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Lesson 10: The Parable of the Debtors

Posted by cherylem on March 5, 2007

For this lesson, I am going to teach only one passage: Luke 7:36-50
Because I am posting on the blog, I want to make it clear that I have relied heavily on the following for this lesson:

Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, by Kenneth E. Bailey (Combined Edition), William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, reprinted 1994

Luke 7:36-50: The Parable of the Two Debtors

A note on chiasmus:
(from that great source of all information: Wikipedia)

“Chiastic structure is a literary structure used most notably in the Torah, but also throughout scripture. The structure is comprised of concepts or ideas in an order ABC…CBA so that the first concept that comes up is also the last, the second is the second to last, and so on.

The ABC…CBA chiastic structure is used in many places in the Torah. This kind of chiastic structure is used to give emphasis to the middle concept, i.e., the concept that appears either twice in succession or only appears once. Also, it shows that the other ideas are all leading up to the middle idea or concept. A notable example is the chiastic structure running from the middle of the Book of Exodus through the end of the Book of Leviticus. The structure begins with the covenant made between God and the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, as described in the Torah, and ends with the Admonition from God to the Jews if they will not follow his laws, which is also a sort of covenant. The main ideas are in the middle of Leviticus, from chapter 11 through chapter 20. Those chapters deal with the holiness in the Tabernacle and the holiness of the Jewish homeland in general. The chiastic structure points the reader to the central idea, that of the expected holiness of the Jews in what they do. The idea behind the structure is that if the Jews keep the covenant and all the laws around the central concept, they will be rewarded with a sense of holiness in their Tabernacle and in their land in general.”

Next year, in Book of Mormon study, we will see some impressive instances of chiasmus. For Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, see:

Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus
John W. Welch
Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1995. Pp. 1–14

Nephi’s Convincing of Christ through Chiasmus: Plain and Precious Persuading from a Prophet of God
David E. Sloan
Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (1997)

Both of these documents and others on this subject are available at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/ (Just do a simple search for chiasmus after reaching this site.)

Luke 7:36-50 STRUCTURE

a Introduction (the Pharisee, Jesus, the woman)
b The Outpouring of the Woman’s Love (in action)
c Dialogue (Simon judges wrongly)

d Parable

c’ Dialogue (Simon judges rightly)
b’ The Outpouring of the Woman’s Love (in retrospect)
a’ Conclusion (the Pharisees, Jesus, the woman)

Each of the above components represents a separate scene. There are seven scenes.

Read: Luke 7:36-37
First Scene a. Introduction (the Pharisee, Jesus, the woman)
Alternate translation, by Bailey:
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him,
And he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined.
And behold, there was a woman who was a sinner in the city.

All three major characters are introduced. For other instances of this in Luke, see Luke 15:1-2 (Pharisees, Jesus, sinners), Luke 15:11 (a certain man, two sons)

1) What was happening? A dinner, with Jesus as the invited guest, and the woman as the uninvited guest

“They featured in particular the study of the Torah, and sometimes continued late into the night when they warmed to their discussions, or when there was a lecture from their teacher or a visiting sage (Safrai, in Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 3)”

2) What do we need to know?
• Purity laws
• Nevertheless, people from the street might be crowding around the doorway, even entering the house to listen
• The “set-up” of the room

Read: Luke 7:37-38
Second Scene b. The Outpouring of the Woman’s Love (in action)
In the house of the Pharisee

More chiasmus!

When she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house (having learned that he was [going] to eat: she is there from the beginning)

Brought an alabaster box of ointment
And stood at his feet behind him
Weeping and began to wash his feet with tears
And did wipe them with the hairs of her head
And kissed his feet
And anointed them with ointment

The woman
a. Brings the perfume then anoints his feet with it a’
b. She stands at his feet then kisses his feet b’
c. She wets his feet with her tears then wipes them with her hair c’

In the second sequence of the chiasmus, the woman washes, kisses, anoints.

What do we need to know:
• The woman has come prepared – the act is premeditated, or is it? (we’ll discuss two different ways of looking at this.)
• What is the woman offering Jesus? What kind of gift is this?
• Discuss: the provocative nature of the woman’s action – the role of the feet

Read: Luke 7:39-40
Third Scene c. Dialogue (Simon judges wrongly)

Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself,

saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him:

for she is a sinner.

And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.

And he saith, Master, say on.

The order is repeated from the introduction: the Pharisee, Jesus (prophet), woman.

Discuss: Simon is judging what is happening here. He sees one thing, Jesus sees another. Describe the difference in their perceptions/knowledge.

v. 39: she is right now, in the present moment, a sinner.

What was expected of Jesus under the law?
But: Jesus IS the law.

Read: Luke 7:41-42
Fourth Scene The center (crossing) of the chiasmus: The Parable

41There was a certain creditor
which had two debtors:
the one owed five hundred pence,
and the other fifty.

42And when they had nothing to pay,
he frankly forgave them both.

What do we need to know/think about?
• “freely forgive” = “offer grace” in Paul’s letters
• even though the debts seem unequal, the two debtors stand together in their need for forgiveness
• Wordplay:
The woman is a sinner; the parable is about debtors and creditors
This section is followed by a discussion of sin and love

Sinner woman: hayyabhta
Creditor: mar hobha
Debtor: bar hobha or hayyabh
Sin: hobha
To love: habbebh or ‘ahebh

In Aramaic, the word hobha means both debt and sin.

Jesus uses this wordplay both to compare and to contrast the sinful woman (hayyabhta) with her sin (hobha) and Simon who is socially in debt (bar habha) and has failed to love (habbebh). This comparison (they are both sinners) and contrast (one loves, the other does not) now becomes the focus of the continuing dialogue.

Read: Luke 7:42-43
Fifth Scene c’. Dialogue (Simon judges rightly)

Tell me therefore,
which of them will love him most?

43Simon answered and said,
I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.
And he said unto him,
Thou hast rightly judged.

I suppose: Simon realizes he is caught in a trap.

What is love according to this parable?
A response to forgiveness, a response to grace.

Read: Luke 7:44-48
Sixth Scene b’. The Outpouring of the Woman’s Love (in retrospect)
In the house of a Pharisee: A woman acts.

44And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon,
Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house,
(I entered your house!)
thou gavest me no water for my feet:
but she hath washed my feet with tears,
and wiped them with the hairs of her head.

45Thou gavest me no kiss:
but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

46My head with oil thou didst not anoint:
but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.

47Wherefore I say unto thee,
Her sins, which are many, are forgiven;
for she loved much:
but to whom little is forgiven,
the same loveth little.

48And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

What we need to know/think about:
• Customs of hospitality (the kiss, the feet washing, the anointing)
• The power of social shame – Jesus points out how the hospitality toward him has been lacking.
• A profound statement of this woman’s worth:
In Luke there are often stories that pair a man and a woman: a man is healed, then a woman is healed; a man’s prayers are answered, a woman’s prayers are answered, etc. But in this story, a woman is the noble character (in spite of what the men in the room think of her), while the man is the ignoble character (in spite of what he thinks of himself). (Bailey, 14)
This woman, whom you despise, has magnificently compensated for your failure (15 ff):

Simon: not one kiss.
The woman: many kisses – covered his feet with kisses

Simon: failed to offer water for Jesus’ feet.
The woman: bathed his feet with tears.

Simon: no anointing with inexpensive olive oil.
The woman: anointed with expensive perfume.

v. 47-48: when did the woman love?
In the parable of the debtors, the debtors loved AFTER they were forgiven.
What about this woman? (The text can be read both ways.)

v. 47: Are Simon’s sins little? Or has he repented of very few of them?
What are Simon’s sins?

Deep levels of pride, arrogance, hard-heartedness, hostility, a judgmental spirit, slim understanding of what really defiles, a rejection of sinners, insensitivity, misunderstanding of the nature of God’s forgiveness, and sexism. Simon witnessed this woman’s dramatic and action and still labeled her impure, a sinner. (Bailey 18)

• The rebuke to Simon is stunning. The great unrepentant sinner (whose presence defiles) is Simon, not the woman. The “prophet” has read the woman’s heart, and Simon’s heart. The judge (Simon) has become the accused. The drama begins with Jesus under scrutiny. By the end Simon is exposed.

• Through whom does God forgive sins? To whom is it appropriate to express love for forgiven sins?

Read: Luke 7:49-50
Seventh Scene a’. Conclusion (the Pharisees, Jesus, the woman)

49And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves,
Who is this that forgiveth sins also?

50And he said to the woman,
Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

v. 50: what has saved her? Not her works (washing/kissing anointing), yet her works/actions represent costly acts of love.

Reminder: what is the most important point of this story? – the center/crossing of the chiasmus: the parable of the debtors. Now that we have discussed this entire story, how does the parable apply to us?

[Word.doc version coming soon.]

18 Responses to “Lesson 10: The Parable of the Debtors”

  1. Robert C. said

    There was some post in the bloggernacle many months ago about the following question, but I can’t for the life of me find the post. The question has to do with a wresting of this parable to justify or rationalize more sin so that we can have more gratitude. That is, doesn’t it follow then that if we want more gratitude then we should sin more? I wanted to find the post b/c it posed the question more eloquently, but you’ll have to made do with my poor presentation of the question. A similar idea seems to be expressed in 2 Cor 12:9ff where Paul glories in his weakness b/c God’s grace and strength “is made perfect in weakness.” Even if we can dismiss this rationalization for sin as silly, does it follow that those who sin more have more gratitude than those who don’t? Is the prodigal closer to God than the one who didn’t rebel as egregiously? Related, as a missionary I was told not to share past transgressions, and yet it seemed some investigators listened more carefully to missionaries had himself smoked and given it up. Can one who has sinned more have more compassion and empathy? Is sin necessary to our progression?

  2. Karl D. said

    Cheryl, thanks for the notes; looks like a great lesson. I just started thinking about the material for this week, but I wanted to mention an article (note) I just read:

    Kilgallen, John, 1985, John the Baptist, the Sinful Woman, and the Pharisee, Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 104, 675-679.

    He argues that this pericope (Luke 7:36-50) is connected with 7:24-35. Specifically, he argues that the woman (the sinner) represents those that accepted John’s baptism and the Pharisee represents those who rejected John’s baptism. Hence, the baptism is the source of her being forgiven. And further, he argues that, “the story of the woman and Pharisee is not really a story of forgiveness to prove Jesus’ power to forgive; it is rather concerned with the tragic irony that those who are sinners are accepting the plan of God, whereas the religious leaders, the “men of this generation,” are not.

    I have really digested his ideas yet, but I do think that the possible connection with the preceding verses about John the Baptist is intriguing.

  3. cherylem said

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if what you say was true. Luke was a master writer – a real craftsman.

    I’ll try to get a copy of the article.

  4. cherylem said

    I read this today – actually, Bailey, whom I use a lot, was convinced that the woman’s sins had been forgiven before she ever entered the room. In his mind, the parable of the debtor being central, and the love following the forgiveness of the debt, made it impossible to read the story of the woman any other way.

    In Sunday School, though, I don’t think I will talk about this.

    The idea that “love” should be translated “gratitude” or “thankfulness” is also interesting.

    Thanks for the reference.


  5. Robert C. said

    Karl, I finally had a chance to read this article also—thanks, I love these journal references when you provide them. I really like this idea of the parable as a concretizing example of the previous passage(s) with an emphasis on baptism as a means of repentance. In particular, I like how it shifts the emphasis in light of the the concern I tried to articulate in #1. That is, rather than the focus of the parable being on who has sinned more, the focus becomes slightly shifted to who has received Christ more. The Pharisees who have invited Christ into their home have accepted Christ to a certain extent, but not unto a radical repentance that baptism symbolizes, a repentance which leads to the intense form of gratitude displayed by the woman.

    Also, I think the reading the article advocates is in keeping with Luke’s most common themes about the sinners being most receptive of Christ. In particular, one of my favorite passages of scripture that comes later also contrasts the radical repentance of a (publican) sinner with a self-righteous Pharisee. Since I don’t think it’s on the SS reading agenda, I’ll paste it here:

    Luke 18:9-14

    And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

  6. Cheryl said

    Excellent connection. And maybe I will emphasize this in SS, after all.

    We actually have ward conference this Sunday; I won’t be teaching, so I may not be posting #11 until after I teach #10.

  7. Cherylem said

    i’m going to interrupt the flow of community/individual conversation going on among our philosophers to comment again on this story, which I will not teach until this Sunday due to ward conference. As I mentioned elsewhere I was in a different ward on Sunday and there was some lively discussion regarding the woman in this story: about her strength and goodness etc etc. Then someone commented that of course the sinful woman was sorry for her sins.

    That stopped me. I’m not sure what her sins were. In SS Lesson #10 Jim helpfully wrote:

    “Verse 37-38: The word translated “sinner” isn’t used to describe the general condition of human beings: we are all sinners, but that is not the point of this word. (See verse 40.) Most have assumed that the woman was engaged in a dishonorable profession (an occupation that the Pharisees assumed disposed one toward sin), and there were many such occupations. Among the dishonorable professions were shepherds and shopkeepers, weavers and launderers, tax collectors and copper smelters. For women the most common was prostitution. Perhaps that is what Luke is implying. ”

    Assuming the woman was a prostitute, for what sin did she need repenting? Most prostitutes, even today, engage in that work to live – to eat, to support families, to subsist. One wonders how much of a choice a woman in that time period had. Or how many choices.

    It seemed harsh to me to state that “of course she was sorry for her sin.” More likely, she was so grateful that someone saw her with eyes that did not only see her profession that she was overwhelmed. And more likely, she was often simply desperate.

    A simplistic reading of the story which shows the woman filled with sorrow for “her sin,” victimizes such a woman all over again, in my opinion.

    If I were to fictionalize this woman, I would show her nuanced, desperate, resigned, and filled with a bitter courage. But I would not show her a sinner.

    For what it’s worth . . .

  8. Cherylem said

    to add:

    “It seemed harsh to me to state that “of course she was sorry for her sin.” More likely, she was so grateful that someone saw her with eyes that did not only see her profession that she was overwhelmed. And more likely, she was often simply desperate.”

    This would hold whether or not she was baptized before the meal at the Pharisee’s house.

    or could, in my fictional setting.

  9. brianj said

    Cherylem: I don’t know…. It seems like the whole focus of the passage is on the woman’s gratitude for forgiveness, not her remorse for sin, so it doesn’t matter what was her sin. Jesus doesn’t seem to care, Luke doesn’t bother to tell us, only the Pharisee seems to be interested in it, but even he doesn’t seem to care what the sin was (just that she was beneath him). For my own reading (emphasis: my own personal way of reading), it doesn’t matter what was her sin, and imagining a specific sin is counter-productive.

  10. Robert C. said

    Interesting thoughts Cheryl. I was reminded of Dostoevsky’s striking character of Sonya in Crime and Punishment, a prostitute out of necessity, and the primary redemptive figure in the novel (Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov is a related character who is portrayed as as magnanimous by the end of novel). And of course Fantine in Les Miserables—I think the type of person you describe is very interesting, for precisely the same reason this type of character is so fascinating in great literature….

  11. Cherylem said

    #9 Brianj – I agree with everything you said. It was just the comment in SS that set me off – and I think LDS do read it this way: she was a sinner/a prostitute/and sorry for HER [sexual] sin. Such a reading is terribly counterproductive – and because I believe (I could be wrong) that so many read it this way, I think I will address this issue when I teach on Sunday (being open to the Spirit to be in the moment of course (;->)). Probably of relevance is how WE judge when we read this story, and then how we judge ourselves and others sometimes unthinkingly.

    #10 Robert – Yes also to your comments, although throughout literature the heroic woman as either virgin [nonsexual] mother or redeemed prostitute is another subject altogether. And probably one that is not very relevant to the subject at hand . . .

    And of course for a very long time the repentant woman was thought to be Mary Magdalene, though there is absolutely no scriptural basis for this whatsoever.

  12. brianj said

    Cherylem—Okay, I follow you better now. Thanks. “Probably of relevance is how WE judge when we read this story.” Well said.

  13. Robert C. said

    (Cheryl #11, I agree that the heroic woman as portrayed in literature is a fascinating topic and is a very interesting way to think about gender issues. I’m not necessarily a big Ayn Rand fan, but I think her main female characters were quite interesting in the ways that they broke traditional portrayals of female heroes, though I think she failed at this in significant other ways too….)

  14. robf said

    We had this lesson yesterday. I’m still unsure about the woman and what she was really intending. We don’t have her words. Do we really know why she was anointing Christ’s feet? Why do we assume that this was related to her seeking forgiveness? Could she have been doing this for some other reason, and Christ just happened to have mercy on her and forgive her? What’s really going on with this woman here in this story?

  15. Rob, with your interest in the temple, I suggest you read some of the journals of the earliest Brethren (I can dig out specific references if you’d like, or e-mail you some excerpts). The explanation they offered was rather unique.

  16. robf said

    Joe, I’d be interested in anything you could email me. I have been thinking a lot about how this might tie in with the highest ordinance of the temple, but not knowing exactly how to go about discussing it. But if something like that is going on here, the Biblical text would seem woefully inadequate to establish that.

  17. Robert C. said

    Joe, include me on the email too please!

  18. cherylem said

    me also.


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