Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

73. “A woman in the city, a sinner” (Luke 7:36-50)

Luke attaches no indication of place or time to the record of the Lord’s visit to the home of a Pharisee called Simon, and how he was anointed there by an unnamed woman. This impressive story seems to have been inserted here as an ironic commentary on the jibe in the preceding verses: “behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and
sinners” (7:34). Here he is after a manner of speaking, both at once-accepting an invitation to a meal of a wealthy home, and there befriending one who was now a despised but much repentant sinner.

Study 74 will set out the evidence, hardly conclusive and yet persuasive, for identifying the woman of this story with Mary the sister of Lazarus and with Mary Magdelene. Also, there are indications -- again, not decisive -- that this Simon the Pharisee may have been the father of the Bethany family, referred to also as Simon the leper (Mt. 26:6); and also that (possibly) Judas Iscariot was a brother of the same family.

Significant details

These tentative conclusions will not be assumed in the present study, but are perhaps worth bearing in mind because of their possible bearing on some of the details.

For instance, why should the invitation have been given in the first place? There was obvious reluctance to receive Jesus as a welcomed guest - the usual courtesies were studiously omitted, as though to show to the other Pharisee guests (v. 49) that inviting Jesus of Nazareth to the house must not be taken to mean that Simon was an avowed disciple.

The unprotested presence of such a woman in that dining room, as by right, is also now fully explained.

That her conversion from an evil way of life was very recent is indicated not only by the intensity of her repentance -- many tears and deep self-humiliation-but also by Simon’s reprobation: “for she is a sinner”.

The meal was about to be served when there came an unexpected interruption, very embarrassing to some who were present. The woman described evidently knew that although Jesus had been invited, he had also been insulted by the careful omission of all the normal friendly attentions, and these she now proceeded to make good in unique and moving fashion.

Penitence and devotion

She came and stood behind him, raining down hot tears of repentance and gratitude on his feet. Then she knelt and, deftly shaking her long hair loose, she wiped them carefully, eagerly, being only too glad of such an opportunity to express her devotion. Never was a woman’s hair more of a glory to her (1 Cor. 11:15) than on this occasion. Stooping over those feet, which showed how many miles they had walked in Galilee and Judaea, she covered them with kisses of welcome to her home.

Then she called a servant to bring her a costly container of perfumed ointment (the word “brought”, v. 37, is translated “received” in all its other ten occurrences).

The contents of this flask she now poured slowly over the feet of Jesus (they are mentioned no less than seven times in these few verses!), and then gently, lovingly, she massaged it into the skin. And still the tears of penitence and thanksgiving flowed.

In the minds of some present there came recollections of purple passages from the Scriptures -- the Book of Proverbs’ description of the whore and her stock-in-trade: “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon” (7:17); and the Law’s prohibition: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow” (Dt. 23:18). And as she even lavished kisses on the Lord’s feet, other words came to mind: “She caught him and kissed him, with an impudent face... the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil”(Pr. 7:13;5:3).

From Simon - four times called “the Pharisee” -there was only an embarrassed silence building up into scepticism: “This Jesus may be a remarkable healer, but he is no prophet. The blind Abijah could identify the wife of King Jeroboam even though she acted a part (1 Kgs. 14:6). And Elisha knew the purposes and deceits of his servant Gehazi (2 Kgs. 5:26). Then why doesn’t Jesus recognize who this is -- she’s well-known, too well-known -- and what sort of individual she is? And thus he suffers defilement! No prophet, for sure!” and thereafter he called him: “Teacher”.

Here one old commentator adds, rather quaintly: “Not so fast, Simon, thou hast not seen through thy Guest, but He hath seen through thee”. Jesus knew what manner of man this was. He did not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears, but with righteousness and with equity.

Had it been anyone else except Jesus, Simon would surely have put a much worse construction on the incident. But with Jesus this was impossible-his irreproachability was too evident; he was unimpeachable.

But the man’s Pharisaic attitude was not to be restrained. So he did not say “this woman who weeps”, nor “who anoints him”, but “what manner of woman it is that toucheth him”. To Simon this risk of defilement was the only consideration of any importance.

Answer by parable

That the woman was now repentant of her sordid way of life meant little to him. He was concerned only with the outward appearance. So whilst the common people had just now “glorified God, saying, A great prophet is risen up among us; and, God hath visited his people” (v. 16), the Pharisee was re-assuring himself:

“This man is no prophet”. And in the later echo of this incident, Judas was to react similarly (Jn. 12:4, 5).

By answering his host’s unspoken thoughts, Jesus proceeded to prove that he was a prophet. With studied courtesy, to make deliberate contrast with the Pharisee’s rudeness, he said:

“Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee”.
“Teacher, say on”.

The reply came with a suavity which accorded ill with the discourtesy already shown to Jesus and with the thoughts now running through his mind. It was of one piece with the man’s Pharisaism.

Then Jesus told the simplest of little parables, about two debtors, both of whom confessed their utter inability to pay, and who were both let off. The moneylender blithely made them a present of it (Gk: charizo). But one debt was ten times as big as the other-roughly £5, 000 and £500, in terms of modern (1984) inflation. Who, then, asked Jesus, would feel the greater sense of relief? Which of them would show the more fervent gratitude to one who was no longer a creditor but a good friend?

Even in this two-verse parable every detail was superbly relevant. The woman’s incurable spiritual leprosy was ten times worse than Simon’s incurable physical leprosy (assuming here the identification with Mt.26:6). But both must have been intensely conscious of their tremendous indebtedness to Jesus. There can have been no healing of either until they confessed their need and that he, and he only, could be their Saviour. Both knew, she far more than he, that they could do nothing comparable for Jesus in return. And what sort of a moneylender was this (see 2 Kgs.4:3; Ps.109:11 s.w.) who turned debts into a gift?

The problem put to Simon in this parable was just too easy, and he shrugged it off with careless indifference. Or could it be that he (no fool!) scented the relevance of this enquiry to the present situation, and his nonchalance was an artificial facade to hide his uneasiness? None the less, he spoke his own condemnation, inevitably so, for, in front of the others, he had to answer.

A withering contrast

Jesus turned now directly to the woman, but continued to address himself to Simon, speaking to him over his shoulder. It was obviously with difficulty that he held down his own indignation. Never was there a more withering recital of simple fact. Never was self-satisfaction more effectively punctured (cp. Lk. 1:53):

“Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears (Ps. 56:8), and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.”
The Pharisee kept silence, looking almost visibly smaller. He heard now the simple unequivocal application of the parable he himself had just helped to interpret.

Whereas his love for the Lord was meagre or non-existent, hers was unspeakably great. And, Jesus argued, her boundless gratitude can be for one reason only--she knows that her massive debt of sin is freely forgiven; and her actions show that she sees in me the means of that forgiveness. This is faith, saving faith. It has saved her, and it will save her to the uttermost.

Her lavish use of ointment may also have proclaimed Jesus as her high priest (Ex. 30:25), even whilst to some it declared her own exceeding sinfulness (Pr. 7:17).

Sins forgiven

Turning to the woman, Jesus now said very simply: “Thy sins are forgiven”. This was not spoken to set any of her doubts at rest. Her act of adoration and love made it evident that she knew her sins to be put away. So the words were said for the benefit of the rest who were present at the table, to underscore the staggering truth that this Jesus who spoke the words was the means of the forgiveness of sins!

The reaction of Simon’s friends matched that of their host: “They began to say within (or, among) themselves, Who is this that even forgiveth sins?” So, reading their critical thoughts also, Jesus added a further assurance of forgiveness.

At this time, who in all the wide world, besides this fragile sinner, was capable of believing such a tremendous fact? Even among his close disciples who followed him, hearing his matchless teaching and observing with awe the marvels he wrought amongst men, was there even one whose insight had taken him so far? The witness of John to publicans and harlots that here was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world had already faded from people’s memories.

But here was a despised woman who realised the truth of it and appropriated it to herself with a gladness which no words could express.

Then no wonder Jesus added yet further comfort to her soul: “Thy faith hath saved thee; go into peace”.

On the other occasions when he used these reassuring words it was with reference to an impressive miracle-the woman with an issue of blood (4:48), the Samaritan leper (17:19), and blind Bartimaeus (18:42). Thus he encouraged this new disciple to see her conversion as another miracle matching the others.

This pronouncement of the Lord: “Thy faith hath saved thee”, was remembered, for when Mark records the later anointing he refers to the use of “pistic nard”, that is, faith ointment.

But Jesus had also a word of another sort for the Pharisee: “To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little”. Simon’s studied disrespect for Jesus expressed no love for him, but, if anything, the opposite. This, of course, because he deemed himself righteous before God, without need of forgiveness. The sad irony of the situation was that, very truly, he had no forgiveness, although needing it every bit as much as the woman he reprobated. Did he, later, learn differently?

Notes: Lk. 7:36-50

Brought. Besides the meaning already suggested there is also the significant fact that every one of the six LXX occurrences of this word has a context of sexual irregularity.

An alabaster box. The only other occurrence of this word is in 2 Kgs. 21:3. Is there symbolic meaning here?: Jerusalem, refusing to anoint Jesus as Messiah, is discarded.
Her hair. Is there here an echo of Num. 5:18?
What manner of woman, a word meaning: from what other country. Its NT usage always implies something/somebody strange or off-beat.
Simon. There are 8 other Simons in the NT.
Debtors. Consider Pr. 29:13 LXX: “When creditor and debtor meet together, the Lord is overseer of them both”. See also Ps. 37:21, 22.
Forgave them both. Could this parable have been spoken with reference to the sabbath year (Dt. 15:1, 2 - the Lord’s release)?
Hath not ceased to kiss my feet. And Jesus did not bid her desist!
Anoint -- with oil. The rich used ointment, the poor used oil, but this man neither.
Her sins which are many. Here Jesus shows himself to be no sentimentalist, but a realist facing facts.

For. Misunderstood, this conjunction has been read as meaning: ‘Because you love me, therefore I grant you forgiveness’. But such a reading contradicts the parable. The idea is: ‘I can say this, because she loved much’.

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