When and where this passage of story happened does not appear; this evangelist does not observe order of time in his narrative so much as the other evangelists do; but it comes in here, upon occasion of Christ’s being reproached as a friend to publicans and sinners, to show that it was only for their good, and to bring them to repentance, that he conversed with them; and that those whom he admitted hear him were reformed, or in a hopeful way to be so. Who this woman was that here testified so great an affection to Christ does not appear; it is commonly said to be Mary Magdalene, but I find no ground in scripture for it: she is described (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9) to be one out of whom Christ had cast seven devils; but that is not mentioned here, and therefore it is probable that it was not she. Now observe here,
I. The civil entertainment which a Pharisee gave to Christ, and his gracious acceptance of that entertainment (Luke 7:36): One of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him, either because he thought it would be a reputation to him to have such a guest at his table or because his company would be an entertainment to him and his family and friends. It appears that this Pharisee did not believe in Christ, for he will not own him to be a prophet (Luke 7:39), and yet our Lord Jesus accepted his invitation, went into his house, and sat down to meat, that they might see he took the same liberty with Pharisees that he did with publicans, in hopes of doing them good. And those may venture further into the society of such as are prejudiced against Christ, and his religion, who have wisdom and grace sufficient to instruct and argue with them, than others may.
II. The great respect which a poor penitent sinner showed him, when he was at meat in the Pharisee’s house. It was a woman in the city that was a sinner, a Gentile, a harlot, I doubt, known to be so, and infamous. She knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, and, having been converted from her wicked course of life by his preaching, she came to acknowledge her obligations to him, having no opportunity of doing it in any other way than by washing his feet, and anointing them with some sweet ointment that she brought with her for that purpose. The way of sitting at table then was such that their feet were partly behind them. Now this woman did not look Christ in the face, but came behind him, and did the part of a maid-servant, whose office it was to wash the feet of the guests (1 Sam. 25:41) and to prepare the ointments.
Now in what this good woman did, we may observe,
1. Her deep humiliation for sin. She stood behind him weeping; her eyes had been the inlets and outlets of sin, and now she makes them fountains of tears. Her face is now foul with weeping, which perhaps used to be covered with paints. Her hair now made a towel of, which before had been plaited and adorned. We have reason to think that she had before sorrowed for sin; but, now that she had an opportunity of coming into the presence of Christ, the wound bled afresh and her sorrow was renewed. Note, It well becomes penitents, upon all their approaches to Christ, to renew their godly sorrow and shame for sin, when he is pacified, Ezek. 16:63.
2. Her strong affection to the Lord Jesus. This was what our Lord Jesus took special notice of, that she loved much, Luke 7:42, 47. She washed his feet, in token of her ready submission to the meanest office in which she might do him honour. Nay, she washed them with her tears, tears of joy; she was in a transport, to find herself so near her Saviour, whom her soul loved. She kissed his feet, as one unworthy of the kisses of his mouth, which the spouse coveted, Song 1:2. It was a kiss of adoration as well as affection. She wiped them with her hair, as one entirely devoted to his honour. Her eyes shall yield water to wash them, and her hair be a towel to wipe them; and she anointed his feet with the ointment, owning him hereby to be the Messiah, the Anointed. She anointed his feet in token of her consent to God’s design in anointing his head with the oil of gladness. Note, All true penitents have a dear love to the Lord Jesus.
III. The offence which the Pharisee took at Christ, for admitting the respect which this poor penitent paid him (Luke 7:39): He said within himself (little thinking that Christ knew what he thought), This man, if he were a prophet, would then have so much knowledge as to perceive that this woman is a sinner, is a Gentile, is a woman of ill fame, and so much sanctity as therefore not to suffer her to come so near him; for can one of such a character approach a prophet, and his heart not rise at it? See how apt proud and narrow souls are to think that others should be as haughty and censorious as themselves. Simon, if she had touched him, would have said, Stand by thyself, come not near me, for I am holier than thou (Isa. 65:5); and he thought Christ should say so too.
IV. Christ’s justification of the woman in what she did to him, and of himself in admitting it. Christ knew what the Pharisee spoke within himself, and made answer to it: Simon, I have something to say unto thee, Luke 7:40. Though he was kindly entertained at his table, yet even there he reproved him for what he saw amiss in him, and would not suffer sin upon him. Those whom Christ hath something against he hath something to say to, for his Spirit shall reprove. Simon is willing to give him the hearing: He saith, Master, say on. Though he could not believe him to be a prophet (because he was not so nice and precise as he was), yet he can compliment him with the title of Master, among those that cry Lord, Lord, but do not the things which he saith. Now Christ, in his answer to the Pharisee, reasons thus:—It is true this woman has been a sinner: he knows it; but she is a pardoned sinner, which supposes her to be a penitent sinner. What she did to him was an expression of her great love to her Saviour, by whom her sins were forgiven. If she was pardoned, who had been so great a sinner, it might reasonably be expected that she should love her Saviour more than others, and should give greater proofs of it than others; and if this was the fruit of her love, and flowing from a sense of the pardon of her sin, it became him to accept of it, and it ill became the Pharisee to be offended at it. Now Christ has a further intention in this. The Pharisee doubted whether he was a prophet or no, nay, he did in effect deny it; but Christ shows that he was more than a prophet, for he is one that has power on earth to forgive sins, and to whom are due the affections and thankful acknowledgments of penitent pardoned sinners. Now, in his answer,
1. He by a parable forces Simon to acknowledge that the greater sinner this woman had been the greater love she ought to show to Jesus Christ when her sins were pardoned, Luke 7:41-43. A man had two debtors that were both insolvent, but one of them owed him ten times more than the other. He very freely forgave them both, and did not take the advantage of the law against them, did not order them and their children to be sold, or deliver them to the tormentors. Now they were both sensible of the great kindness they had received; but which of them will love him most? Certainly, saith the Pharisee, he to whom he forgave most; and herein he rightly judged. Now we, being obliged to forgive, as we are and hope to be forgiven, may hence learn the duty between debtor and creditor.
(1.) The debtor, if he have any thing to pay, ought to make satisfaction to his creditor. No man can reckon any thing his own or have any comfortable enjoyment of it, but that which is so when all his debts are paid.
(2.) If God in his providence have disabled the debtor to pay his debt, the creditor ought not to be severe with him, nor to go to the utmost rigour of the law with him, but freely to forgive him. Summum jus est summa injuria—The law stretched into rigour becomes unjust. Let the unmerciful creditor read that parable, Matt. 18:23; and tremble; for they shall have judgment without mercy that show no mercy.
(3.) The debtor that has found his creditors merciful ought to be very grateful to them; and, if he cannot otherwise recompense them, ought to love them. Some insolvent debtors, instead of being grateful, are spiteful, to their creditors that lose by them, and cannot give them a good word, only because they complain, whereas losers may have leave to speak. But this parable speaks of God as the Creator (or rather of the Lord Jesus himself, for he it is that forgives, and is beloved by, the debtor) and sinners are the debtors: and so we may learn here, [1.] That sin is a debt, and sinners are debtors to God Almighty. As creatures, we owe a debt, a debt of obedience to the precept of the law, and, for non-payment of that, as sinners, we become liable to the penalty. We have not paid our rent; nay, we have wasted our Lord’s goods, and so we become debtors. God has an action against us for the injury we have done him, and the omission of our duty to him. [2.] That some are deeper in debt to God, by reason of sin, than others are: One owed five hundred pence and the other fifty. The Pharisee was the less debtor, yet he a debtor too, which was more than he thought himself, but rather that God was his debtor, Luke 18:10, 11. This woman, that had been a scandalous notorious sinner, was the greater debtor. Some sinners are in themselves greater debtors than others, and some sinners, by reason of divers aggravating circumstances, greater debtors; as those that have sinned most openly and scandalously, that have sinned against greater light and knowledge, more convictions and warnings, and more mercies and means. [3.] That, whether our debt be more or less, it is more than we are able to pay: They had nothing to pay, nothing at all to make a composition with; for the debt is great, and we have nothing at all to pay it with. Silver and gold will not pay our debt, nor will sacrifice and offering, no, not thousands of rams. No righteousness of our own will pay it, no, not our repentance and obedience for the future; for it is what we are already bound to, and it is God that works it within us. [4.] That the God of heaven is ready to forgive, frankly to forgive, poor sinners, upon gospel terms, though their debt be ever so great. If we repent, and believe in Christ, our iniquity shall not be our ruin, it shall not be laid to our charge. God has proclaimed his name gracious and merciful, and ready to forgive sin; and, his Son having purchased pardon for penitent believers, his gospel promises it to them, and his Spirit seals it and gives them the comfort of it. [5.] That those who have their sins pardoned are obliged to love him that pardoned them; and the more is forgiven them, the more they should love him. The greater sinners any have been before their conversion, the greater saints they should be after, the more they should study to do for God, and the more their hearts should be enlarged in obedience. When a persecuting Saul became a preaching Paul he laboured more abundantly.
2. He applies this parable to the different temper and conduct of the Pharisee and the sinner towards Christ. Though the Pharisee would not allow Christ to be a prophet, Christ seems ready to allow him to be in a justified state, and that he was one forgiven, though to him less was forgiven. He did indeed show some love to Christ, in inviting him to his house, but nothing to what this poor woman showed. “Observe,” saith Christ to him, “she is one that has much forgiven her, and therefore, according to thine own judgment, it might be expected that she should love much more than thou dost, and so it appears. Seest thou this woman? Luke 7:44. Thou lookest upon her with contempt, but consider how much kinder a friend she is to me than thou art; should I then accept thy kindness, and refuse hers?” (1.) “Thou didst not so much as order a basin of water to be brought, to wash my feet in, when I came in, wearied and dirtied with my walk, which would have been some refreshment to me; but she has done much more: she has washed my feet with tears, tears of affection to me, tears of affliction for sin, and has wiped them with the hairs of her head, in token of her great love to me.” (2.) “Thou didst not so much as kiss my cheek” (which was a usual expression of a hearty and affectionate welcome to a friend); “but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet (Luke 7:45), thereby expressing both a humble and an affectionate love.” (3.) “Thou didst not provide me a little common oil, as usual, to anoint my head with; but she has bestowed a box of precious ointment upon my feet (Luke 7:46), so far has she outdone thee.” The reason why some people blame the pains and expense of zealous Christians, in religion, is because they are not willing themselves to come up to it, but resolve to rest in a cheap and easy religion.
3. He silenced the Pharisee’s cavil: I say unto thee, Simon, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, Luke 7:47. He owns that she had been guilty of many sins: “But they are forgiven her, and therefore it is no way unbecoming in me to accept her kindness. They are forgiven, for she loved much.” It should be rendered, therefore she loved much; for it is plain, by the tenour of Christ’s discourse, that the loving much was not the cause, but the effect, of her pardon, and of her comfortable sense of it; for we love God because he first loved us; he did not forgive us because we first loved him. “But to whom little is forgiven, as is to thee, the same loveth little, as thou dost.” Hereby he intimates to the Pharisee that his love to Christ was so little that he had reason to question whether he loved him at all in sincerity; and, consequently, whether indeed his sin, though comparatively little, were forgiven him. Instead of grudging greater sinners the mercy they find with Christ, upon their repentance, we should be stirred up by their example to examine ourselves whether we be indeed forgiven, and do love Christ.
4. He silenced her fears, who probably was discouraged by the Pharisee’s conduct, and yet would not so far yield to the discouragement as to fly off. (1.) Christ said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven, Luke 7:48. Note, The more we express our sorrow for sin, and our love to Christ, the clearer evidence we have of the forgiveness of our sins; for it is by the experience of a work of grace wrought in us that we obtain the assurance of an act of grace wrought for us. How well was she paid for her pains and cost, when she was dismissed with this word from Christ, Thy sins are forgiven! and what an effectual prevention would this be of her return to sin again! (2.) Though there were those present who quarrelled with Christ, in their own minds, for presuming to forgive sin, and to pronounce sinners absolved (Luke 7:49), as those had done (Matt. 9:3), yet he stood to what he had said; for as he had there proved that he had power to forgive sin, by curing the man sick of the palsy, and therefore would not here take notice of the cavil, so he would now show that he had pleasure in forgiving sin, and it was his delight; he loves to speak pardon and peace to penitents: He said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee, Luke 7:50. This would confirm and double her comfort in the forgiveness of her sin, that she was justified by her faith. All these expressions of sorrow for sin, and love to Christ, were the effects and products of faith; and therefore, as faith of all graces doth most honour God, so Christ doth of all graces put most honour upon faith. Note, They who know that their faith hath saved them may go in peace, may go on their way rejoicing.