Ever been in an awkward social situation? Ever felt unwelcome at a gathering? Ever eaten a meal at someone’s house only to have an immoral woman walk in and start washing your feet with her tears and anointing them with perfume? No? That’s what happens to Jesus in this story. He eats with a Pharisee, and it turns into both an uncomfortable social event and a lesson on forgiveness. The moral to the story both for the self-righteous Pharisee and for the reader is that faith leads to forgiveness, and forgiveness leads to love. Those who have been forgiven much, love much.
Before examining the text, it’s important to understand some cultural norms at work in the story. First, when wealthy or influential people have a dinner party, it’s okay for uninvited guests to come and observe the meal. They don’t eat or join in the conversation, but if they want to come into the house and watch and listen, it’s perfectly acceptable (for the poor, it might also mean some food from the leftovers). Second, in formal eating arrangements, the diners recline on couches with their heads toward the table and their feet behind them, pointed away from the table. They lean on their left elbow and eat with their right hand. To understand the scene in this text, picture the guests like spokes on a wheel around the table. Their heads are toward the center of the wheel and their feet extend outward toward the edge.
Luke is the only gospel writer that records this story. The other gospels tell a similar story that takes place toward the end of Jesus’ life, but it doesn’t occur at the house of a Pharisee and, according to John, the woman involved is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Matt 26:6-13, Mk 14:2-9, Jn 12:1-8). Luke is the only writer who records this scene with a Pharisee and an immoral woman.
A Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to dinner. We’re not sure why he does – especially since we’ll find out later that he’s no fan of Jesus – but Jesus accepts the invitation. Note that Jesus is an equal-opportunity diner; tax collectors and Pharisees are both acceptable dinner companions in His mind. So Jesus goes to Simon’s house and reclines at the table.
While they’re eating, a woman identified as a sinner (or immoral – she’s most likely a prostitute) hears what’s going on and comes over. She enters the house, goes to where Jesus reclines, and does six amazing things. First, she starts weeping. Second, she lets her hair down (not appropriate for a Jewish woman in public). Third, she wets Jesus’ feet with her tears. Fourth, she wipes His feet with her hair. Fifth, she anoints His feet with the perfume. Sixth, she begins kissing Jesus’ feet. It’s an amazing scene.
Picture what this must be like for everyone at the table (and we know from verse 49 that there are more people present than just Jesus and Simon). They’re eating and conversing and then the woman walks in and essentially brings everything to a halt. If a conversation was going on, we can assume it becomes a little awkward to continue it as if nothing odd is happening. Remember, she weeps as she cleans and kisses Jesus’ feet, AND she uses perfume that likely affects the whole room, so it’s not like they can pretend she’s not there. Apparently no one says anything (since Simon doesn’t express his thoughts out loud), but it’s not hard to imagine that everyone feels pretty uncomfortable. What’s great is that Jesus doesn’t appear to be perturbed or embarrassed by the attention at all. He doesn’t react until the Pharisee starts mentally criticizing Him.
This the Pharisee does as he watches the woman. He’s horrified by everything about her. First, she’s a prostitute and she’s in HIS HOUSE. It might be okay for people to wander in, but a prostitute is never welcome. Second, how in the world can a supposedly respectable rabbi allow this? If Jesus is really a prophet (or THE prophet), as His followers claim, then surely He’d know what kind of woman this is who touches Him and would never allow it. This is another proof that this Jesus isn’t who He says He is. He’s either oblivious or not respectable; either one means He’s not the Expected One. These are the thoughts the Pharisee has as he watches.
Before examining Jesus’ response, it’s important to really notice the woman. Think of all the nuances to her actions. She comes into a house where she KNOWS she’s not welcome. No Pharisee would come within thirty feet of a woman like her. Then, she completely humiliates herself as she ministers to Jesus. She spends all her time paying attention to His feet. She cleans, she dries, she anoints them with the perfume. These are things the lowest slave does. And through it all, she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She doesn’t care what kind of scene she causes. She doesn’t care who’s shocked by her behavior. She doesn’t care about the horrified Pharisee. She’s oblivious to everything and everyone because all she sees is her Savior. She loves her Savior – the one who forgives – and nothing else matters.
Jesus does something only He can do. He answers Simon’s thoughts (which presumably would be pretty sobering for Simon once he realizes it). Jesus tells Simon He has something to say to him. Simon – without understanding where Jesus is going with His comments – confidently tells Jesus to talk away. Jesus then tells him a parable about a moneylender who forgave the debts of two men; one who owed him quite a bit (500 denarii, or 500 days of wages) and one who owed him a much smaller amount (50 denarii, or 50 days of wages). Once He tells the parable, Jesus asks Simon which man would love the moneylender more.
Note Simon’s answer. He doesn’t answer confidently because he’s starting to wonder where this is going to end up (perhaps he’s familiar with other exchanges between Pharisees and Jesus that didn’t go well for the Pharisees). He’s a little wary of what the point is and how it’s going to reflect on him. So he hedges a bit and says, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
Jesus tells him he answered correctly and then goes on to do exactly what Simon worried He’d do. He uses the story to condemn Simon’s actions and attitude. He turns to the woman and addresses Simon. He points out that when He entered Simon’s house Simon didn’t offer any water to Jesus so He could wash His feet (a common courtesy). Simon didn’t greet Him with a kiss or anoint His head with oil (something done for honored guests or rabbis). The woman, however, washed and dried Jesus’ feet, anointed them with the perfume, and kissed them. Everything Simon didn’t do, the woman did, and did it humbly and lovingly.
It’s interesting to wonder at this point in the story why Simon invited Jesus to dinner. Simon clearly disrespected Jesus once He was there. Was the invitation a way to get to know a public enemy? Was the thought to pump Him for information on His ministry and plans? Or was the plan to perhaps entrap Jesus in His words? That Simon felt no need to practice common courtesy shows the disdain he has for Jesus. Why he still had Him over is somewhat of a mystery.
Jesus concludes by saying that the woman’s sins – which are many – are forgiven (note that Jesus doesn’t discount or minimize her sins – He openly acknowledges she’s lived a less than godly life). He doesn’t mean that her actions have led to forgiveness. What He means is that her actions show that she IS forgiven. Her forgiveness has led to her outpouring of love.
Her great love comes from the great forgiveness she’s enjoyed. She’s proof that those who are forgiven much love much. One who has no appreciation for how much he’s forgiven loves little. Much forgiveness, much love. Little forgiveness, little love.
The implication for Simon is clear. His lack of love shows he’s not forgiven and sees no need to be. All he saw in the woman’s actions were embarrassment, disrespect, an egregious lack of social awareness, and proof that Jesus isn’t who He says He is. The thought that she acted out of love and thanksgiving for her forgiveness is totally foreign to his way of thinking. He’s a Pharisee – what need does he have for forgiveness?
After addressing Simon, Jesus turns to the woman and says to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” She apparently already knew this because of her actions. Jesus may say it here (and it’s likely that He’s interacted with her before – some conjecture that she’s Mary Magdalene, though there’s no proof of this in the scripture) as much for His listeners’ sake as for hers.
This is another example of Jesus showing compassion to the worst of sinners. No repentant sinner goes away from an interaction with Jesus empty. There is great encouragement in watching Jesus interact with those we’d consider to be among the greatest sinners. There is nothing too dirty to take to His throne.
The response of those at the table who hear Him is the same as those who heard Him forgive the sins of the lame man who was let down through the roof (Lk 5:20). They can’t believe that Jesus ascribes to Himself the power to forgive. Only God can forgive; who is this man who claims to forgive too?
Jesus doesn’t bother answering them (He absolutely intends for them to understand that He’s equal to God and can forgive). Instead, He turns to the woman again and tells her that her faith has saved her and that she may go in peace. This illuminates the cause and effect of what He says in the story. Love doesn’t lead to forgiveness; love is an outgrowth OF forgiveness. Faith leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to love. The level of forgiveness we enjoy directly relates to the level of love we have for our forgiver.
Note that He tells the woman to go in peace. He doesn’t mean that she’s in for peace on this earth. What He refers to is her status with God. She’s no longer at war with God; she’s no longer condemned. Instead, she’s welcomed into the presence of God as a child. She’s completely at peace with God.
This story illustrates again what Jesus told the religious leaders after having dinner at Matthew’s house with the tax collectors and sinners. He’s not here for the righteous, He’s here for the sick. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). We all should thank God that’s true.
When we understand the depth of our sinfulness and thus the height of our forgiveness, we will desperately love our Redeemer. The natural and appropriate response to amazing mercy is amazing love. If we don’t love, we have no appreciation for how much we’ve been forgiven. Said another way, if our heart is cold, it means we have little grasp of the gravity of our salvation. Hearts like Simon’s come from a small gospel.
When we understand the depth of our sinfulness and thus the height of our forgiveness, we will desperately worship our Redeemer. The woman couldn’t worship Jesus enough. She didn’t care about her surroundings or what others thought or how much of a scene she caused. She didn’t care about humiliating herself. She only cared about expressing love for Jesus. When we’re filled with the gospel, we’ll have an overwhelming desire to worship its Author. Hearts like the woman’s come from a big gospel.