All women since Eve, the world’s first sinner, were born in sin and sinners by birth became more or less sinners by practice. But this woman whom Jesus met in the house of Simon has the distinguishable labels, “Which was a sinner,” “She is a sinner,” “Her sins which were many.” Her doom seemed to be sealed in that word “sinner.” The simple but moving record of this disreputable woman that Luke alone gives us, compells us to say that no human imagination invented it. As Mackintosh Mackay says, “The story bears stamped on its very face the impress of Him who spake as never man spake.”
A striking aspect of the episode before us is the willingness of Jesus to fellowship with the sinful or the sole purpose of reaching their hearts with the truth. While He never sought such feasts, as the one to which Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus, He never refused them but deemed them openings for doing His Father’s work. While He never ate with sinners for any personal gratification, He was careful not to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude toward them. Separate from sinners, in respect to their original and practiced sin, He yet was willing to contact them in order to transform their lives. Thus, when invited by Simon to a dinner, Jesus graciously accepted in order to instruct him, as He did. And when a notorious female sinner tried to reach Him at the dinner, He did not refuse her admission to His presence, but graciously received tokens of her penitence and love, and commended her for her faith. If we would rescue the perishing we must be willing to go where they are.
The word used for “sinner” in connection with this city woman suggests the special sin of unchastity and that she was known among the people in her community for her sensual and hateful calling—a woman of the streets. Jesus evidently knew that “her sins were many,” implying that her prostitution was habitual, and that her illicit practices were continuous. All in Nain knew her as a woman who had rejected her virtues and her honor. She had sacrificed the white flower of a blameless life for monetary gain. Harold Begbie, in one of his volumes describing miracles of grace experienced in Salvation Army activities, tells of a prostitute who was saved from her life of sin by the gift of a flower from a female Salvationist on a London street. As the biographer puts it—
The flower was white. The idea of this whiteness pervaded her consciousness. She made a contrast of the whiteness of that flower and the spreading darkness of her own soul. She said to herself, “I was once white like this flower.” She looked at the white flower through a mist of pain and said to herself, “I wish I could be pure.” She covered her eyes with her hands, moved her face to the pillow, and wept.
As that white flower unlocked the cabinet of memory and began a spiritual process resulting in the transformation of her character, it was thus with the woman who was a sinner. She saw her degraded life in the white light of divine holiness personified in Jesus, and as she wept her tears brought her triumph over a shameful past. Coming to Simon’s house in all her guilt, afraid and ashamed to mingle with the invited guests, she flung herself at the foot of Him who said that Publicans and harlots would go into His kingdom before the self-righteous Pharisees.
There is no Biblical evidence whatever for identifying this sinful woman with Mary Magdalene or with Mary of Bethany as some commentators have done. While the first Mary is spoken of as having “seven devils,” there is no evidence that she was immoral when under demoniac influence. The conduct of the sinful woman in Simon’s house was totally different from the wild frenzy of a demoniac. As for Mary, sister of Martha, what is said of her devout spirit is strikingly adverse to that of a harlot of the streets. While “the woman which was a sinner” was probably known to the women Jesus healed of their infirmities (Luke 8:1-3), reticence as to her name both on their part and that of Luke was at once natural and considerate. That she was a woman deep-dyed in her particular kind of sin and yet found deliverance from her shameful past, confirms the truth that His blood can make the vilest clean.
Those tears of hers, evidence of her sorrow for her many sins, cleansed her vision and gave her a sight of Him who came to save sinners. Guilt produced grief. Evidently she knew all about Jesus and followed His movements. It is most likely that she had heard of His compassion for the sorrowing widow of Nain, and had listened to His parable on the prodigal son. As a prodigal daughter of Israel, drawn by the ineffable pity and tenderness of His words and looks, she, like the prodigal son said, “I will arise and go to my Father.” Brought back to God and purity, she found her way to Simon’s house where her gift and her tears revealed how much she owed the Saviour and how greatly she loved Him.
The grateful woman brought with her an alabaster box of ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus, who did not refuse such a token of her love. While it does not say that the aromatic ointment was as costly as that with which Mary anointed Jesus, we can assume that it relatively was as precious. “The lavish and luxurious use of perfumes characterized the unhappy class to which the woman belonged.” Now she brings the store she had saved to seduce men, and with it anoints Him, the purest of men. He accepted the gift and transfigured it into the devotion of a saint, thereby making the instrument of sin a symbol of penitence and she surrendered to the claims of Jesus.
Further, this transformed sinner not only anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment, but also washed them with her tears and wiped them with the flowing locks of her hair. She could not manifest stronger tokens of her sorrow for sin and of her faith in Jesus. She was looking upon the compassionate face of Him who was about to be pierced and mourned for her sin (Zechariah 12:10). As Jesus reclined on a couch, the woman, modestly, and without attracting the notice of assembled guests, recognized by her tears and perfume the august character of the One who had raised her from the dunghill. Those sobs and the deed at Jesus' feet revealed the woman as having a sympathetic and fervent character. She was not too hardened in her sin as to be incapable of tears. In this she was so different from the cold, calculated attitude of the unsympathetic Simon who witnessed the woman’s expression of gratitude and devotion. The different emotions of shame, penitence, joy, praise, love, found natural relief in her tears, ointment and kiss.
What a study of contrasts we have in the attitude of the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee! How incensed Simon was over the way Jesus allowed such extravagant attention from such a woman of illrepute! Expressing his irritation and disapproval over the Saviour’s countenance of the woman’s gift of tears and perfume, he received his just rebuke for his lack of a sympathetic understanding of the situation. Because of the Pharisee’s cold, austere, love-less manner, the woman knew she could not approach him for he would despise and dismiss her. But with a revelation of the Saviour’s condescension and compassion, she believed He would mercifully receive her and so she cast herself upon His mercy.
We are told that what Simon had witnessed at the feet of Jesus had aroused thoughts of protest and provocation in his heart. He spake within himself about the action of one who professed to be a Prophet receiving homage of such a shameful woman. Was this not inconsistent with His character as the Prophet? He never voiced his irritation over the recognition on the part of Jesus of the woman’s approach, but He who could read the secrets of the heart, answered the unspoken thoughts of the Pharisee (1 Corinthians 15:24, 25). Then in masterly manner, without directly reproving Simon for his pharisaical thoughts, told the story of the two debtors which is similar to another parable of His (Matthew 18:25).
What a moving and thrilling climax Luke gives! In a quiet authoritative tone Jesus said, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee,” and recognizing Him as a Teacher come from God, Simon replied, “Master, say on.” Then came a question “in the form of a kind of ethical proposition sum of the debtors that owed, the one five hundred pence, and the other fifty pence—a question that needs no answer.”
Whatever hope either debtor had lay in the fact that pardon was offered to both as a matter of free gift and bounty, and driving home His point that the creditor had freely and frankly cancelled the sums owed him, Jesus asked Simon the pointed question, “Tell me which of them will love him most?” He answered somewhat indifferently, not fully understanding the drift of Christ’s parable, “I suppose that he to whom he forgave most.” This was the answer needed to rebuke Simon, and so with dramatic swiftness He turned to the half-concealed, worshiping woman, and in a tone vibrating with authority, indignation and condemnation said—
I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears ... Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
The contrasts which Christ used are impressive. Simon gave no oil—the woman anointed His feet with costly ointment. Simon gave nothing for the head of Jesus—the woman lavished her love upon His feet. How Simon reacted to Christ’s message on forgiveness and love we are not told! His cold, unloving, and unforgiving heart must have been smitten as Jesus revealed the depths of love in the woman’s contrite heart, in the words, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”
Turning from Simon to the female sinner who must have been overawed by Christ’s parabolic defense of her tears and gift, He uttered the assuring word, “Thy sins have been forgiven.” Any lingering fear in her penitent heart as to divine acceptance was banished and assurance became hers. The guests at the feast, seeing and hearing all that had taken place, ask the question, “Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” This was an echo of the Scribes who said that Jesus was a blasphemer because He forgave the sins of the man sick of the palsy (Matthew 9:3). Who can forgive sins but God only, and in Simon’s house God was present in the person of His Son? Because He was God manifest in flesh He accepted the woman’s sobs and perfume as the pledge of a past forgiveness and the promise of a life to be lived for His glory.
Christ’s final word to the saved sinner was, “Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace.” Twice He uttered the joyful tidings that her sins had been pardoned and her soul saved. What He emphasizes in His confirmation of deliverance from her sin was that it was by her faith that she had been saved. When He said to Simon, “Her sins are forgiven, for she loved much,” attention must be given to the single word “for.” The phrase does not mean that Christ forgave because of her overflowing love; that because she was a soft and loving woman Christ forgave her faults so natural to her past life. He did not mean, “Forgive her, she has a kind and tender heart, and was more sinned against than sinning.” It was not her love but her faith that brought about her forgiveness, for a sinful soul can only be saved by grace through faith in Christ. Forgiven on the basis of her penitence and faith, pardon expressed itself in the tokens of her love. “Go in peace” was the last word the transformed harlot heard. It actually means, “Go into peace.” Peace was to be the new home in which she was to live, even the perfect peace Paul wrote about in his letter to the Philippians—
God’s peace [be yours, that tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot of whatever sort that is, that peace] which transcends all understanding, shall garrison and mount guard over your heart and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7, Amplified Bible).