From 249–263, a pandemic of uncertain origins ravaged the Roman empire. At its worst, the plague killed five thousand people in Rome in a single day.
The city of Alexandria had for some time been suffering from famine and desperate citizens had resorted to violence to secure provision. The plague added an additional burden to already wearied citizens. When the plague struck, Christians and non-Christians responded very differently.
Dionysius the Great wrote of non-Christians: “At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead, and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avoid the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” In stark contrast, he wrote of Christians:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy…. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
Christians ministered to those—inside and outside the church—abandoned by their own family for fear. Astonishingly, the Christians who responded this way did so despite the way that they had long been treated. For some time, Christian worship had been strongly opposed in Alexandria, as throughout the Roman Empire. Churches had been forced to gather in secret for fear of imprisonment and even execution. Some churches were known to take to open water in boats to worship undetected. Yet, when their enemies were dying, they stepped in to help.
How do we explain such disparate responses from Christians and non-Christians? Jesus’ parable to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:41–42 gets to the heart of the matter.
The story begins with Jesus visiting Simon’s house. There, a woman widely recognised as a sinner, entered the house, broke open a cannister of expensive perfume, and washed his tear-and-perfume-stained feet with her hair. Simon took great offence that he would allow a sinful woman to touch him. He responded with a parable.
In the parable, Jesus told of a moneylender with two debtors. The first owed an insurmountable sum; the second a comparatively paltry sum. The moneylender forgave both debts. When Jesus asked which would appreciate the forgiveness more, Simon correctly assessed, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” Jesus affirmed his answer and concluded, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
The connection between forgiveness and love must not be missed. Jesus was not suggesting that she had earned forgiveness by her love. Instead, he was highlighting the reality that forgiveness produced profound love in her life. Because she understood how sinful she was, she was moved by Christ’s offer of forgiveness to great love. Simon, on the other hand, minimised his need for forgiveness and therefore saw no need to serve with love.
The Christians in Alexandria loved their enemies much because they loved God much. And they loved God much because they realised how greatly they had been forgiven. Do you? Do you realise the radical nature of forgiveness? Does it drive you to love?
If you do not experience deep love for Jesus, and therefore for those whom Jesus loves, you need to grow in your appreciation of forgiveness. The key is not to sin big so you can experience deeper forgiveness. The key is to recognise the profound evil of your gossip, greed, anger, lust, and envy and to understand how much you have been forgiven. Only then will you love much and express much love to others in need.
As you reflect on this parable today, consider the depths of your own sin and your radical need for forgiveness. Then, rejoicing in your forgiveness, allow it to move you to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbour as yourself.