Luke 7:36 – 8:3
LUKE 7:36 – 8:3. OVERVIEW
All four Gospels include accounts of an anointing of Jesus by a woman (see Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). Luke’s account, however, is sufficiently different that we should probably treat it as a separate incident rather than trying to harmonize it with the other accounts:
• The anointing in the other Gospels takes place very late in Jesus’ ministry, and serves as anointing for Jesus’ burial. In Luke’s account, the anointing takes place much earlier.
• The anointing in the other Gospels takes place in Bethany of Judea. In Luke’s account, the place is not named, but Jesus has recently been in Capernaum (7:1), which leads us to believe that the anointing takes place in Galilee.
• In Matthew and Mark the host is Simon the leper, while in Luke’s account he is Simon the Pharisee. While it is possible that they are the same man, it seems unlikely that Matthew and Mark would fail to note that the leper is a Pharisee and that Luke would fail to note that he is a leper. The fact that he is a Pharisee is critical to Luke’s account.
• The other Gospels do not report the most provocative of the woman’s behaviors, the weeping, kissing, and wiping of Jesus’ feet with unbound hair. It is hard to imagine that they would fail to include such dramatic details if this were the same incident.
• The objection raised in the other Gospels has to do with stewardship of expensive ointment, whereas here it is the woman’s reputation as a sinner and Jesus’ failure to repudiate her actions.
• The other Gospels do not report the parable of the debtors (vv. 40-42) and do not emphasize forgiveness of sin, which is the crux of the matter in Luke’s account.
It is important to remember the context:
First, this chapter has “been devoted to portraying Jesus as one greater than a prophet” (Culpepper, 168).
• Jesus knows the sins of the woman, which we could attribute to normal observational skills.
• He also knows the sins of his host, Simon the Pharisee, which makes him a prophet. Most people cannot see beneath Simon’s veneer of respectability.
• Jesus forgives sin (v. 47), which makes him greater than a prophet.
Second, in verse 34, Luke establishes that Jesus has been criticized as “a gluttonous man, and a drunkard; a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” This story confirms that Jesus is, indeed, a friend of sinners, a recurring theme in Luke.
LUKE 7:36-39. DINNER AT THE PHARISEE’S HOUSE
36One of the Pharisees invited him to eat with him. He entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at the table. 37Behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that he was reclining in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38Standing behind at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner.”
“One of the Pharisees invited him to eat with him” (v. 36a). Jesus criticizes Pharisees frequently (Matthew 23:13-29; Luke 11:39), and Pharisees are among his most determined opponents. However, the Pharisees were very religious–the defenders of the faith. While there was often tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, Luke sometimes presents the Pharisees in a favorable light:
• In Luke 13:31, Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was planning to kill him.
• In John 3, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus by night saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (3:2).
• Here as well as in Luke 11:37 and 14:1, Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner. However, we should note that, on each of these occasions, they criticize Jesus and Jesus responds with a stinging rebuke.
Jesus is a young prophet of growing reputation, so it seems natural that Simon invites him to dinner. Snaring a “talk-of-the-town” dinner guest is always a coup. That does not mean that Simon endorses Jesus. His failure to extend common courtesies signals his ambivalence.
“Behold, a woman in the city…brought an alabaster jar of ointment” (v. 37). Dinners of this sort are open affairs with the principals gathered around the table and passersby welcome to come and observe from the sidelines. Observers can expect to hear erudite, animated conversation. Most people present, principals and observers alike, will be men.
“Standing behind at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (v. 38). The principals recline on pillows with their heads close to the table and their feet extended back from the table—thus the woman’s proximity to 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:
• Weeping suggests out-of-control emotions brought on by who-knows-what.
• 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 this young prophet. It is also possible that one or two of the men at table 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.
“This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner” (v. 39). Simon keeps himself “pure,” and expects other religious leaders to do the same. He is embarrassed at the provocative behavior of the sinful woman and is shocked that Jesus does nothing to rebuff her.
Simon must be especially offended that this woman commits her indiscretions at his dinner table. To appreciate his unhappiness, imagine hosting an elegant dinner for special guests and having the dinner interrupted by such behavior. Or imagine being accosted in public by a weeping, provocative woman. Or imagine seeing your husband accosted in this manner.
Some scholars assume that the woman must have been a prostitute, because prostitution was one of the few ways that an unmarried woman could support herself financially. However, the text does not specify the nature of her sins.
Simon determines that Jesus cannot be a prophet when he fails to rebuff this woman. Either Jesus does not know that the woman is a sinner or doesn’t care. Either disqualifies him as a prophet. This goes to the heart of this part of Luke’s Gospel, which is concerned to show that Jesus is not only a prophet but is greater than a prophet.
Note Simon’s concern with “what kind of woman this is” (7:39). Simon categorizes people and relates to them according to their station in life, but Jesus sees people as individuals and relates to them as human beings.
LUKE 7:40-47. HER SINS, WHICH ARE MANY, ARE FORGIVEN
40Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” He said, “Teacher, say on.” 41“A certain lender had two debtors. The one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they couldn’t pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?”
43Simon answered, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”
He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven (Greek: apheontai—perfect tense), for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
“Simon, I have something to tell you” (v. 40a). Simon keeps his judgment of Jesus private, but Jesus, because he is a prophet, knows Simon’s heart. Note the irony here. Simon believes that Jesus is not a prophet because he does not know this woman’s heart, but Jesus proves that he is a prophet by knowing Simon’s heart. In verse 40b, Simon addresses Jesus as “Teacher.” From that point, Jesus proceeds to teach Simon.
“A certain lender had two debtors. The one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty” (v. 41). A denarius is a day’s wages for a laborer (Matthew 20:2, 13), so a debt of five hundred denarii would amount to wages for a year and a half—a crushing debt. Fifty denarii would amount to wages for two months—still significant, but manageable.
“When they couldn’t pay, he forgave them both” (amphoterois echarisato – both he forgave) (v. 42a). When we first read this, we are likely to notice only the forgiven debt. However, the text says that the lender forgave them, which appears to point to a deeper forgiveness than the resolution of a simple business transaction (Hultgen, 214).
“Which of them therefore will love him most” (v. 42b). Jesus’ question points to an obvious answer. The one who is forgiven a great debt is likely to be more grateful than a person who is forgiven a lesser debt—and that gratitude is likely to inspire affection, loyalty—even love.
“He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most” (v. 43a). Note the tentative nature of Simon’s response. He senses that he is in trouble, but cannot find a way out. If he admits that the one who is forgiven more loves more, he loses. Jesus has only to state the obvious. The woman is grateful, having been forgiven much, while Simon is ungrateful, having been forgiven less.
Jesus asks, “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 unseemly behavior. He sees the interruption of his carefully planned evening. He sees the failure of the young prophet to respond appropriately. 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.
“I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment” (vv. 44b-47). Jesus points out that the woman has redressed Simon’s failure—his sin. As host, Simon is responsible for the courtesies of good hospitality—water, a greeting kiss, anointing. He failed to offer these, a serious deficiency.
Some scholars say that Simon’s threefold negligence, while deficient, violates no essential code. However, Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar who spent forty years living and teaching in the Middle East, paints a very different picture. He notes that Simon calls Jesus “Teacher,” the equivalent of calling him “Rabbi” (v. 40)—thus acknowledging that Jesus is due the highest level of hospitality. He then says that Simon’s failure to provide water for Jesus’ feet and a greeting kiss constitutes “a marked sign of contempt, or at least a claim to a much higher social position” (Bailey, 5, quoting Tristram). He concludes, “It is clear that the accepted rituals of welcoming the guest are not merely overlooked…but have been callously omitted by a judgmental host” (Bailey, 5). At best, then, Simon’s hospitality has been unenthusiastic and boorish. At worst, it constituted a deliberate snub calculated to embarrass his guest—an almost unthinkable lapse for a Middle Eastern host.
Of course, Simon’s real deficiency is not his inattentiveness as a host but his spiritual pride. He works so hard to obey God’s law that 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. If he perceives himself in need of God’s grace, he cannot imagine that he needs much of it. 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?
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (v. 47). It is easy to misunderstand this verse—to assume that the woman has been forgiven because she loves—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—and it is to that parable that Jesus points us with his “Therefore” at the beginning of verse 47.
The text is silent with regard to the circumstances that led to the woman’s forgiveness. Did her repentance set the stage foe Jesus’ 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. Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (also written by Luke) make it clear that repentance is a prerequisite for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3; 13:3, 5; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 17:30-31).
LUKE 7:48-50. YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN
48He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Greek: apheontai—“have been forgiven”). 49Those who sat at the table with him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven” (perfect tense, signaling a completed action)” (v. 48).
“Those who sat at the table with him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?'” (v. 49). Their point is well taken. Only God can forgive sins. Unless Jesus is acting on God’s authority, he has seriously overreached. His words here are as provocative as the woman’s actions at the dinner table.
Some scholars believe that Jesus makes this announcement of forgiveness to reassure the woman, but others believe that he does it to communicate her new forgiven status to Simon and the others at table (Green, 313-314). They have ostracized the woman because she is a sinner, and Jesus wants them to know that she has been forgiven—is no longer guilty—is now a fit candidate for inclusion in polite company—should be restored to community in the same way that a healed leper would be restored once the priest has declared him clean. We might go so far as to say that Jesus, in announcing this woman’s forgiveness, is performing the priestly function of restoring her to community.
Jesus tells the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50). Faith brought the woman to Jesus. Faith opened the door to forgiveness and salvation. Note that Jesus does not tell Simon that he is also forgiven. It is not that Simon needs no forgiveness, but that his heart is not open to receive it. This story is reminiscent of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican was too ashamed even to lift his eyes to heaven, but the Pharisee gave thanks that he was not a sinner like the Publican. Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
We must not imagine ourselves to be immune from this kind of spiritual pride. The danger in studying this parable is that we might find ourselves giving thanks that we are not like the full-of-pride Pharisees.
LUKE 8:1-3. CERTAIN WOMEN SERVED THEM
1It happened soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God. With him were the twelve, 2and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out; 3and Joanna, the wife of Chuzas, Herod’s steward; Susanna; and many others; who served them from their possessions.
These verses are also about women who have been healed and restored by Jesus (v. 2). In some cases, Jesus has healed them of evil spirits— to include Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus expelled seven demons. These women became very faithful members of Jesus entourage.
“With him were the twelve” (v. 1c). The twelve are present on this preaching mission (v. 1), but none is mentioned by name. Three women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, are named, however, and we are told that there were many others (v. 3). These women have all been cured of evil spirits and infirmities (v. 2), which would cause them to be especially devoted to Jesus (another connection with the woman in the preceding story).
“and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (v. 2a). Although women are subordinate in that society, they play an important part in this Gospel from the very first chapter, and will continue to play an important role in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke notes that Joanna is the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, a significant station in life. The women“served them from their possessions” (v. 3). While it would be possible to interpret their support as a subordinate (and therefore demeaning) role, it seems more likely that their support was essential (a true Godsend) to the twelve and that the twelve responded with gratitude and love to these faithful women just as the woman whose sins were forgiven responded in gratitude and love to Jesus.
It would be interesting to know the impact of women for Christ over the past century through resources that they have raised and the witness they have given. How many missionaries have they enabled to go to the field? How many homeless people have they sheltered? How many hungry people have they fed? How much Christian fellowship have they enabled? How many church doors are open because of their generosity? How many people know Christ because of their efforts?
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
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Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
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Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Pazdan, Mary Margaret, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
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Copyright 2007, 2010, 2012 2015, Richard Niell Donovan