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Part 1: The Woman, Jesus and Simon the Pharisee

March 8, 2009

Today is International Woman’s Day — March 8, 2009.  As this is the initial post for this blog, I am joining with other followers of Christ to celebrate women as bearers of the image of God (as are men).  Jesus elevated the status of women by recognizing them as equal.  The story of Jesus, a woman “sinner” and Simon the Pharisee is one such story.

I invite you to take time to read through the scripture passage at least three times.  Put yourself into the “shoes” of Simon, then Jesus, and finally the woman.  The post is actually written in two parts.  Part 1 today,  we will conclude with Part 2 on Monday.

Luke 7:36-50

For many of us this is a familiar story. I have realized how easy it is to read something I know and not really read it. If I asked you what the central point of the story is, most of us would be able to say it is about forgiveness. And you would be correct, but if we think this is all this story is about we would be missing a great deal.

It is helpful in reading through the text to remember what Luke has already written about Jesus’ ministry. The announcement recorded in Luke 4:18-19 is reverberating throughout the region: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Jesus), because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Word has gotten out as Jesus has traveled—He has healed Peter’s mother-in-law, healed those stricken with leprosy, restored the sight of the blind, healed one that was paralyzed and startled everyone by forgiving his sins, and even raised the dead. Through both his teaching and his ministry what Christ said in the Luke 4 passage (and a reading from Isaiah 61:1-2) was being fulfilled. So it is no wonder that Jesus has been invited to the house of Simon, a Pharisee for dinner. Is Jesus really a prophet?

Have you noticed in reading the gospel texts the ease with which Jesus related to others? He was equally at ease with sinners and tax collectors, as well as the Pharisees, teachers of the Law and the scribes. That Jesus had eaten in the company of “sinners” was startling to the religious leaders. Simply put, this wasn’t the way things were done. It wasn’t proper. A law-abiding Jew would not do this, especially a teacher. Another reason to have Jesus for dinner.

In studying this passage I have been reminded of Middle Eastern hospitality. We are given insight into what takes place… Jesus enters Simon’s house and takes his place at the table. No big deal. Except then people were seated by age and stature. Certainly Jesus was not the oldest person present, yet he takes his place at the table. Today if someone is coming over to my home – depending upon the level of friendship (or relation) they may walk right in, take off their coat or jacket and come and sit down. They are welcome. For others we would probably greet them and welcome them to our home. Over the years we have known people that either lived in the Middle East for a brief time or have traveled there. Without question one of the things you hear about is the generous hospitality of the people. It was also true then. There were certain prodigals that were followed when you were a guest in someone’s home. Remarkably the text does not refer to any of these rituals of welcoming being extended to Jesus.

But while we may immediately recognize that Simon has not welcomed Jesus – even though he acknowledges Jesus as a scholar (as Simon calls him “teacher” in verse 40), Simon in his omission – rather obvious omission of providing water and oil has in effect insulted him before those gathered. While we might thing this is obvious, it is also important as the story unfolds in an unexpected way.

Luke mentions in verse 37 that “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.” Luke does not tell us how she got in, we do not know how many people were reclining at the table to eat the dinner and how many were in the room, but there, among those gathered was a woman—who was a sinner. This distinction is important for us. We also know that somehow she was present when Jesus came to sit down, “…but from the time I came in …” (verse 45). Her presence would have been allowed, for it was customary to permit “outcasts” to sit along the wall and be fed after the guests. Doing so “insured” the blessing of God.[1]

From her seat, by already being present, she witnessed an unexpected public humiliation – not necessarily hers, but Christ’s. Simon by not providing Jesus the customary of oil and water for washing had for all intents and purposes insulted him, for all present to see. It was not her humiliation, but the woman in this story knows humiliation. She knows what this feels like. A sinner she is not able to fulfill compensation to join the ranks the “law-abiders.”

The aspect of the story we recognize and are familiar with — the woman and forgiveness. However it was the risk of forgiveness and the woman’s identification because of forgiveness that surprised me.

In Jewish society in the time of Christ, a sinner “should first confess his or her sins, make compensation for them and then demonstrate sincerity by keeping the law.”[2] The woman in our story is referred to as a “sinner.” What could have drawn this woman, a sinner into the house of a Pharisee, surely she would be recognized, people would know what kind of sinner she was, wouldn’t they? Indeed. But what if this woman had heard Jesus before; had seen him welcome sinners, had herself already received forgiveness?[3]

Could this not be why the woman is present? She has come to show her appreciation to Christ, but as we read the text there is also the element of surprise. The woman’s gift of alabaster ointment for his hands and head was planned, but Simon’s actions (or inaction) changed things. And this is where we witness the turn of events. Simon did not offer, but she would, and she did. Her actions and movement might have startled those present. It was a risk. Was she doing this because of her gratitude to Christ for forgiveness of her sins? Yes, but there is more. Or did her actions change out of motivation to provide what Simon would not? Are her tears also a reflection of her identification with what Christ has experienced? By knowing her own humiliation, does she recognize the humiliation intended toward Christ?

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2008], p. 246.

[2] Ibid, p. 244.

[3] Ibid, p. 242, “The story assumes that before the drama opens, the woman had heard Jesus proclaiming his message of grace for sinners.”

  1. Laura Simmons permalink
    March 8, 2009 3:07 pm

    I memorized this text for our service this morning… Found myself influenced by MaryKate Morse’s book “Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence.” So glad you are beginning this blog, Carol. May your influence be far-reaching! 🙂

  2. pathwayjourneys permalink*
    March 9, 2009 6:25 am

    Dr. Laura,
    I so appreciate your encouragement on this journey. I have been reading MaryKate’s book. It will be one we will read together on this blog later this spring.

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