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The Other Woman

Luke 7:36 -- 50

We 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 still shines.

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)

Let 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:

  • Certainly 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.
  • But 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.
  • Not 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 below that.

The Woman

There are three simple threads I would have you pick up in this woman’s story.

Her gift

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.

This 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.

Her heart

We 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.

The 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.

Her tears

Her 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 attitude.

This 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 obedience.

Tears – 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.

Christ and Simon

I cannot do better to explain this than to quote from a communion meditation written a few years ago:

Dan 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' lover.
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 Attorney General.
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 him.
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. 

There is a sense of shame and resentment when forgiveness is granted.


We 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 daylight.

Indeed, 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.

There 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.


One 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.

This 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 her.

Christ tells her that her faith has saved her. This seems to deny grace, but it is not so. The Scripture tells us[1] that Abraham believed God – and God counted this as righteousness. The principle has not changed in four thousand years.

Go in peace

(I am indebted to the sermons of C. H. Spurgeon for this section).

Often 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.

Why not just “go?”

Consider 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.

So why did Jesus tell her to leave?

  • First, 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.
  • Despite 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.

Despite this, or because of it, Jesus tells her to go – but go in peace. It lightens the departure.

Go from…

We 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 peace.

We 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!

Go in peace

Work 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 all criticism.

Indeed, 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.

[1] Genesis 15:6

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