THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS
Written by Doug Ponder on September 4, 2013
A Story of Forgiveness
There is a powerful story of forgiveness in the Gospel of Luke involving an encounter between Jesus, some religious leaders, and the town prostitute. One of the religious leaders, named Simon, was throwing an “invites only” dinner party at his house. All the usual people were there: the wealthy, the important, anyone who could advance your career or do you favor (and maybe even invite you to a party of their own). On the list with the elites, however, was Jesus. He wasn’t well-liked by everyone there. He wasn’t politically important. And he definitely wasn’t wealthy, for he didn’t even own a home (Luke 9:58).
This wasn’t almost certainly not a kind act of charity on the part of the religious leaders. It’s more likely that they had invited Jesus to provoke him into saying something that would get him in trouble, or to try to trip him up in his speech (Luke 11:54). Jesus probably knew this, but he went anyway.
Not long after taking his place at the table, the town prostitute comes walking in. After the loud gasps of astonishment, the groom fell quieter than a funeral service. “What’s she doing here?” they must have thought. “She definitely wasn’t invited.” “This is no place for people like her.”
Imagine, too, how she must have felt. Maybe her husband had died years ago, leaving her with no way to support herself. And after she had sold off everything she once owned, she was left with nothing else to sell but her body. Imagine the shame. Imagine the fear. Imagine the courage to walk in public place like that, among all those elites, some of whom she likely recognized as regular (but secret) customers. What on earth could have driven her to do that?
Jesus was there, so that’s where she wanted to be. When the woman reached the place at the table where he had reclined, she began crying uncontrollably. Drops of regret and joy fell from her face and landed on Jesus’ feet. But he didn’t seem to mind. Nor did he mind when she stooped to wipe the tears with her hair. And he didn’t flinch at all when she kissed his feet and poured expensive perfumed oil on them either.
All of this was too much for the religious leaders to take. Simon the host murmured under his breath, “If Jesus were a real prophet, then he would know what kind of woman she is. And he would have never let her touch him, let alone kiss him!” (Luke 7:39)
Jesus, knowing what Simon was thinking, looked right at him and said, “I have a story for you.”
Simon replied, “Tell it, teacher.” (Normally it was polite to call someone “teacher,” but just about everyone picked up on the sarcasm in his voice when he said it this time.)
Jesus said, “Two men owed the same lender a lot of money. One owed him almost two years’ wages, while the other owed him about two months’ wages. Both men were un able to pay back their loans, but the lender forgave them both. Which man do you think will love the lender more?” (Luke 7:41-42)
Simon answered, “I guess the one whose debt had been greater.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then he said to Simon, “Do you see that woman over there? Well, I came to your home but you have shown me no courtesy, no respect, and no love. But she has done all of that and more. You see, she has been forgiven of many sins—that’s why she loves me so much. But whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47)
Forgiveness and God’s Love for Us
This story teaches two important points about forgiveness. First, it shows us that God’s forgiveness of our sins is a demonstration of his love for us, not a result of our love for him. That’s why Jesus did not say, “Whoever loves God much will be forgiven of much.” He did not say, “Whoever obeys well, God will love well.” As the Scriptures say, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. And this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
The good news of the gospel is not that God loves us if we love him. Rather, it’s that God loves us first, even though we don’t love him as we should, and sent Jesus to forgive us, redeem us, and restore us. Or as C. S. Lewis, the popular Christian author, has put it, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it” (Mere Christianity).
Forgiveness and Our Love for God
Second, this story also explains why the Pharisees (the religious leaders) loved Jesus so little. “Whoever is forgiven of little, loves little.” The Pharisees were accustomed to thinking of themselves as being in God’s good graces because of what they did not do. This is what their prayers sounded like: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or especially like this sinful tax collector. Instead, I fast twice a week. And I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11). They believed they had little in their lives that needed forgiving. As a result of their self-righteousness, they missed out on the love of God and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 18:13-14).
In contrast to the self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus says that the woman loved greatly in response to the great forgiveness that she had received. She knew that Jesus had forgiven her of much, therefore, she loved much. This explains why some people find little to no love for God in their hearts—whether they consider themselves to be Christians or not. “Whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” That is, if you think (wrongly) that your sins are small, then your love for your Savior will be small also. But if you understand the love of God to forgive someone as corrupt and as guilty as you, then your heart can’t help leaping with joy and overflowing with love for the one who has freely forgiven you.
Whoever thinks their need for forgiveness is very little, will love God very little. But whoever understands that they’ve been forgiven of much, will love God much. That’s the power of forgiveness.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.