Two Debts Cancelled

An Exegetical Essay on Luke 7:36-50

(As it was for the introductory Biblical Interpretation paper, this essay wasn't technically on the Greek text, so the Textual Analysis section isn't overloaded with Greek word study. For this reason I inserted two sections of my word study assignment for the same course—Textual Variants & Lexical Analysis—between the Introduction and the Historical and Literary Contexts sections below.)


In the anointing pericope of Luke’s Gospel (36-50), Jesus is attended to by a weeping "woman…who was a sinner" (37),1 while dining at Simon the Pharisee’s house. Through an analogic parable about two debtors (41-42), Jesus does three things: First, he confirms that he is the Messiah, then he teaches a lesson on God’s counter-intuitive mercy and, thirdly, he illustrates the equality of sinners before God, regardless of their visible inequality. A great deal of interpretation of this passage has understandably focussed on the woman, emphasising her importance in determining Luke’s message. However, as we shall see below, Simon the Pharisee plays a far more pivotal role than is generally believed.

Textual Variants

There are several textual variants in the passage, but only two are worthy to be mentioned in Metzger’s textual commentary.2 In the Nestle-Aland text, the word προφήτης of verse 39 is anarthrous. However, the original hand of Codex Vaticanus (B*), a 4th century uncial,3 inserted a definite article before προφήτης, rendering the phrase οὗτος εἰ ἦν προφήτης ("if this man were a prophet")4 as οὗτος εἰ ἦν ὁ προφήτης ("if this man were the prophet."). Metzger suggests that this is "an exegetical allusion to 'the Prophet' predicted in Dt 18:15."5 Having such a clear linking of Jesus’ with that very prophet by his enemies is a tantalising notion, to be sure, but the evidence against the B reading is far too strong. Thus the current reading should stand.

The second variant of note is not nearly as tantalising. In verse 45, a small number of late witnesses6 have εἰσῆλθεν instead of εἰσῆλθον, reading "[from the time] she came in," rather than "[from the time] I came in."7 Metzger surmises that the scribe responsible was trying to remove any accusations of unseemly hyperbole on the part of our Lord.8 Sensibilities must have coarsened over the last 800 years, though, because hyperbole strikes me as a highly appropriate rhetorical tool for the Messiah to wield. Nevertheless, I’m sure the scribe had the best of intentions. Thus the current reading should stand.

Therefore, although they provide an interesting glance into the operating hermeneutic of a pair of anonymous scribes, these two textual variants prove to be unhelpful in our current exegetical analysis.

Lexical Analysis

   7:41    “A certain creditor had two debtors…”9

Two of the key words in our passage are “debtors” and “creditor” (v. 41). In the pericope, the referents of these words are analogised: The two debtors are shown to be analogous to the two sinners in Jesus’ post-parable comparisons (vv. 44-48)—the woman explicitly (v. 47) and the Pharisee implicitly, by the comparisons to her. The creditor is explicitly shown to be analogous to Jesus when he forgives the woman’s sins (v. 48). These two words will be examined below in the order of their appearance in the Greek text; first debtors, the subject of verse 41, and creditor second.

The word translated “debtors” is the noun χρεοφειλέται, the nominative plural form of the masculine χρεοφειλέτης, which BDAG defines succinctly as “debtor.”10 Louw and Nida tell us it is a “derivative of ὀφείλω ‘to owe,’” and that it means “a person who is in debt.”11 Strong gives us a bit more with “a loan-ower, i.e. indebted person:—debtor.”12

Luke is the only NT writer to use the word χρεοφειλέτης, and then only twice (once in this instance and then in the genitive form in verse 16:5). The other NT writers prefer the simpler ὀφειλέτης (i.e. Mat 18:24, Rom 1:14, Gal 5:3).

No other word for debt is used in our passage. The two subsequent occurrences of “debts” (v. 42) and “debt” (v. 43) in the English text have been inserted by the translators. Presumably, these were added to emphasise the strengthened denotation of the compound χρεοφειλέτης, thereby eliminating any ambiguous interpretations. In the parable, the reader is to understand that only the debts are being forgiven, not the debtors themselves. Whether this restricted reading is forced by the syntax, or is simply one of several possibilities, I can’t say without further investigation. The narrower range of the parabolic debt does, however, sharpen the analogy, making it that much more effective rhetorically.

The word translated “creditor” is δανιστῇ, the dative singular of the masculine noun δανιστής (alternate spelling: δανειστής), about which two of our lexicons are unanimously terse, giving us little more than “lender,” “money-lender” and “creditor” as definitions. But a more expansive Louw and Nida tell us that it is a “derivative of δανείζω ‘to lend money...a person whose business it is to lend money to others at an interest rate.”13 In the Septuagint (LXX), δανιστής is used to translate the Hebrew qal participle form of נָשָׁא (nāshā), meaning “creditor, professional moneylender” (2 Kgs 4:1, Isa 24:2) or “usurer” (Ps 109:11).14

However, in Proverbs 29:13, δανιστής is not used to translate the Hebrew text, but appears in one of the many distinctly LXX readings:

      “When the creditor and debtor meet together, the Lord oversees them both.”15

What is particularly striking about this verse is that the Greek word for debtor is the genitive form of χρεοφειλέτης. Furthermore, the adjective ἀμφότεροι, meaning “both,” also appears in the proverb and the parable. Given the Greek form of the proverb’s obvious thematic relevance to Luke’s point and purpose in recording the events of Simon’s house, and the undeniable reliance the NT writers had on the LXX version,16 it is entirely possible that this LXX pairing of χρεοφειλέτης and δανιστής influenced Luke’s wording (see Detailed Analysis of the Text below).

The Historical and Literary Contexts

Although there are a few similarities to the anointing pericopes of the other three Gospels (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8 ), there are significant dissimilarities in the manner and meaning of Luke’s account to preclude the possibility that he is relating the same event.17 One of the primary dissimilarities is the setting, Simon the Pharisee's house. Luke’s exaggerated emphasis on the title “Pharisee” in his opening (36-39)—four times in as many sentences18—indicates its particular importance in Luke's narrative.

Josephus “describes the Pharisees as the leading sect”19 among the Jews. Mason tells us they were particularly concerned with “ritual purity,”20 as “the authorized teachers of Jesus’ time.”21 Initially Simon’s character is consistent with this picture of Pharisaism, heightening the drama of the opening scene and making the contrasts Jesus draws between him and the woman sound all the more authentic. The irony of Simon’s status as a student before those he presumed to judge—both Jesus and the woman—is similarly heightened.

However, in Luke, a Pharisee is never simply “a negative foil for Jesus.”22 Luke alone records the Lord accepting invitations to dine from Pharisees.23 Furthermore, Luke combines the genres of Gospel and historiography;24 he is the “historian [and] the pastor.”25 The dedication to Theophilus in the first chapter promises an honest (1:3) and chronologically ordered (1:1) account of the events of Jesus’ life. Thus Luke’s Simon, one of only two named Pharisees in all the Gospels, is no mere caricature or literary device.

This use of Simon’s proper name (40, 43) is of huge significance to our understanding of this pericope. In his landmark work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham states “that many of these named characters were eyewitnesses who not only originated the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions. In some cases the Evangelists may well have known them.”26 So, contra Nolland,27 Simon’s name could well have been used because Luke derived the details of this event from his eyewitness report. If true, this would make the pericope Simon’s conversion testimony.

Even Luke’s placement of this passage keeps the narrative focus on Simon. It occurs immediately after Jesus has rebuked the Pharisees and lawyers for not recognising either himself or his herald, John the Baptist (29-35). Previous to this, Jesus confirms his messiahship, both directly (7:18-23) and indirectly (27-28). The pericope sits comfortably in the wider narrative context of Jesus’ Judean mission, between two accounts of God confirming that Jesus is his son, the Messiah (3:22, 9:35). Now, under Simon’s roof, Jesus will confirm it to any Pharisee with “ears to hear” (8:8).

Form, Structure and Movement

Structurally, the passage can be seen in five parts: The Filling of the Classroom (36-37) has our Teacher subordinating himself to “a teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). The woman arrives, but not to eat.28 Through dramatic irony, The Teacher Needs Taught (39) has the Pharisee reveal himself to be a “blind guide” (6:39). We then have an inversion in Lesson one: the parable (40-43), where the guest “feeds” the host; the (would-be) teacher becomes the student. In Lesson two: the first application (44-47), we find analogy and comparisons made. Lesson three: the expanded application (48-50) broadens the analogy to show Jesus corresponding to the parabolic creditor.

Detailed Analysis of the Text

Luke begins this passage with two of his four introductory occurrences of the word “Pharisee,” focussing us immediately on this important characteristic (36). The Pharisee is the first grammatical subject of the passage, indicating his situational primacy. Luke even declines to use the proper name τὸν Ἰησοῦν (acc. "Jesus"),29 and opts instead for the accusative pronoun αὐτὸν ("him"), lest any attention be taken away from the Pharisee. At this stage Simon is identified as merely τις τῶν Φαρισαίων ("one of the Pharisees"). He is still just one of those who have “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (30).

The woman’s entrance is more dramatic in the Greek text—καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ30—befitting her surprising behaviour upon arriving (37-38). She is anonymous and remains that way throughout. Ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Φαρισαίου ("in the house of the Pharisee") is the third of the four occurrences; even this disruptive new character isn’t permitted to diminish the centrality of the Pharisee.

The final occurrence of the introductory “Pharisee” is the nominative ὁ Φαρισαῖος (39). Now the tension created by the juxtaposition of the pious Pharisee and the indecorous woman comes to a head. The Pharisee wrongly judges both Jesus and the woman31—denying the Lord as a prophet and the woman as a sister—out of his blind, self-righteous Pharisaism.

This judgement was made ἐν ἑαυτῷ ("to himself"), not aloud. Barring inspiration from the Holy Spirit, there is no way Luke could know this unless, as per Bauckham above, it came from Simon himself. It could be a historiographic embellishment,32 but this is dubious given the dependence of the rest of the passage upon the content of this judgement. If Luke invented this content, the veracity of the entire pericope is in doubt.

Suddenly ὁ Ἰησοῦς ("Jesus") becomes the grammatical and situational subject (40).33 Responding34 to the Pharisee’s thought alone, Jesus singles him out from all the others at the table. He addresses him directly as Σίμων ("Simon"), and with the singular pronoun σοί.35 No patronymics are used either. Jesus isolates Simon as an individual, calling him out of his extended and immediate Pharisaic families. From now on, he is no longer a Pharisee, and is always identified as Simon (43, 44).

There is more of a sense of startled confusion in Simon’s reply than there is “tension,” as Bock would have it.36 The collision of the respectful vocative διδάσκαλε ("teacher")37 with the mildly impertinent imperative εἰπέ ("speak") is the result of Simon’s shock at being addressed by the one he was just thinking ill of. The title “teacher” is apt, however; Simon is about to be schooled.

The short parable is exclusive to Luke, indicating its source to be other than Q (41-42a). Marshall believes its origins to be Aramaic and its theme popular to rabbinic parables of the day.38 As noted in our Word Study above, the Greek wording is curiously reminiscent of the distinctly LXX reading of Proverbs 29:13, the words of which are more thematically applicable here than those of the Hebrew text: “When the creditor and debtor meet together, the Lord oversees them both.”39 This wording choice is consistent with a NT writer relating a story originally told in Aramaic.

Although the counter-intuitive moment in the parable comes when the creditor forgives both debtors, Simon is to identify with the lesser debtor, so Jesus queries him on both debtors’ responses (42b-43). Marshall explains that here ἀγαπάω ("to love") means “to express gratitude,”40 there being “no specific verb ‘to thank’ in Hebrew [or] Aramaic.”41 Note that it is not “the Pharisee,” but Simon, who has “judged rightly;” the Lord is opening his eyes.

Jesus now incorporates the woman into the lesson τῷ Σίμωνι ("to/for Simon"). By analogy, he equates the different reactions to the creditor by the forgiven parabolic debtors to the difference in courtesy he was shown by the woman and Simon (44-47). Simon is overwhelmed by the exposing of his unforgivable discourtesy to his guest(s) and the supernatural revelation of his lack of gratitude to God.

Jesus completes the analogy for Simon by assuming the role of the creditor, thereby unambiguously claiming the godly prerogative to forgive sins and receive the gratitude of those forgiven (48).

Simon is not included with οἱ συνανακείμενοι ("those reclining [at the table] with [him]") (49), who are protesting outside the action like a chorus in an ancient Greek theatre. Luke cleverly implies Simon’s enlightenment by contrasting it with the incredulity of his guests.

Luke returns to the lesson with the ultimate application of the parabolic analogy. Again by implication, the same faith that saved the greater debtor has saved the lesser debtor, too (50). A silent, newly enlightened Simon can also go in peace.


Luke’s anointing pericope is a marvellous lesson on the great and counter-intuitive mercy of a God who chooses to forgive and save debtors whether they appear to be living decent, well-ordered religious lives or whether they appear to be living indecent, disordered, irreligious lives. The woman is like the prodigal son and Simon his brother, both getting the same inheritance (15:11-32); she is one of the late workers in the vineyard and Simon one of the earliest, both getting the same wage (Matt 20:1-16). This passage underscores our inability to earn salvation. That comes only by grace through faith which “is the gift of God, not the result of works” (Eph 2:8). It is also Luke’s strong reminder that all who recognise Christ are all children of God, regardless of outward appearance. And all are to see one another as God sees them; as family.

Reflection and Application

To the modern Pharisees in the Church today, the self-important, ecclesiastical heresy-hunters, Luke’s account of Simon’s conversion story comes as a strong rebuke. How another genuine servant chooses to express their gratitude to, and their worship of, Christ is between Christ and that servant alone (Rom 14:4). Simon’s story is a call to humility and self-awareness, to see, and then remove, the log from their eyes, before judging the speck in another’s (6:42). It is a call to community, to understand that all were equally debtors unable to pay, even if unequally indebted; all equally forgiven by the same merciful creditor, even if unequally forgivable. It is, ultimately, a call to remember that all believers are one in Jesus the Messiah.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all English text is taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).

2. Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 120.

3. CNTTS Apparatus, BibleWorks (BibleWorks, 2013).

4. Emphasis mine.

5. Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 120.

6. The earliest of which is Codex Regius (L), an “8th c…reinked Gospel ms.” CNTTS App.

7. Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 120.

8. Ibid.

9. Emphasis mine.

10. William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1088.

11. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 581.

12. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 78.

13. Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 580-581.

14. נָשָׁא, HALOT, BibleWorks (BibleWorks, 2013), definition 2.

15. Emphasis mine. Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1980), 817.

16. “Most important, perhaps, is the fact that the NT authors use the Septuagint form of the OT more than they do that of any other version.” S. E. Porter, “Septuagint/Greek Old Testament,” ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1104.

17. Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Volume 1: 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 691.

18. These are τις τῶν Φαρισαίων (“one of the Pharisees”) and εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ Φαρισαίου (“into the house of the Pharisee”) in v. 36, ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Φαρισαίου (“inside the house of the Pharisee”) in v. 37, and ὁ Φαρισαῖος (“the Pharisee”) in v. 39. Unless otherwise noted, all Greek text is from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

19. S. Westerholm, “Pharisees,” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 611.

20. S. Mason, “Pharisees,” ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 786.

21. Ibid., 783.

22. S. Mason, “Pharisees,” 785.

23. John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, World Biblical Commentary, Vol. 35A (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), 353.

24. David Arthur deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 298.

25. Ibid.

26. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Kindle edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 39. And below, he adds rhetorically "Since people who encounter Jesus on one occasion are usually not named, why should the Pharisee who entertains Jesus to dinner in Luke 7 be named (Simon, 7:40)?", 40.

27. “As Drexler rightly notes…it is Jesus’ initiation of an exchange with the Pharisee that necessitates the introduction here of the name.” Nolland, Luke, 355.

28. “Bearing gifts she proceeded…to that place…[and the] gifts are an expression of devotion in a sacrament of thanksgiving.” Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 7.

29. The NRSV inserts “Jesus” here to avoid the ambiguity arising from the lack of an English dative masculine pronoun.

30. Literally, “And, behold, a woman…!”

31. “The sentence expresses an unreal condition in present time, i.e. both clauses are regarded as untrue.” I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, TNIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 309.

32. Speaking of the speeches in Acts: “[Luke] would have had to rely on reports of other informants for the proceedings of many of the speeches and trials, and would have been perfectly free to invent something appropriate where actual memory was inaccessible.” Emphasis mine. deSilva, An Introduction, 352.

33. In the first use of the proper name since verse 9.

34. Although the pleonastic construction ἀποκριθεὶς + εἶπεν (“answering + he said”) is used, Jesus’ parable and application give cause to regret the NRSV only translating the controlling verb.

35. (“[To] you”).

36. Bock, Luke, 698.

37. (“Teacher”). “[A] word which is equivalent to ‘rabbi’, and which expresses very considerable politeness on the part of the Pharisee.” Marshall, The Gospel, 310.

38. Marshall, Luke, 310-311.

39. Emphasis mine. Brenton, The Septuagint, 817.

40 Marshall, Luke, 311.

41. Ibid.

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