Commentary on Luke 7:36-50
Today’s passage is one of the most striking scenes in the whole of the Gospel. It is a story only found in Luke and, in a way it is strange that it is not otherwise recorded. It is not the same as the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, described by Matthew (26:6-13). Perhaps to some, especially Jewish readers, it was a little too daring and close to the edge. Because it is a highly sexual story in which Jesus is deeply involved.
We are told that a Pharisee – his name is Simon – was keen to have Jesus eat at his house. The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’ and they numbered about 6,000 throughout Palestine. They taught in synagogues and, as their name implies, they saw themselves on a higher level of religious observance. They believed that interpretations and rules handed down by tradition had virtually the same authority as Scripture (cf. Mark 7:8-13). As a result, they were constantly bothered by Jesus’ behaviour.
Jesus accepted the invitation and he joined Simon and others at the table. We should notice that Jesus accepted invitations from both Pharisees and tax collectors. Both were equally deserving of his love and service. The diners would be reclining on couches, rather than sitting, as was the fashion of the day. This helps to explain what is going to happen.
It is not clear whether what happened next was totally spontaneous or whether it was part of a conspiracy to put Jesus in a compromising position where he could be denounced (not unlike his being presented with an adulterous woman – John 8:1ff). In one sense it was strange that a woman such as this could burst into a Pharisee’s house unchallenged (there must have been servants); on the other hand, houses were not bolted and barred as they are in our more civilised(?) times.
What is clear is that the woman’s own intentions were sincere. We are told she was a sinner. “Sinner” here can only refer to some public immorality and very likely she was a “woman of the street”, a prostitute or at least a woman known for her promiscuous behaviour.
She was eager to meet with Jesus and heard that he was dining at Simon’s house. So she burst in, bringing an alabaster box of ointment (probably quite expensive – the gift of an appreciative client?) and came up to Jesus from behind. She immediately began crying and her abundant tears bathed Jesus’ feet. She then began to dry his feet with her long hair. The fact that she wore her hair down or let it down in public itself indicates that she was a “loose” woman. She kissed the feet of Jesus and poured the ointment over them.
Simon, whether he had planned the intrusion or not, was deeply shocked at the extraordinary scene that was playing out before his eyes and in his house. If Jesus was really a prophet, he thought to himself, he would know what kind of a woman this was who was touching him. She was a sinner and no good person, least of all a rabbi, should allow anything remotely like that to take place.
Jesus, fully aware of what was going on in Simon’s mind, tells him a story about two debtors. One owed a large amount and other a smaller amount. However, the creditor wrote off both debts. Which of the two, Jesus asked, would be more grateful and appreciative? Obviously the one who had been remitted the larger debt, said Simon.
“Well said,” replied Jesus and then went on to apply the parable to the present situation. In the process he indicates something that Simon had probably not thought of – that he, too, was a sinner, even though to a lesser degree. Because Simon had been guilty of not extending even the ordinary courtesies of hospitality to his guest.
Simon had not had Jesus’ feet washed when he came into the house but the woman had washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon had not given a kiss of greeting but the woman had not stopped kissing his feet since she came into the house. Simon had not put oil on his guest’s head but the woman had poured an expensive flask of ointment over his feet.
And therefore – now comes the point of the story: “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” The one who has less forgiven loves less. And, turning to the woman at his feet, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” And the guests at table begin to ask each other: “Who is this that he forgives sin?” Again Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has made you whole again. Go in peace.”
This is a really extraordinary story. To appreciate this one has to enter into it visually and be really present with all one’s senses active. What comes across is the amazing composure and inner security and freedom of Jesus during the whole episode. He shows absolutely no signs of being uncomfortable or embarrassed. He does not pull away or tell the woman to stop what she is doing.
Here is this woman, known to be a public sinner, who comes in and weeps over him, wipes his feet with her hair and keeps kissing them passionately. The guests are highly disturbed, shocked and probably embarrassed but Jesus remains perfectly at ease. The reason is that he knows what the woman is doing and is not worried about what others might think she is doing.
Let us admire his ability to focus totally on the woman and not be self-conscious about the other people around. Can one imagine what a tabloid publication might have made of this scene?! What if something like that were to happen today with a bishop or a priest? Or some other prominent person? How would most clergy – or other public people react in such a situation?
Jesus can see that the woman is expressing both sincere repentance and a great affection for Jesus. She is expressing her repentance in the only way that she knows. She is a highly tactile person; it is part of her way of life. To the sexually immature, what she is doing and Jesus’ acceptance of it seems at the very least unbecoming and at the worst bordering on the obscene.
But Jesus says her sins are now forgiven. It was really the passionate love she was showing which indicated that had won forgiveness. Love and sin are incompatible; they cannot co-exist in the same person. She was loving Jesus so much at that moment that she could not be a sinner. Simon could not see this. His concept of sin was purely legalistic. For Jesus it is relational.
At this point her immoral past was totally irrelevant. In our society wrongdoers can be stuck with labels often for the rest of their lives irrespective of how they have changed. God does not work that way. He deals with persons as they are here and now. What I did yesterday does not matter. All that matters is what I am doing now, how I am relating to God and those around me right now.
We remember the man who died beside Jesus on the cross. He had led a terrible life and was now being executed for his crimes. Yet he appeals to Jesus and is promised that he will go to God hand in hand with Jesus. Unfair? Fortunately God’s ideas of fairness are not ours. Otherwise we might be in trouble because of our past.
Once again we see how God, in Jesus, always tries to rehabilitate and not to punish. Punishment destroys. God’s desire is that we be all made whole and experience inner peace and harmony.