The Debt of Love We Owe
Preached on Friday, April 2, 2010, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, 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 the ointment. 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. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine 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. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore 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. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.] And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace. (Luke 7:36-50)
One of the characteristics of our modern economy is that we have millions of people who are in debt over their heads. Our economy is built in such a way that it is difficult not to get in debt if you are going to have things like a house or a car of your own. Since our debts are so great, we often live in fear that something is going to happen so that we will not be able to pay them. We fear losing our jobs, the economy growing worse, and finally, the bill collector coming to our door. Then, with shamed-face we would have to confess, “Sorry, there is just no way that we can pay these debts.”
In our text tonight, Jesus tells a parable about two men who were in just such a case. They were debtors with no ability to pay the debt they owed. Jesus uses this story to explain why this woman who had washed his feet with her tears is filled with so much love and is willing to engage in any kind of service for him, while Simon the Pharisee sits there with nothing but hard-hearted judgment for this woman. The parable is very simple and straightforward. There was a man whom Jesus calls a creditor, and he had two debtors. One of them owed him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. According to my sources, owing 500 denarii would be similar today to owing 220 dollars, which would have been what a common laborer earned in 500 hundred days, excluding Sabbaths. The other owed 20 dollars, which would be what a laborer would have to work fifty days in order to earn. But both of these men find themselves not able to pay anything. But instead of putting them in prison or punishing them in some other way, the creditor decides to cancel the debt of both of them. After telling this short little parable, Jesus asks the questions, “Which one of these two debtors will love him most.” Simon the Pharisee answers, “The one that he forgave most.” Jesus said that Simon had answered correctly. There are at least three great truths we can learn from this parable.
First, we owe a debt to God that we cannot pay. We are born into this world as debtors, and the longer we live, the more that debt grows. We are born into this world owing God our love and our service. After all, he is our creator, and by virtue of being our creator, we owe him service and gratitude. But instead of paying that debt, we get ourselves deeper in debt by our own sins. You will remember that in the Lord’s Prayer, sin is called a debt. In Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, we have, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Matthew uses the phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. “ The words “sin” and “debt” used interchangeably because sin is a form of debt. Since God is our creator, we owe him a debt of gratitude and obedience, but we fail miserably to pay that debt we owe our Creator.
But sin makes us debtors in another way. We owe God a debt not only because he is our creator, but because he is our judge. Every time we sin, we build up the debt. Every time we sin, we incur his wrath and his displeasure. In this sense, some of us are deeper in debt to God than others. Just as these men owed their creditor different amounts, we too owe God different amounts. Some people have sinned in ways which merit more punishment than others. I realize that we live in a day when people say that sin is sin, and that no sin is any greater than any another, but that is definitely not the case. Old Testament law itself shows us that there are some sins which are worse than others. For example, the penalty for murder is more severe than the penalty for theft. Some sins are more loathsome in the sight of God than others. Now, it is true that every sin deserves the wrath and punishment of God. In that sense, all sins are equal. But not every sin is worthy of the same type of punishment. Some sins have worse consequences. Let’s take murder and adultery as examples. These sins have consequences for many people who are involved. Though Jesus equates the sin of murder with hatred, no doubt the actual carrying out of the murder is more heinous in the sight of God, because it you only hate the person, at least the person will still be alive. But if you actually carry it out, the person will be dead. You have the taking of that life on your hands, and there is nothing, no amount of repentance even, that can undo it. Furthermore, if the man you murdered had a wife and children, their lives will be made more difficult, which further increases the guilt of your crime. The same is true of adultery. Jesus said that looking upon a woman and lusting after her was adultery, but he was not saying that it was just as bad. If a person carries out the actual act of adultery, the consequences for the woman, for her family, and for his family may be devastating for them. While lust deserves the wrath of God, the actual carrying out of the sin incurs a greater punishment because of the terrible effects it has on the people involved. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that people who have had gospel light and rejected it deserve a greater punishment than those who had never heard the gospel. That is why Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for Chorazin and Bethsaida. If the judgment is more tolerable for some than for others, it must be because their sins were worse in the sight of God. The reason that the judgment would be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon was because Chorazin and Bethsaida had greater light than Tyre and Sidon. Chorazin and Bethsaida had seen the mighty works of Christ, while Tyre and Sidon hadn’t. Therefore, Chorazain and Bethsaida would receive a greater condemnation on the day of judgment. Thus, some people have sinned against God in greater ways than others. Therefore, metaphorically speaking, some owe him 500, some owe him 50, but we all owe him a debt we cannot pay.
We are all in debt to God, and just like these men, we have nothing with which to pay. This is like a horrible nightmare. You are sinking deeper and deeper into debt, and there is no way out. We are all in debt, and to make matters worse, we are bankrupt. Bankruptcy is another condition which we fear, but all of us are spiritually bankrupt before God. Now, the sad, tragic plight of many people is what they try to do when they realize that they are in debt to God. What do people try to do when they realize that they are in such debt?
The first line of thought is to try to ignore that they have a debt. You can do that in many ways. You can deny the existence of God, trying to convince yourself that there is no judge before whom you stand as a debtor. That is the real reason behind all so-called atheism. Atheism is simply an attempt to get away from the fact that we owe God our very lives. Every person deep down inside knows that there is a God and that this God is his judge, but in order to get away from guilt and accountability, they try to convince themselves that there is no God.
If the person doesn’t become an atheist, he may try another approach to get away from this debt. He may try to invent a God for himself who is not holy and righteous. This has been the attempt of theological liberalism. You don’t owe this God anything, either as creator or as judge. When you sin, he just overlooks it. If you live selfishly and for yourself, commit all kinds of cruelty, that is all right. It will all work out, and we will all have eternal life in Heaven eventually.
Another plan of many people is to start trying to pay back the debt that we owe. People have been very ingenious in the methods they have used to try to get out of this debt. To this day, people think that we can get out of debt by doing good works. We think to ourselves, “Here, I have ‘X’ amount of bad works, but if I do so many good works, it will cancel out the debt I have incurred because of my bad works.” How many people have I heard make promises such as, “If God will only give me a little more time, I promise that from here on out, I will be good, and I will work hard.” It’s like they are saying, “If I do all these good deeds, I will get out of debt to God.” They seem to believe that God can put them on the friendly installment plan. They are saying, in effect, “Lord, I know that I owe a great deal, but give me a few years to do some good deeds, and I will finally be able to pay it off.” There are some people who think that they can pay off the debt by the things that they suffer. They think that if they suffer in certain ways, their suffering atones for all the bad that they have done. Yes, there are so many methods which the mind of man has contrived in order to come up with some way in order to pay off the debt.
But what the Scripture tells us is this–there is no way to pay the debt. You may work your fingers to the bone in a soup kitchen, give your lives to helping the poor and the needy in a disease infested hospital in a third-world nation, but you won’t pay back one cent, for God accepts none of your good works as payment, atonement for sin. Not even engaging in all kinds of religious duties could help to pay the debt you owe. You could spend all of the rest of your life in prayer and worship, weeping because of past sins, and it would not discharge your debt. As Augustus Toplady wrote in “Rock of Ages,”
Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Even if you could spend the rest of your life in repentance, make every day a perpetual season of Lent, engage in constant missionary service with the zeal of the apostle Paul, none of it would discharge the debt that you owe to God. Even if you did everything you could, which you don’t and won’t, you would still be an unprofitable servant. Our best works are defiled and mixed with weakness and imperfection. They cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. All this time people think they are scoring points with God, paying off the debt, they are in fact getting deeper and deeper into debt. That is why the installment plan won’t work. It’s worse than a credit card. The more you pay, the worse you get in debt. It seems you never get that debt paid off. At least with a credit card your account goes down a few dollars a year, but in this debt we go to God, the debt never decreases. It increases!
Furthermore, this debt is of such a nature, that it can only be paid in one way—death. St. Paul said, “The wages of sin is death.” That death is not merely physical death, because even the Christian dies physically, but this death which must be paid is the second death, eternal death. We are like these two men in the parable. We have nothing with which to repay, and that is our condition before Almighty God. We are debtors. We have nothing with which to repay, because we are bankrupt. The only payment that can be made is suffering the eternal judgment of a righteous and holy God. Is there any hope for us?
If I had to end the sermon at this point, it would be a sad sermon, indeed. But while the parable teaches that we are in a debt that we cannot pay, the other great truth that it teaches is this: because God is full of grace and mercy, he freely forgives us. Now that we have looked at ourselves as debtors and the condition we are in, we have a chance now to look at the Creditor. Thanks be to God, he is not like many of the creditors we have had in the past. He comes to us, and he freely forgives the debt. What kindness and goodness we see in our great God! He could demand the payment and then command the consequences for that debt which we couldn’t pay. Instead he freely forgives. I ask you, “What did these men in this parable do to deserve that their creditor forgive them? Did they promise to work harder in the future? Did they promise that they would pay him back?” These men did not do or promise anything. All I see in this parable is their debt and his mercy. He freely forgave them both. I don’t see that he required anything from them. Did he say, “Well, just pay a little and we’ll let it go at that”? Did he say, “Well, we’ll set up the installment plan. Be good from here on out, and we will let your goodness pay off the debt.” There is absolutely no reason in them why he should forgive them. The reason for the cancellation of the debt is not in the debtor, but in the creditor. You are not forgiven because of anything you do. You are forgiven because of who God is, because of his good character and mercy and love. He freely forgave them.
How wonderful is that word “freely.” The word is from charidzomai, which means to give freely or graciously as a favor. The same word is used in Rom. 8:32 when St. Paul wrote, “He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall He not with him also freely give us all things.” It means to freely give, graciously give. But it also means to remit, forgive, pardon, as it does in Col. 2:13, where St. Paul said, “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” It seems that the translators wanted to give us both meanings, “freely” and “forgive,” and surely they are correct in doing so. The creditor did remit the debt, but he did it graciously, freely, only out of his goodness and mercy. If you have been forgiven your debts before God, it not due to anything you did or promised to do, but because God is good and merciful and chose to have mercy on you.
Not only did he forgive them freely, he forgave them fully. I don’t find it recorded that he cancelled part of the debt and made them work for the rest of it. He cancelled the debt completely. When you were forgiven you were forgiven all your trespasses as we just read in Col. 2:13. In Acts 13:39, St. Paul preached, “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” All things! The blood of Jesus did not atone for some of your sins. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?”, Paul asks. No one! ll the sins are paid for, and the debt is cancelled. Not one thing can ever be brought against you in God’s courtroom. You have been forgiven freely, and you have been forgiven fully.
Then, there is one other thing I notice in this parable. They were both forgiven. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? The one that owed 500 was forgiven just as freely and fully as the one who owed the 50. Some people were brought up and taught to live good moral lives. Maybe they never committed some of those more heinous sins I mentioned earlier. Some have committed those sins. It doesn’t matter. The power of Christ is such that he forgives even the chief of sinners. A person who was brought up in church and perhaps never engaged in some of the more overt sins of the flesh is forgiven freely and fully. But a blasphemer and persecutor like Saul of Tarsus is also forgiven freely and fully. Even a woman like this woman who washing Jesus’ feet with her tears is forgiven freely and fully. Great sins are no obstacle. Never think your sins are too horrible. God can forgive the lifelong criminal as fully and freely as he does the Christian child brought up in Sunday School.
Now, how is it possible that God can forgive us in this manner? How is it possible that our debt for all the sins and for all the punishment that they deserve has been cancelled? That is what we are celebrating on this Good Friday. Jesus went to the cross to pay our debt. When he went to the cross he took all the punishment that our sins deserved, and received that punishment in our place, and when he did so, the debt was cancelled. In a miraculous moment of time, Christ suffered the equivalent of the eternal punishment we deserved. As we read a moment ago from Isaiah 53:5-6: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” God doesn’t forgive simply because he has chosen to overlook our sins. He is a kind, merciful, and loving God, but he is also a holy God of justice. But when Jesus went to the cross, God’s mercy and his justice were satisfied. Because Christ died on the cross, he can be merciful, because his only Son took on himself the penalty for our sins. God loved us so much that he was willing to send his only Son into the world to die on a cross for us that we might be reconciled to him. Each Sunday when I repeat the Comfortable Words of Scripture, I say, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins.” That word “propitiation” means “to appease.” God’s wrath, God’s justice has been appeased by the sacrifice of Christ. Because Christ went to the cross, God can forgive us freely. There is nothing we need do, for Christ has done it all. He can forgive us fully, because there is no sin so great that he cannot forgive, nor sins so numerous that the blood of his son cannot cover.
When I preach a sermon like this, someone might object, “Doesn’t such a teaching give us a license to sin? I mean, if Jesus paid for all my sins, then I can live any way I please.” Let us look at this woman who is washing the feet of Jesus. Do you think she would feel free now to go out and live any way that she pleased because she had been forgiven? No, when we realize how great our sin is, when we realize how great our debt was, when we realize the terrible price that was paid on Calvary for our sins so that our debt has been cancelled, then we want to give our lives in doing nothing but showing extravagant love and works of service to our Master. We are not doing these good works now in order that we might win his favor. He has already shown by his death on the cross that we are in his favor. Rather, we serve him out of love for what he has done for us. As Isaac Watts put it,
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe.
Here Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.
Yes, it is true that we owe a debt we cannot pay, but Christ paid that penalty for us on the cross. But because of what he did on the cross, I have now incurred another debt I cannot pay. I now owe him the debt of love and gratitude for having cancelled my debt of sins. We were in debt as sinners, but now we are in debt as saints. The greater the blessing, the more gratitude there should be. When people have done nice things for you, haven’t you tried to show your gratitude to them? How much more gratitude do you owe to God for his forgiveness? This gratitude is a true sign of forgiveness received. That is why this woman is washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. This is why she is so extravagant in her service towards him. She feels this intense love and gratitude. Count on it, where there is no love, no grateful service, there has been no forgiveness. Our service for him now is not a legalistic work done in fear, trying to gain his approval, trying to do so some good things so that he will love us. Rather, we now engage in these works of service trying to pay a debt of love we owe, a debt we will never be able to repay, but a debt that we love to try to repay. For now, we are working more diligently than ever—not to gain the favor of God, but to show how much we love him because he has forgiven us freely and fully. We love him much, not to earn his forgiveness. We love much because we have been forgiven much.
On this Good Friday, let us ask the Lord once again to reveal to us our sins, the mountain of debt that we owed. Ask him to give us just a glimpse of the suffering on Calvary that was paid in order that we might be fully and freely forgiven. Then, let us spend our lives in a joyful, peaceful, impossible attempt to pay the debt of love we owe. Amen.