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25. Anointing by a Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Ointment of the Magdalene' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 8.75 x 10.9 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
The story of Jesus' feet anointed with tears and perfume by a sinful woman is a love story, pure and simple. Not some cheap romance or soap opera love. A love much deeper and heart-felt than that, and one not infused with physical desire. But it is very much a love story.
""36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is -- that she is a sinner.' 40 Jesus answered him, 'Simon, I have something to tell you.' 'Tell me, teacher,' he said. 41 'Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?' 43 Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.' 'You have judged correctly,' Jesus said. 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.' 48 Then Jesus said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven.' 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?' 50 Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'" (Luke 7:36-50, NIV)
Differentiating from a Similar Story
The passage we are studying in Luke is similar to another story of Jesus being anointed by a woman, and is often confused and conflated with it. So if we are to understand the story of Jesus anointed by a sinful woman, we need to disentangle it from the story of Jesus' anointing at Bethany near the end of his ministry (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-11; John 12:1-10).
The two events are confused easily enough because of several similarities:
- Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume.
- He is anointed by a woman.
- The anointing takes place in the house of a man named Simon.
But the differences between the stories show that our passage in Luke 7:36-50 is really a different incident from that found in Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-11; John 12:1-10. The anointing at Bethany differs in that:
- It takes place at the home of Simon the Leper, not Simon the Pharisee.
- The woman doing the anointing at Bethany is not spoken of as sinful, but actually appears to be Mary, Lazarus' sister.
- The meaning of the anointing at Bethany is to prefigure Jesus' burial.
- The anointing is on the head (Matthew and Mark) and (perhaps) the feet (John).
- The criticism is by disciples, especially Judas, over the value of the perfume that is "wasted," rather than as a criticism of the morals of the woman doing the anointing.
As a result of the confusion, Mary the sister of Lazarus is thought to be a sinful woman, but that is not at all how she is depicted in the Gospels. As we study Jesus' anointing by the sinful woman in Luke, don't presuppose. Let the elements of the narrative develop the story and its meaning for you. This is a story of contrasts -- the self-righteous Pharisee vs. a sinful woman, formal hospitality vs. overflowing love, self-worth through righteous living vs. self-worth through forgiveness.
An Invitation to Dine at the Home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36)
Jesus is invited for dinner by one of the Pharisees -- where we are not told, though presumably it is in Galilee where other events in this section took place. (Bethany, by contrast, is in Judea, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.) Invitation to dinner certainly implied respect for this new teacher and healer. Was he also a prophet? Simon wanted to learn more about Jesus, but it soon becomes obvious that you can't count Simon as a believer -- rather as a skeptic trying to be open-minded.
It was an honor to host the visiting teacher and his party, and Simon wanted the honor of hosting this famous rabbi. We can assume that Simon is well-to-do -- most of the Pharisees seemed to be, and this scale of dinner party required a larger home and money for food than the average person had at his disposal.
Hospitality is a very strong value in the Near East, with much fuss made over guests. For example, a basin would typically be provided so guests could wash the dust of the road from their feet. Scented olive oil was sometimes offered to anoint a guest's hair (Psalm 23:5b; 45:7; 92:10; Amos 6:6). And beloved guests would be kissed as they were greeted (2 Samuel 15:5; 19:39; Matthew 26:49). We see that Simon offered none of these marks of a gracious host. Such overflowing hospitality wasn't required; Simon wasn't being discourteous. The way he welcomed his guests this day seems pro forma, but not especially warm or cordial.
No matter the warmth, Jesus accepts the dinner invitation. In verse 34 he is criticized for dining with sinners. But he is no respecter of persons. He is willing to associate with the religious elite, as well.
The text indicates that Jesus "reclined at the table" (Greek kataklinō, "reclined"). This is a characteristically Eastern style of dining, with guests arranged around a very low table, reclining on their left arm and supported by divans or cushions, leaving their right hand free to feed themselves. Their feet, sandals removed, would be splayed out behind them, with some space between their feet and the walls so those who were serving the meal could bring the various dishes to the table. This is also the likely arrangement at the Lord's Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples reclining around the table (John 13:5).
The Sinful Woman (Luke 7:37)
"When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house...." (Luke 7:37)
Verse 37 tells us several things about the woman. Surely, she has not been invited. While she is a resident of the town, she is looked down upon as a sinner (Greek harmatolos). We're not told what her sin is, but she is probably a prostitute rather than an adulteress.212 However, in Jesus' day it was very rare for adulterers to actually be stoned as the law directed (see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22; and John 8:1-11). The Romans did not allow the Jews to inflict the death penalty; the most they could administer was forty lashes less one. More often, sinners were shunned by respectable society and prohibited from participation in the local synagogue.
We don't know how she came to be a prostitute. Perhaps she is filled with lust. But more likely, she has been sexually abused as a child. Or has grown up an illegitimate child with no prospects for marriage. Or perhaps she is a widow struggling to survive. We just can't say, and should know better than to judge her harshly.
There's something else we can deduce about this woman -- that she has been battered down. Her self-image is tattered and ragged. She is the continual object of cutting criticism in insults by the wives of her customers. She has been spat upon. She is the example many mothers in town use to warn their daughters. She is brunt of nasty jokes. She is shunned by the best people and used and abused by the worst.
Inwardly, she is broken and bleeding. Her spirit is wounded. Perhaps you've felt like that; perhaps you feel like that right now. You've failed miserably, and though time has passed, you still are humiliated and unsure, and feel too weak and fragile to pick yourself up and move on.
For her to come to the banquet at Simon the Pharisee's house is hard, too. She is viewed as a sinner, one who conveys uncleanness by her very touch, almost as if she has a communicable disease. She knows that Simon will not be happy to see her in his house.
But the sinful woman has heard of Jesus. She has probably heard his teaching. She has heard his gracious words of God's love and forgiveness and healing and restoration. She has heard him speak of his Father's Kingdom in words so plain and compelling that she can see herself as a child of God once more, a full citizen in this Kingdom of Love. Yes, she is still broken, but now she can see light and hope beyond.
How Did She Get Inside?
In researching this I didn't find much to explain her presence. William Barclay says,
"It was the custom that when a Rabbi was at a meal in such a house, all kinds of people came in -- they were quite free to do so -- to listen to the pearls of wisdom which fell from his lips."213
Even though I can't find much to substantiate this practice, I think it must be the case. Simon doesn't seem so alarmed that such a woman is in his house, than that Jesus doesn't perceive what kind of woman she is. On another occasion, Jesus is invited to eat at a prominent Pharisee's home and finds a man "in front of him" suffering from dropsy (14:1-2). In American society this would be considered "crashing the party," but in their culture, apparently anyone was free to attend and listen to the dinner conversation.
This sinful woman doesn't slip in late, either. She has heard that Jesus will be there, and gets to the house even before he does (7:45). She must see Jesus again. She must. And so she is waiting with the others when he comes.
Tears and Perfume Anointing Jesus' Feet (Luke 7:37-38)
"... She brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them." (7:37-38)
Early in the meal there is no focus on the woman. Simon may feel uncomfortable about her being here, but he does not exclude her from his home. That would have caused an ugly scene. So he allows her to remain. But the focus is clearly on Jesus and his words as he partakes of the meal.
The woman is standing behind Jesus, and early into the meal she begins to weep. We don't read that she is racked with sobs, but we read that her tears fall upon Jesus' feet. How long this goes on we are not told. Each tear makes a brown wet mark in the dust of his feet, until his feet are wet with her tears.
Now she unfastens her hair, removing whatever kerchief she may have worn over it, and lets it fall free. She kneels down and begins to wipe his feet with her hair. To go about in public with her hair down was considered a shameful thing to do, yet she is not deterred.214 Her hair wipes his feet after her tears have washed them.
Next, she begins to kiss his feet. While we might look at this with sexual connotations, in her culture kissing the feet might be considered a common mark of deep reverence, especially to leading rabbis.215
Finally, she pours scented oil onto his feet out of an alabastron, or perfume vial, such as Jewish women commonly wore around their neck.216 Nor is this a one-time event. The imperfect tense of the Greek words translated "wiped," "kissed," and "poured" (NIV, or "anointed," KJV) indicate repeated action.
I am sure that once the flask of perfume is opened, almost immediately it is detected by everyone in the room. While Jesus has been the center of focus up to now, all eyes turn to the woman now kneeling at Jesus' feet, weeping, wiping, caressing his feet with her long black hair, kissing his feet with her lips, and pouring perfume upon them. The very intimacy of her attentions appear to many of the guests as shocking. Add to that the woman's reputation in the community and this is downright scandalous, at least that is how Simon the Pharisee interprets it.
The Pharisee's Judgment (Luke 7:39)
"When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is -- that she is a sinner.'" (7:39)
It doesn't take much of a mind reader to look at Simon's eyes and read his body language and the expression on his face. Simon acknowledges Jesus as a teacher (7:40b), but he doubts that Jesus is the prophet as some claim. He judges both the sinful woman and Jesus, and is wrong in both his judgments. It is interesting that he doesn't condemn the action of touching, per se, but Jesus' lack of discernment of who was touching him and her sinful history. He can't be much of a prophet and miss this! Simon huffs to himself.
The Parable of Two Cancelled Debts (Luke 7:40-43)
But Jesus doesn't let Simon's judgment go unchallenged -- even his silent judgment. Jesus is probably seated at the place of honor to the right of the host, so Jesus turns to Simon at his left and says to him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." It is almost a question, asking permission to speak freely.
"Tell me, teacher," responds his host.
So Jesus begins to tell a story, a parable, to make a point. In this case he recalls the appreciation one would feel to be absolved of the crushing and fearful load of debt to a moneylender, who has the power to throw non-payers into debtor's prison:
"'Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?'
Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.'
"You have judged correctly," Jesus said." (7:41-43)
Simon has stepped into the trap.
Love as Seen in Acts of Honor (Luke 7:44-47)
Instead of judging the woman, as Simon has, Jesus turns the judgment rather to Simon with a series of three comparisons.
"Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet." (7:44-46)
Jesus compares Simon's acts as a host to the sinful woman's acts of love.
- No water to wash feet vs. washed feet with tears, wiped with hair
- No kiss of welcome vs. kissed feet continually
- No scented olive oil for his guest's hair vs. poured perfume on his feet
Jesus' point isn't hard to guess. Simon's actions have shown little love, while the sinful woman has lavished love upon Jesus. Now building upon his brief parable, Jesus turns the object from love to forgiveness.
"Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." (7:47)
To help Simon and the others understand her actions, Jesus first tells a story about forgiveness, and then uses the story to interpret the woman's devotion in terms of forgiveness of sin.
I can imagine Simon's reaction to this recital -- anger! It puts him in a bad light. It makes him look like the unenthusiastic host that he is. Why should he need forgiveness anyway? He wasn't a sinner!
Your Sins Are Forgiven (Luke 7:48-50)
But Jesus doesn't linger on Simon's shortcomings. Now he turns to speak directly to the sinful woman:
"Then Jesus said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven.'
The other guests began to say among themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?'
Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'" (7:48-50)
Now for a question: Were the woman's sins actually forgiven before she came to Simon's house, or at this point where Jesus pronounces them forgiven? I would argue for the former. I think she came with perfume, and wept, and kissed Jesus' feet because she had already reached out in faith and accepted the forgiveness of God that he offered in his teaching. She came because she knew she was forgiven; she came out of gratitude; she came out of love. That conforms well to Jesus' explanation of her actions.
The guests, however, don't understand. They think that he is absolving her sins then and there -- and that troubles them because only God could forgive sins (Luke 5:21ff).
But Jesus continues, looking directly at the woman: "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." He acknowledges that her faith in his promise has brought her salvation. And he bids her the blessing that Jews offer one another in parting: "Shalom." It means not only peace -- and what wonderful peace and light had flooded this prostitute's soul! -- it also means prosperity and wholeness and goodness and blessing. From one believing Jew to another, Jesus has welcomed her back into the fellowship and salvation of God's people.
I can see her face shining now. The tears are still flowing, but flowing through the beauty and glory of the countenance of one forever changed and lifted and loved. That, my friends, was a most excellent dinner party! Amen.
Lord, I am so happy that you offer us hope and not chiding. You hold out life and freedom and hope. When with tentative faith we take hold of your words and your promise, fill us afresh with your joy. Some of my brothers and sisters reading these words have been battered and beat up emotionally and spiritually. They have lost whatever confidence they once had, and can only see a tiny glimmer of your hope. Today, I ask you to pour out upon them your full dose of hope and renewal and cleansing that you showered upon the prostitute that came to Simon's house to say such an eloquent "thank-you." We, too, thank you, Lord. And we love you -- greatly. In your powerful and Shalom-producing Name, we pray. Amen.
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:50)
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- How would you describe the expression on Simon the Pharisee's face when he saw the woman touching Jesus' feet?
- What was the sinful woman's motive for coming to see Jesus?
- Why did Jesus let her continue, since by all appearances what she was doing was scandalous?
- Is your love for the Lord more like the sinful woman's or Simon's? Why?
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 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, harmartolos, ktl., TDNT 1:327.
 Barclay, p. 94. So Barton, Veerman, and Taylor, Life Application Commentary: Luke (Tyndale, 1997), p. 188; and Morris, Luke, p. 146. Marshall, Luke, p. 308, cites Strack and Billerback, IV:2, 615.
 In a careful and scholar study of hairstyles of women in the first century, Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 509-510) concludes that "the evidence from Paul's era shows that women did not appear in public with long, flowing hair," but cites the lack of first century evidence that long, loose hair would have been associated with adultery.
 Marshall, Luke, p. 309, cites Strack and Billerback I, 995-996 and Sanhedrin 27b. See Konrad Weiss, pous, TDNT 6:630-631.
 Edersheim, Life and Times 1:565-566 has a good discussion of this. See also David M. Howard, Jr., "Perfume, Perfumer," ISBE 3:766-767. However, this may have been more than the common perfume vial that Jewish women wore, since Luke says that she brought it (komizō) when she heard Jesus would be at the banquet.
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