There’s an old story about Jesus and a religious man named Simon. Maybe you’ve heard it before. Simon invited Jesus to dinner. While they sat at the table, a prostitute entered the room and began crying at Jesus’ feet. So Jesus told a little story to Simon:
“A moneylender had two debtors. One owed 10 times as much as the other. When neither could pay their debt, the moneylender cancelled the debt of both. Which debtor, do you think, will love the moneylender more?”
Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, who owed the larger debt.” Simon was right. The debtor who owed the larger debt would be more grateful; more overwhelmed by the generosity of the moneylender; more inclined to love the moneylender.
Jesus was, of course, creatively comparing Simon to the prostitute. She owed the larger debt. Her life was more dysfunctional. Her past was more shameful. Her piercing sense of guilt and regret drove her to fall at Jesus’ feet and inelegantly weep during an otherwise peaceful meal. She had heard of this Jesus: the man who could allegedly forgive sin and provide a fresh start to even the most hopeless. She would do anything to find him. And she did.
As she interrupted the meal with her awkward presence and loud crying, Jesus looked at the woman and spoke the following words to Simon:
“Do you see this woman, Simon? I entered your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Here’s what I wonder: Was Jesus saying that Simon had less need for God’s forgiveness, or was Jesus saying that Simon felt very little love for God because he didn’t think he needed radical forgiveness? I think it’s the latter – Simon was just as separated from a holy God as the prostitute was. He just didn’t see it. He didn’t want to see it.
If Jesus is right about this correlation between forgiveness and love, then experiencing a desperate need for radical forgiveness from God is absolutely necessary for learning to love God. According to Jesus, you can’t love God deeply from the heart without experiencing His radical forgiveness.
This means that people like Simon never learn to love God because they’re committed to not needing radical forgiveness. They are, after all, better than a lot of people they know (as far as they can tell). They’ve never done anything really bad or damaging (as far as they can tell). Sure, they’ve made some mistakes, but doesn’t everybody?
Something that concerns me about much of American Christianity is the failure to appreciate this relationship between forgiveness and love. Popular Christianity is hellbent on celebrating God’s love, and mostly silent about our desperate need for radical forgiveness.
These lyrics from a popular worship song capture some of what I’m describing:
“I know I still make mistakes,
you have new mercy for me every day,
your love never fails.”
“Mistakes.” That’s an awfully tame word. When anger seethes under our skin and escapes our mouths in the form of insulting words, or destructive gossip, or slanderous language – is that just a mistake? What about addictive behavioral patterns that tear families apart. Mistakes? Let’s borrow some of Paul’s words from his letter to the Galatians: sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, envy, drunkenness: Just mistakes?
We set ourselves up to be like Simon. We sit quietly at the table and hide behind our social image. We’d never cry on the floor like that dirty prostitute, asking Jesus for radical forgiveness. Why should we? We’ve only ever made a few mistakes. We’re nothing like that wayward woman. Right?
Perhaps we need to reassess if we really understand Jesus when He says, “But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” If you’re a Christian, do you experience a deep sense of gratitude to God because of His forgiveness? Do you recognize how costly it was for Him to forgive you? Do you feel a heartfelt love for Him? Do you, at times, find yourself desperately seeking His presence in prayer? Or are you like Simon – sitting quietly in half-hearted, insincere religion under the illusion that radical forgiveness isn’t for people like you who only make mistakes.
If you feel distant from the love of God – or distant from rich experiences of feeling love for God – maybe the problem is that you’re out of touch with how incredible it is that a holy, eternal, all-sufficient, righteous God would completely forgive you of all your sin (past, present, and future) through the death and resurrection of His Son. Maybe your capacity for loving God is little because you think you have little need for radical forgiveness. Maybe you’re Simon.
Am I striking a chord in you? If so, take some time to reflect on the following words from Psalm 38 titled “Do Not Forsake Me, O Lord.” These words from David help us escape the half-hearted, insincere religion of Simon.
“O Lord, don’t rebuke me in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my guilt has gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, it is too heavy for me.
My spiritual wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever before me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
For you, O Lord, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!”
These are the words of all those who feel a deep need for the radical forgiveness of God through Jesus. These are the words of the woman at Jesus’ feet – the woman who loved much. Receiving God’s radical forgiveness through Jesus is the beginning of living daily in His wonderful love. And so we can confidently say this: Avoiding the gravity of our grievous sin against a holy God is, in the end, a road that leads us away from God’s love.
Be forgiven much, learn to love much. Be forgiven little, love little.