In the last essay we studied Luke 7:18-35, a section featuring Jesus and John the Baptist. In this essay we study Luke 7:36-50, which is a story about Jesus’ forgiveness of a sinful woman. The story begins when a Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner, an invitation he accepted (v. 36). Jesus cared about, and was interested in, all people, regardless of their social status. He was willing to eat with Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners alike. People in the upper ranges of Jewish society criticized Jesus for his obvious lack of discrimination in dining companions; but some, like this Pharisee, were friendly to him.
However the friendly Pharisee thought Jesus went over the line when an unexpected person arrived on the scene. But first, let me set the scene. The guests would have been reclining on divans around the table. I’m sure you have seen pictures of the Last Supper that show Jesus and his disciples reclining around the table. The arrangement would have been similar here. It meant that the guests’ feet extended back behind them, as opposed to under the table, as in our culture.
Then “a woman of the city” who is described as “a sinner” came in. She was carrying “an alabaster jar of ointment,” or perfume. She may have been a prostitute. And the perfume may have been purchased with the money earned from her sinful lifestyle. However, there is no way to know with certainty (v. 37).
Now you may be wondering, “How did she get in there?” If it were a Greek style house, and that’s a big if, then the dining room would have had an open side facing a central courtyard that would have been accessible from outside the house. But apart from that, I don’t know how she would have gotten into the house. But she did.
The woman came up behind Jesus. Her original intention may have been to anoint his head with the perfume. That would have been a rather typical means of honoring someone. But it appears that she was overcome with emotion. She began to weep copiously, and the tears fell on Jesus’ feet. That evidently embarrassed her; and having no other means of drying off his feet, she undid her hair and dried them with her hair.
I believe that act best showed how emotional she was. Jewish women, even prostitutes, did not let their hair down in public. That just wasn’t done. But this woman was so emotional she didn’t hesitate to let her hair down to dry Jesus’ feet. Then she began to kiss his feet and to anoint them with the perfume.
You can imagine the shock of the people sitting around the table. First, the woman crashed the party. She was uninvited. Second, she broke Jewish convention by letting her hair down in public. Third, she humiliated herself by kissing Jesus’ feet. And fourth, she anointed his feet with her perfume, an act that was not normal. But just as stunning was the fact that Jesus obviously was permitting all of this. He made no objection to her expressions of love. I believe everyone there was stunned.
In verse 39 we see that the host Pharisee did not say anything out loud, but he had plenty to say to himself. He thought, “If Jesus were a real prophet, he would have known how much of a sinner this woman was.” The implication was that a real prophet would have known that she was a great sinner and would not have allowed such an unclean woman to touch him.
But Jesus knew more than the Pharisee realized. He even knew what the Pharisee was thinking, as the parable Jesus tells the Pharisee indicates. As you see, the parable, found in verses 40-43 perfectly fits the situation of the woman and the Pharisee. It is about a creditor who was owed very different amounts by two debtors. One debtor owed him 500 denarii, a huge amount. That was equivalent to more than a year and four months pay for a laborer in that culture. The other debtor owed 50 denarii, the equivalent of less than two months pay. Therefore the smaller debt was significant, but nowhere near as significant as the larger debt. Unfortunately, neither debtor was able to repay his debt. So the creditor, in a fantastic act of compassion forgave both debts.
Then Jesus asked Simon, the Pharisee, “Which of them will love him more?” And the Pharisee rightly answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” You will notice that the Pharisee’s response was a bit tepid. The Pharisee may have answered cautiously, because he saw where Jesus was going with parable.
Then Jesus brought Simon’s attention back to the woman and spoke to him once again, this time with a scathing rebuke. Notice that Jesus draws three contrasts between Simon’s lack of actions as Jesus’ host and the woman’s actions in the situation.
First, a good host in that culture always provided water for the washing of guests’ feet. Simon had not done that. But the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (v. 44).
Second, it was the custom to offer a kiss of peace to a guest upon arrival at one’s home, but Simon had not done that. Yet the woman had kissed Jesus’ feet again and again (v. 45).
Third, it was customary, if one had a special guest whom one wanted to honor, to anoint that guest ‘s head with oil when they arrived. Simon had not treated Jesus as a special guest by doing that; but the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume (v. 46).
Then came the kicker. Jesus told Simon, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (v. 47).
Jesus’ point was clear. In Jesus’ parable, the amounts of debt that the two debtors had incurred represented the sins of the woman and the Pharisee respectively. She indeed had a great debt of sin. And his debt of sin was minor in comparison. But her sins were forgiven (v. 48), and as a result, she loves much. Jesus doesn’t say whether or not the Pharisee’s sins were forgiven. But in any case, he loves little. It may be that the Pharisee had no idea how great his sin debt was. But the result is the same. He loves little in comparison to the woman whom he despised.
Now I believe it is important not to misunderstand something here. Parables are like analogies. They break down when pressed too far. Jesus was not saying that one has to be a gross sinner in order to have much love for him. Every sinner, no matter how big or small his or her forgiven sin debt is, enters into a love relationship with Jesus, and experiences great love for Jesus. This parable was aimed at this particular Pharisee, and applied to him in a direct way. Simon saw the sinfulness of the woman, but he didn’t see his own sinfulness. Because he was blind to his sinfulness, he loved little. The story ends in verses 49-50 with the astonishment of the dinner guests at Jesus’ ability to forgive sins; and Jesus’ declaration to the woman that her faith had saved her.
Turning to application, the first lesson we should take from this story is that we do not want to make the mistake of the Pharisee and fail to see our own sinfulness. That is very scary. Some people shut themselves off from God’s forgiveness, because of spiritual blindness.
Second, like the woman, we must confess and repent of our sins. Whatever our sin debt may be, we are sinners who need to repent and receive forgiveness. With that transaction, we enter into the love relationship with Jesus that I mentioned earlier, and we love him much. Praise the Lord!
And third, we must not forget that Jesus is the forgiving Savior. Remember, the woman’s tears and kisses did not save her. She was saved by her faith (v. 50).