The woman is never identified by name. She doesn’t speak a word.
She is simply referred to as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”
While the exact nature of her sin is never explicitly stated, it has generally been assumed that it was “notorious sexual activity, prostitution”.[i]
The narrative does not provide specifics about the exact timing and location of the dinner party. It can only be inferred that the dinner occurred sometime, “during [Jesus’] ministry up north in Galilee”.[ii]
The host’s name is provided. But exactly which Simon he was remains unclear because the name Simon was “as common in the ancient world as ‘Smith’ is in our phone book”.[iii]
None of the guests who are attending the banquet are named. They are simply referred to as “those who were at the table.”
The crowd of onlookers who would have typically entered into the open courtyard to listen to the Teacher and guests’ discourse are not even referenced.[iv]
Jesus is the only person specifically identified in the passage entitled, “A Sinful Woman Forgiven” (Luke 7:36-50).
While there is such depth and breadth of meaning to be drawn from this passage, a primary focus has historically been on the “emotional extravagance of the woman’s actions.”[v] This stems from most traditional interpretations that have tended to focus on the fact that she was a woman, a sinner, and a social outcast who unreservedly engaged in what was deemed excessive behaviour.
Somewhat less focused on is how her courageous actions embodied love.
Intent on reaching Jesus she had bravely pushed past the on-lookers in the courtyard. She did not acknowledge the crowd, the guests, or the self-righteous host, some of whom may very well have been her former lovers.[vi]
Love and a yearning to worship Jesus outweighed the evident disdain and rejection of those in the room.
As she knelt down by Jesus she openly wept. She washed his feet with her tears, gently dried them with her unbound hair, kissed them, and then anointed them with expensive oil. His willingness to forgive her sins had overwhelmed her.
Meanwhile, Simon, who prided himself as being righteous and without sin, was highly critical of the woman and her demonstrative behaviour. After all, she was widely known throughout the community as being immoral and impure.
As Simon watched he “silently impugns the woman’s character and questions Jesus” and condemned him for allowing the unclean woman to touch him.[vii]
Simon concluded that “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” (Luke 7:39).
Simon remained fixated on her past behaviour. And judged her to be unclean.
Jesus perceived the state of her heart.
“Jesus receives her ministrations and recognizes them as indicative of a profoundly altered attitude. Her act of devotion represents her best effort to express her newly awakened response to God’s grace. Whether her past actions have been the result of lust, need, manipulation or defiance, she has been transformed by the power of divine love.”[viii]
Jesus celebrated her transformation. Recognizing how her love flowed out of her profound gratitude.
As he turned to face her he declared that her sins were forgiven.[ix]
Jesus also perceived the state of Simon’s heart.
A heart hardened by sins of self-righteousness, criticism and condemnation.
Jesus confronts Simon about his lack of hospitality and grace, condemning his judgmental attitude.[x] But Simon’s heart remains hard and unyielding.
In the end, the narrative reveals that “love, is both the cause and result or sign of divine forgiveness. The woman embodies that love.”[xi]
So, I wonder. Which of the people in this narrative – the onlooker, invited guest, Simon, the woman or Jesus – am I most like? Are you most like?
Honestly, I see a bit of my self in each of them.
I can be the onlooker. Silent. Watching. Letting things unfold.
I can be one the invited guests and part of the inner group. Also silent. Also watching.
I can be Simon. The self-righteous sinner who can be quick to criticize and judge others. Who can struggle to offer and hold sufficient grace and forgiveness. Often lacking in sincere repentance. Being so distracted by my own sinful thoughts that I can miss seeing Jesus, even when he is right in front of me.
I am the woman. Also a sinner. Whose heart is gradually being transformed. So overwhelmed by Jesus’ generous love that I can weep for the pure joy of it. And as his lavish grace washes through and over me – my heart explodes with praise.
And it is in these moments, where Jesus’ divine love and grace empowers me that I am awakened, enabled to embody his love in action.
Photo credits: Rubens’ Feast of Simon the Pharisee
Hanny Naibah, Woman hands up lifted, Unsplash
[ii] Ibid, 374.
[iii] Robert Deffinbaugh. “Wordless Worship of an Unnamed Woman (Luke 7:36-50).” Bible.org23 (June 22, 2004). Accessed October 09, 2018. https://bible.org/seriespage/23-wordless-worship-unnamed-woman-luke-736-5., 1.
[iv] Ibid, 1.
[v] Newsom, et al, 505.
[vi] Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Eds.). The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2002, 570.
[vii] Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer (Eds.) Women in scripture: A dictionary of named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, the apocryphal / deuterocanonical books and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2000, 440.
[viii] Kroeger, 570.
[ix] Meyers, et al, 440.
[x] Kroeger, 570.
[xi] Newsom, et al., 505.