must begin with a brief explanation. For many years this woman has been
identified with Mary Magdalene or occasionally Mary of Bethany (sister of
Lazarus). A careful examination will show that, while the incidents are similar,
the locations are not. This woman’s name is unknown to us, but her example
Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to
dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who
was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought
an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him
at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping
them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with
the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to
himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of
person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." And Jesus
answered him, "Simon, I have something to say to
you." And he replied, "Say it, Teacher." "A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred
denarii, and the other fifty. "When they
were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will
love him more?" Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one
whom he forgave more." And He said to him, "You
have judged correctly." 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 wet My feet with her tears and wiped
them with her hair. "You gave Me no kiss;
but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. "You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed
My feet with perfume. "For this reason I
say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much;
but he who is forgiven little, loves little." Then He said to her, "Your sins have been forgiven." Those who
were reclining at the table with Him
began to say to themselves, "Who is this man
who even forgives sins?" And He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
(Luke 7:36-50 NASB)
us begin by examining what we might reasonably presume about the woman in
question. From other documents of the time, it is clear that the woman is a
prostitute. It is fashionable in our time to decry the prosecution of
prostitution on the grounds that it is a “victimless crime.” To this I make
the following reply:
the prostitute herself is a victim. In our own time such women are likely
to be drug users utterly controlled by a pimp – who makes his money off
her addiction. Her customers treat her roughly, and her sexual
experiences make her much less likely to have a stable marriage later on.
it’s not just her. The existence and use of prostitutes has broken up
many marriages. In this instance the adultery is not misguided passion
but lust renting a partner. The effect on the wife is devastating.
just the wife; the children. There is no quicker way for a father to
tell his children that he has neither love nor respect for his wife than
to hire a prostitute. His actions curse his own children with a warped
picture of marriage.
Note that none of this covers sexually
transmitted diseases. It is fashionable in our time to refer to prostitutes as
“sex workers,” a misunderstood and wrongfully shamed group of women. You
might as well call a stick of dynamite a drain cleaner. It will definitely
clear the drain.
And yet – it is very likely that this woman
had made a hard choice when she became a prostitute. If she were a young
widow, especially with children, she would be faced with the bitter choice of
living in grinding poverty occasionally relieved by spasms of charity, or the
life of a social outcast – but a rich social outcast. Sinners often plead
their circumstances; perhaps she had hers to plead. It is no matter; it is
still sin. But I suspect that most of our female readers would admit that they
have never had to make that hard choice.
If she had, the shame of her choice,
stuffed in behind her pride, would have increased her guilt all the more. By
the time she gets to Jesus, her mind would be in the gutter and her heart down
There are three simple threads I would
have you pick up in this woman’s story.
This gift tells us much. We know from
the history of the time about the alabaster vial of perfume. It is expensive –
perhaps a years wages for a day laborer, which would be something like $12,000
today, at minimum wage. Its chief characteristic is in the way you open it.
You break the neck of the jar.
The woman gave
much, but not partially. She gave it all to Christ.
To give, she had
to break it. Symbolically, this is the acceptable sacrifice of the sinner – a
broken and contrite heart.
is an act of devotion – it may look extravagant to the world, it is costly to
the giver, but it is greatly praised by God.
must understand that this was first an act of courage on the woman’s part. It
is courage, because she had to face the righteous who knew what she did. It is
courage, because she is going to humble herself in front of them. We can well
imagine how she treated Simon should she have met him in the market place –
with a sassy air defying his righteousness. No doubt she had publicly sparred
with the righteous – but did so knowing that her customers came by night, for
the shame of it.
woman does understand righteousness. When she sees it in the man Jesus, her
reaction is instant: here is one who can forgive. The righteousness of God is
not without the mercy of God. So she goes to do the one thing which is the
highest form of worship she can muster: she anoints him. She is so humbled
that she dare not anoint his head, only his feet. It is her sign that she
knows this man to be very much a prophet of God.
humbling is completed in this: she lets down her hair (a thing no respectable
woman would do in public) and weeps over his feet. Her contrition, her
humiliation are complete in those tears. This is all the more impressive in
that she has spent her life in prostitution – a life which requires a brassy
sense is always with the servant of God. There is the nagging feeling that,
somehow, the angels of heaven must have made a mistake – picked up the wrong
name on the list. The service of the Lord is accompanied by the feeling that
you are just not worthy to do it. This is one reason our Lord commends
– a form of salt water – symbolize the washing away of sins. We don’t the
woman’s name but her tears will always be remembered.
cannot do better to explain this than to quote from a communion meditation
written a few years ago:
Sickles was, in the 1850s, an up and coming politician, a Congressman from New York. He was a member of one of the most prominent of political organizations
(and the most corrupt): Tammany Hall. He had his sights set upon
becoming president of the United States. He might have made it -- had he
not shot and killed Philip Barton Key.
Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote "The Star Spangled
Banner," our national anthem. He was a good friend of Sickles.
He was also Sickles' lawyer, and Sickles appears to have used his influence to
have Key appointed as United States attorney. He also was Mrs. Sickles'
One day, on the street across from the White House, Sickles met Key. He
pulled out his revolver and shot him dead on the spot. That accomplished,
he walked down the street to surrender the revolver (and himself) to the
The trial was a public circus. People debated whether or not Sickles was
a man who had defended the sanctity of marriage or a common murderer.
Remember, this was in a time when almost everyone in America believed that
divorce was morally wrong. Adultery was not "an affair," but
one of the worst sins anyone could commit. Meanwhile, his defense team
(including Edwin Stanton, later the Secretary of War for Abraham Lincoln) came
up with a new defense. For the first time in American justice, they
raised the defense of "temporary insanity." They argued
that the shock of finding out that his wife was untrue to him, and with his
best friend, was so great as to render him insane. The court acquitted
He returned to Congress to find himself an absolute pariah. When he
entered the hall, other members refused even to sit near him. He was
totally ostracized -- but not for murder. You see, he had done something
so utterly scandalous as to make the shooting seem trivial by comparison.
He forgave his wife, and took her back.
is a sense of shame and resentment when forgiveness is granted.
must first note that Simon is, as Jesus points out, a man with little which
needs be forgiven. Jesus does not condemn him as a hypocrite; it is likely
enough that he is an ordinary, righteous man. Jesus’ lesson goes beyond
righteousness to mercy. Simon could point to his wealth and say that this is
the blessing of God, and likely enough it was so. But he is one who knows his
social circles well, and this woman has no place in them – at least, not in
Simon is a man of propriety. That’s why he’s disturbed when the woman comes to
Jesus; she’s out of her place. Simon assumes that if Jesus were as he claimed
to be, he’d know that, and would not tolerate her presence.
is a great clue to the success (or lack of it) in the church today. Ask
yourself this: why is it that the righteousness of Jesus, which is impeccable,
attracts the sinner – and the lesser righteousness of Simon the Respectable
does not? If you seek the answer, remember the older brother.
of the great attractions of Christ was his complete indifference to social
structure. As an older translation put it, he was “no respecter of persons.”
The reason for this is simple: what honor, what power, what status could
possibly exceed that of the King of Kings? He is not so much indifferent to
social structure as above it.
attitude – that from the throne of heaven the difference in social position of
the prostitute and the Pharisee is trivial – seems hard, some times. But
remember the mission of Christ: to seek and save the lost. If you are in the
business of rescuing drowning men, head for the ocean, not the desert. In a
very real sense she did not so much choose Christ as the grace of God chose
tells her that her faith has saved her. This seems to deny grace, but it is
not so. The Scripture tells us
that Abraham believed God – and God counted this as righteousness. The
principle has not changed in four thousand years.
am indebted to the sermons of C. H. Spurgeon for this section).
neglected is Christ’s benediction to the woman. “Go in peace,” he said, and we
leave it at that. But the point is worthy of some elaboration.
not just “go?”
that this woman’s reaction must be like many of those whom Christ healed:
their first thought is to stay with their new-found Lord. Like Mary in the
garden on Easter, she would want to hold on to him.
why did Jesus tell her to leave?
there was bound to be some debate which Luke does not record. She would
have been obliged to defend herself – which would be very hard to do.
her repentance, the situation was an awkward one for Jewish society. As a
matter of manners, she’s in the wrong place (it’s a male only banquet).
The lesson Jesus gives will be stronger for her absence.
this, or because of it, Jesus tells her to go – but go in peace. It lightens
can see that she would want to leave the self-righteous; she would have no
desire for publicity (public repentance is hard enough). But do you not see
that Christ is telling her to go from a peak spiritual experience back into
everyday life? If she was indeed a widow, her livelihood was gone. She must
go back to holy poverty. To soften this, Jesus tells her to go, but go in
may feel the same way at times. We want to stay in our mountain top experience
of the Lord, but he sends us back to the valley all the same. But he sends us
back with the peace of God; what a difference that makes!
through this with me, please. This woman has family – who undoubtedly do not
approve of her, and they would make this very clear to her. It is a natural
temptation in this to bring up the woman’s past rejection of the sound advice
given – and bring it up over and over again. Christ grants her peace; these
quibbles no longer matter. The peace of God surpasses all understanding – and
this peace insulates her from her own memory of sin. Satan will throw her past
life in her face as often as possible. But the peace of God is sufficient as a
defense. She need but say to him, “You’re perfectly right. I was a horrible
sinner – but now I am forgiven, and walk in God’s peace.” The memory of her
sin loses its sting in the peace of God.