The Paradox of Grace and Judgment

Don: The concept of mercy is recognized by all religions, but the concept of grace—that one does not get what one deserves from judgment, that there is something for nothing—is uniquely Christian, yet even to a majority of Christians it is unbelievable, polls suggest.

In His teaching and His parables, Jesus explained and emphasized it repeatedly. For another example:

Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “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 she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

In those days, an intimate encounter between a single man (Jesus) and a woman would have been bad enough, but for the woman to be a prostitute, as here, and for her to use her hands and especially her hair (which society required be kept covered outside her home) to anoint Him with perfume, and to kiss His feet, was scandalous and shocking. Her presence at the dinner is interesting, given that the host seemed to know she was a prostitute and under ordinary circumstances might have been expected to have her thrown out, but we are left unenlightened on that score. It is also striking that the woman is silent throughout. She utters neither complaint nor request.

The perfume she used was very expensive. According to the story as recounted in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, it would have cost a year’s wages—in this case, the woman’s wages from prostitution. That in itself emphasizes the key message that the product of our efforts, which we offer to God as the woman offered perfume to Jesus, only reflect our degradation, no matter how we try to hide the stink of it.

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

But Jesus accepts our efforts, our filthy rags, as our attempt (feeble as may be) to reach out to Him for grace. We are all prostitutes, living lives of degradation that we seek to mask with perfume, but what we need is the grace of God.

The parable Jesus spoke at the dinner shows that grace transforms our sin into debt. The woman was a sinner, yet the parable she caused to be given was about debt. She was saved, Jesus told her, by her faith. Her sins were forgiven, leaving her at once in debt and free from obligation.

Her gratitude was in a sense quantified through the parable: the greater debtor, whom the moneylender forgave more, would have loved the moneylender more for his forgiveness. God forgives us our sins, leaving us indebted to Him, yet our obligation is to repay the debt through others. This was made clear in the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus taught us. It does not request forgiveness of sin but rather forgiveness of debt—and it is tied directly to our forgiveness of the debt others owe us; to the passing on of God’s grace. We cannot be anything but the recipients of God’s generous grace, as the parable explains. In expressing our gratitude to God we relieve others of their debts to us.

Simon the Pharisee fails to see that he is in the parable. He sees sin in others, but cannot see it in himself. He did not offer Jesus water or perfume or a kiss—metaphors for sinfulness. Even so, he was not condemned for that until he failed to forgive the debt that he was forgiven. He was forgiven little because he saw no sin in himself. He saw no need for grace. We might, like Simon, be blind to our own sinfulness, smugly confident that others around us are in greater need of grace than we are. Or we might, like the prostitute, seek to perfume our way into God’s grace, ready to try anything—even seduction—to get His attention.

Both Simon, who did not recognize his need, and the woman who did recognize her need but sought to mask her degradation, were forgiven. But it was their response to this forgiveness that is the judgment. The minimum response needed is recognition of need. The ideal response is the passing on of grace by forgiving the debt of others. “This is the judgment,” John said, “that light has come into the world.” We might as well say that grace has come into the world, but men prefer their own work—their own perfume—more than they prefer God’s grace.

Donald: Jesus paid our debts in full. Debt is easier to understand than grace. If we receive a letter out of the blue, forgiving us some large debt we owe someone, our first reaction might be to suspect it but when we accept it is genuine we are likely to feel wonderful and may be more likely to want to make someone else experience our pleasure by forgiving them also.

David: One translation of the Lord’s Prayer says: “Forgive us our sins”, but the original Tyndale English translation and the Book of Common Prayer say “Forgive us our trespasses.”

No doubt we are all sinners compared to Jesus, but some people are more or less sinful than others. Since “He who is forgiven little loves little” then he who is less sinful, and therefore less in need of forgiveness, is forgiven little and loves little. Now there’s a paradox!

Russ: Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer in the context of having already forgiven us our sins. “I’ve already got your back,” He said, “so you concentrate on praying for others.” That’s grace.

Jay: The parable in the passage involves quantifying debt and forgiveness, but this forgiver does not really care about quantity: He (God) forgives both large and small debt without discrimination. It seems to be the forgiven (we humans) who tend to quantify and discriminate: We tend to love more those who forgive us more.

Mikiko: The woman must have known that her presence at the dinner would be unwelcome to the Pharisees. In context, she might have just heard Jesus teach and been drawn to follow Him. So she spent all her money buying the expensive oil. She probably heard Jesus say “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) She would have been confident of acceptance. So Jesus’s remarks about her faith were perhaps not just about the events at dinner but about her having already repented.

David: I think we would all agree that Jesus had no sin. But in that case, there was nothing to forgive Him for. Therefore, according to His own statement as given in this passage, He would have had no love to give. It doesn’t make sense.

Michael: The usual interpretation of this story is that the woman was forgiven by Jesus for her acts of humiliation. Simon passed judgment on her. What I can’t see is what she did to pass on the grace she received.

Don: Passing on the grace is the ideal, but there are people who are simply unable to pass it on. The Rainbow Covenant we discussed recently in the context of Noah and the Ark is a symbol of the extension of grace to all, including those who have no ability to pass on grace—even animals. The divine sower’s seed can fall on stony ground that is simply unable to nourish it.

Donald: We often pass on grace via third parties. We give donations to charitable institutions, we put money in the offering. We expect the receiving entities to “go beyond”. We don’t expect anything of an electrician beyond a job done professionally. But we expect hospital caregivers not only to be professional in a mechanical sense but to have compassion as well. We expect teachers to do more than impart subject-matter knowledge to students: We expect them to understand the subject at a deep level, to understand their individual students, and so on. We compartmentalize between people and entities from whom / from which we expect grace or do not expect grace. We drive past beggars in the street and expect government or someone to take care of them. We delegate our responsibility. We feel guilty for not “going beyond” personally, so we set up entities to do it for us. Socialism is intended to ensure that everyone is taken care of. Does it count as passing on grace? I tend to doubt it, but in any case, this seems to me to be an important question.

Don: Could there be a grace on top of grace?

David: It seems to me that the core of the message in this story is about faith in Jesus, and only incidentally or peripherally about grace. If so, are we reading too much about grace into it? The setting is of an interaction between Jesus and a group of Pharisees who presumably did not accept Him as the Messiah but invited Him to dinner because He was a popular preacher. The lesson He was trying to get across to them, through the woman, was about faith in salvation through Him and His forgiveness of sin. To me, the strongest evidence of that is at the end of the story, where the Pharisees ask among themselves, in shocked consternation: “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (interestingly, the emphasis on man is in the original.) Jesus then reinforces his message of faith by saying to the woman: “Your faith [in Jesus] has saved you.”

Donald: Twenty or so years ago, Andrews University instituted a unique service requirement in general education. A course was devoted to teaching what “service” meant. It has its own textbook on the topic. But some in our community feel that service is a matter of action rather than of study. Similarly, we are here discussing grace as an academic topic when there are real people in need of our grace right now. Is it necessary to understand grace in order to operationalize it?

Jay: As to the topic of the story being grace or faith: It reminds me of our insatiable need to categorize. It is quite possible to intertwine topics, as seems to be the case in this story—it is about both grace and faith and the relationship between them. They are essentially inseparable.

Donald: In general education we have religion, writing, social sciences, wellness, fine arts… and service. To graduate, you need credits for the service course, which seems ironic since it is not credit for doing service but only for studying it.

Don: So the question is: Does grace need to be learned, or is it simply something to be absorbed in life? To make light of the curriculum of grace is, potentially, to make light of the curriculum of service…?

Michael: It’s the prerogative of the church, but in church we only learn about judgment. Religion speaks of God’s love, but generally in conditional terms. No-one seems comfortable discussing its unconditionality because that doesn’t go well with judgment. It does not make sense that judgment is abolished when grace is unconditional.

Mikiko: Jesus knew what the woman wanted to say, that she was repentant, hence his forgiveness of her. She was truly poor in spirit. She was spiritually bankrupt but trusted completely in the readiness of Jesus to forgive her.

David: From the perspective of Jesus, who needed more grace: The woman or the Pharisees? To whom was Jesus addressing his message: The woman or the Pharisees? There was a judgment: The woman was saved because she had faith in Jesus. The Pharisees were (implicitly) condemned because they had no faith in Jesus. But it seems the judgment will be set aside anyway, because of God’s grace. So as Michael implied, what’s the point of judgment? Who needed grace the most? The woman or the Pharisees?

Donald: We have different expectations of people who go to church compared to people who don’t. What is our personal responsibility when we say we are Christian? Do we have more responsibility than others?

Don: We need to examine further the interface between grace and faith, and between grace and judgment and the church’s teaching of them.

So the woman and the Pharisees all needed grace.

Michael: The Bible tells us:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

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