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How do you react when a notorious sinner walks into the room? Do you wish to confront them or to leave them to others? Is their sinfulness so much an issue that you cannot see the person?
In an account unique to Luke, a sinful woman visits Jesus and anoints him. She says nothing, but her actions speak a thousand words. The problem is that her intimacy with Jesus produces an array of opinion. Her action forces Jesus to explain how he responds to others, especially sinners. In the response he reveals both his philosophy of dealing with people and his authority.
During a meal at the home of a Pharisee, a well-known sinful woman enters to anoint Jesus' feet. We are not told what her sin has been. Traditionally she has been called a prostitute, but the text is not so specific. Nor is she likely to be Mary Magdalene, who is introduced as a new figure in 8:1-3. Whatever her sin, her reputation precedes her.
It may seem odd that she is able to "crash the party" and approach Jesus, but in the ancient world it apparently was common to allow access to a meal in honor of a major teaching figure. An ancient Jewish text, t. Berakot 31b, tells of a poor man who waited outside a king's door and eventually entered the palace in hope of receiving leftover food. Here no one expresses shock that the woman is present; the scandal is that she has drawn close to Jesus and he has let her approach him. As long as she sat in the bleachers, everything was fine, but when she steps onto the playing field, people become upset. They don't think a spectator should become a key player.
The woman's actions reflect great cost, care and emotion. The perfume she uses is both precious and expensive. Such anointing was practiced at civic feasts and for the purifying of priests or the tabernacle (Ex 30:25-30; Josephus Antiquities 3.8.6 205; 19.9.1 358), not to mention for preserving corpses (Lk 23:56). If this perfume is nard, it would have cost three hundred denarii, or about a year's salary, per pound!
Approaching a reclining Jesus, she anoints his feet as tears of joy and appreciation pour out upon him. The undoing of her hair is culturally shocking. Her kissing of Jesus' feet also expresses an intimacy shunned in this culture. Everything about her action is offensive, except for the attitude that fed it, an attitude Jesus exposes in his parable in verses 41-44. Luke narrates the details with imperfect tenses, featuring the ongoing nature of each action. Imagine the nerve of the woman, who surely realizes how others are viewing her. The strength of her love has caused her to be bold in expressing appreciation to Jesus.
The Pharisee reacts first, and he blames Jesus. The woman's contact with Jesus is outrageous and intolerable. He thinks, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner. The Greek reveals a nice literary touch here. The construction is a second-class, or contrary-to-fact, condition. The Pharisee is thinking that Jesus is not a prophet. His actions (the fact that he does not rebuke this woman) indicate his lack of status. There is a theological assumption in this evaluation: pious figures like prophets have nothing to do with sinners. Separationism is the name of the game. If spiritual people are to maintain purity and testimony, association with sinners is prohibited. Luke often mentions this view of the Pharisees in contexts that suggest rebuke (5:29-32; 15:1-2; 18:9-14).
Jesus has a decidedly different view. His evaluation of the woman's act comes in a parable, which Luke tells with much irony. The Pharisee doubts that Jesus is a prophet, yet Jesus has read his mind, as his response shows! Jesus' story is simple. There are two debtors. One has a debt ten times that of the other (the difference is between about two months' debt and slightly over one and a half year's debt). The creditor forgives the debt of both, rather like a car dealer wiping out an entire loan obligation on a car. If that ever happened at a dealership, we could imagine the appreciation, not to mention the publicity, it would generate! Now which former debtor will love the creditor more? The emotion of the story is crucial. Jesus is saying, in effect, Imagine the appreciation and love that flow from the one who has been forgiven a great debt. Jesus is comparing the forgiveness of sins to economic forgiveness. The debtor has no bargaining position; only grace allows the debt to be removed. So which debtor has the greater love?
The Pharisee is a good student. He replies, "I would suppose the one whom he forgave the most." The Greek keeps the double entendre between the story and the idea of forgiveness. The NIV renders the intent clearly: the one who had the bigger debt canceled.
Jesus commends the reply. His point is obvious: great forgiveness provides the opportunity for great love. When God forgives a notorious sinner for much sin, the realization of such bountiful forgiveness means the potential for great love. Jesus pursues sinners and welcomes association with them because of the possibility that they may realize God's gracious forgiveness. To keep separate from them would be to ignore a potentially rich harvest field.
Jesus applies the story. He notes that the woman has done what the Pharisee has failed to do. It is not clear that the Pharisee has actually failed to do what is culturally expected (Goppelt 1972:323-24, 328, especially nn. 63, 93-95). But what the woman has done goes above and beyond the call of duty. Love often produces such an extraordinary response. The woman's action reflects not only gratitude but also humility. She recognizes who it is who has made her feel welcome. No washing, kiss or greeting had met Jesus at the Pharisee's door, but the woman supplies them all. She appreciates Jesus' offer of grace and seeks to honor it with devotion and love.
Jesus is not done. In a remark that raises the stakes, he proclaims that the woman's sins are forgiven because she has loved much. It is important that this statement and the parable be combined to allow Jesus' theological point to be clear. Jesus is not saying that the woman's works have saved her. Rather, the love and forgiveness that have made her feel accepted by God (the parable's point) have produced her acts of love. Jesus commends the faith that led to her works (v. 50).
If Jesus' reception of the sinner is a problem, his declaration of the forgiveness of sins is a massive problem (compare 5:22)! Only God forgives sin. Again we see how Jesus' ministry combines ethics and theology. His behavior is an example of how to relate to others but also reflects a unique authority that makes Jesus more than a mere instructor of morality. In saying the woman's sins are forgiven, he is clearly even greater than a prophet. Here is raw authority.
The Pharisees again engage in private thoughts and theological assessment; they know the significance behind Jesus' statement. They know no mere man has the right to forgive sin, so they ask, "Who is this who even forgives sin?" The question is crucial. If Jesus has the authority to forgive sin, then he has the right to reveal how salvation occurs. Simon was worried about Jesus being a prophet, but Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness means he is much more.
Jesus closes with a declaration that deepens the message. He reassures the woman by telling her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." With this he turns her earlier expression of love into evidence of saving faith. Faith has motivated the response of love and humility that was evidenced in the anointing. Her story shows that sinners can know God will respond when they turn to him.
Jesus represents the messenger of God who ministers God's love. As a result, he is open to and conscious of the opportunity that exists when sinners are loved. He does not ignore sin, but he recognizes that sin can be reversed when God's love is received. The Pharisees' separatist attitude stands rebuked as an inappropriate model of holiness. The heavenly Father is ready to forgive debts when we turn humbly to him.
Jesus also raises again the issue of his authority. He possesses the authority to forgive sin. Jesus is more than an example of one who is open to sinners; he wields the gavel. He can discern the presence of faith, and he can pronounce forgiveness of sins. The sinful woman is an example of faith expressing itself in humble love, even to the point of boldness. The Louvre's outstanding portrait may be the famous Mona Lisa, but in the Bible there is no more beautiful portrait of humble, loving faith than this woman's silent but vibrant testimony.