How would you title our Gospel narrative? I suspect most would lean towards a title that emphasized the actions of the woman. In part, because we possess parallels to the Lucan account in the other Gospels (Mt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8); although not exactly parallels. All of the other accounts take place in Jerusalem during Holy Week. But in Luke’s account Jesus is still in the midst of his Galilean mission. Thus, in Luke’s account there is no relation between the anointing and the burial of Jesus. Yet, there are common points of similarity e.g., the alabaster jar. But what is unique about the Lucan account is the development of a relationship between forgiveness and love.
Some Preliminary Remarks. One needs to be cautious not to place too many assumptions on the Lucan account based on what we have come to believe about Pharisees, the motivations of the woman, the focus and attention of Jesus during the narrative, and some points about “timing.” Luke alone has this encounter well apart from Holy Week and the similar account from the other gospel writers. It is a good thing to ask if this account makes sense in this spot given the rhetorical intent of Luke’s larger story.
In the chapters leading up to Luke 7 we have seen a growing divergence of thoughts about Jesus among the Jews and their leadership. We are also beginning to see that others, thought to be less astute about things messianic, are showing remarkable insight – e.g. the Gentile centurion (7:1–10). This is also true in our gospel, as this woman, thought to be a very public sinner, exercises remarkable insight into the nature of Jesus’ mission. These two stand in contrast to the those who are tasked with exercising leadership in the community of faith.
In addition, consider the trajectory of the scenes that characterize salvation as forgiveness of sins (5:1–11, 17–26, 29–32). That same trajectory is promoted here. In addition, this pericope continues the emphasis of Jesus as the one whom eats with sinners and is their friend (7:34).
The Lucan telling of this encounter with Jesus is not a relocation of the Holy Week event. It seems it is a story known only to Luke, is well placed in the flow of the Gospel, and has an intention other that foreshadowing Jesus’ death.
This Pharisee. Too often in the modern sensibility, the entry of a Pharisee into a gospel scene is to present the antithesis of Jesus. Many commentaries pay scant attention to this particular Pharisee, rather they reduce him to just another legalistic, judgmental, and uncompassionate religious whom Jesus is condemning. These same commentaries do not stop to ponder why his name is recorded. While scripture itself gives no hint, one can only wonder if this is a Lucan parallel to Nicodemus in the Gospel according to John. Like Nicodemus, Simon the Pharisee seems open to Jesus as the Prophet who was to come – he invites him to a banquet indicating openness and perhaps shares a positive disposition to Jesus. Like Nicodemus, the conversation with Jesus takes a direction never imagined, and like Nicodemus, Jesus directly challenges Simon’s presumptions about what he thinks he knows. Many commentators assume vv.40-41 are a repudiation to Simon’s silent and unfolding judgment. But it is equally understood as an encounter between teacher and student: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. And maybe – just maybe – in the end, like Nicodemus, Simon comes to believe and thus his name is recalled in the memory of the first generation of believers.
The Setting. As Brian Stoffregen notes, Luke is fond of picturing Jesus in meal-time situations:
- Levi’s banquet (5:29)
- Feeding the 5000 (9:12-17)
- At Mary and Martha’s house (10:38-42)
- At a second Pharisee’s house (11:37-41)
- At a third Pharisee’s house (14:1-6)
- The Party for the Son(s) (15:11-32)
- The Passover Meal (Last Supper) (22:7-23)
- The Meal at Emmaus (24:13-35)
- The Meal in Jerusalem (24:36-43)
It is this very practice of fellowship that has been and will be called into question by other Pharisees:
- “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5:30)
- “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (15:2)
Just before our text, Jesus is apparently quoting his critics:
- “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’“ (7:34)
Though Jesus is willing to dine with outcasts (5:29), he does not reject invitations from the well-to-do (11:37; 14:1). And like every other meal setting, there is something to be learned from Jesus – and it is rarely in a private, one-on-one setting.
While there are a variety of scholarly conjectures, there seems to be a plurality of scholars who hold that a banquet meal between well-know individuals would be held in a forum that was partially open to the public. They would not participate in the meal, but were allowed close enough to listen into the dialogue. This is Joel Green’s position. Green [306-7] offers an understanding of the banquet setting for Luke’s Greco-Roman readers. “Luke has often cast his meal scenes in the form of Greco-Roman symposia, wherein conversation, perhaps even lively debate, follows the meal itself. Within the topos of the symposium a certain decorum was expected; hence, for example, apropos 7:36–50, philosophical conflict might be expected in the “talking party” following the meal, even to the extent that the chief guest would best his host, but this would (and should) not involve a breach of the basic rules of hospitality.”
The Woman. The open forum offers an explanation of how the “sinful woman” was present: Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he [Jesus] was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Stoffregen notes that throughout Luke, Jesus has positive regards for “sinners.”
- He invites sinful Peter to follow him (5:8ff).
- He eats and drinks with sinners (5:30; 7:34; 15:2; 19:7)
- He came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:32)
- He relates the heavenly joy over repentant sinners (15:7, 10)
- He presents a sinner as an example of proper praying (18:13)
- Yet, he will be handed over to sinners to be crucified (24:7)
In addition, every time in Luke that the word hamartia = “sin” is used (11 times), it is being forgiven by Jesus.
What is her sin? Scripture is silent on the sin, only saying that she was sinful – and judging by Simon’s reaction, her sin was publicly known. Although there is no exegetical evidence for the conclusion, the assessment is that she was a known prostitute. Thus the dynamic is set. “Jesus has entered this home in order to participate in a formal banquet. This means, on the one hand, that the Pharisee has sufficient trust in Jesus’ ritual purity to share a meal with him, and, on the other, the woman’s presence has introduced a powerful contagion, ritual impurity, into these goings-on.” (Green, 308)
It was and is easy enough to dismiss this sinful woman as unclean and deviant, without grappling with the social realities faced by a woman, perhaps a freedwoman, forced into the marketplace by her lack of attachment or identification with a man, who prostitutes herself in order to live according to one of the very few options available to her. It was not unheard of that a woman or girl was sold into prostitution by her parents on account of economic misfortune. In short, this unnamed woman belongs to a category of persons who qualify as “the poor,” for whom Jesus has been anointed to bring good news (4:18–19; 7:22). This is true even if she has been successful enough in her occupation to possess “an alabaster flask of ointment” (v 37).