24. When the messengers of John had departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
The Lord now starts to teach the multitudes about John. He asks them what exactly it was they went out to see? This reference to a reed is obscure and difficult. Some suggest that this was a reference to John’s method of baptizing with water. According to these, John would dip a reed in water and let the wind sprinkle the water over the heads of those being baptized. This is an argument of those who support water baptism today by sprinkling. We have no record of how exactly John baptized, yet this could well be the case. If so, this is the only reference we have to how John baptized. Of course, some support the idea that John immersed people in water rather than sprinkling them. We find this unlikely since the Jordan where John baptized, at least today, is hardly deep enough to immerse one’s ankles, and could not be used for immersion baptism even if one were to lie down flat upon the ground! Those who baptize by immersion in the Jordan today do so in the deepest part of the river in a much different place than that where John baptized. We might imagine that the Jordan was deeper at that time, but that is likewise mere speculation, and not very likely either. In some ways it does not matter so much how John baptized since no one can repeat his baptism in our day anyway. For a further discussion of John’s baptism, see my message on “Water Baptism and Authority.”
If it does not refer to his method of baptism, this could also be a reference to the firm character of John’s ministry. He was not easily swayed or persuaded to support the ideas, opinions, and common wisdom of his day. He did not wait to see which way the wind was blowing, and then steer his ministry in that direction. The people did not go out to him just to hear a “yes man” who would tell them just what they wanted to hear. They went to him to hear the truth of God, and that truth did not bend to the peoples’ whim or to every gust of wind.
25. “But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts.
The Lord’s question about soft garments almost seems to be spoken with some measure of sarcasm here. The word for “soft” is malakos, and can also mean effeminate. John’s clothing was wild, but it was far from effeminate. He wore the rough and course garments of a man of the wilderness. This may have been unusual for a priest to wear, but it was nothing to go out and gape at. Those who wear truly impressive clothing live in palaces, not the wilderness. John’s attire was indeed unusual and noteworthy, but nothing to cause so many people to follow him. It was not to see his clothes that caused people to go out, though many perhaps had heard of his unusual garb.
26. “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.
The next question the Lord asks is if they went out to see a prophet. And the answer is yes, they certainly did. John was a prophet, yet this does not mean that he predicted the future, which is the un-Biblical view many have of prophets today. A prophet was one who spoke the words that God gave him. He could speak of anything God gave him to speak about, whether it be past, present, or future. John certainly did this, and set forth the word of God to them. Yet he was still more than this.
27. “This is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’
John was not just a prophet, but rather was a particular prophet predicted in the Scriptures. He was the one in Malachi 3:1 that Malachi predicted would prepare the way for the Messiah. This was the work that John had done through his baptism. John was God’s baptizer, which means he could identify people with those who were submissive to God in Israel. This was with a view to preparing them to receive the Lord Jesus when He was presented to them. We will see how this preparation worked out in the response of the people to the Lord’s words in verses 29-30.
The word for “send” here is apostello, and tells us that John was sent with authority. The word “messenger” is angelos, which we often have translated “angel.” If any would still doubt the fact, this passage demonstrates for us that the word “angel” just means “messenger,” and could be used of any quite-human messenger on earth, though it could also be used of the heavenly messengers of God. In fact, Malachi’s name means “messenger,” being the Hebrew word for “angel” just as angelos is the Greek name for messenger. Both John and Malachi were messengers of God. Yet John was that special messenger whom God sent before His face to prepare His way when He came.
28. “For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
The Lord reveals a great and amazing truth here. He tells us that among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist. Since everyone who has ever lived except Adam and Eve were born of women, this is quite a statement indeed! When we consider such prophets as Moses, Elijah, and Samuel, this statement cannot but gain in significance. When we compare these men, we would tend to doubt what Christ said if we did not realize that He was God Himself, and thus made no mistake. Therefore, we must take Him at His Word. John the Baptist was a greater man than many of us have tended to realize.
Yet the Lord does not end His statement here. He goes on to make another amazing declaration. He tells us that he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptizer. This statement has bothered many. Particularly those who foolishly make the “kingdom of God” to be nothing more than a name for the “church” today are troubled by this statement. Some, like Bullinger in his Companion Bible notes on Matthew 11:11, have suggested that “he who is least” means “He who is younger,” and is actually a reference to Christ Himself, since He was six months younger than John. This interpretation is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is that Christ Himself claimed that “before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) There is no reason to confine this statement to any one person. The Lord was speaking of all who are in the kingdom of God, and telling us that the least one is greater than John, the greatest of all the prophets.
If this be the case, then what did Christ mean by this statement? First of all, we have to realize that the word “kingdom” means “government,” and the kingdom of God is nothing less than the government of God that is yet going to take control of this earth when God speaks from heaven, takes to Himself His great power, and reigns. Moreover, to be in the kingdom of God does not just mean to live during the time when that government has control over the earth. I live under the government of the United States of America, but I am no part of that government. To be in the kingdom means to have a place in the government. What Christ is telling us here is that the one who holds the very lowest of positions in God’s government will have a higher position than even the greatest of the prophets before that government came in had before God. How great an honor it is to be included as a member of God’s government! Those who hold the lowest office in that Government when it comes to earth will be considered higher than even John the Baptizer, the one called the greatest of all the prophets!
Yet we must not forget that John the Baptist too will be raised to find a place in God’s government. He served the Lord faithfully and well, and we cannot believe that his will be any low position when God’s government comes. This speaks merely of John’s position in the past. John will doubtlessly not be the lowest member of God’s government when that time finally comes.
29. And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John.
Thus we see how John’s baptism of the after-mind affected the people who received it. Those who were identified as those who had the after-mind about following God were ready and willing to accept the further words of God when Christ preached them. Thus, they justified God’s method of working through the baptism of John. God’s plans did not fail, but His work through John succeeded in producing a submissive company of people in Israel. Even the hated tax collectors, those who had given up on their own nation and were working for their enemies the Romans, heard Christ’s words because they had received John’s identification.
30. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
Now we see the truth illustrated from the opposite standpoint. Those who had not been identified by John and who had refused to commit themselves to having the after-mind, like the Pharisees and lawyers, were not prepared to accept the counsel of God spoken by the Lord Jesus. Their minds and hearts were not prepared by John, and thus they rejected all that Christ was trying to teach them. Thus John’s ministry did exactly what God said it would do, and it was indeed successful in preparing the way for Christ.
31. And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like?
The Lord goes on and speaks in regard to the reaction of some to His teaching. This verse is one that clearly demonstrates what I have taught in considering other passages that the word “generation” in Scripture, genea in Greek, means “that which is generated,” and does not necessarily refer to all the people of a certain age living upon earth at one particular time. We have specialized this word in English to mean exactly this, yet we would have to admit that this word comes from a family of words related to the infinitive, “to generate.” The same is true of the Greek word genea. They are quite parallel in meaning and usage, though we may have mostly forgotten this in English.
We have just clearly read in verses 29-30 that some heard the Lord and justified God by accepting what He said, whereas others rejected the will of God for themselves by refusing His words. It is clear that the Lord was not speaking to those in verse 29 when He said these words. These people were not like the children of the next verse, for they received the words of Christ freely. These words can only apply to those who rejected God’s council in verse 30. Yet they are called a “generation.”
There is no reason to believe that age had anything to do with those who rejected what the Lord had said. The Pharisees and lawyers of verse 30 were of no different age than the tax collectors and the people of verse 29. Yet the Lord refers to the rejecters of verse 30 only as a “generation.” They had been generated by something that set them apart from those who accepted the Lord’s words.
I believe that this generation was brought about by the writings, teachings, and traditions of those who were Pharisees and lawyers before them. These traditions generated an attitude in them that was contrary to the truth that the Lord was bringing to them, and that discouraged them from submitting to Him. This generation was unique to the religious leaders, and was not something that the common people or the tax collectors shared with them. Thus, they were a unique generation in something that had nothing to do with their age or the time when they were born. This was the generation that caused this attitude of stubborn unbelief. This was why Christ referred to them as a “generation.” His words had nothing to do with their age, which there is no reason to believe was any different than many of those who were willingly following and serving Him.
32. “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.’
These children in Christ’s example are upset because the other children refuse to play the same game that they are playing. They refuse to play that they are at a wedding because they are not happy enough, and refuse to play that they are at a funeral because they are not sad enough. It seems their friends stubbornly refuse to be content with the game no matter what it is. There is nothing that can make them satisfied.
33. “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’
This was the way John the Baptizer came. He did not eat ordinary food or drink ordinary wine, but was in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey. The generation of religious leaders had rejected him using this as an excuse, and claiming he had a demon. As we see in the story of the demon-possessed man in Luke 8:27, some demons drove those who were tormented by them to live in the wilderness away from other people. Thus these leaders had made this slanderous accusation against John.
34. “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
The Lord had eaten ordinary food and had drunk ordinary wine, and I do not believe that He overdid either one. Yet this had not satisfied the religious leaders either, for they claimed He was a glutton and a winebibber, mixing this accusation in with the fact that He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Like many who like to cast insults, they try to slip untrue claims in with true ones, supposing that those who are careless will accept the truth of both. The Pharisees tended to be ascetics themselves as another religious affectation, and so criticized the Lord for eating and drinking freely.
The point of Christ’s illustration is that, in the same way as the children in verse 32, the rulers would not accept the messengers God had sent to them. When John came they wouldn’t accept him because of his ascetic lifestyle, his fasting, and his temperance, and when Christ came they would not accept Him because of His eating and drinking and living an ordinary life. Moreover they accompanied both rejections with insults, claiming that John had a demon and that Christ was an overweight drunk! They would not be happy no matter what kind of messenger God sent them. They would not be satisfied, for they were set against hearing God’s words. The rejection in their hearts was the real secret to their criticisms. Yet their justification of their refusal to hear was ridiculous, and Christ points this out to them here.
35. “But wisdom is justified by all her children.”
Christ knew that wisdom would justify both Himself and John, but those who were thus rejecting them were not wise. The mere statement of the rulers’ hypocrisy in this matter is enough to show that they were not speaking according to wisdom.
36. Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat.
It seems that not all of the Pharisees were yet so viciously opposed to Christ as many of them later became, as this one is quite willing to accept Him into his home and eat with Him. There was a real sign of connection in eating with someone, and so this Pharisee was being quite bold in connecting himself with the Lord. It does not mean he was a believer, of course, but neither was it an insignificant act.
37. 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,
The fact that this woman was called a “sinner” meant, as I have mentioned before, that she had been excommunicated from the community of Israel. There is nothing inherent in this to indicate what kind of sins she had done. Her only crime may have been angering the religious leadership in some way. Some assume this means that she was a prostitute. As I have pointed out, a woman kicked out of the community had few choices for making money beyond begging or prostitution if she was on her own. If she had a husband who was also an outcast, he could only really make money by being a tax collector. Whatever was true in this case, this woman obviously had money, so either she or her husband must have given in to one of these practices, either of which would have left them even more despised.
This fragrant oil she had was a very expensive thing, and was one of the few things a woman in Israel could do for herself to make money. This was oil of attar from which perfumes were made. A woman could gather rose petals and boil down many of them to achieve one drop of this precious oil. She could collect many batches of flowers and convert them into this oil and store it in a jar like this, and then trade this oil to a traveling merchant for money. This oil was very precious, and would bring in a considerable sum of money to the one who sold it. This was probably oil that this woman had made herself to sell.
Some have tried to make out that this woman was Mary Magdalene. This is pure tradition, and there is not a shred of evidence for it. We only know that the Lord cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene. We do not know that she was what they called a sinner. We have no idea what city this was, and no reason to think it was Magdala. We should not make Mary out to be guilty of more than we can substantiate, or we might be found to have committed libel against her.
38. And stood at His feet behind Him 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.
This woman, considered an outcast and a sinner by most in Israel, nevertheless demonstrates a great love for the Lord Jesus. She does not seem to feel herself even to be worthy to speak to the Lord, but stands behind Him weeping. She notices His dirty feet, and wants to wash them for Him as an act of kindness. Having no water or towel for washing, she washes His feet with her tears, and wipes them off with the hair of her head. She kisses His feet many times, a great sign of humility and love. Then, she anoints His feet with this precious, fragrant oil, which had either cost her many months of work or else a great deal of money. Thus she demonstrates her tender love and concern for the Lord, and her willingness to subject herself and her resources to honor Him.
39. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
This Pharisee, though he did not reject Christ outright as others did, still had his prejudices and his pride. He looked down (as any good Pharisee would) on anyone whom they had labeled a “sinner,” and the fact that the Lord had allowed this woman to do this demonstrated, in his mind, that He must not be a prophet or He never would have allowed this woman to touch Him. Certainly this proud Pharisee would never have allowed such a scandalous thing to be done to him!
40. And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
Here we learn that the name of this Pharisee who had taken the Lord into his home was Simon. The Lord well knows the Pharisee Simon’s thoughts, and catches him in the act of rejecting Him in his mind. Thus, He speaks up and tells him He has something to say to him. I love His words to Simon here, so mild, as one would rebuke a child. When I was a child, if my parents said to me, “Nathan, I have something to say to you,” I knew I was in trouble. In the same way, the Lord is not going to allow Simon to get away with his judgmental thoughts here. Simon does not know that the Lord has read his thoughts, however, and so he does not know what is coming.
This Pharisee is named Simon. Yet that does not mean that we should connect this man with Simon the leper, whose home in Bethany the Lord ate at in Mark 14:3. Simon was one of the commonest names in Israel, and so there is no reason to think that Simon the Pharisee and Simon the leper are the same. This was a much earlier event than the one in Mark 14. This woman did this honor for the Lord first. As we say, emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. If this story got around, and there is no reason to think it did not, other women would have gotten the idea to do the same thing. If you had heard of someone doing a certain thing to honor the Lord, might you not consider doing the same? There were multiple women who did this for the Lord. There is no reason to try to mash these incidents all together, and then make out that there are discrepancies.
41. “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
Though it is not called this by Scripture, there is no doubt but that this is a parable. The Lord tells this parable of a certain creditor who had two debtors, one who own five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. A denarius was basically a normal day’s wages for a laborer at that time. Five hundred denarii would be about a year-and-a-half’s wages, whereas fifty would be less than two month’s wages.
42. “And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
Neither of these two debtors has the means with which to repay the creditor. He could have thrown them both in debtors’ prison. The paltry money they made there would not have paid him back, but he could have done this to see justice served. Nevertheless, he did not choose to do this, but instead he freely forgave both. This was indeed a very generous act. The Lord then questions Simon. Which of these debtors would love the creditor more? The word the Lord used was the word agape in Greek, a self-giving, self-sacrificing love. This may have seemed an exaggeration in the case of a forgiven debt, that one who was thus forgiven would love to this extent, but the point of what Christ is saying will make His choice of this word clear.
43. Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.”
Simon still has no idea of the rebuke that is coming to him. So far, he seems to just be discussing intellectual questions with a popular teacher. The Lord’s riddle is not difficult to answer, and Simon gives the sensible and correct reply. The Lord praises him for judging rightly, though any satisfaction he might have received from being praised will soon fade in the light of the rebuke he is about to receive.
44. Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.
When a guest entered into your house, it would have been common courtesy to have a servant there to wash and wipe his feet. The fact that Simon had failed to do this was almost certainly a deliberate snub, and showed that the Lord may have been a guest, but He was not necessarily an honored one. Thus we must temper our view of Simon and his boldness in inviting the Lord to eat with him. The Pharisees were ever status seekers, and it could be that he felt it would look good to have a highly popular teacher like the Lord eat at his house. He may have had no real respect for the Lord himself, however, and so he had neglected to extend to Him the common courtesy one would usually afford to such a guest. Now the Lord points this out to him, and in the most humiliating way possible, for this woman Simon despised as a sinner had extended to Him the common courtesy that Simon had so glaringly neglected.
45. “You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in.
The oriental custom was to greet an honored guest with a kiss, much like we will shake hands in our culture. Simon had neglected to do this. Yet this woman had again showed Simon up to a great extent, not just kissing Him, but actually kissing His feet.
46. “You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.
Again, anointing the head of a guest with oil would have been a common courtesy at the time, but Simon had failed to do this for the Lord. This woman, however, had more than made up for this, for she had anointed His feet with a much more expensive oil.
47. “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
This woman, who did indeed have many sins to forgive, thus loved the Lord Jesus to such a great extent as she demonstrated here. She did love Him with a self-sacrificing love, for she sacrificed her own pride, as well as this oil that must have been a great source of her livelihood, to honor Him. Simon, however, who did not perceive that he had many sins to be forgiven of, did not take the time to offer the Lord Jesus what should have been common courtesy to one who had come in off the dusty road. Thus we see that Simon, seeing little need for forgiveness, little loved the One Who could give him forgiveness. O Lord, let us each see how great is the need for forgiveness that each one of us has, so that we are not hard in our hearts like this Pharisee was!
This rebuke must have been very stinging for Simon. He had gone from being the honored host to being shown up in a spectacular way by a woman who was a renowned sinner. Yet this rebuke was well deserved, considering the pride in this man’s heart before the Lord Jesus. He has a way of humbling the proud in the midst of their pride.
48. Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The Lord had pointed out to Simon this woman’s loving works. Yet, as the Companion Bible notes, to the woman herself, He points out only His grace. It was not her works that bought this forgiveness for her. This act of love on the woman’s part and the faith she demonstrated toward God in her acceptance of the Lord Jesus resulted in the forgiveness of her sins, which were indeed many, as the Lord affirmed. God saw her faith, and it pleased Him, and He credited it to her for righteousness (see Romans 4.) Thus it ever is when we are forgiven.
49. And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
There were probably many Pharisees and religious leaders with Simon at this meal. These hear the words of the Lord and begin to wonder at them. The Lord had not preached Himself, and so they did not know yet Who He was. Thus, they questioned who it was who could even forgive sins? For certainly we know that no one really has the right to forgive sins but God. Yet these men were proud, and they do not seem to have been willing to question the Lord about this. They did not have the kind of faith that this woman had.
50. Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
The Lord emphasizes this so that they would know that it was not the act of anointing His feet that had procured salvation for this woman, but rather the faith that was behind it. Thus we must never mix up the actions of faith with the faith itself that generates them. The actions can be counterfeited, but the faith can never be faked. Thus, through her faith, this woman achieves peace with God. May we all stand before God with the same kind of faith that this sinner had at the feet of Christ!