As Jesus was reclining at a meal in the house of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman ‘took a position behind Jesus at his feet.’ She wet his feet with her tears and wiped them off with the hair of her head. She then tenderly kissed his feet and greased them with perfumed oil. The woman “was known in the city to be a sinner,” says the Gospel account. Of course, every imperfect human is a sinner, but the Scriptures usually use this term to describe a person whose sins are notorious or who has a reputation for sinning. Likely, the woman was a prostitute. It was to such a person that Jesus said: “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-38, 48) What did Jesus mean by that? Since the ransom sacrifice had not yet been offered, how was this forgiveness possible?
After the woman had washed and anointed Jesus’ feet but prior to his forgiving her, Jesus used an illustration to explain an important point to his host, Simon. Likening sin to a debt too big to be repaid, Jesus said to Simon: “Two men were debtors to a certain lender; the one was in debt for five hundred denarii, but the other for fifty. When they did not have anything with which to pay back, he freely forgave them both. Therefore, which of them will love him the more?” In answer Simon said: “I suppose it is the one to whom he freely forgave the more.” Jesus replied: “You judged correctly.” (Luke 7:41-43) All of us owe God obedience, so when we disobey him and sin, we fail to pay God what is due him. Thus we accumulate debt. Jehovah, though, is like a lender who is willing to forgive debts. That is why Jesus encouraged his followers to pray to God and ask: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12) Luke 11:4 identifies these debts as sins.
On what conditions had God forgiven sins in the past? His perfect justice requires the penalty of death for sin. Thus, Adam paid for his sin with his life. Under the Law that God gave to the nation of Israel, however, a transgressor could have his sins forgiven by sacrificing an animal to Jehovah. The apostle Paul noted: “Nearly all things are cleansed with blood according to the Law, and unless blood is poured out no forgiveness takes place.” (Heb. 9:22) The Jews knew of no other way by which forgiveness could be obtained from God. It is not surprising, therefore, that onlookers in Jesus’ day objected to what he said to the woman. Those reclining at the table with Jesus said within themselves: “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49) On what basis, then, could the transgressions of the sin-laden woman be forgiven?
The very first prophecy uttered after the original human couple rebelled spoke of Jehovah’s purpose to raise up a “seed” who would be bruised in the heel by Satan and his “seed.” (Gen. 3:15) This bruising occurred when Jesus was put to death by God’s enemies. (Gal. 3:13, 16) Christ’s shed blood serves as the ransom that frees mankind from sin and death. Since nothing can prevent Jehovah from accomplishing what he has purposed to do, as soon as the words recorded at Genesis 3:15 were spoken, the ransom was as good as paid from God’s viewpoint. He could now forgive those who exercised faith in his promises.
During pre-Christian times, Jehovah counted a number of individuals as righteous. Among them were Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, and Job. In faith, they looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises. “Abraham put faith in Jehovah,” wrote the disciple James, “and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Concerning Rahab, James said: “In the same manner was not also Rahab the harlot declared righteous by works?”—Jas. 2:21-25.
King David of ancient Israel committed several serious sins, but he had strong faith in the true God and manifested genuine repentance each time. Furthermore, the Scriptures state: “God set [Jesus] forth as an offering for propitiation through faith in his blood. This was in order to exhibit his own righteousness, because he was forgiving the sins that occurred in the past while God was exercising forbearance; so as to exhibit his own righteousness in this present season, that he might be righteous even when declaring righteous the man that has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:25, 26) Based on the ransom sacrifice of Jesus that was to be provided in the future, Jehovah could pardon David’s transgressions without compromising His own requirements for justice.
Evidently, the situation of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet was similar. She had lived an immoral life, but she had repented. She recognized her need for redemption from sin and showed by her actions that she truly appreciated the person through whom Jehovah provided that redemption. Though still future, that sacrifice was so certain that its value could already be applied to individuals like her. Hence, Jesus told her: “Your sins are forgiven.”
As this account clearly shows, Jesus did not shun sinners. He did good to them. Moreover, Jehovah is willing to forgive repentant sinners. What a wonderful and heartwarming assurance that is for us imperfect humans!