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