The story of Jesus, Simon the pharisee and the woman sinner ( Luke 7:36-50) is well known (although often confused with the story of the woman who anoints Jesus before his death). Like many of the stories in the Bible, there are many things to consider in this story. Today, let’s just focus primarily on the woman.
Just before the story we’re looking at today, Jesus heals the centurion’s servant and raises a widow’s son from the dead. Then John the baptizer’s disciples come and ask Jesus if he is “the one”. Jesus tells them, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:18-23)
The author has just told us about Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. What will Jesus do now? He goes to dinner…
Simon the pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. It appears he is curious about who Jesus is. Curious enough to invite him to dinner, and thus willing to accord Jesus some respect. Meals of this sort in the first century were important occasions. Pharisees with their concern for ritual purity didn’t invite just anyone to share their table. And that’s why the arrival of the woman sinner was a problem.
The woman who “was a sinner” shows up at about the same time Jesus does. This is an intentional act. She comes with the jar of ointment or perfume. Reading between the lines, it appears this woman has already encountered Jesus and already knows herself to be the recipient of the reconciling love of God. In those days these sorts of dinners were more public and uninvited people may have been present as onlookers but, certainly they weren’t supposed to crash the party. Particularly in such an inappropriate manner.
Joel B. Green puts it this way,
Within her cultural context– especially with women readily viewed as temptresses and/or sex objects, and all the more given her apparent reputation as a prostitute– her actions on the whole would have been regarded (at least by men) as erotic. Letting her hair down in this setting would have been on a par with appearing topless in public, for example. She would have appeared to be fondling Jesus’ feet, like a prostitute or a slave girl accustomed to providing sexual favors.
Shocking behavior on this woman’s part. No wonder Simon is upset with Jesus for not stopping this woman. Pious Jewish men simply didn’t go anywhere near such woman. Simon is, it seems, beginning to wonder what sort of man Jesus is. Surely not a prophet.
As readers, we are in on the joke. Not Jesus isn’t simply a prophet, he is more than a prophet.
Of course in the ancient world, a woman without a man had few options for survival. We don’t know how this woman ended up a prostitute but most likely she didn’t have a real choice. Encountering Jesus hadn’t changed the way she was forced to survive in that society. Nevertheless she comes to express her gratitude toward Jesus in the only way she knows how. Awkward and inappropriate as her actions are, Jesus simply lets the woman express herself. She acts toward Jesus in the only way she knows how to relate to men. There is no rebuke, no correction from Jesus here. He simply accepts what she is capable of giving.
Then as if this meal hasn’t been upsetting enough to Simon and his guests, Jesus tells this sinful woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” The woman, clearly, already knows this. Jesus’ words are not spoken for her benefit, but rather for Simon and his guests. How will they respond? Their first reaction is astonishment and skepticism. “Who is this who even forgive sins?” As shocking as the womans inappropriate behavior is, this statement by Jesus might be even more scandalous claiming the power to forgive sins.
How will Simon and his guests respond? Do they think Jesus is a prophet? Do they think he is the messiah? We don’t know.Will they treat the woman differently? Will she be welcomed in the community? Will they help her so she can give up her life as a prostitute? We don’t know. The author leaves us wondering, what would we do, what would we think, if we were Simon?
Joel B. Green quote from The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) page 310.