18. "On Being Thankful"

Luke 7:36–50

More than a parable on "being thankful," Luke writes this parable as a love story of Jesus' feet being anointed with tears and perfume by a sinful woman. It's a love story, pure and simple, built on a love that's very deep and truly heart-felt.
Note: Do not confuse this parable with another about a woman anointing Jesus' feet with expensive oil. See my intro, below, that differentiates between the two.

Differentiating Similar Stories

Luke's passage is similar to another story of Jesus being anointed by a woman. To understand this story of Jesus anointed by a sinful woman, we need to disentangle it from the story of Jesus' anointing at Bethany, near the end of his ministry (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:1–11; and John 12:1–10). Here are the similarities:

  • Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume.
  • He is anointed by a woman.
  • The anointing takes place in the house of a man named Simon.

The anointing at Bethany differs from this parable in that:

  • It takes place at the home of Simon the Leper, not Simon the Pharisee.
  • The woman doing the anointing at Bethany is not spoken of as sinful, but actually appears to be Mary, Lazarus' sister.
  • The meaning of the anointing at Bethany is to prefigure Jesus' burial.
  • The anointing is on the head (Matthew and Mark) and possibly the feet (John).
  • The criticism is by disciples, especially Judas, over the value of the perfume that is "wasted," rather than as a criticism of the morals of the sinful woman doing the anointing.

Dining at the Home of Simon the Pharisee, with a Sinful Woman (7:36–37)

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, . . .

It was an honor for a Pharisee to host a visiting teacher, and Simon wanted to host dinner for this famous rabbi. Hospitality is a very strong value in the Near East, with much fuss made over guests. For example, a basin would typically be provided so guests could wash the dust of the road from their feet. Scented olive oil was sometimes offered to anoint a guest's hair. And beloved guests would be kissed as they were greeted. We see that Simon offered none of these marks of a gracious host. Such overflowing hospitality wasn't required; Simon wasn't being discourteous. The way he welcomed his guests this day seems pro forma, but not especially warm nor cordial.

Vs. 37 tells us about a sinful woman who, surely but not surprisingly, hasn't been invited. I learned that it was the custom then that, when a Rabbi was at a meal in such a house, all kinds of people came in — they were quite free to do so — to listen to the pearls of wisdom that fell from his lips.

Though not so stated, many commentators presume that she was a prostitute. For her to come to the banquet at Simon the Pharisee's house was difficult. She's viewed as a sinner, perhaps one who conveys uncleanness by her very touch. She knows that Simon will not be happy to see her in his house but she entered nevertheless. The sinful woman has heard of Jesus; probably heard his teaching.

Jesus' Feet, Anointed by Tears and Perfume (7:38)

. . . and 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.

The woman, standing behind Jesus, begins to weep. Her tears fall upon Jesus' feet and wet them. She unfastens her hair and lets it fall freely. Kneeling down, she begins to wipe and wash his feet with her hair. Next, she begins to kiss his feet, perhaps as a common mark of deep reverence, especially to a leading rabbi.

Finally, she pours scented oil onto his feet out of her perfume vial. Once the vial is opened, I'll bet that almost immediately its smell is detected by everyone in the room. While Jesus has been the center of focus up to now, all eyes turn to the woman now kneeling at Jesus' feet, weeping, wiping, caressing his feet with her long black hair, kissing his feet with her lips, and pouring perfume upon them. Her intimacy probably appeared as shocking to many of the guests.

Doubtful Judgment of the Pharisee (7:39)

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."

Simon will acknowledge Jesus as a teacher (7:40b), but he doubts that Jesus is the prophet that some claim. Simon judges both the sinful woman and Jesus, and is wrong in both his judgments. Interestingly, he doesn't condemn the action of touching, per se, but condemns Jesus' lack of discernment of who he allowed to touch him.

The Parable of Two Cancelled Debts (7:40–43)

Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

"Tell me, teacher," he said.

41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"

43Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled."

"You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

Jesus doesn't let Simon's judgment go unchallenged. So he begins to tell a story, a parable, to make a point. In this case, he recalls the appreciation one would feel to be absolved of the crushing load of debt to a moneylender, who has the power to throw non-payers into debtor's prison. Simon has stepped into the trap.

Love, as Seen in Acts of Honor (7:44–47)

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. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."

Instead of judging the woman, as Simon has, Jesus turns the judgment rather to Simon, with a series of three comparisons. Jesus' point isn't hard to guess. Simon's actions have shown little love, while the sinful woman has lavished love upon Jesus.

Building upon his brief parable, Jesus turns the object from love to forgiveness (7:47). To help Simon and the others understand her actions, Jesus first tells a story about forgiveness. He then uses the story to interpret the woman's devotion in terms of forgiveness of sin.

Your Sins Are Forgiven (7:48–50)

Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

49The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

50Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Jesus doesn't linger on Simon's shortcomings. Now he turns to speak directly to the sinful woman as he forgives her of her sins. The guests, however, don't understand. But she understands. He acknowledges that her faith in his promise has brought her salvation.

A Hearty Application

Now for our application question:
Q. Were the woman's sins actually forgiven before she came to Simon's house or at this point when Jesus pronounces them forgiven?

A. I think she was already forgiven. She came with perfume, wept, and kissed Jesus' feet because she had already reached out in faith and accepted the forgiveness of God that he offered in his teaching. I think that she came because she knew she was forgiven; she came out of gratitude; she came out of love; and she loved Jesus without hesitation!

Oh, what a wonderful dinner party!

What a love story!

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