Luke 7:36-50


Forgiveness as Source of Love

Luke 7:36-50  -  Jesus Accepts a Forgiven Woman

36 A Pharisee asked Jesus to dine with him.  
He went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at table.

Many incidents in Luke’s Gospel showed Jesus at table. Luke’s emphasis on what happened at tables seemed to reflect his sense of what was appropriate or inappropriate behaviour for disciples, who identified their belonging as disciples precisely through their celebration of the Eucharistic meal. What happened during meals with Pharisees clearly was intended to warn the community of disciples against behaviours that were not suitable in Christian Eucharists, specifically the judgment and exclusion evident in the following incident. Luke was not interested in history for history’s sake. He was concerned that pharisaical attitudes not consolidate within the Christian community. 

It is difficult to decide whether the incident dealt principally with the Pharisee or with the woman. The Pharisee was certainly significant. His invitation to Jesus was ostensibly courteous, yet he omitted to show the basic requirements of courtesy. He effectively stood in judgment on both Jesus and the woman, but he finished up the one judged, firstly by his own deeds, then by the criteria of Jesus.

After Jesus had raised the young man to life at Nain, the crowd had concluded: A great prophet has been raised up among us. The Pharisee was not convinced. Immediately before this incident Luke had quoted the Pharisees’ common opinion of Jesus: a glutton and a drinker, the friend of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ attitude towards the woman at the Pharisee’s house seemed on one hand to confirm this. Yet his acceptance of the Pharisee’s invitation showed openness also to them.

37 Now there was a woman in the town who was a sinner.  
She learnt that he was dining in the Pharisee's house.  
She brought with her an alabaster jar of perfume
38 and stood behind him near his feet weeping.  
She wet his feet with her tears
and wiped them dry with her hair.  
She kept kissing his feet
and anointing them with the perfume.

In the villages and towns of Galilee there was little privacy. The whole town knew who was eating where.

This woman seemed to have been a woman of some wealth - an alabaster jar of perfume was quite expensive. She may have been involved in trade – some trades were labelled as “unclean” and their practitioners as “sinners”. 

In the eyes of Pharisees generally, anyone not of their rank was automatically labelled sinner. Nothing was said about the nature or extent of the woman’s sin, although later Christian tradition has assumed that this woman was a prostitute. Whatever about the basis of the Pharisee’s judgment of the woman, Jesus certainly took her to be a real sinner. As he would remark later: her many sins have been forgiven. However, who would not fit the description? (Earlier in the Gospel, Peter had called himself a sinner. Remarkably, the tradition drew no automatic conclusions about his sexual behaviour.) 

Women who undertook lives of prostitution were usually victims of the patriarchal system. If they had become widowed or divorced without father or sons to care for them, unless they were already wealthy, they had often no other way to support themselves. Obviously they survived because males were prepared to make use of their services. The women bore the judgment of being sinners.  Their male clients, obviously more numerous, carried no such stigma, even though they would have been clearly known in the non-private world of the time.

This woman stood at Jesus’ feet because, given the eating arrangements of the time, guests reclined on couches with their heads towards the table.

Her gesture was extravagant. In order to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair, she would have had to let it down, which was considered most inappropriate public behaviour for any decent woman (though in the culture prostitutes often kept their hair well groomed and short.) That Jesus allowed her to do this, and to kiss his feet and anoint them with perfume, was regarded as improper in the extreme. Jesus had no sense of his own honour. Though honour/debt relationships defined the social interactions of the culture, Jesus felt totally free of their constrictions and acted accordingly. 

39 Seeing all this,
the Pharisee who had invited him said to himself, "
If this man were a prophet,
he would know what kind of woman this is
who is touching him,
that she is a sinner."

In the previous discussion about John the Baptist, Jesus had asked the question: What did you go out to see? a prophet? In the process he had made the sad remark that Pharisees generally had not recognised the truth of John, and had rejected his call to conversion. Their inability to identify a prophet when they saw one was evidenced again in Simon’s assessment of Jesus.

Not only was he unable to see the reality of Jesus. He was not able either to recognise the truth of the woman. Where Simon saw sinner, Jesus saw a loving woman (as the unfolding story would reveal).

Given the culture, the Pharisee’s reaction was not surprising. He was shocked beyond measure, totally captive as he was to the collective mindset and unable to think outside it. Jesus would show that the criteria used by prophets were not in use among Pharisees. Prophets saw to the heart. Pharisees were focussed on the surface: observing external ritual and associating with others for the sake of mutual admiration.

40 In answer Jesus said to him,
"Simon, there is something I want to say to you."  
He replied, "Then say it, teacher."
41 “Two men were in debt to a moneylender.  
One owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty.
42 Neither had the wherewithal to pay,
so he let both off.  
Which one will love him more?"
43 Simon said in reply,
"The one for whom he wiped off most, I suppose."  
He said, "You judged rightly."

The illustration might seem badly chosen, supposing love to be a measurable quantity. In the honour/debt culture of the time, however, it was taken for granted that the degree of people’s support, praise (and apparently “love”) was proportionate to the favour shown. The patronage shown by someone of a higher social rank was seen to call for appropriate praise and honour from those more lowly – the more beneficent the patronage, the greater praise and honour expected.

44 Then, turning towards the woman,
he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman?  
I came into your house;
you provided no water for my feet.  
She has wet my feet with her tears
and dried them with her hair.
45 You gave me no welcoming kiss;
but she, from the moment she came in,
has not stopped covering my feet with kisses. 
46 You did not anoint my head with oil;
she has anointed my feet with perfume. 

The host’s lack of hospitality towards Jesus was reprehensible. Perhaps, it was the host’s way of stating his own sense of superior honour: he owed Jesus nothing, and indeed was doing him a favour that merited a response of praise from Jesus. Jesus’ comment seemed to indicate something of the depth of his own hurt. 

47 In light of this, I assure you,
her many sins have been forgiven,
given the fact that she has loved so intensely.  
A person who has been forgiven little,
shows little love."

In Jesus’ mind the woman’s extravagant show of love apparently indicated that she knew she had been accepted as she was by Jesus, and that her situation and her own involvement in it had been forgiven. She was the one for whom he (God) cancelled the greater debt. Therefore she loved Jesus more than did the Pharisee, who refused to see his own sinfulness.

48 He then said to her, "Your sins have been forgiven."

In the conventions of the time, Jesus’ use of the passive voice would have been interpreted as meaning: God forgives you. It is important to note, however, that her love was not what won God’s forgiveness. It was God’s forgiveness that enabled her love.

49 The others who were reclining there at table
said to each other,
"Who is this fellow who forgives sins?"

The question had been asked before. Luke gave no answer. Perhaps the question was for the benefit of Luke’s own community, who trusted that the ministry of Jesus and their faith in him had opened them to the merciful forgiveness of God.

50 But he said to the woman,
"Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."

The faith in question, as nearly always when used in the Gospel, indicated not simply an intellectual assent to reality but a trust in and entrusting of oneself to another, in this case, to Jesus, and to the God whose instrument he was.

Faith saves; moral righteousness, assessed on the criterion of meticulous external behaviour, does not. The woman’s faith opened her to God’s forgiveness, which in time had empowered her love. 

Sin, Forgiveness and Sorrow

Sin as Power. In the Scriptural tradition sin is power before it is action. Sinful actions flow from a power within the sinner. The power in question tends to be compulsive and obsessive, leading persons to behave against their better judgment. The power may be felt as some variety of self-interest: for example, comfort, pleasure, gain, avoidance of inconvenience, desire, the need for security or control. It is a form of self-love, an unwillingness or inability to die to the unredeemed self and its superficial needs. Ultimately it originates in people’s need to find ways to compensate for a deep, rarely recognised sense of personal shame, of radical incompleteness, imperfection and inadequacy. It is a symptom of the absence, at the deepest level of their being, of true self-love and of genuine and free self-acceptance of themselves simply as they are.

The Primacy of Love. Such radical non-acceptance can be healed only by a greater sense of being loved. That sense of being loved needs to be: 

  • clearly known 
  • believed 
  • and truly accepted.

Sin - radical sinfulness and the psychological emptiness behind it - cannot really be seen, much less admitted, except against the background of God’s infinite love. Automatic defences keep it away from consciousness because, without knowledge of a greater love, the knowledge of sin would lead to despair. 

The Response of Jesus. Jesus saw that his mission was to proclaim relentlessly the mercy of God, God’s “year of favour”. Many people, apparently, took little notice of his message, mastered as they were by the power of sin. Those who had some budding sense of their sin heard him readily. They were those who trusted him, who trusted God, those who showed “faith”. As their experience of God’s love deepened, their ability to accept themselves grew deeper accordingly, along with their freedom to own their sinfulness. 

False Sorrow. Initially sorrow can arise from the fear of being rejected or punished by God. Without people realising it, such remorse is really an expression of pride and unredeemed self-love (and self-preservation). Even an emotional reaction to the suffering of Jesus can be triggered by an unrecognised sense of shame and of shameful ingratitude. 

Real Sorrow. Remorse is felt – sorrow is chosen. When people open themselves to explore God’s mercy, their sorrow for sin becomes increasingly real. God’s love is immeasurably greater than sin. As the sense of that love gradually balances or outweighs the deep-rooted sense of personal shame, no longer does the psyche need to keep the sin hidden in the unconscious. God’s mercy eventually empowers a fearless ability to own the reality of sin. 

Insight. Once the fear of sin begins to subside, people become able to see their sin more clearly. They are able to see the self more clearly. Whatever they find there, they know that God’s love is greater. They begin to love the true self, knowing that issues of worthiness do not condition such love. 

As the sin is eventually seen for what it is, true sorrow deepens. Such sorrow is not the result of personal efforts to make oneself feel such. It is pure gift of God, a fruit of insight into the mercy of God. Conversely, without a sense of sin, the mercy of God is never truly depthed.

Process. The starting point on the journey to reconciliation is always and necessarily the love of God. Such divine love then empowers human love. As Jesus so beautifully said of the sinful woman: “her many sins have been forgiven, given the fact that she has loved so intensely”. She had known mercy; hence she was empowered to love. God’s love first, then hers.

Next >> Luke 8:1-3