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The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500

Forgiving the 50 and the 500.  A very short Parable.  About forgiveness and love. Two verses.  But it’s embedded in an actual event.  It must be very important.  This parable ended with a question from Jesus to a Pharisee named Simon.  (Not Simon Peter, the disciple.)  Jesus told Simon, “You have judged correctly”.  Jesus told the woman who was the “target” in the event, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Yes, it seems we can learn much from the parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500.

The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500 is article #6 in the series: Parables of Jesus. Click button to view titles for entire series

Let’s start with the parable, then move on to the event which prompted the parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500.

The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500

As I said, the parable itself is only two verses.  For some context, and the tie-in to the event, I’m also including the preceding and subsequent verses.

The full context is coming later.

Lk 7:40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

Lk 7:41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Lk 7:43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

Notice, the excerpt starts off with “Jesus answered him”. Normally, I’d want to talk about what it was that Jesus was about to answer.  However, in this case, try to set that aside for a moment.  Let’s just focus on the parable and return to the event after that. As I mentioned, the context is coming later. Even the passage title given to it by the translators.

Jesus has something to say/ask

Simon, I have something to tell you

OK – this was directed at Simon.  As I’ve already mentioned, Simon was a pharisee.  Jesus had something to tell him.  Of course, this wasn’t only for Simon.  It applies to all the “pharisees” at that time and since then.  It even includes us “pharisees” living today as well.  

As such, let’s take a deeper look at the Pharisees – the “real” ones – the Jewish sect during Jesus’ time on earth.  We’ll see something different from what many might expect.

Pharisees. Religious sect active in Palestine during the NT period. The Pharisees are consistently depicted in the Gospels as Jesus’ antagonists. It is commonly held that the Pharisees represented mainstream Judaism early in the 1st century and that they were characterized by a variety of morally objectionable features. Accordingly, most Bible dictionaries and similar works of reference depict the Pharisees as greedy, hypocritical, lacking in a sense of justice, overly concerned with fulfilling the literal details of the Law, and insensitive to the spiritual significance of the OT. These and other characteristics are furthermore viewed as giving shape to Judaism more generally.

I have to take some exception to the statement that The Pharisees are consistently depicted in the Gospels as Jesus’ antagonists. Frequently.  Even most of the time.  But consistently is supposed to mean “always”.  The most memorable and obvious exception is that of Nicodemus, who went to visit Jesus under cover of darkness.  Nicodemus wanted to learn from Jesus.  See John 3:1-21.  That’s not the antagonist role depicted in the opening statement above. 

Furthermore, there are the times when the Pharisees (and others) were amazed at how Jesus spoke.  See Mt 22:15 for the example of Paying taxes to Caesar.  Yes, they were out to trap Jesus.  But there was still the element of their reaction to how Jesus responded.  In fact, it’s arguable that their fear of Jesus was enhanced because of how well he responded.  Again, not the normal antagonist role.

As for the morally objectionable features of the Pharisees, there’s no question that Jesus was very much against that.  I feel that the thing to keep in mind is that the Pharisees were the leaders of one sect.  One of several.  Obviously the various sects disagreed with each other, and evidence points to disagreement even within the sects, as we will see below.

There are several problems with this common perception of Pharisaic Judaism. In the first place, the Gospels themselves give some important information that appears inconsistent with this view. Second, the primary documents of rabbinic Judaism (such as the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Midrashim) are positive and praiseworthy. Third, it has become increasingly clear, especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that prior to AD 70 the Pharisees constituted only a small movement in a highly diversified society; whatever their popularity and influence, they can hardly be taken as representative of Judaism in general.

So we’re back to context.  Who wrote what.  What view of the Pharisees was held by the various authors of documents that we can view today?  And maybe most of all, what does this mean in terms of what Jesus said about them?

These three factors, especially in the context of contemporary ecumenical efforts between Christians and Jews, have led many to play down the negative picture of the Pharisees that we find in the Gospels. Conservative Christians, understandably, wonder whether these developments undermine the authority of the Scriptures and more particularly the teachings of Jesus. A reliable description of the Pharisees requires that our Lord’s assessment of these Jewish leaders be taken with utmost seriousness; after all, the distinctive elements of the doctrine of salvation in the Gospels is formulated in conscious opposition to Pharisaic practice. On the other hand, we cannot assume that the church’s traditional view of the Pharisees is necessarily correct at every point; a genuine effort must be made to understand whatever evidence is available to us.  1

Now we’ve hit the key points, especially whether these developments undermine the authority of the Scriptures and more particularly the teachings of Jesus.  This is incredibly important.  If we, as Christians, cannot / will not accept what Jesus said – then what are we doing?  What do we believe?  Are we willing to take the word of some people who say the Pharisees were “good” over that of others who say they weren’t?  And consider that one of those who said the Pharisees had issues was none other than Jesus.  Are we saying that Jesus was wrong about them?  Because if Jesus was wrong to criticize the Pharisees – then what, exactly, can we trust from everything else He said?  For much more on that thought, please see Can I trust what I think I know in the inset box, which goes into the question of what is knowledge?

One way to look at this question of whether or not the Pharisees deserved the criticism Jesus leveled on them is to look around ourselves today.  Look at our leaders.  Church leaders today aren’t perfect.  They’re a mix of good and bad.  They’re people.  We’re all a mix of good and bad.  There isn’t a one of us that Jesus couldn’t say something about.  There’s not one person alive today that deserves to go to Heaven.  Not one. 

Rather than get stuck on the issue of whether or not the Pharisees were all bad or all good – we should just look at them as people.  True – the ones who were supposed to be leading at least some portion of the Jewish people.  And even they couldn’t get it right.  And we’re no different.  We all have something to learn from what Jesus said to them.  So let’s look at it and, hopefully, learn something.

Forgiving the 50 and the 500 – A simple math problem

The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500 is really just a very simple math problem.

Lk 7:41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

It doesn’t even matter what a denarii is worth.  If one person owes 50 of them and another owes 500 then the second person owes ten times as much as the first.  That’s a bigger deal to the second person than it was to the first one.  Plain and simple.

I could even see the first person, the one who only owed 50, being a little upset.  He could have gone deeper into debt.  Gotten more stuff.  Had more fun.  Whatever.  Owed more money.  And still it would have been forgiven.  A missed opportunity.  So they’re upset that they could have owed even more, but wasted the chance.

If we look at ourselves honestly, and come up with that as our response, we’ve got one huge problem.  This is a parable that was about being forgiven. And then our response to that forgiveness should be love.

Now, in order to understand what really happened with that forgiveness, let’s look at an alternate ending.  One that involves no forgiveness at all.  The two alternate possibilities are from another parable: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.  We won’t get into the meaning of that one here.  It’s only shown as a different possible outcome.

So here’s a segment from The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Mt 18:30
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.”

Mt 18:34 “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”

OK. What does this do to your feeling about having been forgiven even the 50 denarii?  And how much more grateful would you have been if you’d been forgiven and not had to endure ten times the amount of torture as the one who owed 50?

Was the punishment for unpaid debt that bad in the parable of the unmerciful servant?

This sounds bad.  It would be illegal in many (most?) countries today.  And how do you ever get out of debt?  Being tortured in prison isn’t exactly setting someone up to earn enough money to pay back even a small debt.  

But these aren’t the Old Testament times that we live in today. Here’s something on debt from the Old Testament that sheds light on what happened back then.

In Hebrew culture debt was usually connected with usury (the business of lending money on interest). The Hebrew verbs describing usury picture a painful situation. One word for usury means “to bite,” a vivid image for the way high interest “ate up” any kind of business transaction so that borrowers never received the full value of the money. People could be ruined financially by heartless exaction of interest (2 Kgs 4:1–7). Another verb is usually translated as “increase” or “profit” (Lv 25:37), since lenders profited from others’ labor. Ancient Near Eastern interest rates on produce and goods might be as much as 30 percent of the loan per year, on money as much as 20 percent. Clay tablets from Nuzi, a town in northeastern Mesopotamia, indicate interest rates of even 50 percent.

As much as we like to think we’re “civilized” and all that, these rates aren’t really much different from those in the U.S. today.  This is especially true for those who can least afford to repay the loans they take out.  The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate.  And therefore, the less likely the loan can be repaid.

The Law of Moses. The Mosaic covenant given to Israel immediately after the exodus sought to eliminate extortionist practices from Hebrew life. Thus God’s revelation had many rules and restrictions relating to debt and credit in Israel.

When we look at the Old Testament laws and add what Jesus said, it’s certainly something for Christians in the lending business to think about, isn’t it?

Protection for the Poor. Portions of the legislative sections of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) regulated the practice of lending in a way that protected the poor and secured each person’s right to earn a living and support a family. Many popular Hebrew proverbs dealt with that theme. The positive thrust of the biblical laws was to ensure help for the financially needy, without interest. No personal profit was to be made at the expense of the poor (Ex 22:25; Dt 23:19, 20); God was their special advocate. Thus by lending without interest, the Israelites could demonstrate their reverence for God (Lv 25:35–37).  2

The only time you can get no-interest loans today is when something’s not selling. Like when car dealers have zero-interest specials.  And even then, only those with the top one or two percent credit rating qualify.

But still, all of this was about one Jewish person lending to another.  And even that wasn’t really followed as it should have been.

Violation of the Law. The law was so often violated that eventually exorbitant interest became a social plague, making the situation of debtors hopeless. Many of the fighting men who rallied around David early in his military career were “outlaws” unable to repay their loans and interest (1 Sm 22:2). The prophet Ezekiel called people to task for their failure to observe God’s commands about usury (Ez 18:5–18; 22:12). When Nehemiah returned from the exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he brought charges against the government officials whose interest rates had enslaved the people (Neh 5:6–13).  3

So those who were supposed to be under the law didn’t follow it.  Imagine what it was like when the Jewish people were under Roman rule.  Yes – anyone forgiven a debt should have been very grateful.

Simon answered Jesus’ question

Notice how Simon, the Pharisee, answered Jesus’ question.

I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.

What do you think about that answer? Remember, this is a Pharisee.

Let’s analyze that answer.

Anyone should have been very grateful.  But what we hear from Simon the Pharisee is this:

Lk 7:43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

That’s right.  Simon, already knowing everything that we’ve just read responds with something along the lines of, “I suppose it’s the one who owed more”.  Not something definitive, as in “The one who owed more.”  No – he had to qualify it with a word that meant things like I imagine; I think.  Really?

It feels like Jesus let Simon off easy, doesn’t it?

But did He? This is another case where culture and context change everything.

The full context for The Parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500.

Jesus is anointed at a Pharisee’s home

Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman – Luke

Remember, I said the parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500 is embedded in an actual event.  When we look at the broader context within which this parable is told, we see that Jesus gave Simon a false sense of security.  Jesus let Simon think he had done well with his answer.  For maybe a few seconds.  And then He laid it on to Simon.  Right in front of his guests.

Let’s start with what happened before Jesus told the parable of Forgiving the 500 and the 50.

Lk 7:36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

Lk 7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Lk 7:40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Oh.  So Simon was practicing that “I’m better than her” kind of morally objectionable feature that we looked at earlier.  We can only speculate why Simon invited Jesus in the first place.  But we won’t.  The Bible doesn’t say why.  Therefore, the only conclusion we should draw is that it doesn’t matter why.  What matters is what we do read.  Simon is thinking to himself.  Not realizing that Jesus knows what he’s thinking.  And then Jesus proceeds to tell Simon what’s wrong with the things he’s thinking.

We all know, I have something to tell you is rarely the beginning of a pleasant conversation.  So while Simon may have thought he was OK with what he was thinking, those six words are the beginning of one big surprise.

Hospitality in Jesus’ time

In Jewish culture, there were a number of things that were expected of the host.  Things to be done for the guests.  And Jesus proceeds to “remind” Simon of them.  Right after You have judged correctly, this takes place:

Lk 7:44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Jesus starts by listing things that Simon, the host, did not have the common decency to do.  While at it, Jesus also points out the extent to which this woman went above and beyond the minimal effort and expense to perform those tasks.  Can you even imagine crying enough tears to clean someone’s feet – someone who wore only sandals and walked on dirt roads?  And then wiping them dry with your hair?  Then, to top it all off, she used an expensive bottle of perfume. On Jesus’ feet. 

Simon was correct about one thing.  The woman was a sinner.  Apparently very good at sinning, since her many sins were forgiven.  As the parable said, she also loved much because her sins were forgiven.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a little twist at the end too.  he who has been forgiven little loves little.  This was directed at Simon.  I think it’s clear that Simon had much to be forgiven for.  It also seems clear, from what Jesus said, that Simon was willing to claim he had little to nothing to be forgiven for.  And from there comes the conclusion that Simon loves little, because he was forgiven little.  Because he admitted little.  And rather than forgive others – Simon was much more likely to judge others.

Jesus forgave the woman’s sins

Lk 7:48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Jesus tells the woman that her sins are forgiven.  Oh – Jesus is also telling everyone else around the table that the woman’s sins are forgiven.  One more statement on the lack of forgiveness to the host – Simon, the Pharisee.

Lk 7:49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

You know the saying, sometimes it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?  The other guests would have been better off saying – and thinking – nothing.  But they didn’t.  And so Jesus had one more line to say.

Lk 7:50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Again, what Jesus said was directed to the woman.  Within hearing of everyone at the table.  Her faith saved her.  She can go in peace.  Not the others around the table who thought they led good lives.  The sinner.  The one they thought had wasted all that money.  So no peace for them. 

At least not on this day.  It could have been this day, if they had chosen to listen and learn from what Jesus was saying.  But they chose not to learn.  So no peace for them.  No belief.  No faith.  No forgiveness.  No peace.

Unpaid debt in the dinner and in the parable of forgiving the 50 and the 500

Have you made the connection yet between the parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500 – and the meal where Jesus was anointed by a Sinful Woman?

It’s about debt.
And about having the debt forgiven.
Also about failure to pay the debt.

However, that debt isn’t necessarily money.

You probably recognize this verse:

Mt 6:12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And this one:

Lk 11:4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

They’re both from what we know as The Lord’s Prayer.  One’s from Matthew.  The other from Luke.  Matthew was Jewish.  Luke was a Gentile, not necessarily familiar with all of the Jewish traditions, culture and language.  Matthew wrote for Jews.  Luke wrote for Gentiles, who most certainly would not be familiar with the Jewish traditions, culture and language.

Each may have written based on who they were and who their audience was.  It’s also very likely that Jesus said similar things – but not identical – on more than one occasion.  Either way, the main thing for Christians to remember is that we believe Scripture – the Bible – is from God.  Not the English translation.  Or any other translation.  The original.  So let’s see what words are recorded for each author.

Luke – the Gentile – a word that gets translated as sin.

266 ἁμαρτία [hamartia /ham·ar·tee·ah/] n f. From 264; TDNT 1:267; TDNTA 44; GK 281; 174 occurrences; AV translates as “sin” 172 times, “sinful” once, and “offense” once. 1 equivalent to 264. 1A to be without a share in. 1B to miss the mark. 1C to err, be mistaken. 1D to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong. 1E to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin. 2 that which is done wrong, sin, an offence, a violation of the divine law in thought or in act. 3 collectively, the complex or aggregate of sins committed either by a single person or by many.  4

That one is very straightforward.  It’s all about doing something that’s not right.  Luke using this word adds a deeper meaning that just something was done that’s wrong.  It’s an offense.  Worse yet, it’s an offense against God.  So even when we sin because of what we said, did, didn’t do, Etc. – it’s an offense against God as well as against a person.

Matthew – the Jew – a word that gets translated as debt.

3783 ὀφείλημα [opheilema /of·i·lay·mah/] n n. From (the alternate of) 3784; TDNT 5:565; TDNTA 746; GK 4052; Two occurrences; AV translates as “debt” twice. 1 that which is owed. 1A that which is justly or legally due, a debt. 2 metaph. offence, sin.  5

Notice the last part.  This Greek word is also a metaphor for an offence or a sin.  Matthew’s Jewish audience would have known this.  A non-Jew might not make this connection.  Even for us today, most probably only equate “debt” and “sin” in the Lord’s Prayer because the words are used interchangeably.  But how many realize that Matthew’s word that we translate as debt actually ties back so directly to sin – an offense against God?

Conclusion – The Parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500

So we have a parable within an event.  And we have Matthew’s word with the inclusion of sin, but only within a cultural context.  We can learn of the cultural context by looking it up.  But we can really only understand the parable, and therefore the true meaning of the event, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  

Let’s say a non-believer just read everything I wrote.  And that’s assuming they (you?) were interested enough to actually get this far.  It could still sound like just an interesting story.  Or it could sound like just so much nothing.  Or maybe it’s a good learning experience – something about a good way to live, but no more.

But what it’s really about is someone who paid all our debts to other people and to God.  And it’s not the monetary debts.  It’s the sin kind of debts.  There’s no way we could ever repay them ourselves.  It’s just too much.  So it’s about God forgiving those debts.  Those sins.

Let’s go further.  If they aren’t forgiven, we don’t go to jail to be tortured until we die.  No, we go to Hell to be tortured forever.  If our debts – our sins – are forgiven, then we have eternal life with the One who forgave them.  It shouldn’t be a hard choice.  But it is.

There’s one more step in the process.  One from the middle that I left out.  Why those debts – sins – are forgiven.  When an earthly debt is forgiven, it’s because the one to whom the money was owed tells the one who owes that they don’t have to repay the debt.  In this case, the debt is never paid. 

That’s not how God works.  Justice requires that a debt be paid.  The other way a person can owe money in this life, and not have to pay it back, is if someone else pays the debt for them.  The one to whom the money is owed is restored in a sense.  They receive what they rightfully had coming to them.  The one who owed the money no longer has the debt.  And the one who paid off the debt obviously cares a lot about the one who debt was paid.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have done it.

That’s more in line with how God works.  For what we’re talking about here, it’s us who owe God.  He created us.  Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, He gave us every good thing we have.  And we turn around and sin against each other – against Him.  All of us.  Even the ones who think we’re the righteous Pharisees.  And so Jesus comes to earth.  Pays the price.  (Please read No one would ever agree to this would they? Maybe One? for a “fictional/reality-based look at that).  But it’s only paid for us if we want it to be paid.  If we think we don’t need His offer, we can reject it.  Most people do reject it.  It’s sad.  Jesus loves us all so much that He was tortured and died for us.  And yet most of us won’t even acknowledge what He did.

This parable – this event – they tell us what happens, depending on whether we accept the payment from Jesus or not.  But we won’t understand that unless we also accept that Jesus really is the Son of God – and that He did pay our debt for us.  

We all owe something.  Whether it’s 50, 500, or some number way, way bigger – we all owe something.  And none of us can afford to pay.  Do we want to try anyway – with a 100% chance of failure?  Or are we willing to admit we messed up and let Jesus pay for us?  

Choose wisely.

The post The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500 appeared first on God versus religion.


1    Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Pharisees. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1670). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
2    Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Debt. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 605–606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
3    Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Debt. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
4    Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
5    Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

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The parable of Forgiving the 50 and the 500


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