In these ‘economic parables’ our Lord Jesus was giving important practical lessons to His hearers, and, of course, to us. The parables were often, as here, based upon different amounts of money and their relative values. For the hearers, the actual money values were familiar and relevant, using the currency of the time. For us, the actual values can sometimes be obscured in the translation we use. For example, the word ‘penny’ or its plural ‘pence’, normally used in the King James Version, may obscure, or even trivialize the meaning, which was far from the intention in these parables. The original Latin word denarius has therefore been retained in some versions, allowing it to be evaluated in whatever currency is appropriate to the language of the reader, bearing in mind that, over time, inflation can dramatically change values anyway.1 The normal benchmark is that ‘a penny a day’ seems to have been a labourer’s wage at the time, as in the parable about labourers in a vineyard in Matthew chapter 20.
This parable in Luke chapter 7 about two debtors was spoken directly to Simon the Pharisee at his ‘dinner table’ in the presence of others, with particular reference to the unnamed ‘woman in the city’ who came in uninvited. The Lord Jesus wanted to contrast Simon’s actions (or lack of them) to her spontaneous, extravagant acts of gratitude. He was uncovering motives and highlighting real devotion.
In the parable, two debts, described as ‘five hundred pence’ and ‘fifty [pence]’, are forgiven (cancelled). Whatever the actual values of the debts were, the Lord’s intention was to emphasize the large difference between them; it was tenfold. For today’s English readers, in the context it would be more meaningful to contrast a debt of £500 with one of £50.
In passing, remember a corresponding but different parable at the end of Matthew chapter 18 where ‘ten thousand talents’ represents a very much bigger debt than ‘an hundred pence’ (just one ‘talent’ was worth a huge number of ‘pence’). That parable illustrates and emphasizes another lesson, a necessary one for us all to remember: that we who have been forgiven such a great debt by our Lord should never be unwilling to forgive others. We are reminded of this important matter in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 32, ‘be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you’. Do we find that difficult to do sometimes?
The background to this very short but graphic parable is well known (verses 41 and 42 contain it all). You can picture the indignant Pharisee who was watching Jesus, all the time being horrified at the apparent audacity of this despised woman. You can read his inner thoughts about her, v. 39, and about the Lord, whom he imagined should have known better. His opinions about this woman, and about the Lord Jesus, were about to be exposed. His own heart and mind were about to be laid bare, in stark contrast to the evident compassion and appreciation of Christ, and the evident devotion and gratitude of the forgiven sinner which was being so clearly demonstrated. Simon’s heart was cold and empty, void of any real love for his dinner guest. Her heart was full to overflowing with love to the One who had forgiven her all her debt, just as her eyes overflowed with tears and her hair wiped His feet as she kissed them.
How did Simon feel as Jesus broke the silence and said, ‘Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee’, v. 40, and then this short parable fell on his ears? How did he feel when Jesus asked him, ‘Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?’ v. 42, and he (grudgingly) replied, ‘I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most’, v. 43? Then the Lord Jesus turned to the dear weeping woman, and looking from her to Simon He itemized with evident appreciation all that she had done, so extravagantly some would think, as He contrasted one by one the serious omissions Simon was guilty of. It appears that Simon had no reply, no excuse to offer, his actions and attitude challenged but unchanged. Did he get the message when he heard Jesus saying, ‘she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little’, v. 47?
Jesus’ words to the woman (I wish we knew her name!) that follow at the end of the chapter make it clear that she had already been forgiven at some previous encounter with the Saviour of sinners. He said, ‘Thy faith hath saved thee’, v. 50. She was not saved or forgiven by her weeping at His feet, by wiping them and kissing them. She had been saved by her faith in His word. Her many sins ‘are [have been] forgiven’, and He said, ‘Thy faith hath [already] saved thee; go in peace’.
All this was also true in a different way about the next woman of whom we read at the beginning of the next chapter, Mary Magdalene. Her many demons were cast out, she was healed. The woman in Simon’s house found a new place at her Saviour’s feet, spontaneously and emotionally showing her love for Him there and then. Mary Magdalene found a new place in her new Master’s company, steadfastly following Him and practically showing her loyalty to Him for the rest of His journey to the cross and beyond. She was one of the last to leave His cross on Calvary’s hill as that dreadful day ended, and first at His tomb on that dark morning three days later, on the first day of the week. That too was unambiguous devotion.
In this and other parables about debts being forgiven, there is something we often overlook. We must not forget that the one who forgave the debtors had to pay the price of the debt himself, whatever it was. Indeed, he had to suffer the loss of what was his due. Surely, we remember that, for us to be forgiven, our debt had to be paid, and it was paid by our blessed Redeemer. Our redemption’s price could not be calculated in terms of the currency of this world, in ‘corruptible things, as silver and gold’, or by any other means. It was paid by the precious blood of Christ shed upon the cross of Calvary, 1 Pet. 1. 18, 19. Well might we acknowledge, ‘Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe’.2
A few chapters further on in Luke’s Gospel there is an interesting question repeated, spoken to different individuals, ‘How much owest thou?’ Luke 16. 5, 7. Although the context and the meaning of the parable in which this is found are quite different, the question is none the less very challenging to each of us. ‘How much do I owe to my Lord?’ ‘How much?’ -and how sincere is my appreciation and my devotion today?
Many of the hymns we sing remind us of this. It is not surprising that hymnwriters of the past century thought about it, too, and put their thoughts into the words that we often use to re-echo those feelings of debt and appreciation.
Albert Midlane3 wrote this (with two more verses) -
‘Lord when I think upon the love Which Thou to me hast shown,
To die upon the cross, that Thou Mayest claim me for Thine own.
I cannot tell why Thou didst show Such love to one like me,
Save that it is, that I might know
I owe it all to Thee‘.
Should we not all feel increasingly, and right now, the great debt we owe to Christ, our Redeemer, our Saviour, and our Lord? And should we not strive earnestly to show it devotedly in the best way we can?
Robert Murray McCheyne4 ended his well-known hymn with this verse:
‘Chosen not for good in me Wakened up from wrath to flee;
Hidden in the Saviour’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified:
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show
By my love how much I owe‘.
Denarion. ‘Considering the actual value, shilling would have been a more accurate translation, as proposed by the American translators’, W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Oliphants, 1940 and 1952. Around eighty years later, shilling has dramatically lost its value and even its existence!
Chorus to the hymn I hear the Saviour say written 1865 in USA by Elvina Hall (1820-1889).
Midlane (1825-1909), born on the Isle of Wight, wrote over 1, 000 hymns including There’s a Friend for little children. Emphasis inserted.
In his short life and ministry, McCheyne (1813-1843) was mightily used by God to reach many lost souls in the developing industrial city of Dundee. Emphasis inserted.
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