raise the question, Who are we to whom sin is forgiven? -- are we, at least, in so far worthy of this great word that we thoroughly feel its deep meaning and that it stirs us to fervent gratitude and love? There is an idea very common among us, -- which has indeed its true side, and which is founded on living faith, -- that if we have once found the way of salvation we should no longer let our thoughts dwell on the weakening and tormenting sense of sin; but that when it is confessed and put away by repentance and faith, it should only serve in the way of instruction and warning; that we should then go forward with alacrity and courage in the work of establishing, specially on this foundation, our relationship of love and fellowship \vith the Saviour, as the power for a life more honouring to Him flows ever more abundantly into our souls from His word, from His memorial, and from His image present to our minds. This is all quite true; but the one view must not exclude the other, and there is certainly great danger of our relation to the Saviour losing its distinctive character if this thought does not keep a lasting hold of our hearts, that it is He who speaks to us the great word, Go, thy sins are forgiven thee. For He Himself makes this very consciousness at once the ground and the measure of the love that we are able to give Him, and that love is certainly the source of the power that proceeds from Him.
The simple and touching narrative of our text has never failed to take a wonderful hold of every heart not utterly in capable of feeling. In reading it we cannot but be struck afresh with the sense of how glorious a thing it is to be drawn to the Saviour by a feeling of one's own lost condition; and every one must recognise the profound truth of the direct application which the Saviour makes of the incident, when contrasting the weeping woman who was a sinner with the righteous man whose guest He was. But the broader inference which our Lord finally draws from it has always seemed, to many minds, questionable and obscure. Let us therefore, for the present, confine our attention to these last words, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." Let us consider the universal connection between the forgiveness of sin and love, as here laid down by the Saviour. Let us note how the conduct of this woman bears on the relation of men to the Saviour, and how all the lessons of the narrative serve first of all to illustrate this; while at the same time there are allusions throughout to everyday human relationships, and the Saviour states His main principle in quite a general way. Let us, therefore, consider first our common relation to Christ, and then our ordinary brotherly relationships with each other.
I. First, then, as to our common relation to the Saviour. Can we accept as universally true this principle which He lays down, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little? Serious difficulties have in fact been raised as to the first part of the statement. Thus, when the Saviour says, She has been forgiven much, for she loved much, He takes the love as the ground of the forgiveness, and so, in fact, places love in the position of claiming forgiveness -- even much forgiveness; which will yet be granted for the sake of the love. But he who needs much forgiveness must of course have sinned much. Then is love -- at once the deepest and inmost source and the richest and purest outcome of every thing good and noble -- always to spring out of evil? is sin to be the soil that yields the largest returns, from which good grows the most richly and produces the noblest fruits? And if love is the only true virtue -- the sum of all the commandments of God -- then must not all sins just amount to this, that love is wanting in a man's heart? But how can you reconcile these things? The more a man needs forgiveness, you say, and therefore the more he has sinned -- that is, the further his heart is from love, the deeper he is sunk in lovelessness and selfishness -- is he just so much the more able to love? Is he to be made capable of love by its very absence?
Now, how shall we answer such objections? Simply by what experience teaches us. For what, in fact, does produce more love -- above all such love as comes from the gratitude of the needy -- than a keenly felt sense of need so entirely possessing a man's heart that he is conscious only of the one longing for help and deliverance, and then his actual experience of deliverance? The very name Jesus, Saviour, implies that our love shall be of this kind. The power of sin creates such a sense of need. And when is this great word, Thy sins are forgiven thee, spoken to a man? When can he receive it? Not until his heart, long as it may have been hardened, opens at last to the eternal light; and the more clearly a man recognises, in that light, his own position, just so much the greater must be his sense of the misery from which he longs to be delivered. And it is thus -- with this feeling of the guilt of a heart that has become a stranger to love -- with this longing to escape from the consciousness of condemnation -- that every one who for the first time seriously and truly estimates what is meant by being a Christian, comes to the Saviour. And ever as he sees things more clearly in the eternal light of truth, he becomes more fully conscious that, if he is to be forgiven at all, he must be forgiven much. And in order to the full strength of this conviction, and through it to the man's capability of grateful love, there is no need, as objectors fear, that a man should be guilty of great and open sins, of extraordinary and heinous offences; as if the more sins a man should commit, it were the better for him. There is nothing whatever in the words of the Saviour to imply that the power of loving belongs pre-eminently to him who has made himself preeminently a mark for the scorn of the world. Christ simply means to deal with the Pharisee according to his capacity for understanding; and therefore He sets before him one man who owes a certain sum and another who owes ten times as much, and bids him decide which will be the most grateful for the remission of the debt. But if we examine this story of His in a spirit of simple desire for truth, and with the honest purpose of discriminating between the mere external and the spiritual, can we really believe that the greatness of the debt is meant to figure a great amount of specially aggravated sins? For the person who has contracted a small debt may have just as far exceeded his means, and may have just as carelessly overlooked the impossibility of restitution, as another who contracts a great one. He must then, naturally, be as grateful as the other for remission. And, just so, the same amount of guilt may attach to very different amounts of sin; and he who, tried by the mere external test of the world, is pronounced pure, may have as much to be forgiven as he who, to the world's eyes, seems laden with sins. But we may be very sure that the Saviour did not mean to measure the need of forgiveness by any such external rule; and it is just as certain that the mind has no measure by which to estimate spiritual corruption, either when we compare men with each other or with the purity of the Saviour. What can we conclude then, but that by these different amounts of debt the Saviour means to indicate the different degrees of the sense of sin? And thus shall we see this, first of all, to be no more than true, To whom much is forgiven, the same will love much; he who has seen deep and clearly into the abyss of his sinful heart, will cling with proportionate gratitude to Him who has delivered and raised him up.
But on the other hand the Saviour is entirely right when He inverts the statement, and says, Much is forgiven to her, for she loved much. For, my friends, how do we attain to the pardon of that for which we must be forgiven, be it much or little? Is it not those very people who find the greatest difficulty in the declaration of our Lord, who also say most confidently that God can only forgive, and in point of fact does only forgive, when a man is firmly resolved on a new life, and has set out in the way of holiness?
But is it of any use to think of holiness if we are not thoroughly convinced of the opposition between good and evil? and will holiness not advance the more steadily just in proportion to the abhorrence with which each one regards the evil of which all, including himself, have so much to be forgiven? And if the life of God to which holiness leads is a life of love, then the sense of forgiveness cannot awake in the heart until the stream of Divine love which accompanies the forgiveness has begun to work its way through the hardened crust of the heart, and the living water to flow in; and the heart in which this fountain of love flows abundantly is, without doubt, the heart to which comes most strongly the glad assurance that much is forgiven.
And now we can quite simply take up the other half of the Saviour's declaration, But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little, without any stirring of anxious doubts or misgivings, as if it implied that it was an advantage to have sinned more than others; as if grace could go forth most powerfully only on him in whom sin had been mightiest; as if he who, while still far from the life of God, was restrained, possibly by some mere external check, from plunging deep in the slough of sensuality, should now, as if in punishment of that abstinence, be able to attain only to a low degree of the spiritual life; and as if this statement offered a dangerous incentive to hardened and obdurate sinners to persist in their sins; or, as the apostle expresses it, to continue in sin that grace may abound; giving themselves up utterly to their lusts and passions in order that there may be a deeper repentance and therefore a higher measure of gratitude when the hour of grace arrives. All this is mere vain and empty talk. He to whom much is forgiven is not he who has sinned much, but he who feels that, in this respect, the difference among men as a whole is not so great as we foolishly imagine, and that one has little honour above another so long as all lack the honour that comes from God. It is he, in short, who, in his own sin, mourns over all sin the sin of the whole world; who bathes the feet of the Saviour with his tears, and pours forth on Him the fragrant ointment of a grateful and lowly heart. He to whom little is forgiven is not he who has sinned little -- for who indeed could stand forth and say, It is I -- but he who still thinks too lightly of his sin, perhaps because, unconsciously, he is unwilling to owe too much to the grace of God in Christ.
Such a man was the Pharisee who had invited Christ, but in the worldly wisdom of a cold heart still doubted His being a true prophet, and who was afraid of showing the Saviour too much honour, even in his own house.
And just such as he are all who wish to come to the Saviour, not with the grateful love of the needy, not with the humble love of the outcast, but with the easy, complaisant love of one who, in the strength of his own excellence, can easily afford to acknowledge the excellence and godliness that shine forth from Christ.
And such are all those who readily admit the Saviour's claim to gratitude for bringing blessing to mankind, but are not willing to admit that it was necessary in their own case that this blessing should begin with their being rescued from a state of degradation and ruin. To all such, little is forgiven, and so they love little. Either they have little love, little heart or feeling in any direction, or it goes out chiefly on mere earthly things. Lukewarm is their love to the Saviour. Since there is really such a Saviour, they keep up a connection with Him; but in their innermost heart they think they could perhaps do very well without Him. Lukewarm too is their interest in His work. For they do not perceive that all coldness of feeling, all stupid indifference to what is good, all slothful relaxing in our efforts to please God, are really sins; and therefore it is easy for them to boast that little has been forgiven them.
But the true love of the really godly takes quite another view. In the consciousness of our calling, made clear to us only in Him, in the thought of our vows so often made to Him, how can we but feel that to us much has been for given, and that there must always be much to forgive.
II. Let us, in the second place, apply these words of the Saviour to our brotherly relations with each other. We are justified in doing this, because He Himself, in the lesson of our text, chooses such a human relation, though but a very external and slight one, to illustrate the relation of His people to Himself; and still further because He, who has manifested Himself to all in order to say to them, Thy sins are forgiven thee, does not shrink from even then calling us brethren.
It is true, indeed, that in our relation to the Saviour, this connection between forgiveness and love is, in two aspects, one-sided. It is only we who are forgiven, while it is He alone who forgives; and again, it is only we who love because much is forgiven us, while He, on the other hand, loves because He has forgiven much; because the consciousness of having raised us up and united us to the Father commends us ever anew to His love.
But in our relation to our brethren the bond is reciprocal. We are forgiven, and therefore we love; we forgive others, and therefore also we love them; and for the same twofold reason do our brethren love us. If the mutual forgiveness is large and generous, so must the love be that springs from it; if it is small, the love will also be poor and lukewarm. Yes, my friends, in every relation of life we must feel this, that much is forgiven us because we have loved much -- that we love little, if little is forgiven us. Look at the dearest and closest relationships; those with husband or wife, with children, with brothers and sisters, with all whom God has laid specially on our hearts, and made the objects of our warmest love. Which of us can boast that in these relationships we have sinned little, and that little has been forgiven us? Oh, consider what life is, with all our variable moods, our little unfairnesses, our never-ceasing battle against selfish ways and cowardly sloth; and you will feel constrained to confess that it is only those who love little to whom little is forgiven; those who are satisfied with what can be measured by a mere external and legal standard. But he who requires of himself what the Spirit in His fulness can accomplish -- and how much that is, the spirit of love alone can estimate; he who longs for the good of those whom God has given him just as he longs for his own; in a word, he who loves much; -- oh, how often will he find cause to entreat for patience and forbearance; how deeply will he feel that to him much must be forgiven.
But just because all who live with him know so well the deep-seated principle of his loving character; because in presence of this master-feeling all roughnesses are smoothed away, all vexations vanish; -- for these very reasons he meets with patience and forbearance; and much is forgiven to him, because he loves much.
And just so it is in all the less intimate social relations among men. He who is content with standing in no one's way, injuring no one, neglecting nothing that the rules of a correct life can demand, may readily suppose that there is little to be forgiven him; but then he loves little. He who, on the other hand, lays himself out to exert a kindly and cheering influence on the lives of others, -- how many sins of omission, how many moments of lazy indifference or cold reserve will he have to reproach himself with! But if men are only aware that this is the ruling principle of his life, if they feel how much he loves, and see how much ho lovingly accomplishes, then much is forgiven to him.
Let us think of what we owe to the fathers, the sons, and the servants of our country. How common it is among us to think that only he who has been guilty of glaring offences against these relationships needs forgiveness. But, alas, how little love there is! How does each of us, under cover of external laws, seek only his own advantage!
Oh that the hard crust of the heart were shattered, and that in the pure vital air, real, unrestrained love might burst forth into a flame! How would the scales then fall from our eyes! how clearly should we then see how infinitely much we all need to be forgiven! but at the same time how surely would the sense of a free, full life of love bring to us forgiveness and oblivion of all the past.
Let us think of our special connection with those to whom we are united by the common bond of faith and of the forgiveness obtained for us by Christ. How much more we could do to purify and strengthen this holy bond, by teaching, by help, and by example; how much more in the way of finding out and helping forward everything good, and in sifting out and suppressing the evil; how much more by counsel and comfort, by forbearance and long-suffering, to be representatives of Jesus! How much we have to be forgiven! and yet how plain it is that nothing but love -- the earnest longing and effort always to do more and to be more -- can cover the multitude of sins. But think also how much this bond of believers itself, so to speak, forgives; how it acknowledges us notwithstanding our weaknesses; how from it the strength of our oneness in spirit and faith flows into our inmost being and draws us towards the holiness which is our goal.
On the other hand, my friends, how can we as believers -- as those who are strong in love and faith -- shut our eyes to the fact that others stand to us and to a whole community of men, so far as we represent it, in the same relation which we ourselves bear to the whole Church and to Christ, her Head? Well, once more, then, let us forgive much, that from this cause we may be able to love much and to be much loved! Let us reflect how Christ's forgiveness acts on the feelings; how not those whose closed eyes He opened, not those whom He healed of grievous infirmities, not even those whom He awakened from physical death, clung to Him with such fervent gratitude, or received from Him so lasting a gift of love, as they to whom He could say, Go in peace; thy sins are forgiven thee. And so it is among ourselves. All other benefits and gifts that we can bestow have less power to strengthen the bond of love than gentle sympathy with the inmost feelings, helpful support given to the weak, restoring and raising up and comforting the fallen and penitent. That was the brightest glory of the Saviour, of whom the seer under the old covenant foretold, the bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench. Oh, how many such do we see around us here! Let us bind up every bruised reed with a tender hand; let us gently breathe the breath of love on the expiring spark, if by any means we may revive it; that so we may draw the closer to Him, and feel how blessed are those who gain from Him the name of brethren, and that we may be able to pray with truth, Forgive us, as we forgive. Amen.