Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman
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, [c] 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."
I was recently reading a book about a man who was trying to learn to be a better missionary and servant to all kinds of people. He recounted one experience that had stayed with him since the moment in his life when it first happened, and it has stayed with me since reading it. He had gone to spend a week working with an inner-city mission group in a large American city. This particular group walked the streets of this major metropolis during the hours of 10 PM and 3 AM every single day. They wanted to talk to people, meet people, help those in need, and just be seen regularly so that they would be trusted and known. The man had to learn certain aspects of their work that would keep them as safe as possible as well. He said that on the first night that he actually went out with the program director they passed by a young lady who was dressed quite scantily and provocatively. He waited until they passed by and were out of hearing range and then asked the director if that woman was a prostitute. He recalled in his book that it seemed like such an obvious thing that he was quite surprised that the program director took several seconds to answer. When he finally did answer, his response was shocking to the author. He said quite firmly and with even a little bit of rebuking tone, “No, she is not a prostitute. She is a human being that is currently in prostitution.” That night the author learned how quick he was to categorize and, therefore dehumanize human beings who have been created to be God’s image bearers. Lord forgive me for doing the same thing far too often.
When we categorize people we really do dehumanize them. Once we’ve categorized them, you see, we don’t actually have to deal with them on a personal basis. We can accept them or reject them based on the nice, neat categories that we have created. In fact, studies in the US show that the average American has completely sized up and made a value judgment on other human beings within five seconds of meeting them. This is exactly what we see happening in this scene. Simon was so quick to dehumanize this woman by putting her into a category so that he didn’t have to actually deal with her. In doing so, though, he will find that he has not so much dehumanized her as he has dehumanized himself and removed himself the very category into which he would have confidently placed himself.
At the outset, this whole scene seems a bit confusing to those of us who are well removed from a culture like this. The whole idea of privacy and the like was quite a bit different than we maintain now. When someone was hosting a dinner, especially with a public figure like Jesus, it would have not been that unusual to have it out in the open or to leave the doors open so that people could come in and observe the goings on. That was all well and fine providing that they kept their distance and did not intrude themselves inappropriately into the proceedings themselves. So, it is not actually that unusual that this woman would have had access to see what was going on. What she did do, though, that was so shocking and upsetting for Simon was that she didn’t stay in the background. She didn’t stay put in her place where she belonged.
In fact, as the men were reclining at the table, she inserted herself right into the meal itself. The men would likely have been lying on their stomachs and propping themselves up on their left elbows. They would have been facing a u-shaped table with their feet down away from the table. But this woman did not know her place. She was not of the right quality of personhood to be coming out from the shadows and coming right up into the table area. To make matters worse, that wasn’t the only social custom that she broke. She was well known as a sinner, meaning likely that she was either a prostitute or something similar, yet she boldly came into the house and table fellowship area of a Pharisee. What was worse than that was that she, overcome by emotion, she washed Jesus’ feet with her own tears and dried them with her own hair before anointing his feet with expensive perfume. Taking one’s hair down in public was about as socially acceptable in their society as a woman taking off her shirt and drying off someone’s feet with nothing but her bra on would be in ours.
Everything she did, in the eyes of Simon demonstrated two things. The first was a confirmation of his judgment of her. She was a sinner. She shouldn’t be around them. Simply her presence could defile them and make them look bad in the eyes of others. She needed to be removed from the situation. Perhaps if she could somehow radically clean herself up and change her life, but then that wasn’t really possible because even if she did do that, to change her perception in the community would have been almost impossible.
The second thing her behavior accomplished in Simon’s eyes, was to confirm that Jesus was no prophet. Luke has already made clear that some Pharisees had rejected Jesus outright and already passed judgment on him. Others would hold off on their judgment, as Simon had apparently done. Yet, even though he invited Jesus to his home, it was obvious that he had not treated him with full respect, although Luke doesn’t clearly define how he failed to treat Jesus with the proper social respect. But Jesus’ reaction to this woman showed Simon that he didn’t need to treat Jesus with any special honor. How could a prophet not know what kind of woman this was? How could a man of God allow this woman to be in his presence? How could Jesus not immediately rebuke this woman and send her away?
The irony in all of this is that as Simon is busy categorizing Jesus as someone that is not worth his time because he does not have the ability to correctly judge people, Jesus knew exactly who this woman was and he knew exactly what was in Simon’s heart. Simon was judging him to be less than a prophet while Jesus was about to show that he was far more than just a prophet.
In operating from the old reality of a world embroiled in sin and death, perhaps Simon was right. Maybe this woman was just a sinner, but Jesus has made it clear that he is playing by different rules. Simon, and those like him, expected people to effect change in their lives before being worthy of being accepted. But when you play by those standards, worthiness is always judged by other human begins and can be elusive at best. The reality is that system always benefits those that are already on the top and it tends to oppress those on the bottom to keep them there. Jesus has already announced that the values of his kingdom were going to turn the world on its head and this is a living, breathing, example of that. Rather than operating by the old standards, Jesus is signaling that his kingdom is about fishing for people. It means going out and pursuing sinners. It means showing people that they are human beings that are valued by God and showing them God’s transforming love. When people are shown this kind of love it is that very love that will change them. They don’t have to change to earn the acceptance of others, they will be given the radically transforming love of the gospel message and be truly transformed from within by it.
Jesus’ parable has a sharp point to it, and although Simon got the surface point, he seems to have failed to see the deeper truth. The debtor who owed about 20 month’s salary was just as forgiven as the one who owed about 2 month’s salary. But the one with the larger debt understood that they were a serious debtor that had just had something wonderful done for them for which they could truly never earn or repay. The other person, though, didn’t see the greatness of the forgiveness because they thought that their debt was small. Simon understood that the one with the larger debt would be the most grateful and willing to lavish love on the master.
What he failed to see was that Jesus’ point was not that this woman was the one with the larger debt while he was the one with the smaller debt. Many people read this passage and make that same mistake that Simon made. I don’t believe that this was Jesus’ point. His point was that they both owed the greater debt but that the woman realized that was her debt while Simon thought he had just a very small debt to God. Jesus’ ministry was about forgiveness and canceling debts. It was about pursuing sinners, but Simon failed to see that he was the sinner that Jesus was pursuing as he told that parable.
The woman had understood what Jesus brought into her life and was overwhelmed with joy and emotion. She was humble and knew that she needed Jesus and when he accepted her by allowing her to wash his feet, she broke down with gratitude. Simon, however, failed to treat Jesus with respect and proper honor because he didn’t think he was a debtor. She was not the one who truly broke any proper customs because her actions were understandable. It was Simon who by his arrogance and judgmental behavior had behaved improperly.
Verses 48 and 50 can seem a little confusing when placed together with the woman’s actions in this scene unless we read them in context of verse 49. Why would she have been showing such joy and gratitude if Jesus had yet to forgive her and accept her? Was she anticipating his action? No, Jesus had already accepted this woman based on her faith in him and her desire to see herself as a sinner in need of him to change. Jesus was not declaring that under the Old Covenant her sins had been forgiven and that she was accepted into his kingdom movement, that had already happened. She had already been forgiven and acted appropriately in response to her new state of freedom but others were not willing to accept her as anything more than a sinner. She didn’t need forgiveness from God but she did need recognition of her new state among those in her community. Rather than the onus being put on her to prove herself changed, Jesus was trying to change the worldview of Simon and his guests by showing that she was already forgiven. The responsibility to change wasn’t on her. The responsibility to change their thinking and accept Jesus as one who had the power to forgive sins and bring God’s kingdom to bear in the present age was on them. It didn’t come down to her worthiness but their faith in Jesus. That’s what it always comes down to.
Are you ever guilty of categorizing and, thus, dehumanizing people? Are there any times when you find yourself thinking more like Simon than you’d care to admit? Have you come to terms with the depths of your own heart and allowed God’s radical love to come into your own heart, and then into the lives of others?