The Parables of
This Pharisee was a righteous man, one who held sin and every manifestation of sin in very correct abhorrence. One of his favourite texts was that spoken by the prophet Habakkuk(1.13) "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil"; in every affair of life he endeavoured to keep himself undefiled by contact with the sinful and the unclean. He believed in the coming of Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom. He was sure that when Messiah did appear He would look for those who had remained true to the Pharisaic traditions and could stand before him in the integrity of their own righteousness, model keepers of that Law which was at the first given to Moses. Such men, the Pharisee believed, would be welcomed into the Kingdom. The sinful and the unclean would be unceremoniously ejected, and after that, life would never again hold anything to besmirch or defile the purity of God's own people.
Now he had invited this new young prophet of Nazareth to dine with him. It was not necessarily that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Rather he had been much more impressed with his bearing and his words than had his brother Pharisees, and he wanted to know more. It looked very much as if this young enthusiast was in the tradition and spirit of the old Hebrew prophets and the Pharisee felt that he owed it to himself to explore the matter further. He probably prided himself a little that he was not prejudiced or bigoted or dyed-in-the-wool as were so many of his brother Pharisees. God had undoubtedly spoken in the past by his servants the prophets and history was witness to the fact that if Israel had taken a little more notice of those prophets the nation might not now have been reduced to its present straits. Moses had told their forefathers what would befall them if they forsook their covenant and his prediction had undeniably come to pass. This young man, without doubt, possessed a clear understanding of the sinful condition of Israel and He was not afraid to voice his opinions. It could very possibly turn out that here was the leader for whom all right-thinking men were looking and if so it would be a good thing to get better acquainted with Him right at the outset. So the Pharisee invited Him home to dinner.
He had brought in a few friends, Pharisees of the more liberal turn of mind like himself, and they were gathered round his table reclining in the customary manner, facing the table, leaning on the left elbow, with the feet outside forming a kind of outer ring. The meal proceeded, servants flitting to and fro attending to the needs of the guests, whilst round the table grave question was followed by equally grave answer. Simon the Pharisee rubbed his hands with satisfaction; things were going well. His guest was certainly coming up to expectations.
There was a slight disturbance at the farther end of the room where it opened out on to the central courtyard. Simon did not take any notice. In conformity with custom his courtyard was open to anyone who wished to linger there awhile, in the shade, and perchance catch a glimpse of the prophet or just satisfy their curiosity by watching the feast. As befitted a Pharisee who took his profession seriously, there would be a certain amount of provision of plain food out there for whoever felt hungry, for hospitality to the traveller and kindness to the poor were incumbent upon Pharisees. But he pursed his lips somewhat as the slight form of a woman emerged from the group in the courtyard and came forward towards Jesus where He sat. It was not her sex which brought Simon's brows together in disapproval; it was his recognition of her identity, a woman known as a prostitute in the town. Had he consulted his own inclination, he would probably have ordered her away from the house, but to do so at this moment would have been a breach of etiquette to his guests and bring an element of dishonour upon his head. Frustrated and impotent, he watched as she knelt down behind the circle, right at the feet of the principal guest. This was altogether too much, it seemed that the woman had no sense of decency. Relying on the unwritten code that she knew Simon would not break, she was taking advantage of this opportunity to bring herself to Jesus' attention. He waited, tensely, for Jesus to notice her, his fine eyes hard and cold, his voice chill and severe, to condemn her and bid her remove her defiling presence from the house. The Prophet of God could so easily do what he himself could not do, and so he waited expectantly.
Jesus seemed slow to observe. He was still talking earnestly with the other guests. Simon, at the other side of the table, could give his attention only to the woman. Everything else was a blur; his eyes were fixed only on her, so near to Jesus' feet. Shamelessly, like all such women, she had removed her veil and allowed her long tresses to fall down around her shoulders. She was weeping, sobbing uncontrollably with overpowering grief, in the intensity of her emotion grasping convulsively at the Lord's ankles. Perceiving that her tears were falling upon his feet, she bent her head to the floor and used her flowing hair to dry them. From the recesses of her clothing she took a small phial of perfume, she opened it and poured its contents over them, filling the room with a fragrance it had perhaps never known before. The buzz of conversation had died down now; the assembled guests were all looking, with various expressions of disapproval or repugnance, at that crumpled figure on the floor. Only Jesus appeared to be unconcerned at her presence. He went on quietly talking, making no movement either to encourage or discourage her ministrations.
Looking at His serene face, Simon was attacked by a sudden doubt. "This man" he thought to himself, "if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that touches him; for she is a sinner". He could have understood and approved Jesus receiving this kind of homage from a devout woman. If He were a prophet and if He had that extra-human knowledge which was the hall-mark of the prophets of God, why did He not shrink from that defiling touch, refuse the offering of that perfume which itself was probably the reward of sin and command the woman to go? Had he made a mistake in his assessment and was Jesus not the man of God he had imagined him to be? Simon looked down at the woman, distastefully, then back to Jesus, to find those candid eyes fixed full on him. He waited, wondering.
The quiet voice broke the silence. "Simon, I have somewhat to say to you". He felt instinctively that this was going to be a momentous word. On the one part he feared what was to come, on the other he felt there was something he had not yet grasped and he wanted to know what it was. There was something in Jesus' attitude that told him the situation was not so easily resolved as he would like to think. And he wanted to know; more than anything else he wanted to know what was the power behind Jesus. More humbly perhaps than he had ever spoken in his life before, he met Jesus' eyes and replied "Master, say on".
The room was very quiet now. The guests had all ceased eating and talking and were giving close attention. Probably more than one of them had the same inward thought as Simon, and were each looking upon Jesus with varying degrees of cynicism or speculation according to their respective measures of sincerity. Even the woman had restrained her outward grief, and remained in her recumbent posture, listening intently to the calm voice.
"There was a certain creditor who had two debtors". A story! the atmosphere became electric. No surer means of obtaining rapt and earnest attention. "The one owed five hundred pence" (denarii) "and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?" Simon was not quite sure what connection this hypothetical case had with the situation before him, but he was prepared to be honest. "I suppose" he said ‑ the Greek word does not imply doubt or dubiousness, but the reaching of a conclusion based on the evidence presented, as though one would say "I consider the answer is thus and so" ‑ "I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most". The answer came, in tones of quiet approval, "You have rightly judged".
Now for the first time Jesus turned Himself about and looked directly upon the woman behind him. Who can doubt that she lowered her head in shame before that countenance of sinless purity? The level voice went on. "You see this woman?" That was a hard one for Simon. He had been only too painfully aware of her presence ever since she entered his house and now Jesus was talking as if he could hardly have been expected to notice her. Yes, Simon did see this woman: he only wished he could truthfully say he did not. But the next words shattered him completely.
"I entered into your house. You gave me no water for my feet; but she has washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. You gave me no kiss; but this woman since the time I came in has not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil you did not anoint; but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment".
A slow flush of embarrassment crept into Simon's face. His fellow-Pharisees were looking at him curiously. He realised, now, that he had under-estimated the man before him. Knowing him as one of the labouring classes, born and bred among the peasantry of Galilee, it had just not occurred to Simon that the courtesies normally extended to guests in his own walk of life were just as much in place with respect to Jesus. It was customary for the host to provide water and servants for the cleansing of guests' feet upon entry to the house. As a mark of special honour the host might even perform the washing operation himself. Some reluctance to treat this Galilean peasant on the same level as his Pharisee friends must have caused Simon to omit this formality, doubtless excusing himself on the ground that the peasantry were not so scrupulous in such matters and might even be embarrassed at the service. Every guest normally received a kiss of welcome from the host but somehow Simon could not bring himself to this act of close fellowship; there was, of course, always the question of his own friends' reaction to his too ardent espousal of the young prophet. It was true that he had omitted to have a servant anoint the visitor's head with fragrant oil, but that was pure forgetfulness in the stress and hurry of the occasion. The unspoken excuses faded from his mind again as he became conscious of Jesus' gentle regard and realised that all those excuses counted for nothing. The plain fact was that this woman, sinner though she be, had performed all the duties which he had neglected to fulfil, and performed them with an infinitely greater ardour and sincerity than he could ever have displayed. He looked again at the woman and was bitterly ashamed. Jesus' voice was very gentle now. "Wherefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven: for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little". So He said to her "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace". And she got to her feet and went out of the house to a new life.
It says much for the sincerity of those Pharisees there gathered that they did not break out at once into impassioned protest. They did not even question Jesus' words outwardly. They asked themselves, each man in his own mind, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" There was something in all this that was new to them and they were prepared to reserve judgment. It would seem that Simon had collected some most unusual Pharisees there that day and it might well be that they all learned a most unexpected and unusual lesson.
What of the wider implication? There is much in this incident to throw light upon that other statement of Jesus "They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5. 31). Simon the Pharisee is not the only one who, priding himself upon his own rectitude and cleanliness of life, has come to God in a smug and self-satisfied attitude of mind which is none the less frightening although it is characterised by perfect sincerity. We do not necessarily have to demonstrate our repentance by floods of tears and an agony of self-reproach, as did the woman. A lot depends upon the individual temperament and intensity of feeling; some are less outwardly demonstrative than others. But we do all have to realise that of ourselves we have little wherewith to commend ourselves before God and we all come short of His holiness in a variety of ways. The woman's sin outraged and shocked the conventions and customs of the day and violated the written law; the Pharisees' self-righteousness outraged the holiness of God and violated His moral law, and in the sight of Jesus there was no difference between the two kinds of sin. They both needed repentance, conversion and forgiveness. The difference was that the woman realised her need of forgiveness, was repentant, and went out a child of the Kingdom. In the eyes of Jesus the whole of her sin was as though it had never been. The Pharisee had not yet realised his need, had not yet come as a suppliant to the feet of the Saviour, and therefore was yet in his sins. Not for him had the golden vista of the Kingdom gleamed through the partly opened gates.
Perhaps it did in after days. It is noteworthy that in all this story there is no word of reproach for Simon, only the implied reproof at his omissions. It may well be that he, and maybe some of his fellows at that meal that day, became followers of Jesus and eventually followed the "woman a sinner" into the light of the Kingdom. That there were some such, even among the bigoted Pharisees, who thus espoused the cause of Jesus, we know; perhaps this was the beginning of the way for some of them.
As in so many instances, this story illustrates the Divine principle "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, wherefore turn from your evil ways, and live". The passion for the punishment of the wicked that characterised all good Jews and still characterises far too many good Christians has no counterpart in the counsels of God. He is much more interested in the reclamation of the wicked than their condemnation, and if there is any capacity for repentance at all He is going to explore that capacity to the full before He permits condemnation to come. "The Son of Man" said Jesus "is come to seek and to save that which was lost". Both woman and Pharisee were lost; Jesus came to save both.
Neither Simon nor the woman appear in the Gospel story again. It is sometimes suggested that the woman was Mary of Magdala, the one who loved her Lord with so fervent a passion that her faith held when that of all others had well-nigh failed. She became the acknowledged leader of the little band of women during the dark days after the crucifixion when even the disciples had fled into hiding. But there is no proof; only the fact that the character and temperament of Mary of Magdala as revealed in the Gospels harmonises very well with this brief picture of this repentant woman.
The incident in the house of Mary sister of Lazarus at Bethany, recorded in Matt.26, Mark 14 and John 12, is a totally different one and must not be confused with this story in Luke. This one was at the beginning of our Lord's ministry and took place in Galilee; the other one was just before His crucifixion and occurred near Jerusalem. The only similarities in the two stories are the use of a phial of perfume and the fact that the host's name was Simon, a very common name in Israel anyway. There is no foundation whatever for connecting the sister of Lazarus with the woman who came to Jesus on that memorable day, weighed down by the burden of her sin, and went out a free woman, rejoicing in the glorious liberty of the children of God.