When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
— Luke 7:36–50
To understand the most tragic barrier to forgiveness, we need to turn to an event in Jesus’ life that dramatically illustrates it.
Jesus arrives at the home of a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders of the day. As the two are eating together, a sinful woman comes into the Pharisee’s house with a flask of ointment and, weeping, begins to wet his feet with her tears, kiss them, and anoint them with the ointment.
The Pharisee begins questioning Jesus’ legitimacy as a prophet, thinking that any “real” prophet would have nothing to do with such a woman and certainly not allow her to touch him. Jesus called him out on his inaccurate supposition by telling him a story about a moneylender with two debtors, one of whom owed ten times that of the other. Neither of them could pay back their debt, so the moneylender forgave them both. Jesus then asks a penetrating question: Which one will love the moneylender more?
The Pharisee, apparently without much pause, concludes that the one with the larger debt loves him the most. Jesus confirms that his answer is correct. Then turning the table on the Pharisee, Jesus says that the sinful woman is like the man who was forgiven the larger debt. Whereas before the debt was forgiven, the amount of the debt was the most important issue. After it was canceled, the kindness of the moneylender became the focal point.
So it was with the sinful woman. She recognized that Jesus was the source of the forgiveness she desperately needed, and her actions were not an attempt to earn it. They were in recognition of the fact that she had already received his grace.
The Pharisee, by contrast, had no such reaction, and Jesus called him out on it. He also tells him why. To put it plainly, the one who is forgiven much loves much, while the one who is forgiven little loves little.
This is where the rubber of forgiveness hits the road of life. If we do not think we need “that much” forgiveness, then we will not love “that much.” We will instead view ourselves as mostly good, self-sufficient, and not really in need of the extravagant grace that Jesus offers. That grace is for other people (like the sinful woman) and not for those who have lived a morally upstanding life (like the Pharisee). Thus, thinking this way, we get trapped not by our sins but by our goodness. Our morality, as deceitful but as self-assuring as it may be, becomes a lid to the forgiveness we could receive from God. Only by coming clean about who we really are and admitting we are much more like the sinful woman than we are like the Pharisees can we truly embrace and experience God’s amazing grace.
Some people feel they don’t deserve forgiveness because they are too bad to merit it. Others don’t bother with forgiveness because they think they are too good to need it. Both ends of the spectrum are stuck outside the middle ground of God’s grace, where truth and mercy collide.
Which end of the spectrum do you find yourself on today? If you think you are too bad for God’s grace, you must understand what grace is all about: unmerited favor. If you think you are too good (or at least good enough), you must understand how your sinfulness separates you from a holy, perfect God. Either misunderstanding can have potentially devastating consequences in our lives.
When we understand God’s truth correctly, that we are neither too bad nor too good to receive God’s forgiveness, we are prime candidates for it. Do everything you can to find yourself in that place. It will save your life and the lives of others who will see the transformation in your life.