A Prophet, a Pharisee, and a Loving Woman

The 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Luke 7:36-8:3

36 A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 she stood

Rubens-Feast of Simon the Pharisee

Rubens-Feast of Simon the Pharisee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. 42 Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. 47 So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 1 Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve 2 and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.

The Shared Meal: A Prophet, a Pharisee, and a Loving Woman. As Brian Stoffregen notes, Luke is fond of picturing Jesus in meal-time situations:

  • Levi’s banquet (5:29)
  • Feeding the 5000 (9:12-17)
  • At Mary and Martha’s house (10:38-42)
  • At a second Pharisee’s house (11:37-41)
  • At a third Pharisee’s house (14:1-6)
  • The Party for the Son(s) (15:11-32)
  • The Passover Meal (Last Supper) (22:7-23)
  • The Meal at Emmaus (24:13-35)
  • The Meal in Jerusalem (24:36-43)

Jesus’ meal/fellowship is called into question by the Pharisees:

  • “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5:30)
  • “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (15:2)

Just before our text, Jesus is apparently quoting his critics:

  • “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’“ (7:34)

Though Jesus is willing to dine with outcasts (5:29), he does not reject invitations from the well-to-do (11:37; 14:1). A “sinful woman” approaches him in Simon the Pharisee’s house in the presence of the other invited guests. Only in Luke is this woman described as a “sinner” (hamartolos). Throughout Luke, Jesus has positive regards for “sinners.”

  • He invites sinful Peter to follow him (5:8ff).
  • He eats and drinks with sinners (5:30; 7:34; 15:2; 19:7)
  • He came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:32)
  • He relates the heavenly joy over repentant sinners (15:7, 10)
  • He presents a sinner as an example of proper praying (18:13)
  • Yet, he will be handed over to sinners to be crucified (24:7)

In addition, every time in Luke that the word hamartia = “sin” is used (11 times), it is being forgiven by Jesus (see 7:48, 49).

It is a moment of embarrassment for Simon and for the woman as well, whose courage is shown by her action; but shown more importantly is her faith in Jesus and her trust that he will receive her with compassion. The guests were reclining, so Jesus’ feet were exposed behind him.

As the woman stood weeping behind Jesus, she began to wash his feet with her tears. In a spontaneous act, she let down her hair and began to wipe the tears from Jesus’ feet and then anointed them with the perfume. The woman’s act expresses love and gratitude, but it also violated social conventions. Touching or caressing a man’s feet could have sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair, so a woman never let down her hair in public. Moreover, the woman was known to be a sinner. Assuming she was unclean, she would have made Jesus unclean by touching him

Simon judges that Jesus cannot be a prophet because he allows a sinner to touch him. Simon overlooks his own sinfulness and misunderstands Jesus’ prophetic ministry. At an earlier meal with “sinners,” Jesus had compared himself to a doctor (5:31). Jesus does know who the woman is, but Simon does not even “see” her until challenged by Jesus (v. 44). To open his eyes, Jesus tells the parable of the money-lender. Simon is forced to admit that the one forgiven the larger debt is more grateful. But he does so hesitantly, perhaps even sneeringly — “I suppose” — wary of being caught in a trap by the clever carpenter.

But with the admission the Pharisee is already caught. Jesus draws out the comparison of gratitude point by point: you provided no water, she washed with her tears; you gave me no kiss, she kissed my feet; you did not anoint my head, she anointed my feet.

Jesus says that the woman has already been forgiven her sins; that is evident because of her love. She would not be able to show such love unless she had first accepted love (forgiveness, acceptance). The forgiveness has set her free to love. When Jesus says “Your sins are forgiven,” he is confirming what is already true in her; in the different context of the healing of the paralyzed man, Jesus forgave the sins at the moment of declaration (5:20). It is not that her love has earned forgiveness. By faith she accepted Jesus’ (God’s) loving forgiveness that saved her (see 1:77) and is now able to love.

Jesus’ pronouncement in v. 47 interprets the parable of the money-lender. The woman has received “five hundred days’ wages” worth of forgiveness, or a great amount. We do not know about Simon, but the implication is that he has been forgiven a lesser amount and is less able to show gratitude and love. This does not mean that one has to be a great sinner to love greatly. We all need “five hundred days’ wages worth” of forgiveness, but we may be blind to our sinfulness or too fearful or proud to ask that our debt be written off. And then we are chained to our guilt, which keeps us from the freedom of love.

The Prophet Continues His Work. Jesus now undertakes a systematic preaching tour of the local towns and villages, accompanied by the Twelve and by several women and others who helped provide for their needs (8:1-3). These women had been healed by Jesus and were expressing their gratitude in this way. It would have been exceptional for a traveling preacher to associate women with himself, so this is another sign of Jesus’ openness and concern for all and his ability to transcend prejudice and custom. Two of these women, Mary Magdalene and Joanna, will be named among the first witnesses of the resurrection (24:10); perhaps they and others of this group are implied among those waiting with the Twelve for the outpouring of the Spirit after the ascension (Acts 1:14).

Notes

Luke 7: 36-50 In this story of the pardoning of the sinful woman Luke presents two different reactions to the ministry of Jesus. A Pharisee, suspecting Jesus to be a prophet, invites Jesus to a festive banquet in his house, but the Pharisee’s self- righteousness leads to little forgiveness by God and consequently little love shown toward Jesus. The sinful woman, on the other hand, manifests a faith in God (Luke 7:50) that has led her to seek forgiveness for her sins, and because so much was forgiven, she now overwhelms Jesus with her display of love; cf the similar contrast in attitudes in Luke 18:9-14. The whole episode is a powerful lesson on the relation between forgiveness and love.

Luke 7:36 reclined at table: the normal posture of guests at a banquet. Other oriental banquet customs alluded to in this story include the reception by the host with a kiss (Luke 7:45), washing the feet of the guests (Luke 7:44), and the anointing of the guests’ heads (Luke 7:46).

Luke 7:37 an alabaster flask of ointment:The word alabastros denoted a globular container for perfumes. It had no handles and was furnished with a long neck which was broken off when the contents were needed. The container was not necessarily made of alabaster. Jewish women commonly wore a perfume flask suspended from a cord round the neck, and it was so much a part of them that they were allowed to wear it on the sabbath (Shabbath 6:3). The extensive use of perfumes may be gathered from the fact that the Sages allotted a certain woman an allowance of 400 gold coins for perfume (Ketuboth 66b)

Luke 7:38 she stood behind him at his feet: People reclined on low couches at festive meals, leaning on the left arm with the head towards the table and the body stretched away from it. The sandals were removed before reclining. The woman was thus able to approach Jesus’ feet without difficulty.

Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment: Wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is a significant action given that Jewish women did not unbind their hair in public. There are examples of the kissing of the feet of a specially honored rabbi (e.g. Sanhedrin 27b), but it was far from usual. Finally she anointed Jesus’ feet with the ointment (probably not the best of translations since in our time modern ointments are pastes/solids). Normally this would have been poured on the head. To use it on the feet is probably a mark of humility. To attend to the feet was a menial task, one assigned to a slave. One might well speculate that Jesus had turned this woman from her sinful ways and that all this was the expression of her love and gratitude.

Luke 7:39 If this man were a prophet: The form of conditional sentence he used implies in the Greek (a) that Jesus was not a prophet, and (b) that he did not know who and what sort of woman was touching him.

Luke 7:40 Jesus said to him in reply: Given that Simon the Pharisee had not spoken aloud (v.39) Jesus shows that he knew Simon’s thoughts thus indicating what kind of man he was indeed.

Luke 7:41 days’ wages: one denarius is the normal daily wage of a laborer.

Luke 7:42 forgave: The Greek word used is charizomai. It is a verbal form of the noun charis = “grace, kindness, mercy.” This word is used only three times in Luke: twice in our text (vv. 42-43) and earlier in the chapter when we are told that Jesus has been giving sight to many who were blind (7:21). There are two Greek words that refer to “canceling” a debt. Although they overlap in meanings, the verb in these verses implies more a sense of “to being gracious towards” = “giving something that isn’t deserved.” The other term — aphiemi — a word that a frequently translated “to forgive” (see 7:47, 48, 49) — implies more of a “releasing from” something, e.g., canceling financial obligations or releasing from (punishment for) sins = “forgiveness”.

Luke 7:43 I suppose: Simon’s response seems begrudging at best – perhaps indicating that his own attitude had been revealed in Jesus’ telling of the parable.

Luke 7:44 Do you see this woman?: Clearly Simon had seen the women, but Jesus’ question is contextualized by the parable. Jesus proceeded to contrast her attitude with that of his host. It now comes out that, though Simon had invited Jesus to his home, he had not given him the treatment due to an honored guest. It would have been expected that the host would have provided water for his guest’s feet (cf. Gen. 18:4; Judg. 19:21). Jesus had not received this courtesy, but he had had his feet washed with the woman’s tears. Similarly in place of the kiss of welcome that might have been expected from the host (cf. Gen. 29:13; 45:15) he had received kisses on his feet. And finally, whereas Simon had not anointed Jesus’ head (cf. Pss. 23:5; 141:5), the woman had anointed his feet (oil is olive oil, which was plentiful and cheap; there is a contrast with ointment, which was rare and expensive perfume).

Luke 7:47 her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love: literally, “her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much.” Jesus does not gloss over those sins: they are many. That the woman’s sins have been forgiven is attested by the great love she shows toward Jesus. Her love is the consequence of her forgiveness. This is also the meaning demanded by the parable in vv. 41-43. By contrast, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”. It is natural to think of Simon. He certainly had shown little love and the implication is that he had not been forgiven very much.

There is an ambiguity in the Greek of verse 47. It would be possible to translate, “Her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love,” understanding her love as the basis for receiving forgiveness. This, however, contradicts both the parable, where forgiveness leads to love, not vice versa, and the final statement in verse 47 (little forgiveness leads to little love). It seems necessary then, to understand “because she has shown great love” as providing the reason why Jesus is sure that she has been forgiven, connecting this phrase with the beginning of the sentence, “therefore, I tell you.” The sense then would be, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, (and I can tell you this) because she has shown great love.” Simon is being shown the value of the woman’s experience, not just for her but for him. It is valuable not because Simon also has many sins (no such accusation is made), but because Simon can learn about the depth of God’s forgiveness and its powerful effect through the experience of the woman. If Simon can accept her, the woman’s experience can revitalize Simon’s understanding of God.

Luke 7:48–50. Your sins are forgiven: (cf. 5:21–24). Luke tells us that this provoked a discussion among the guests. The forgiveness of sins was a divine prerogative. “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But Jesus completely ignored them. His interest was with the woman: “Your faith has saved you.” This is important as showing that the love spoken of earlier was the consequence, not the cause, of her salvation. As elsewhere in the New Testament it is faith that is the means of receiving God’s good gift. Jesus dismissed her with “go in peace” (cf. 8:48). The Greek is literally ‘go into peace’ and it may be worth noting that the rabbis held that ‘Go in peace’ was proper in bidding farewell to the dead, but to the living one should say ‘go into peace’ (Moed Katan 29a).

Luke 8:1 he journeyed from one town and village to another: The verb journeyed (diodeuō) conveys the idea of a continuing wandering ministry, rather than a journey from one point to another. Luke presents Jesus as an itinerant preacher traveling in the company of the Twelve and of the Galilean women who are sustaining them out of their means. These Galilean women will later accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and become witnesses to his death (Luke 23:49) and resurrection (Luke 24:9-11, where Mary Magdalene and Joanna are specifically mentioned; cf also Acts 1:14). The association of women with the ministry of Jesus is most unusual in the light of the attitude of first-century Palestinian Judaism toward women. The more common attitude is expressed in John 4:27, and early rabbinic documents caution against speaking with women in public.

Luke 8:3 Joanna: One of the female followers of Jesus during his earthly ministry listed with Mary Magdalene and Susanna in Luke 8:2–3. Joanna was one of the women who provided monetary or material aid out of their own pockets and efforts to help Jesus’ band of disciples. Later, Joanna was a witness to the empty tomb who reported what she saw to the apostles (Luke 24:10). Thus, her name is probably preserved because she was known to the post-Easter community as a witness to the life, death, and empty tomb of Jesus. That only Luke ever mentions Joanna may be because she was one of his sources for the uniquely Lukan material in his gospel.

Joanna is also notable because she was the wife of Chuza, one of Herod Antipas’ estate managers. Thus, she is an example of how the gospel affected people connected with the established authorities, people who were financially comfortable compared to most of the Galilean populace. We are led to believe that this rather prominent woman left her family and home to travel with Jesus and to provide assistance for his itinerant band of disciples. We may also see here an example of how the gospel breaks down class barriers and nullifies social taboos, for in the Jewish society of Jesus’ day women were not allowed to be disciples of a prominent Jewish teacher, much less to be part of his traveling entourage. In 1st-century Judaism, such behavior would have been considered scandalous for any woman but especially for a married woman. Thus, to some degree Jesus presents both a religious and a social threat to the structure of early Judaism, for he gave both men and women the opportunity to be full-fledged disciples.

 

Sources:

  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 336-85.
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 975-78.
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Ben Witherington, “Joanna” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1996). v.3, p. 855.
  • Brian Stoffregen, Scripture Commentary at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

Sources:

  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 336-85.
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 975-78.
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Ben Witherington, “Joanna” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1996). v.3, p. 855.
  • Brian Stoffregen, Scripture Commentary at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

5 thoughts on “A Prophet, a Pharisee, and a Loving Woman

  1. Pingback: Forgiveness for Offenders by Lester Sumrall. | The Voice Of Australians

  2. Pingback: “A Really Big Deal” • Sermon 06.16.2013 | Pastor Craig Schweitzer

  3. Her tears tell so much! What a beautiful image to remember as we approach the Eucharist: this woman’s tears of thanksgiving for Christ’s love, compassion and forgiveness and our own as we walk toward our salvation!

  4. I think today’s Gospel is one closest to my heart. What a lovely picture the Gospel writer has painted here. A sinful woman approaches our Lord, even dared to touch him! Could you just image the stares, the whispers or the gasps among the other honored guests as she drew closer to him. She even dared to wash his feet with her tears. Her tears! He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” It makes you wonder who they thought Jesus was. But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Just beautiful!

  5. Pingback: This Is Love | Walking in the Shadows

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