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Luke 7:36-50 1
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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 people 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 forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “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—as her great love has shown. But whoever 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.”

Background

Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader, invited Jesus to dine in his home. Suddenly, an uninvited, unnamed woman appears who is described simply as a woman who “lived a sinful life.” Without speaking, she weeps, wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with perfumed oil (verse 38). Many interpret this story as an “anointing story,” a preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus draws an explicit example contrasting her lavish hospitality to him and contrasts it with the one Jesus received from Simon. Simon objects “to himself.” Simon thinks, “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.” (Luke 7:39).

Guests as such a dinner would recline on pillows with their heads close to the table and their feet extended back from the table.  This would make it easier for the woman to reach Jesus’ feet. Most likely, she had an earlier experience with Jesus where He changed her life, and her tears are tears of gratitude for her redemption. This scenario fits well with Jesus’ later pronouncement, “your sins are forgiven” (or “have been forgiven”—the Greek is perfect tense, signaling a completed action). The woman’s actions are certainly provocative, especially if she has been a prostitute. However, it is an assumption by scholars that the woman must have been a prostitute, because prostitution was one of the few ways that an unmarried woman could support herself financially during Jesus’ times. Luke, however, does not specify the nature of her sins. What we can tell from this story:

  • Weeping suggests out-of-control emotions brought on by something unknown to us.
  • Custom prohibits women from letting down their hair in the presence of any man except their husband, and husbands are permitted to divorce wives who violate that rule.
  • Kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing them with oil further suggest out-of-control emotions.
  • Imaginations around the table must be running wild wondering what kind of relationship exists between this sinful woman and Jesus. It is also possible that one or two of the men at table may have known this woman professionally and are cowering in the background, fearful that she will single them out next for her attentions.
  • And Jesus does nothing to rebuff the woman. That is the real scandal here.

The story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet occurs in each of the other Gospels, but in comparison with the other versions, only Luke makes it clear that Simon objects silently, “to himself.” In Mark’s version, the onlookers object to the woman’s actions “among themselves” (Mark 14:4). This implies that they spoke aloud rather than directly to Jesus. In Matthew, the disciples object openly (Matthew 26:28). In the Gospel of John, Judas voices his concerns out loud (John 12:4-5). Only in the Gospel of Luke do we see highlighted Simon’s unspoken thoughts, and Jesus’ ability to perceive them. Most commonly in the Hebrew Bible, inner speech depicts the thoughts of the wicked. The fool says “in his heart” that there is no God (Psalm. 14:1). While the one who turns away from God blesses himself “in his heart” (Deuteronomy. 29.19). These and other passages in the Bible emphasize the folly of ungodly self-address. (Ecclesiastes 1:16; 2:1, 3, 15; 3:17, 18; Zephaniah 2:15; 1 Samuel 18:17, 21; 27:1; 1 Kings 12:26).

Luke 7.36-50 is the first story in the Gospel where a character thinks to themselves (the others are in Luke 12.17, 45; 15.17-19; 16.4-7; 18.18.4-5; 20.13). Like other thinking characters, Simon faces a choice. He is deciding between two opposing views of Jesus’ identity, either Jesus is a prophet or He isn’t. The question itself demonstrates that Simon lacks love, hospitality, and true discernment. Furthermore, he clearly does not want to dialogue with Jesus; he simply “thinks to himself” that Jesus cannot be a prophet because He fails to rebuff this woman. Either Jesus does not know that the woman is a sinner or doesn’t care. In either case, to Simon, this disqualifies Jesus as a prophet. This goes to the heart of this part of Luke’s Gospel, which is meant to show that Jesus is not only a prophet but He is greater than a prophet.

Simon categorizes people and relates to them according to their station in life (7:39).  Jesus sees people as individuals and relates to them as human beings and then asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” (v. 44a). Simon does not answer the question, but an honest answer would be “No.” Simon sees the reputation that precedes her. He sees her strange behavior. He sees the interruption of his carefully planned evening. He sees the failure of the young prophet to respond appropriately (according to Simon). He sees many things, but he does not see the woman. He does not see her as a human being, created in God’s image, and he does not see that she has changed.

Simon had called Jesus “Teacher,” the equivalent of calling him “Rabbi” (v. 40)—thus acknowledging that Jesus is due the highest level of hospitality. Jesus now takes to conversation and says to Simon that his failure to provide water for His feet and a greeting kiss constitutes a marked sign of contempt. The accepted rituals of welcoming a guest have not been merely overlooked but have been callously omitted by a judgmental host. Simon’s real deficiency is not his inattentiveness as a host but his own spiritual pride. He works so hard to obey God’s law and he no longer sees himself as a sinner. He sees the great gulf that separates him from the sinful woman, but he cannot imagine the great gulf that separates him from God. The woman, on the other hand, is such a spiritual wreck that Simon cannot imagine her redemption. What can God do with such a person? Why would God bother? Luke is silent with regard to the circumstances that led to the woman’s forgiveness. Did her repentance set the stage forJesus’ to forgive her? We are told only that forgiveness preceded love—created a wellspring of love. It is likely that the full sequence was sin, call to repentance, repentance, forgiveness, gratitude, and love.

Jesus concludes with a parable and a profound statement: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (v. 47). It is easy to misunderstand this verse. We could mistakenly assume that the woman has been forgiven because she loved, that her forgiveness stems from her washing, kissing, and anointing Jesus’ feet. In fact, the reverse is true. She loves (washes, kisses, and anoints) because she has been forgiven. That is clearly the sequence of events in Jesus’ parable (vv. 41-42). Love follows forgiveness.

We don’t know why Jesus makes His announcement of forgiveness to the woman. Was it to reassure the woman, or to tell the others about her new forgiven status to Simon and the others at table? They had ostracized the woman because she was a sinner, and Jesus wants them to know that she has been forgiven, is no longer guilty, and is now a fit candidate for inclusion, ready to be restored to community in the same way that a healed leper would be restored once the priest has declared them clean. We could go so far as to say that Jesus, in announcing this woman’s forgiveness, is performing the priestly function of restoring her to community.

In these verses, Luke invites us to ask, “What would we do in this situation?” “What would we say in our own heart?” In addition, Jesus’ response to Simon might also serve as a useful reminder to think carefully about how we can transform our self-talk (thoughts) into dialogues with God, into that “prayer without ceasing” to which 1 Thessalonians 5:17 refers.

Items for Discussion

  • What are the dangers of forming opinions of people from rumors or “town talk?”
  • How do you think this has heightened racial conflicts in our country or even the world?
  • What is the danger of forming silent opinions?
  • How do you know if your opinions are true?
  • How can fear cause us to become introverted? Or another way to look at this, what shuts down constructive thinking?
  • What would have been the benefits to Simon if he shared with Jesus what he was thinking? Remember Jesus knew anyway but would there have been some beneficial learning that could have occurred in Simon by being vocal?
  • Where in our society do we make these same mistakes today?
  • If this was to be re-written into a great positive story about Simon and the woman, how would you change the script?
  • What is the role of the Christian Church in restoring sinners to our community? How do we/can we help?

Discussion Challenge

  • Why can’t demanding love ever work? Think: call to repentance, repentance, forgiveness, gratitude, and then love.

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
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