I apologize in advance for the length of this blog posting. I could not find any way to break it into weekly segments without losing the impact of what happened. Grab your coffee and a blanket, put on your slippers and read on.
When I meet someone who intrigues me, someone with whom I would enjoy spending bit of time asking questions, picking their brain, exploring the world through their eyes, one surefire way to pull that off is to invite them to dinner, either in my home or out someplace special. A shared meal fosters bonds among the participants. It puts those who dine at greater ease and encourages the lowering of emotional walls, thus increasing the odds of greater conversational transparency in a camaraderie-building atmosphere. If I can get you to that place, I will most likely have you for a long time.
As the meal unfolds, defenses relax, our bellies get filled, and we work our way toward that post-meal leaning back where the belt gets loosened a notch, and our hands fold over a too-full tummy. The relaxed atmosphere allows our conversation to flow with ever-increasing ease as the evening pushes forward. Our appetites are satisfied, and we both need to spend some time relaxing and digesting what we just ate.
“Let me ask you something…” – and here we go!
Dinner with Simon the Pharisee
I can envision something like that happening to Jesus as he dined with Simon, the Pharisee.1 In Jesus’ day, and even today in many cultures, sharing a meal with an individual is a significant act, because the shared meal carries with it something of an approval, if not an outright endorsement of them as a person. Thus it is important to choose carefully those with whom one agrees to dine.
You will recall that the apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth not to associate with those who wear the name of Christ while living unworthily of that name. He emphasized his directive by saying, “Do not even eat with such a one,”2 because that shared meal carries a widely-understood message of acceptance and approval.
Repeatedly, Jesus was criticized for sharing meals with sinners.3 A shared meal is seen as an acknowledgment that we view the one sharing the meal with us as an equal.4 For Simon to invite Jesus to a meal, possibly even a banquet, was an acknowledgment of that equality. For Jesus to accept the invitation was viewed by society as that same acknowledgment toward Simon.
Setting the Stage for an Interruption
Two verses into the record of this event we learn that there is a woman in town who is actively living a sinful life.5 We are not given her name, and are told nothing specific about the sin in her life, but it is clear that her sin is a matter of public knowledge. From the language of the text, it is likely that this woman is shunned by society, and it is equally likely that she is forbidden to participate in the local synagogue activities.
Despite the wide speculation that the woman is Mary Magdalene, and the city is Jerusalem, the text does not tell us either of those things, and we can neither confirm nor deny such speculations. What we do know is that the woman has heard Jesus is in town, and it is clear that she knows something about him. Her knowledge of him is enough to drive her to do something rather spectacular.
Perhaps she has heard Jesus speak before, or it may be that she has heard others speak about him. Whichever is the case, she is resolute in her decision to go to the home where Jesus is dining, despite any discomfort stemming from the glares of disapproval emanating from the holy moralists there.
Undoubtedly there is a crowd at Simon’s home. William Barclay notes:
It was the custom that when a Rabbi was at a meal in such a house, all kinds of people came in – they were quite free to do so – to listen to the pearls of wisdom which fell from his lips.
Women were not typically invited to such occasions,6 and certainly not a woman carrying the magnitude ill-repute that this woman carried
At this point, a logistical note is in order.
Depending on the translation you are reading, Luke’s account of this event may say that Jesus reclined “at the table.” The original text says only that he reclined, and the phrase regarding the table is supplied by the translators. There may or may not be a table in the room, and if there is one, it is likely something that rises only a few inches from the floor, as the typical posture of one eating in this day was to lie on one side, propped up on a pillow, with your feet out behind you.
The feet, considered unclean, are extended away from what is being eaten.7 When we understand this, it makes sense for Luke to tell us that the woman, however she managed to get into Simon’s home, ended up behind Jesus where she had direct access to his feet.
And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. – Luke 7:37-38, NASB
There is a great deal going culturally as this spectacle unfolds, and these cultural elements warrant our consideration. We need to expend a bit of effort to de-romanticize this scene in order to understand how it is coming across to Simon and his guests. Our tendency (rightly so) is to “ooo” and “ahh” in admiration of what the woman is doing to the feet of Jesus, but this could not be further from the reaction of Simon and the pious guests attending his banquet.
This woman is giving serious attention to Jesus’ feet. She is sobbing, κλαίουσα (klaiousa), actually wailing aloud, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears, and then exposing her hair to use it as something of a towel to wipe her tears from his feet.
There is no thirty-piece orchestra playing romantic music in the background. There is no mood-lighting. This is not some emotionally charged melodramatic scene in a religious film that causes us to think, What a touching moment.
This is not touching. This is shocking, particularly so for Simon, because it is happening in his home. He has to be wondering what this woman is doing in his home to begin with, yet he tolerates her presence rather than cause an even greater scene by having her escorted out.
Years ago, I had the honor of ministering to students at Kansas University. While in that university environment, I was privileged to become friends with a number of gentlemen from the East, and through them to gain valuable insights into the Middle Eastern culture and the worldview that makes it what it is.
When considering this passage in its cultural context, we can focus on four specific elements that, for Simon, are cause for concern: the hair, the feet, the flask, and the touch.
For a woman in the Middle East to uncover her hair is a gesture of tremendous intimacy. Women, particularly married women, do not go out into public with exposed, flowing hair, not even in our current generation.8
The apostle Paul will later refer to a woman’s hair as “her glory.”9 The Talmud allows that a man can divorce his wife for letting her hair down in the presence of another man, and that a man who allows his wife to expose her hair in public is like a man who picks a fly from his soup, squashes it, and eats it.10 In prescribing the proper way to stone an immoral woman to death, the Talmud equates the loosening of a woman’s hair to the exposing of her breasts.11 This woman is taking an exceedingly great risk, risk of death, by doing what she is doing.
We see that the woman in Simon’s home has not only uncovered her hair, she is rubbing that hair all over Jesus’ feet, as though her hair is a towel. We will discuss the feet more deeply in a future blog posting but, for now, just understand that in polite Middle Eastern society one does not discuss feet.Even in our permissive Western society, there are parts of the body that we do not discuss without some reservation, so this sensitivity is not completely foreign to our way of thinking. This woman, however, is not discussing feet. She is kissing feet, and she is wiping them with her hair, which should not be exposed in the first place. She has taken one of her intimate, taboo features and is rubbing it on one of Jesus’ intimate, taboo features.
The flask in the woman’s possession was brought to Jesus intentionally – with forethought.12 The woman heard Jesus was in town and that he was going to Simon’s home, and with that knowledge she made her plans to anoint him with the contents of her flask.
The flask she uses is a thin alabaster flask that a prostitute wears suspended by a leather string, under her clothing, between her breasts.12 As she walks through the city, the flask will emit a pleasant odor. It is a tool of her trade, utilized to attract potential customers. It is this flask of perfume that the woman is using to anoint the feet of Jesus.
We can be sure that the woman’s actions did not go unnoticed. We noted above that as the woman attended to Jesus’ feet, she did so wailing, the same term used to describe those paid, professional mourners that families hire to wail and moan for a deceased relative. She is making a scene in a holy man’s home, but she does not care. She is focused more on Jesus than she is on the attitudes and reactions of the crowd gathered in Simon’s home.
By now, I suspect Simon is about to lose his composure. Consider what has happened and continues to happen from Simon’s perspective. Right before his eyes, in his home, and in the presence of his guests:
- A notoriously sinful woman has come into my home.
- She has let her hair show.
- She is messing with the feet of one of my invited guests.
- She is kissing his feet, sobbing all over them, rubbing his feet with her hair.
- And now she has doused him with the luring perfume of her trade!
From where Simon is sitting, this is a ghastly scene. He is confident that any true prophet would know what sort of woman was attending to him, and knowing what sort of woman she is, a true prophet would never allow her to touch him, especially not in the way she is doing it.
Now 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 person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39, NASB
Reading the verse above, we get a look into the heart of Simon, the host of the party. It is clear that he is disgusted with what is happening, but I believe there is one idea in Simon’s head that he finds particularly repulsive, and it is embodied in one word he chooses – ἅπτεται (haptetai) – the touch. She is touching him.
This term can mean anything from a simple touch, to full-blown groping. It is a term that denotes clinging or fastening to. It is employed to describe sexual intimacy and the act of sexual intercourse itself. It is applied in making a call to celibacy, and to prohibit the touching of things that are considered unclean, whether people, food, or drink. It is a term used specifically to forbid sexual intercourse with Gentiles. And one of the more interesting uses of the active voice root of this term is its primary meaning – the kindling of a fire.13
With that in mind, and considering the ointment, the hair, the feet, the kissing, the wailing – what is it that Simon believes is happening in his home?
I am convinced that Simon believes this woman to be a prostitute who has made her way into his party to troll for business, and she has fixated on one of his guests. She is trying to get Jesus aroused! She is really pouring herself into this seduction. If Jesus were the prophet he claims to be, he would know better than to permit this, and he would put a stop to it right away.
And before we judge Simon’s internal conversation too harshly, had we been at this dinner, we would have thought the very same thing. All the evidence supports Simon’s read on the situation!
Notice, also, that Simon’s condemnation is not toward the woman and what he believes her to be doing. Simon does not order the woman removed from his home. Neither does he demand that she cease trying to solicit customers from his roster of guests. Simon, seemingly, has no feelings one way or the other regarding the woman. Simon’s condemnation, albeit unspoken, is of the rabbi and what the rabbi does or does not know about this woman and the purpose of her actions toward him.
Simon’s reaction is that of the public toward televangelist Jimmy Swaggart when he was caught with prostitutes in 1988, and again in 1991. The indignation was not directed at the women soliciting Swaggart with their services, but rather toward Swaggart himself, as one who should have known and behaved better than he did.
The first lesson we can draw from this event is that circumstances mean little to nothing. We can see something taking place right before our eyes, and have a very clear read on what is occurring, yet be completely mistaken about what we think we see. This has happened to me, and in all likelihood it has happened to you as well. Well-meaning men and women see or hear something, and draw harsh conclusions based on what they believe to be happening. In reality, they are as far from the truth as was Simon was when he drew his conclusions regarding this woman.
The Christ-follower does not draw hasty conclusions based on passive observation.
Jesus, knowing what was going on in Simon’s head, responded to his thoughts with a parable.
Two men owed debts to a lender, one rather great debt, and the other a significantly smaller one. Neither was able to repay their debt, so the gracious lender cancelled the obligations of both debtors. Which debtor loves the lender more?14
Simon is trapped by Jesus’ question, and he knows it. From his precarious position, he offers a rather pathetic response that I paraphrase something like this: “Well, I suppose, perhaps, maybe the one whom he forgave more.”
Simon did not suppose. He knew. Simon is not so dull but that he can see right where this little debate is headed, and it ends up with him in the penalty box.
Simon is already uncomfortable, but Jesus is not finished with him. Jesus now compels Simon to do something he does not want to do – to look at the woman. By calling attention to the woman, Simon is going to have to put his eyes on something he would rather not look at.
The follower after Christ understands that we are superior to no one. I read once that a Christ-follower is just a beggar telling another beggar where to go find bread.
Simon, look at her.
You gave me no water to wash.
She washes me with her tears.
You gave me no kiss of greeting.
She kisses my dirty feet.
You offered me no anointing.
She anoints me with her costly perfume.
She loves much.
You love little.
As seems to be a habit with Jesus, once again he violates established societal protocols by attacking his host. He is a guest in Simon’s home. He is eating food from Simon’s stores. Yet he attacks the hospitality of his host. This simply does not happen, particularly from one who is considered a young man.
It does not matter that Simon’s hospitality was below standard. The guest always showers the host with gratitude. But we see repeatedly in the gospels that Jesus does not play by our societal rules and norms. To Jesus, and to the disciple of Christ, truth is truth. Things are what they are. And this arrogant Pharisee is scorning and despising a woman who has shown tremendous love and courage to even be in Simon’s home, not to mention to do what she did while there.
While Jesus is making his host and everyone else in the room uncomfortable with his unorthodox behavior, he commits the pinnacle of all violations by telling the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”15
The woman did not ask to be forgiven. Indeed, we are not told that she spoke a single word. She wailed, cried, dried, kissed, and anointed; but we have no record of her asking Jesus for anything. Yet he spoke forgiveness to her. With that single statement, the people in the room are pressed into a decision.
Jesus just forgave this woman of her sins. Are we going to allow him to do that?
Either Jesus is a rude, boorish brat who is so undisciplined that he does not know how to behave himself properly in polite society, or he is the human representation of God on the Earth, Immanuel, God with us.
Repeatedly, we come face-to-face with the words and actions of Jesus, and he presses us to a decision. In every case, the decision is between two opposing points of view – faith or offense. There is, seemingly, no middle ground with Jesus.
Where do you fall with Jesus? Faith . . . or offense?
1. Luke 7:36-50
2. 1 Corinthians 5:11
3. See, for example, Matthew 9:11, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 15:2
4. Chambers, A., (November 20, 2009). Eats With Sinners – Reaching Hungry People Like Jesus Did. (p. back cover). Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing.
5. Luke 7:37
6. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 198). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
7. Tristram, H. B., (1894). Eastern Customs in Bible Lands. (pp. 36-38). London: Hodder and Stoughton.
8. Fee, G., (2014). The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (pp. 509-510). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
9. 1st Corinthians 11:15
10. Babylonian Talmud (n.d.) Talmud – Mas.Gittin 90a retrieved 08/29/2015 from http://halakhah.com/pdf/nashim/Gittin.pdf
11. Babylonian Talmud (n.d.) Tractate Sanhedrin: Folio 45a retrieved 08/29/2015 from http://www.halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_45.html
12. Bailey, K. E., (1976). Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A literary-cultural approach to the parables of Luke. (pp. 252-254). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
13. Arndt, W. F. & Gingrich, F. W., (1979). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. (p. 102). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
14. Luke 7:40-42
15. Luke 7:48