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Luke 7:36-50 – Jesus Pronounces a Woman’s Forgiveness

Summary

While dining at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus is met by a woman who bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. While the Pharisee sees this as shocking behavior, Jesus explains that the woman is expressing loving gratitude in response to the forgiveness of her sins.

Analysis

Understanding this scene requires paying attention to how the Gospel of Luke tells the story. Information about the characters and the circumstances emerge gradually and surprisingly, meaning that the full impact of the story does not come until the very end.

On one level, this is a story about forgiveness and gratitude. The woman who interacts with Jesus has a reputation as "a sinner" (v. 39), and Jesus confirms the magnitude of her sinfulness (v. 47). This highlights the magnitude of both Jesus' forgiveness and her gratitude to Jesus. He does not forgive her because of her extravagant (and, perhaps, scandalous) expressions of love. Instead, as Jesus' short parable (vv. 41-43) explains, she shows such love in response to Jesus' forgiveness. According to v. 47, "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love." It is not made clear until that late point in the story, then, that she has already been forgiven prior to her arrival in this scene. Perhaps Jesus forgave her in a previous encounter, and she has come to this meal merely to express her deep gratitude.

On another level, the way the story is told effects a reorientation of perspectives. First, readers learn that Simon the Pharisee has an inaccurate understanding of this woman. He seems to know her and is perhaps unaware of any forgiveness Jesus may have declared to her. He sees her only as a sinner, thus he considers Jesus' contact with her as inappropriate. He is judging her based upon an old reputation. Subsequently, Jesus tells him he must now understand her and her behavior in a new light. Likewise, when readers reach the end of the story, they too must reevaluate her actions at the dinner. These are not inappropriate or wanton expressions of an outcast; they are deep love offered in response to deep forgiveness. The woman is not, in fact, who readers might think she is at first glance. As Jesus publicly declares, she has been "saved" (v. 50).

A second reorientation of perceptions concerns an outlook on the Pharisee. Readers do not learn until vv. 44-46 that he has been derelict in his obligations as a host. He does not treat Jesus with the respect that a guest deserves, suggesting that he lacks love and--according to v. 47--has neither recognized his need for forgiveness nor received forgiveness.

Luke 7:36-50

A Sinful Woman Forgiven

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus* to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards 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 bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

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10 February 2011

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