These Parables: The Two Debtors

Few vandals in the corridors of history have done as much damage as princes who were not gentlemen. Populations have fled from raucous tyrants, but they have grimaced at Charles VII as they remembered Louis IX and at Cardinal Wolsey who served no majesty higher than his king’s. Even in constitutionally unprincely states where there are presidents and no purple, there is a general embarrassment when the bully pulpit is used by bullies.

Simon the Pharisee was not a gentleman. He had a gentleman’s manners, perhaps. He knew which knife to use but only for the purpose of sticking it into others. Jesus praised the righteousness of the Pharisees but not Simon’s kind of self-righteousness. Simon’s sense of entitlement supposed that he was doing Jesus a favor by inviting him to dine—like those who think attending Mass is an obligation but not a privilege.

This attitude is not helped by the current state of the revised liturgy. The typical Mass text reads: “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum….” The Roman centurion, imperial trumpets not withstanding, knew himself unworthy to have the Lord come under his roof. The present sub-English translation coolly reads: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” It is something Queen Victoria might have said to Disraeli in one of her more effusive moments. Simon, not to be confused with Simon of Bethany, thought himself overly qualified to receive Jesus, whom he addresses as “Rabbi” with palpable irony, as though he were condescending to some ecclesiastical vagrant. The Pharisee is fascinated with Jesus, the way a lepi-dopterist is with an exotic butterfly, and he invites Jesus to come in with the intention of pinning him down.

An account of a mission to the Middle East by the Scottish clergyman Andrew Bonar in 1839 recalls: “At dinner at the consul’s house at Damietta, we were much interested in observing a custom of the country. In the room where we were received, besides the divan on which we sat, there were seats all round the walls. Many came in, and took their places on these side seats, uninvited and yet unchallenged. They spoke to those at table, on business, or the news of the day; and our host spoke freely to them.” It is a scene much like the one that occasioned the parable of the two debtors (Luke 7:36-50).

We do not know where Simon’s house was, and any identification of the sinful woman who appears at the banquet with the Magdalene is a romantic stretch, but both are types. Simon is every calculator made inferior by his self-regarding superiority to the gentleman who “can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” The unnamed woman is the iconic shadow of every soul burdened with a public secret. There is no evident explanation for what strikes others as her histrionic devotion. Simon is full of world-weary suspicion: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sin-net” He must have published this private thought later to justify himself, after Christ dashes him with “something” he has to say. The “something” is a short parable of a creditor who has a debtor owing 500 denarii and another owing 50. He forgives both the debts they cannot pay. “Now which of them will love him more?”

Christ is the creditor. The meager 50 that Simon owes will drag him down to moral squalor because he could perform every precept of religion except love. “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, 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.”

Christ comes under the roofs of churches many times in our hardened days without finding tears and confession of sin. A broken generation has grown up ignorant of the confessional, asking with Simon’s other guests: “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” The answer is not easy. A popular television cartoon character declared that people who say there are no easy answers aren’t looking hard enough. Confession is not easy, but it is simple. He who forgives sins is Christ the High Priest, worshiped by the Church when she is Catholic enough to wash Christ’s feet with her tears and anoint them with the luster of His own priesthood.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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