A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What to do with this educator’s commentary
This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’
This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.
Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.
In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.
Structure of the commentary:
The world of the author’s community
The world at the time of the text
Geography of the text
Questions for the teacher
Text & textual features
Characters & setting
Ideas / phrases / concepts
Questions for the teacher
Questions for the teacher
Meaning for today / challenges
Church interpretations & usage
The World Behind the Text
See general introduction to Luke.
The World of the Text
Text and Textual features
This profound story celebrating forgiveness and love is found in the mid-section of Luke’s Gospel. This is the time of Jesus’ dynamic Galilean ministry. Prior to this episode Luke has included accounts centering on cures and the ongoing criticism aimed at Jesus resulting from the choices he made.
The passage, a narrative in structure, brings clarity to Jesus’ mission, that being love.
Immediately following this story is one that recalls the women disciples of Jesus, those who have followed him; named and unnamed women. This group includes women who have been cured and other women who have supported him through their own means. This passage, with its placement of women as key characters reminds us that women are included in Luke’s Gospel more than any of the other Gospels. We need to be reflective in examining how Luke uses women; in the world he wrote for women had little status or value, being affirmed for their silence and compliance.
Luke 7:36-50 shares similarities with texts found in Matthew, Mark and John (Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13 and Jn 12:1-8), although the differences suggest the writers recall more than one event. In particular, we should avoid any suggestion that this woman is Mary Magdalene, an assumption sometimes carried by Luke’s placement of the passage.
Characters and Setting
Luke sets this theological and spiritual drama in the context of a meal. For the Lukan author, meals become the epicentre of God’s Kingdom. They are included as a repeated setting in this Gospel where Jesus comes face to face with his opposition in his attempt to demonstrate God’s abundant hospitality for the world. It becomes a hospitality that requires breaking boundaries, risk taking and facing injustice in the name of God. You will find that Jesus eats and drinks more in a meal context in Luke’s Gospel than any other Gospel. Regarding the story in focus, there is no specific town or geographic location mentioned as its setting.
The opening lines of this text are to the point and brief.
Immediately, Jesus finds himself in the company of a Pharisee who has invited him to his home for a meal. It is to be noted that Simon chose not to behave in the manner of a host at such an event. In the ancient world it was expected that hosts placed a hand on a guest’s shoulder, gave them a kiss of peace and washed the dust from their feet. This was most likely a banquet of sorts put on for others to draw wisdom from a renowned teacher such as Jesus. In the ancient world individuals would recline on a couch sideways with their freshly bathed feet behind them. What starts out as a generous kind of offer very soon unravels into something so much more. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, the reader would be aware of the trouble Pharisees are causing Jesus and the dubious nature of their actions. One could ask at this point as to whether this hospitable invitation was yet another trap to catch Jesus out and interrupt his spiritual energy.
As soon as this brief introduction is described the focus shifts dramatically. The Pharisee fades into the background as an unnamed woman becomes centre stage. The Lukan author provides a detailed account of Jesus’ encounter with this woman. It is made very clear from the outset that she has sinned or has a bad name around town. Whatever her wrongdoing, she was not the type that Jewish men should engage with or befriend. As per usual, Jesus gives this woman his complete attention as she pours out her love for him. It becomes a story of abundant, emotional devotion like no other in any of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Clearly, the focus of hospitality shifts dramatically from the meal itself to an intimate, human encounter.
What follows is a very detailed account of this woman’s proactive embrace of Jesus. Playing carefully on the power of silence in the midst of noise, the unnamed woman does not utter a single word during the whole episode. It is both intimate, raw and without limits. Despite her own poverty, which would have stemmed from her apparent sinfulness, she comes with an alabaster jar of ointment that would have been very costly. Traditionally, women wore these small phials around their necks. They were made from stone or glass.
What she offers Jesus next is an act of extreme abundance in the context of Luke’s Gospel. This moment of intimacy between Jesus and a stranger celebrates everything that Jesus lives and dies for in the end. Great detail about how the woman positions herself behind Jesus is provided. This is followed by a profoundly tactile moment of successive gestures. Being in Jesus’ presence would have been bad enough but touching him with her tears, unravelled hair and kiss was going completely beyond the social boundaries and etiquette of Jesus’ world. Her free flowing hair would have been deemed immoral in the ancient world. Like with Jesus, she has no limits on her expression of love for another in the context of needing forgiveness. She does not hold back in her abundant display of generosity.
This becomes a moment of complete acceptance of Jesus and his mission. Ironically, it emerges from a poverty stricken individual who had no voice or position of influence in society. This woman becomes the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality at this point of the text. Importantly, Jesus does not turn his back on this woman or criticize her with a reprimand. Rather, his acceptance of her loving embrace is nothing short of complete.
As this unnamed woman concludes by anointing Jesus with ointment we are reminded of what is to come in the final stages of Luke’s Gospel when Jesus is anointed, again, by women at his burial after his death. This jar of ointment seems to hold the entire fabric of this Gospel together from a theological and spiritual perspective.
In summation, the meal we read about in this text’s introduction is now totally overshadowed by this individual expression of love and hospitality in excess. The intimate and unbridled love she pours all over Jesus becomes an expression of God’s excessive love for the entire world. This is a most poignant moment of incarnation that Luke includes in his Gospel repertoire.
What follows is a moment of grumbling and criticism from Simon the Pharisee to which Jesus replies with a confronting dialogue in the form of a parable. He explicitly points out Simon’s obvious lack of hospitality compared to what our sinful woman offers. The comparison is detailed when Jesus states that Simon gave him no water, kiss or anointing with ointment. In the concluding stages of this text Jesus makes a very clear declaration for inclusive hospitality that has no boundaries in the eyes of God. The triangular integration of the three key characters in this story is essential to the formation of Luke’s message.
The final section of this text concludes with a renewed focus on Jesus’ relationship with this stranger. Not only does he accept her love with utter openness but he follows this by forgiving her sinfulness. She has now been cleansed and healed, restored and left with dignity once again. Who knows how long she had been living with the stigma of sinner. As with many other stories in Luke’s Gospel this one concludes with Jesus stating that this woman’s faith is what saves her in the end.
This text is filled with an abundance of key themes and concepts from beginning to end. One could say that this is a text of abounding contrasts. Luke’s literary genius is on full display when he uses story as a device to explore and unpack these contrasting elements of Jesus’ world, the human condition and God’s presence in creation. Following, is a table outlining these themes found in this text:
- Acceptance and Rejection
- Extravagance and Minimalism
- Exclusion and Inclusion
- Hospitality and Isolation
- Forgiveness and Judgement
- Active ministry and Non – Engagement
- Brokenness and Healing
- Scepticism and Faith
- Discipleship and Individualism
- Judgement and Trust
Questions for the teacher:
World in Front of the Text
Questions for the teacher:
Meaning for today/challenges
This rich and rewarding text still provides much to say today! As we navigate our way through life, we are called to ride the waves, climb the mountains, swim the seas and walk the paths that come before us. Along the way we are challenged to grow in spiritual maturity and wisdom through moments of vulnerability, loss and suffering. At times, we may experience rejection, judgement or labelling by others around us. Hopefully, we will also encounter those who offer us unconditional love, incredible amounts of affirmation or a deep sense of respect and loving kindness. All of this is on display in this text and all of it can assist us in our quest to be the best human beings we can be amongst the sacred community we call creation.
This text offers profound wisdom so desperately needed in our world today, a wisdom that is grounded in love, acceptance, excessive hospitality and emotional intelligence. It is in this place where God resides. It is in this place where Christ companions us. It is in this pace where the Holy Spirit inspires us, one and all.