The Bible

 

Luke 7:1-10 : Faith of the Roman Centurion

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1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.

2 And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.

3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.

4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:

5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.

6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:

7 Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.

8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

Commentary

 

Exploring the Meaning of Luke 7

     

By Rev. Dr. Ray Silverman

This painting by Sebastiano Ricci, the scene from Luke 7 is shown, in which a centurion asks the Lord to heal his servant.

Exploring the Meaning of Luke 7

Healing the Centurion’s Servant

1. And since He had completed all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered into Capernaum.

2. And a certain servant of a centurion, who was dear to him, having an illness, was about to die.

3. But having heard of Jesus, he sent to Him the elders of the Jews, beseeching Him to come and save his servant.

4. And coming to Jesus, they implored Him earnestly, saying that he was worthy for whom He should do this,

5. For he loves our nation, and he built us a synagogue.

6. And then Jesus went with them. And [when] He was already not far away from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, trouble not Thyself, for I am not worthy that Thou shouldest enter under my roof.

7. Therefore neither held I myself worthy to come to Thee; but say in a word, and my boy shall be healed.

8. For I also am a man set in order under authority, having soldiers under myself, and I say to this one, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come, and he comes; and to my servant, Do this, and he does [it].”

9. And Jesus, when He heard these things, marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, He said, “I say to you, I have not found such faith in Israel.”

10. And they that were sent, returning into the house, found the sick servant well.


Among the many lessons that Jesus taught when He delivered the Sermon in the Plain was the necessity of first removing the plank from our own eye so that we might understand ourselves before endeavoring to understand others. In this regard, Jesus was teaching about the importance of examining ourselves in order to discover the evils that we need to shun—the “log” in our own eye. This kind of self-examination leads to genuine humility. It is the sobering awareness that without the Lord, we would be unable to rise above our lower nature. While we might go around imagining ourselves to be better than others, worthy of their admiration and respect, self-examination helps us to realize the truth. And the truth is that without the Lord we are lowly slaves of our selfish nature, desiring that others serve us rather than desiring to serve others. 1

This central teaching about humility is illustrated in the next episode. When a military commander from the Roman army discovers that his beloved servant is sick and about to die, he sends Jewish elders to Jesus. Apparently, the commander has heard about Jesus and believes that Jesus has the power to heal. So, the elders are sent to Jesus with whom they are to plead, begging Him to “come and heal” the commander’s servant (Luke 7:1-3).

The Roman commander is called a “centurion” which means that he is the commander of one hundred men. Ordinarily, a person with that much power might regard himself as worthy of great respect, a man to be admired and obeyed, a man who sees himself as above others, especially the one hundred soldiers who are subject to his orders. This commander, however, is quite different. Though he is a military commander in the Roman army, he still cares for his servant who is “dear to him.” He is also considerate of the Jewish people. As the elders who are sent to Jesus put it, “He loves our nation and has built us a synagogue…. He is a worthy man” (Luke 7:4-5).

The centurion, however, sees himself quite differently. After Jesus agrees to go to the home of the centurion to heal the dying servant, the centurion sends another delegation to Jesus. This second delegation is told to go out and meet Jesus along the way and ask Him not to enter the centurion’s home. They are to tell Jesus that the centurion has said, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (Luke 7:6).

The contrast between how others see the centurion and how he sees himself is striking. While others regard him as “worthy,” the centurion does not think he is worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. In fact, the centurion does not think he is worthy enough to meet Jesus and stand in Jesus’ presence. As the centurion puts it, “I do not even consider myself worthy to come to You” (Luke 7:7). As a solution, and as a testimony to his great faith in the healing power of Jesus’ words, the centurion has his messengers say to Jesus, “Just say the word and my servant shall be healed” (Luke 7:7). When Jesus hears this, He turns to the crowd that has been following Him and says to them, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel” (Luke 7:9).

At the most literal level, the story about the healing of the centurion’s servant illustrates that everyone—whether Jew or gentile, Greek or Roman—has the capacity to be touched by the Divine. There are no “chosen” people. Everyone, everywhere, regardless of one’s religious upbringing or cultural background, has the ability to respond to the Divine love and wisdom that Jesus offers. The only requirement is humility. This is what Jesus means by the “great faith” of the humble centurion. It is the kind of faith that Jesus had longed to see but had not found among those who considered themselves “chosen.” 2

As a soldier in the Roman army, the centurion knows what it means to be under authority. “I have commanders over me,” says the centurion, “and I must do what they command. Similarly, I have soldiers under me who must do what I command. If I tell them to go, they go. If I tell them to come, they come. And, if I tell them to do something, they do it” (Luke 7:8).

On the physical battlefront, the centurion is a commander. He gives orders, and the soldiers under his command must obey. But if we look more deeply, and consider the spiritual battlefront, God is our commander-in-chief. He has a perfect vision of the hellish influences that threaten our spiritual life, and a perfect understanding of the enemy’s tactics. Through the commandments of His Word, He has gives us instructions about how to deal with hidden spiritual enemies. In the light of Divine wisdom, we see the nature of our hereditary evils; and through the power of the Lord’s Word, if we choose to use it, we can disperse and scatter the evil desires and false thoughts that arise in our minds. The only thing necessary is to “say the Word”—that is, to believe that the Word of the Lord has great power, even over evil spirits. Like good soldiers, our job is to follow the orders of our Commander. When God says, “Go into battle,” we go. When God says, “Come unto Me,” we come. And when God says, “Keep my commandments,” we do just that. This is the kind of obedience that is necessary if we are to prevail on the spiritual battlefront. 3

As this episode closes, we read that when they returned to the centurion’s house, they found that the servant who had been sick and near death had been made entirely well (Luke 7:10). In the Word, a “servant” represents the way that truth serves goodness in bringing about some form of useful service. Because goodness is always the end in view, truth serves to help us reach that end. For example, parents who want to raise good children (the end in view) need to learn essential truths about parenting. A person who wants to be a physical healer (the end in view) needs to learn important truths about how the body works. A landscaper who wants to help people have beautiful lawns and gardens (the end in view) needs to learn the truths about horticulture. In every one of these examples, truth is the “servant” of goodness. 4

In the spiritual sense, then, the story of the centurion’s servant contains a hidden message about those times in our lives when the truth that we possess is “sick” and “near death.” These are those times when evil desires seem to have the upper hand over our nobler aspirations, and false thoughts seem to be overshadowing our higher perceptions. When selfish cravings and false ideas attack our spiritual lives, we are, so-to-speak, spiritually sick and in a state which can be called near to spiritual death. 5

At such times, our only recourse is to realize that there is hope for healing as we, like the centurion, turn to the Lord. When our faith waivers, and when the truth we possess is clouded with doubt, it’s time to rely on our Heavenly Commander. As it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures, “If you keep the commandments and the statutes and the judgements which I am commanding you today …. the Lord your God will take away all sickness from you, and keep you free from every evil disease” (Deuteronomy 7:11, 15). Also, “If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you … for I am the Lord who heals you (Exodus 15:26).

Bringing the Dead to Life

11. And it came to pass on the next [day] that He went into a city called Nain; and a considerable [number] of His disciples went with Him, and a crowd of many.

12. And when He was near the gate of the city, behold, a dead [man] was being carried out, the only begotten son of his mother; and she was a widow; and a considerable crowd of the city was with her.

13. And the Lord seeing her was moved with compassion for her; and He said to her, Weep not.

14. And coming forward He touched the coffin, and they that bore [him] stood [still]; and He said, Young man, I say to thee, Arise.

15. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak; and He gave him to his mother.

16. But fear took [them] all, and they glorified God, saying that a great Prophet has risen up among us, and that God has visited His people.

17. And this word went out into the whole of Judea concerning Him, and into all the countryside.


The centurion’s servant was sick, and was made well. In fact, he was so sick that he was “near death.” This was indeed a great miracle, especially considering the fact that the healing was done at a distance and only required that Jesus “speak a word.” In the episode which now follows an even greater miracle takes place. A young man, who has already died, is brought back to life. As it is written, “And when He came near the gate of the city, behold a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a considerable crowd from the city was with her. And the Lord, seeing her, was moved with compassion for her, and said to her, ‘Weep not’” (Luke 7:13). 6

The progression from healing a deadly illness to raising someone from the dead is significant. Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus continues to reveal the divinity that is within Him—not all at once, but gradually. Similarly, as Jesus gradually opens our understanding, we begin to comprehend the wonders of spiritual reality. Like the servant of the centurion in the previous episode, our understanding of spiritual truth, which was sick and near death, is restored to full health. In this episode, however, the healing is deeper. It is not about the healing of a spiritual illness, but rather resurrection from spiritual death. It is about those times when we are so buried in evil desires and drowning in false thoughts that we can be called “spiritually dead.”

In this particular episode, Jesus is dealing with a woman who has not only lost her husband, but has now lost her son. In the Word, a widow represents a spiritual state that we all experience from time to time. It is a state of goodness without truth to defend, support, and guide it. In this case, the loss of a husband and now a son pictures those times when the truth has apparently left us. We are spiritual “widows.” Although we long to do good, we don’t know how. Even worse, as we make a renewed effort to raise up a resemblance of the truth we once knew, that truth seems to die on us as well. This is contained in the scriptural words, “the only son of the mother was being carried out and she was a widow” When we are in this state of “spiritual widowhood,” Jesus comes to us to restore the truth which had seemed to die. He comes as the spiritual bridegroom and husband of all who are willing to receive Him, saying, “Weep not.” (Luke 7:13).

And then, without skipping a beat, Jesus touches the coffin and says to the young man, “Arise” (Luke 7:14). Not only does the young man arise from death, but he also sits up and begins to speak. (Luke 7:15). When the people see this great miracle, they cry out, glorifying God, and proclaiming that “God has visited His people” (Luke 7:16). This is an echo of the prophecy of Zacharias in the first chapter when he said, “The Dayspring from on high has visited us to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death: (Luke 1:78-79).

In bringing the widow’s son back to life Jesus is demonstrating that He can resurrect us from those times when we no longer seem to have any truth in our lives. Like the widow who first lost her husband, and now her only son, there are times when we can feel spiritually lost and alone without any truth to guide us. It is not that the truth we have is clouded, as in the previous episode concerning the centurion’s servant who was near death. In this case, it feels dead, gone, departed from us, never to come back. But that is just an appearance. In spiritual reality, God’s truth is always near, and when we sense the touch of His truth, new life begins to arise in us. We experience a renewed ability to respond to the voice of the Lord as He speaks to us from His Word, saying “Arise.”

Like the young boy, we can sit up and begin to speak. It was not only the young boy who began to speak, but also the crowds who gathered to witness this great miracle. As it is written in the concluding words of this episode, “And the report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region” (Luke 7:17)

Are You the Coming One?

18. And his disciples reported to John all these things.

19. And John, calling a certain two of his disciples, sent [them] to Jesus, saying, Art Thou He that should come, or should we expect another?

20. And when the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to Thee, saying, ‘Art Thou He that should come, or should we expect another?’”

21. And in that same hour He cured many of diseases and scourges and evil spirits, and to many [‘that were] blind He graciously gave [them] to see.

22. And Jesus answering said to them, “Go report to John what things you have seen and heard: that the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor are brought good tidings;

23. And happy is he who shall not be caused to stumble in Me.”


The resurrection of the young boy culminates in his sitting up and speaking. Although we do not know what he said, the mere fact that he was able to speak at all testified to the new life now flowing through him—life that had been transmitted to him through the powerful words of Jesus when He said, “Young man, I say to you, ‘Arise.’” The people who witnessed the miracle were understandably amazed and reported it far and wide along with other stories about the wonders that Jesus was performing. Among the witnesses were the disciples of John the Baptist. As it is written, “Then the disciples of John reported to him all these things” (Luke 7:18).

The word is out about Jesus’ miracles. After all, Jesus has just healed the centurion’s servant from a distance and raised a widow’s son from death. Jesus’ words and actions seem to indicate that He is, indeed, the promised Messiah. But He doesn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah that was expected. He works on the Sabbath; He eats with sinners and tax collectors, and in the previous episode, He did what was forbidden—He touched the coffin of a dead person. This is not the kind of royal behavior that was expected of the coming Messiah. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the coming Messiah was expected to be a great king who would lead His people to victory over their physical enemies. As it is written, “I will make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Psalm 110:1); “The Lord who rules over all will be like a shield to His people. They will destroy their enemies” (Zechariah 9:8; 15).

These were the expectations that many people had. They were looking for a physical king, an “anointed one,” who would bring about a military, political, and economic revolution that would set the children of Israel free from foreign domination. Jesus, however, appeared to be doing something quite different. There has been a lot of preaching and healing, but so far nothing has been said about destroying enemies, setting prisoners free, and setting up a new kingdom. In fact, John the Baptist, is still languishing in prison. Therefore, John sends His disciples back to Jesus with a legitimate question: “Are You the Coming One,” asks John, “or do we look for another?” (Luke 7:18).

It’s a good question. But when the disciples of John come to Jesus with the question, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus does not give a direct response. Instead, He continues His work, letting His actions speak for themselves. As it is written, “And that very hour He cured many people of their infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many who were blind he gave sight” (Luke 7:21). Jesus then turns to John’s disciples and says to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard; that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

Jesus then concludes His message to John’s disciples with this final thought, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Luke 7:23). While this is not a direct response to John’s question, it is filled with meaning. Jesus is telling them, indirectly, that He is the Coming One, and there is no need to look for another. While He is not ushering in a new physical kingdom, He is indeed inaugurating a new spiritual kingdom. It will be a kingdom in which the spiritually blind will see the wonders that God is working in their inner lives; the spiritually lame will be able to walk in the path of the commandments; the spiritually deaf will have their ears opened so that they might hear the voice of God; the spiritually sick shall recover and the spiritually dead shall be resurrected to new life. In that new kingdom, all those who have hungered and thirsted for the truth—shall have the gospel preached to them. These are the various categories of human beings who will be blessed by Jesus’ coming into their lives. 7

On the other hand, those who refuse to believe will be offended. Like the scribes and Pharisees who ignored the wonders that Jesus was working in their very midst, we can refuse to believe that seen and unseen wonders are occurring at every moment. This, however, does not need to be the case. Instead of taking offense, we can believe. We can rest in the assurance that God is with us working wonders, and our job is to keep the commandments. The more we do this, the more will we experience the inner blessedness of true peace. As it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures, “Great peace have they who love Thy law, and nothing shall offend them” (Psalm 119:165).

The Role of John the Baptist

24. And when the messengers of John had gone away, He [Jesus] began to say to the crowds concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to observe? A reed shaken by the wind?

25. But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold, they being in glorious vesture and [in] luxury are in kings’ [palaces].

26. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.

27. This is [he] about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my angel before Thy face, who shall make ready Thy way in front of Thee.’

28. For I say to you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”


As John’s disciples leave, carrying Jesus’ message with them, the question now is no longer about whether or not Jesus is the Coming One. Instead, Jesus turns the question around and asks the crowd about John the Baptist. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” asks Jesus. “A reed shaken by the wind?” (Luke 7:24). In other words, did they expect that John would be undecided about his beliefs, subject to change his mind, like a hollow reed shaken by the wind?

Jesus is here describing beliefs that are “hollow” because they are based on a merely external, literal understanding of the Word. Such beliefs, based only on the literal words of sacred scripture without a deeper meaning, are like hollow reeds that can be blown in any direction by changing winds. Similarly, the letter of the Word without the internal sense can be interpreted in whatever way the breezes of popular opinion are blowing. In brief, the letter of the Word, without a corresponding internal sense is hollow, empty, and dead. It is like a body without a soul. 8

On the other hand, the literal sense of the Word, when consistent with the internal meaning that it contains, is Divine. All of the fullness of the internal sense is contained withing the literal sense. In fact, when the literal sense is read in the light of the internal sense, heaven and earth, God and human beings, are reconnected. In moments like this, the rough and dull outward appearance of the letter begins to shine with the soft, inner beauty that it contains. 9

This idea, that the Word contains an inner meaning which is soft and shining, is the subject of Jesus’ second question in this series. “But what did you go out to see?” asks Jesus again. “A man clothed with soft garments?” Indeed, those who are in shining garments and live in luxury are in kings’ courts” (Luke 7:25). This is a reference to the beauty of the inner meaning of the Word. Unlike the external meaning, which appears to be coarse and dull, like camel’s hair and a leather belt, the inner meaning is smooth and glistening. It is like a seamless silk garment lit up by the sun. Truth alone—the literal sense of the Word—can be hard and gloomy. But when it is filled with the goodness of the internal sense, the harsh tones of the letter are softened, and the inner meaning of the words shine forth with great beauty. 10

Jesus then repeats the question a third time: “But what did you go out to see? A prophet?” (Luke 7:26). This time Jesus answers His own question: “Yes, I say to you and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You’” (Luke 7:27). Jesus is here quoting from the Hebrew prophet Malachi. He is declaring that John the Baptist is indeed the prophet who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. Because of this, John’s role was more significant than the role of any other prophet. No other prophet was greater than John: “For I say to you among those born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28). But Jesus then adds this caveat: “But He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Luke 7:28).

The key to understanding this statement is found in the distinction between the literal sense of the Word and the spiritual sense of the Word. The literal sense is written in human language and is heavily clothed with the fallacies of human thought and culture. But the spiritual sense is from God. While it can be glimpsed in part, like the brilliance of the sun, its wisdom is far beyond our limited understanding. 11

Therefore, it can be said that those who gain even a tiny glimpse of the spiritual sense surpass in wisdom those who go no further than a literal understanding of the Word. As Jesus says, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist].” In other words, the letter of the Word, when separated from its inner meaning, will always have its limitations. It will be like a hollow reed, subject to the shifting winds of human interpretation. But the internal sense of the Word is born of God. However, limited our understanding of it might be, it is always greater than the literal sense alone.

The Men of This Generation

29. And all the people that heard [Him], and the publicans, justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John.

30. But the Pharisees and the lawyers spurned the counsel of God in respect to themselves, not having been baptized by him.

31. And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation? And what are they like?

32. They are like little children sitting in the market, and summoning one another, and saying, We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have lamented to you, and you have not wept.

33. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, He has a demon.

34. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, Behold a man, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!

35. And wisdom is justified by all her children.”


John’s disciples had come to Jesus with a direct question: “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus turned the question around and asked the crowd about their expectations. “What did you go out in the wilderness to see?” He asked them. He repeated the question three times. Finally, He made it clear that John was indeed the prophet foretold by the Hebrew prophets, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

While Jesus is clear about John’s role, Jesus is less clear about whether or not He (Jesus) is the expected Messiah. That’s because recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (or Coming One) is an internal matter, something one can see only with spiritual eyes. We cannot rely on anyone else to make this decision for us. We must learn to see with “new eyes.” This begins with a sincere study of the literal sense of the Word, and this is what Jesus means when He says that we must be “baptized with the baptism of John” (Luke 7:29).

Without that initial baptism—the sincere desire to understand the letter of the Word, and an openness to be instructed in new truth—we become like “the Pharisees and lawyers who spurned the counsel of God” (Luke 7:30). This is a crucial point. If we go to the Word seeking only those teachings that justify our established positions and defend our preconceived ideas, we will make no spiritual progress. We will only reinforce those prejudices and preconceptions that have kept our minds in states of spiritual darkness. This is especially the case when we use the Word to defend our false beliefs and support our self-serving nature. Whenever this is the case, we are “spurning the counsel of God.” That is, we are unwilling to appreciate the deeper truths and new awareness that Jesus wants to bring into our lives through truly understanding the Word of God.

As long as we remain ignorant of these truths, we remain trapped in the cultural prejudices and biased attitudes of the day, unable to rise above inherited mindsets. As Jesus puts it, “To what shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not weep’” (Luke 7:32).

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets spoke about the coming of the Messiah, and they did so in different ways. Sometimes, they spoke about the joy that would be found when the Messiah makes His coming. For example, the prophet Isaiah says, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain gladness, and joy while sorrow and sadness shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). And in the psalms, it is written, “Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with timbrel and harp” (Psalm 149:3). On the other hand, not all prophecies focused on joy. Some warned of great tribulation and suffering. For example, in Lamentations it is written, “Joy has left our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning … weep for us for we have sinned” (Lamentations 5:15-16).

The words of the prophets contained infinite levels of truth, but “the men of this generation,” as Jesus called them, refused to listen. They refused to hear the prophecies about the joy that would prevail when the Messiah came into the world to subjugate the hells, restore order, and establish a proper understanding of religion. Or, as it is written in sacred scripture, “He played the flute for them, but they did not dance.”

Similarly, “the men of this generation” refused to hear the prophecies about the destruction that people would bring upon themselves when they turned away from repentance, rejecting the idea that they must cease to do evil. Or, as it is written in sacred scripture, “He mourned to them, but they did not weep.”

The prophets had spoken; John the Baptist had preached the gospel of repentance. But like disobedient children, the “men of this generation” refused to listen. Instead, they focused on the external behavior of John the Baptist, disregarding His message about the necessity of self-examination. The only thing they saw was that “he came neither eating bread or drinking wine” and concluded that “he had a demon” (Luke 7:33). Similarly, they disregarded the miracles and messages of Jesus, noting only that He seemed to be “a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Once again, they refused to listen.

Going deeper

It is important to remember that John the Baptist represents the external sense of the Word, the firm, unyielding literal truths that show us who we are, and how we must repent. “These are too severe, too hard,” we sometimes say. “We are not interested in discovering, acknowledging, and refraining from hidden evils.” In all these ways, we refuse to allow our old ways to die. In other words, we refuse to mourn.

On the other hand, Jesus represents the inner meaning of the Word—the tender, inviting teachings about forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. “These are too lenient, too gentle, too soft,” we sometimes say. “We need law, order and obedience. We need strict observance of religious duties.” In all these ways, we refuse to experience the liberating joy of a new life in the Lord. In other words, we refuse to dance.

But true wisdom is the beautiful union of external and internal. It is the union of external obedience to the literal teachings of the Word (John), while internally living and dwelling in their spirit (Jesus). Whenever we bring together the rock-solid truths of the literal sense of the Word with the softer affections contained in the internal sense, we give birth to noble insights and benevolent emotions. These are our spiritual offspring. They are living proof that we are growing wiser every day. As Jesus puts it at the conclusion of this episode: “But wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

To sum up the central teaching of this episode, we need both John and Jesus — the literal and spiritual sense of the Word. While we need to study and understand the literal sense (John), we also need to see within that sense the goodness, mercy, and compassion that every story contains (Jesus). The Word is not holy apart from its inner meaning. Nor is the inner meaning holy apart from the literal sense that it contains. But when there is a sacred union of the letter and the spirit, the Word shines with divinity. The marriage of goodness and truth, love and wisdom, internal and external, gives birth to faith, charity, and the heavenly desire to perform useful services. In sacred scripture, these “spiritual offspring” are the children of a new generation. 12

Simon’s Debt

36. And a certain one of the Pharisees besought Him that He would eat with him; and having entered into the house of the Pharisee, He reclined.

37. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, knowing that He sat in the Pharisee’s house, obtained an alabaster [vessel] of ointment;

38. And standing by His feet behind [Him], weeping, she began to shower His feet with tears, and wiped [them] with the hairs of her head, and kissed His feet, and anointed [them] with the ointment.

39. But [when] the Pharisee who had invited Him saw [it], he said within himself, saying, “This [Man], if He were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman [this is] who touches Him, that she is a sinner.”

40. And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to thee;” and he declares, “Teacher, say on.”

41. “A certain lender had two debtors; the one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.

42. But [they] having nothing to pay, he graciously forgave them both. Tell [Me], therefore, which of them will love him most?”

43. And Simon answering said, “I assume [he] to whom he graciously forgave most”. And He said to him, “Thou hast rightly judged.”

44. And turning to the woman, He declared to Simon, “Seest this woman? I came into thy house; thou gavest Me no water on My feet, but she has showered My feet with tears, and wiped [them] with the hairs of her head.

45. Thou gavest Me no kiss, but she, since I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet.

46. My head with oil thou didst not anoint, but she has anointed My feet with ointment.

47. Thus I say to thee, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, he loves little.’”

48. And He said to her, “Thy sins are forgiven.”

49. And they that sat with [Him] began to say in themselves, “Who is this that forgives sins also?”

50. And He said to the woman, “Thy faith has saved thee; go into peace.”


In the previous episode, the focus was on the two senses of the Word: the external sense and the internal sense. The external sense is about mountains, rivers, trees, birds, rivers, kings, soldiers, fishermen, birds, clouds, bread, wine, and everything that pertains to outer, physical reality. The internal sense is about love and wisdom, faith and charity, truth and falsity, good and evil, heaven and hell, and everything that pertains to the inner world of spiritual reality.

The truth is that we live in two worlds—an outer world of nature and an inner world of spirit. In our outer world, we are known by our words and actions. Our inner world, however, is less obvious. Mostly hidden from the view of others, it is the private world of our thoughts and feelings. In the episode which now follows, we are given a glimpse of what it means to dwell in two worlds simultaneously, an external world which can be observed by others, and an internal world of private thoughts and feelings.

The episode begins when a Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to a meal at his home (Luke 7:36). While Jesus is sitting at the table, a woman from the city comes into Simon’s home with the specific purpose of washing Jesus’ feet. As it is written, “And, behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil” (Luke 7:37-38).

Simon the Pharisee, who was carefully observing all of this, said nothing. But in his heart, he was full of judgments—about Jesus and about the woman. Referring to Jesus, he said to himself, “This man, if He were a prophet would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him” (Luke 7:39). And as regards the woman, he was thinking in his heart, “She is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

One of the leading attributes of the Pharisees was their hypocrisy. In this case, Simon, on a pretense of friendship has invited Jesus to dine with him. That was merely the outward action, a physical observable behavior that had the appearance of gracious hospitality. Inwardly however, in his inner world of thought and feeling, he was out to prove that Jesus was not a prophet, not the Messiah, and merely an ordinary man. This is why he was so quick to judge Jesus, saying within himself, “If He were a prophet, He would know what manner of woman this is.”

Simon the Pharisee, had, of course misjudged the situation. Jesus knew exactly “what manner of woman” He was dealing with. That’s because Jesus was able to look beyond the world of physical appearances; He was able to see into her inner world. He knew her heart. As it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Lord sees not as man sees. People judge by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Jesus also knew Simon’s heart. While Simon believed that his thoughts were private, Jesus could read them just as easily as if Simon were thinking out loud. Therefore, it is written, “As for this woman, he was thinking in his heart, ‘She is a sinner.” It’s one thing to be caught up in sinful activities; we are allowed to judge that. It’s called a moral judgment. We can say, “What you did was wrong, or cruel, or unfair.” But whether someone is a “sinner” or not, no one can judge. That is called a “spiritual judgment.” 13

Jesus is perfectly aware of Simon’s judgmental thoughts. Nevertheless, Jesus does not rebuke him—not yet. Instead, Jesus says, “Simon, I’d like to tell you something.” Simon replies, “Go ahead,” and Jesus tells Simon a brief story about a lender who had two debtors. One debtor owed five hundred denarii, and the other debtor owed fifty denarii. “And when they had nothing with which to repay,” says Jesus, “The lender freely forgave them both” (Luke 7:41-42). As Jesus concludes the brief story, He says to Simon, “Tell Me, therefore, which one of them will love him more?” And Simon answers, “I suppose the one whom he graciously forgave the most” (Luke 7:43).

Jesus’ response is brief but replete with meaning. He says to Simon, “You have rightly judged” (Luke 7:43).

Jesus then turns Simon’s attention back to the woman, encouraging him to take a second look. “Do you see this woman,” says Jesus to Simon. It’s as if Jesus is encouraging Simon to look again, to reconsider his assumptions, and to regard this woman in a different light. Jesus is trying to help Simon see beyond worldly appearances, to see through the eyes of compassion and understanding. In scriptural terms, Jesus is trying to open Simon’s “blind eyes.”

In order to do this, Jesus compares the way Simon treated Him to the way the woman treated Him. “I came into your house,” says Jesus to Simon, “but you gave me no water for My feet. And yet, she has showered My feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head” (Luke 7:44). Jesus is referring to the custom of washing one’s feet before entering someone’s house. Simon had failed to do this, but the woman did much more.

Continuing His comparison, Jesus says, “You gave Me no kiss, but she, since I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with ointment” (Luke 7:45-46). Jesus then sums up His comparison with these words: “Therefore, I say to you, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, he loves little’” (Luke 7:47). Finally, in a powerful concluding statement, Jesus turns away from Simon, faces the woman, and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).

Simon, it will be remembered had heavy judgments about Jesus and the woman. He doubted whether Jesus was a prophet, and he was sure that the woman was a sinner. At the conclusion of the story, when Simon recognizes that the one who had been forgiven the most would also be the one with the greatest love, Jesus does not say, “You have answered correctly.” Instead, he says, “You have judged rightly.”

In other words, this kind of judgment is righteous judgment. This is the kind of judgment that can see and understand what it means to be forgiven of a great debt. It is the proper use of the understanding. What Simon does not see, however, is that he is perhaps a greater debtor than the woman. That’s because every spiritual judgment he makes serves to increase his spiritual debt. Nor is he aware that there is anything wrong with his judgmental nature. In his outer world, he is a wealthy man. But in his inner world of thought and feeling, he has tremendous spiritual debts.

Even so, Jesus is willing to forgive all of his debts. But in order to receive the Divine forgiveness, Simon must first of all acknowledge his sins. It’s the same for each of us. In fact, the more we come into the realization of our sinful nature, the more gratitude we feel toward the Lord for what He has done for us, and what He is doing in us at every moment. To the extent that we realize how great our spiritual debts are—much more than fifty or even five hundred denarii—the more love and appreciation we will feel towards God who is willing to forgive every debt, subdue every evil, and fill us with new life. As it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures, “How shall I repay the Lord for all His benefits towards me?” (Psalm 116:8-9; 12).

All of this takes place while Jesus is sitting at the table with several others. While we no longer hear from Simon, the others remain judgmental. When Jesus says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven,” the onlookers say within themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49). Their unspoken judgment is reminiscent of an earlier episode when Jesus healed a paralytic and told him that his sins were forgiven. At that time, the Pharisees reasoned in their hearts, thinking to themselves, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).

The situation at Simon’s house is similar. Once again, the onlookers reason within themselves about who this might be who claims to forgive sins. After all, this is something that only God can do. Jesus, however, does not respond directly to their thoughts. Instead, He turns to the woman and says, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).

It should be noted that in the last three episodes Jesus has been steadily revealing His divinity. First, He healed the centurion’s servant who was near death; then He resurrected the widow’s son who was dead; and now, He shows that His power goes beyond the limitations of physical reality into spiritual reality. Jesus has told the woman that her faith has saved her and that her sins are forgiven. Now, as this episode comes to an end, Jesus tells her to “Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). It’s a benediction available to all who are willing to receive the blessings that come from acknowledging how great their debts are, how much those debts have been forgiven, and that their faithful willingness to follow Jesus can lead them into new life.

A practical application

In the spiritual world into which we all come after death, every thought and feeling is made plain. It is no longer possible to hide harsh judgments while pretending to be friendly. So, it’s a good idea to keep a close watch on the thoughts and feelings we entertain, refusing to embrace spiritual judgments of others, while welcoming those thoughts that see the best in others. This is good practice not only in this world, but also for the world we will enter for eternity. 14

Footnotes:

1Arcana Coelestia 1594[3-4]: “Love of self has within it hatred against all who do not subject themselves to it as slaves; and because there is hatred, there is also revenge, cruelty, deceit, and many other wicked things. But mutual love, which alone is heavenly, consists in not only saying but also acknowledging and believing, that we are utterly unworthy, vile, and filthy, and that the Lord from His infinite mercy is continually withdrawing and holding us back from hell, into which we continually strive, nay long, to precipitate ourselves. Acknowledging and believing this is not for the sake of submission, but rather because it is true, and is a protection against self-exaltation… For self-exaltation would be as if excrement should call itself pure gold, or a fly of the dunghill should say that it is a bird of paradise. Therefore, insofar as people acknowledge and believe themselves to be such as they really are, they recede from the love of self and its desires, and abhor [this aspect of] themselves. And insofar as they do this, they receive heavenly love from the Lord, that is, mutual love, which consists in the desire to serve all.”

2True Christian Religion 676: “There were many people among the children of Israel in the past … who believed that they—more than all others—are ‘the chosen people’ because they are circumcised. Likewise, there are many among Christians who believe they are ‘the chosen people’ because they have been baptized. Yet both of these rituals, circumcision and baptism, were intended only as a sign and a reminder to be purified from evils. This purification from evils is what truly makes people ‘chosen.’” See also Arcana Coelestia 8873: “Life from the Lord inflows only into a humble and submissive heart.”

3Arcana Coelestia 5164[2]: “Considered in relation to the Lord all are equally servants, no matter what rank of society they belong to. Indeed, in the Lord’s kingdom, that is, in heaven, those who are the inmost ones in that kingdom are pre-eminently servants because their obedience is the greatest of all.”

4Apocalypse Explained 316[8]: “In the Word, the phrase “my servant” does not mean a servant in the usual sense, but whatever serves. This is also said of truth [it is called “a servant”] because truth serves good for use.”

5Arcana Coelestia 8364[2]: “The reason why ‘sickness’ means evil is that in the internal sense the kinds of things that attack spiritual life are meant. The sicknesses which attack it are evils, and they are called evil desires and cravings; and the components of spiritual life are faith and charity. A person’s life is said to be ‘sick’ when falsity exists instead of the truth of faith and when evil exists instead of the good of charity, because they lead to the death of that life. This is called spiritual death and is damnation, just as sicknesses lead to the death of one’s natural life.”

6Arcana Coelestia 9198: “In the Word ‘a widow’ means those who have good that is without truth, and yet still have a desire for truth…. The reason why 'a widow’ has this meaning is that ‘a man’ signifies truth and his ‘wife’ signifies good, so that when a man’s wife has become a widow, it signifies good that is without truth. But in an even more internal sense … the Lord by virtue of His Divine Good is called ‘Husband’ and ‘Bridegroom,’ while His kingdom and church by virtue of its acceptance of Divine Truth that emanates from the Lord is called ‘wife’ and ‘bride.’”

7Arcana Coelestia 2383: “According to the sense of the letter, by the ‘blind,’ the ‘lame,’ the ‘lepers,’ the ‘deaf,’ the ‘dead,’ the ‘poor,’ only these are meant; because it was actually the case that the blind received sight, the deaf hearing, the lepers health, the dead life…. But in the internal sense this is said in reference to the Gentiles of whom it is declared that they were ‘blind,’ ‘deaf,’ ‘lame,’ and ‘dumb’ being so called in respect to doctrine and to life.” See also Arcana Coelestia 9209:4: “In this passage ‘the blind’ describes those who have no knowledge of truth, ‘the lame’ those who are governed by good, but not genuine good because they have no knowledge of truth, ‘lepers’ those who are unclean, and still have a desire to be made clean; and ‘the deaf’ those without any belief in truth because they have no perception of it.”

8Miracles 10: “When there is nothing internal to hold people in bonds, that is, when there is no internal, the external is tossed hither and thither like a reed shaken with the stormy wind.” See also See also Arcana Coelestia 9372[3]: “The literal sense of the Word is compared to a ‘reed shaken by the wind’ when it is explained according to one’s pleasure, for a ‘reed’ signifies truth in its lowest or most external level, which is what the Word is in the letter.”

9. Apocalypse Explained 619[16]: “John the Baptist represents the external aspects of the Word, which are natural. He wore raiment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins. ‘Camel’s hair’ signifies the external aspects of the natural man, such as are the exterior things of the Word, and ‘the leathern girdle about the loins,’ signifies the external bond and connection of these with the interior things of the Word, which are spiritual.”

10Arcana Coelestia 9372[4]: “The Word on the lowest level or in the letter looks to human sight to be rough and dull, but in the internal sense it is soft and shining. This is meant by the words that they did not see ‘a person clothed in soft garments. Behold, those who wear soft garments are in kings’ houses.’ The fact that such things are meant by these words is evident from the meaning of ‘garments’ or clothes as truths, as a result of which angels appear clothed in garments soft and shining, in keeping with the truths springing from good that reside with them.”

11Arcana Coelestia 9372[6]: “That in the internal sense, or such as it is in heaven, the Word is in a degree above the Word in the external sense, or such as it is in the world, and such as John the Baptist taught, is signified by, ‘He that is less in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he’ for as perceived in heaven, the Word is of wisdom so great that it surpasses human understanding.”

12White Horse 13: “In the sense of the letter of the Word there is a Divine holiness in each and all things therein, even to every single jot.” See also Arcana Coelestia 6239: “In the spiritual sense no other ‘generations’ can be meant than those which relate to regeneration…. Similarly, the terms ‘births,’ ‘child-bearings,’ and ‘conceptions’ in the Word signify the births, child-bearings, and conceptions of faith and charity.”

13Conjugial Love 523: “The Lord says, ‘Judge not, that you be not condemned.’ (Matthew 7:1) This cannot in the least mean judging of someone’s moral and civil life in the world, but judging of someone’s spiritual and heavenly life. Who does not see that if people were not allowed to judge of the moral life of those dwelling with them in the world, society would collapse? What would become of society if there were no public courts of law, and if no one was permitted to have his judgment of another? But to judge what the inner mind or soul is like within, thus what a person’s spiritual state is and so one’s fate after death—of this one is not permitted to judge, because it is known to the Lord alone.”

14Conjugial Love 523: “The interiors of the mind, which are hidden in the world, are revealed after death.” See also Arcana Coelestia 7454[3]: “Nothing whatever is hidden of that which a person in the world has thought, spoken, and done. Everything is open to view…. Therefore, believe not that the things a person thinks in secret and does in secret, are hidden, for they are as clearly shown in heaven as are those which appear in the light of noon, according to the Lord's words in Luke: ‘There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; or hidden that shall not be known.’” (Luke 12:2)

The Bible

 

Luke 7:4-5

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4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:

5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.