TWO STAGGERING THOUGHTS COME together in Luke 7:36-50:
(1) The first I have mentioned before in these two volumes, but it is worth mentioning again. Who has the right to forgive sins? If someone robbed you of your life’s savings or murdered your spouse, I would not have the right to forgive the perpetrator. On the human plane, the only one who can forgive is the injured party. From God’s perspective, of course, regardless of how many human beings are injured, the primary offense is against God himself (cf. Ps. 51:4). Thus God can forgive any sin, because he is always the injured party. On the human plane, the sinful woman in this narrative had not injured Jesus in any way. At that level, he did not have the right to forgive her. But the narrative turns on Jesus’ forgiveness of this woman (Luke 7:48)—and the other guests, a bit confused by this development, raise the question, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49). Who, indeed?
(2) The axiom Jesus develops in his interchange with Simon is puzzling. At one level the axiom is clear enough: the person who has been forgiven many things is likely to be more thankful to the benefactor than the person who has been forgiven little. As Jesus says, “[H]e who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The axiom makes sense of the conduct of both the woman and the Pharisee: she is overcome with tears of sheer gratitude, while he is stuffy and supercilious.
But if this axiom is pressed too hard, would it not mean that those who have lived a relatively “good” life inevitably love God less than those who have been converted out of a life of abysmal degradation? One might then argue that there are some benefits to being degraded before conversion: one appreciates grace in proportion to the degree of depravity grace must overcome.
That misses the point. At the social level, of course, the woman’s sins are much worse than the Pharisee’s. But the gradations of sin that one makes at the social level are nothing compared with the awfulness of the rebellion in which each of us has indulged. Simon the Pharisee has not even got to the place where he perceives that he needs to be forgiven. Suppose instead that two people have both been converted, one from a socially despicable background and one from a disciplined and “righteous” background: what then? Both ought to pray that they may see the ugliness of their own sins, whether sins socially disapproved or those ugly sins (often condemned by Jesus) of arrogance and self-righteousness. For unless we are given grace to see the horror of our sin, it is quite certain that we shall never grasp the glory of grace, and we will love Jesus too little.