Action, Reaction. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 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 woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Because of our familiarity with the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet during Holy Week, we perhaps move to quickly to she…anointed them with the ointment. If we are careful readers, we see that the first action was she stood behind him at his feet weeping. Why was she weeping?
It is a medieval axiom that what is last in action is first in intention. That being said, it would seem the woman came to anoint Jesus; why? Was it to honor a holy man she had never met? Was it to give thanks to a holy man whom she had met and was indebted? Scripture leaves us to speculate, but whatever her intention, clearly the moment carries much emotional content – content that seems to overwhelm her and bring her to tears. One can almost imagine the spontaneous moment when she realizes her tears are cleansing feet that should have been washed but were not. So, she cleans them with her hair and then accomplishes the task for which she came.
The woman’s act violated social conventions. Touching or caressing a man’s feet could have sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair, so a woman never let down her hair in public. Moreover, the woman was known to be a sinner. Assuming she was unclean, she would have made Jesus unclean by touching him. As the host, Simon the Pharisee, has to be taken aback and appalled – and would have begun to have serious reservations about Jesus.
It is important to know that one subtext in the chapter that precede our gospel account is Luke’s portrayal of Jesus in his prophetic role first articulated in 4:16–30. One finds (1) Jesus exercising his prophetic ministry on behalf of a Gentile soldier, just as Elisha had done (4:27; 7:1–10); (2) Jesus exercising his prophetic ministry on behalf of a woman and her son, just as Elijah had done (4:25–26; 7:11–17); (3) Jesus performing in ways that closely parallel the missionary program provided by Isa 61:1–2; 58:6 (4:18–19; 7:22); and, in a way consonant with intervening episodes concerned with sinners, (4) Jesus articulating the “release” of 4:18–19 in a way that spells forgiveness for a sinful woman (7:36–50). [Green, 282]
Luke has previously reported interior monologue and Jesus’ knowledge of what others were thinking (5:21–22; 6:7–8). So too, here we learn Simon’s thoughts. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” Culpepper notes that the Pharisee makes two assumptions that imply two further inferences. First, he assumes the woman is a sinner, as the narrator has reported in v. 37. Second, he assumes that if Jesus were a prophet he would know what sort of woman she was. From these assumptions, both of which appear to have been correct, he draws two false inferences. First, he infers that if Jesus knew what sort of woman was touching him, he would not allow it. Second, he infers that since Jesus has done nothing to stop the woman, he is not a prophet. The Pharisee’s assumption, therefore, is expressed as a condition contrary to fact: “If this man were a prophet [which he is not], he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him [which he did not because he did not stop her].” Simon overlooks his own sinfulness and misunderstands Jesus’ prophetic ministry. The moment then becomes a “teachable moment” when Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.
Jesus does know who the woman is, but Simon does not even “see” her until challenged by Jesus (“Do you see this woman?). To open his eyes, Jesus tells the parable of the creditor and the debtors.