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“A Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner with him, and Jesus went to his house and sat down to eat. In that town was a woman who lived a sinful life. She heard that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee's house, so she brought an alabaster jar full of perfume and stood behind Jesus, by his feet, crying and wetting his feet with her tears. Then she dried his feet with her hair, kissed them, and poured the perfume on them. When the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives!”.
Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.””Yes, Teacher,” he said, “Tell me”. “There were two men who owed money to a money-lender” Jesus began. “One owed him 500 silver coins, and the other owed him 50. Neither of them could pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Which one, then, will love him more?” “I suppose,” answered Simon, “that it would be the one who was forgiven more”. “You are right,” said Jesus. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your home, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You did not welcome me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet since I came. You provided no olive oil for my head, but she has covered my feet with perfume. I tell you, then, the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven. But whoever has been forgiven little shows only a little love.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others sitting at the table began to say to themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” But Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This is a particularly emotive chapter to write as it deals with that very vulnerable group in any society, young women. As the parents of four daughters, having had various concerns about each of them at different times, we thank God that they are in His hands. It horrifies us to see TV news recording atrocities committed on young women by criminal regimes in the name of various religions. In England, T.V. news programmes have shown dreadful reports of the execution of young women by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the stoning of another young woman by the judiciary in Northern Nigeria. The rape and murder of women and children in Dafur, Sudan, is said to be in the name of religion. These crimes against humanity, filmed secretly by courageous media people at great personal risk, illustrate some of the reasons for the huge exodus of emigrants from many of these countries to the West. The West, based largely on Christian ethical values of grace, forgiveness and tolerance, is sometimes regarded by other religions as weak. However, Christian values flow from a position of confidence and strength. One is appalled that these shocking injustices are carried out by “religious” regimes which claim to be seeking God, but appear to be motivated instead by condemnation, hatred, and a desire to murder.
In our experience, in several Balkan countries, young women may be sold by their parents to local farmers, and sometimes orphans will be sold for spare part surgery by unscrupulous relatives. Foreign procurers are prepared to pay $25,000 for a healthy teenager – the Albanian police are aware that 1,000 teenagers at least have gone missing in this way in the last few years. In the Autumn of 2004 the medical staff of a clinic involved in this appalling trade were arrested in Giannitsa in Greece, near the Albanian border, and the clinic was closed by the Greek police.
Out in the mountain villages girls are often withdrawn from school (assuming there is a school available in that village at all) at the age of 12, kept at home to learn the skills of being a housewife, then sold to a local farmer at the age of 15. They will then become a source of unlimited unpaid labour for the rest of their lives, as one of a number of similar wives he may possess. They will never have a life of their own, never experience love – except that of their children. There is no protection for young women in this situation. The village clan has total control over them, and it is a well-established system going back as far as history records. This may seem an appalling situation to us, but we must remember that elderly people may have no other way of providing for themselves in their old age.
I have witnessed the impact of the arrival of the Christian Church on societies like this. The public preaching of the Gospel in the villages and small towns leads to the conversion of many, especially the youngsters. They then form a large, strong fellowship group in the area. I remember two very large young men converted at an open air meeting, who made their stand for Jesus publicly, by facing up to a crowd of their own villagers who were threatening to stone the preacher. The villagers knew them as hit-men for the local crime boss and backed down immediately. Those young men are now gifted musicians and worship leaders, and when they call you to worship, you worship!
Young women joining the fellowship, even from a remote village, find that they have joined a far more effective and protective family than the village clan where they live. They will be able to continue education after the age of 12 at one of the schools rebuilt by the missionaries after years of communist neglect. About half the youth group of the local Church may eventually get to University now. One of these young women, coming to faith in this way, has recently qualified as a medical Doctor: Elisabeth would never have had a life like that without the arrival and establishment of the Christian Church.
This is the real world in which front-line Christian missions operate today. Often they are introducing basic human rights in societies which have been blatantly abusing their own communities.
Young women seem to have been just as vulnerable in Israel in Jesus' day. There were notorious cases of abuse where false accusations of promiscuity were made against wives by unscrupulous husbands who had become bored with them. There was the case widely reported of Susanna37 the victim of an arranged marriage to a nasty old man, apparently disappointed and offended by her unwillingness to fulfil his sexual fantasies. She was falsely accused of adultery, and two witnesses were bribed, so that she could be taken before a Rabbi who would act as judge, and sentence her to be stoned to death. Unfortunately for the accusers, a bright young Rabbi Daniel(whom some writers have confused with the Old Testament prophet of the same name) saw through their little plan and the husband and the false accusers suffered the penalty they had sought for Susanna. These were some of the issues that Jesus addressed in his ministry, pointing the way back from the then current Hasidic strictures towards what Moses actually taught about these issues.
We know very little about the young woman in Luke 7. She is quite likely to have been a teenager, possibly betrothed to a young man who ultimately decided to marry someone else. If that were the case, it is unlikely that any other young man would ever be willing to risk the loss of status resulting from marrying her. (To marry someone who had been rejected by someone else would make your status lower than his.) Eventually her father dies. Maybe she has no other family willing to care for her. She is very much on her own, in the kind of situation not uncommon in that society. For all practical purposes she could either starve, sell herself into slavery, or she could become a prostitute. As a slave she would be abused by her master and his friends at whim. As a prostitute she could at least choose her abuser.
Unfortunately, a notorious “sinner” would be a total outcast from society; if she lived in a village she must keep out of sight as much as possible, and might be forced to live in a cave outside the village. She would be reviled and spat upon by the other women if she went to the well at the same time as they did – so instead would collect water in the heat of the day when the well would be deserted. The men from the village would enjoy her services, and atone for their sin against God by means of a small sacrifice at the Temple. A sacrificial dove would atone for several misdemeanours. But for women the Law was different. They had very few human rights. As she grew older and less attractive, she would probably know quite a lot of embarrassing secrets, and it would only take two or three men to accuse her of adultery for the Rabbi to quietly authorise them to stone her to death. The safeguards set out by Moses, which should have applied in such cases, do not appear to have been widely followed (see Chapter Eight of this book).
Often the villagers would actively abuse such “sinners” as a means of demonstrating that they were “on God's side”. There were all sorts of nasty ways in which this could be carried out.
Jesus was travelling around the towns and villages of Galilee with his extraordinary message that God loves sinners. This was astonishing news to people who found themselves publicly condemned as sinners and might offer some hope of survival for a young woman such as this. Pharisees would find Jesus' message totally outrageous and ridiculous. We read that Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to a feast at his home, quite clearly with the intention of humiliating him and exposing him as a false Teacher. Luke relates how the humiliation started as soon as Jesus arrived, by Simon failing to offer even the most basic of welcomes.
Normally, a Rabbi would expect to receive a kiss on both hands, have his feet washed, and his head anointed with a fragrant oil, and to be seated at the head of the table on the right hand of the host, as God's representative at the feast.38 Quite a lot of people would have noticed Simon's failure to do this. A rich man would put on such a feast in order to enhance his status and reputation amongst the villagers and the important men of the town. Lesser villagers would stand around and witness the feast. I have seen the remains of one or two such villages, and a number of houses appear to be arranged like a “U” around a courtyard at the front. A feast like Simon's would most likely have been laid out in the courtyard where he could make a great show. Bystanders could enjoy the conversations of his distinguished guests, nodding their heads wisely, their mouths probably watering at the sight of so much good food. Large plates of food, usually lentil and vegetable stew (with meat if it were a feast – e.g. the fatted calf..), would be placed on the low table, and bread would be dipped into the stew with the fingers. As a mark of special honour and respect, the host himself might put a tasty morsel into the guest's mouth.
To omit the customary welcoming procedure was a calculated insult; a “normal” Rabbi would have made his excuses and departed. But Jesus stayed, apparently accepting a position low down at the far end of the table away from the host. This was where guests of the least importance were reclining, nearest the watching villagers, including the young woman who longed to hear that she could be forgiven and accepted back into society. Unnoticed, probably in disguise, she found herself standing near the feet of this young Rabbi who might well turn out to be her salvation.39 She bursts into tears, great sobs shaking her, and tears landing in a flood on Jesus' feet. Remember that the table would be very low on the ground, and the guests would recline on cushions, with their feet away from the table.
Totally overcome by emotion, overwhelmed by the situation, confused, not knowing what to do, she kneels down and takes off her head-dress to try to dry his feet with her lovely long hair.
In Jewish society at that time, this was an overtly erotic act – much as we might view taking our clothes off in public – a woman could only ever let down her hair in the presence of her mother and sisters, or her husband. The guests at the feast are shocked and horrified! Simon sees his chance to destroy Jesus' reputation, saying “Of course, if this really were a man of God, he would have known perfectly well what kind of woman this was, and not allowed her anywhere near him!” There may well have been a lot of muttering and agreement amongst the guests wanting to impress Simon, their host. Jesus puts his hand up. “Simon, may I ask you a question?” Simon, one imagines with deep contempt in his voice, says “Ask away, Master...”. That was his mistake. Jesus' questions always allow only one answer. Once he has asked the question, the opponent is caught. Jesus tells the story of the two debtors, one who owes a lot and one who owes a little. In the highly improbable situation where both are forgiven, Jesus asks “Who would be most grateful?”
Simon realises he is trapped. The obvious answer must have come very reluctantly, “Well, I suppose, the one who was forgiven the most...” Jesus' response is absolutely devastating. Slightly mocking, he says “How clever of you, Simon!” He turns to the woman and says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your home and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair. You did not welcome me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet since I came. You provided no oil for my head, but she has covered my feet with perfume. I tell you, the great love that she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven. But whoever has been forgiven little shows only a little love.” Jesus then turns to the woman and pronounces a “rabbinical absolution” (see Glossary)on her, twice, which requires the village to forgive her and accept her back into society.
The outcome for Simon would have been disastrous. His failure to honour God in receiving God's representative has been displayed and in fact he has been shown to be further away from God than this notorious local sinner. All this has happened in public, in front of his distinguished friends and all the villagers he was so hoping to impress. The situation is sensational! It will never be forgotten in the village. It is hardly surprising that at Calvary, Pharisees like Simon were delighted to see all the hatred and venom they normally reserved for defenceless sinners poured out on Jesus instead. Their hatred and resentment of him must have been immeasurable.
But what happened to the woman? Her forgiveness having been publicly granted by the Rabbi, the Law required that she should be received back into society. However, as a notorious local sinner and the means of Simon's extreme embarrassment, I wonder just how safe she would have been. My guess is that, rather than risk revenge in the village, she would have become one of Jesus' followers – part of a small wandering group of Jews, caring for each other, despised by religious zealots, and which remained small until after the Resurrection when Peter started his preaching career.
It is not generally understood that her ointment was a very important part of the trade of being a prostitute, used both as a perfume to attract her customers and as a lubricant. It was extremely expensive. (John 12:5) Her surrendering it to Jesus signified her intention to end her career and lead a different life in future. In Jesus' ministry it is perfectly clear (although Bible teachers have not always understood this) that acceptance of the person did not in any sense signify tolerance of their sin. Even grace has a price, and that price is genuine repentance, such as that shown by this woman.
This all took place in the home of “Simon, The Pharisee”. Because Simon has always been a very common name in Israel, this individual requires further qualification. Even among Jesus' disciples there was Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, and Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. A similar situation exists in Wales. Steve Morgan, one of the super Christian guys from the church in Neath who worked so hard to establish our ministry in the early days, was known as “Crasher Morgan” because of his unfortunate tendency to have motorcycle crashes two or three times a year – thankfully he always survived. He went on to become a rather exuberant ambulance driver. Morgan End-Terrace was the old man who lived at the end of the road. There are a lot of Jones's in Wales, too – Jones The Blast came from Cardiff in his van to bead-blast our wrought iron garden seat!
So here we have Simon, The Pharisee. A similar event took place at the home of another Simon, Simon, The Leper. These are definitely two different people. Some theologians are apparently unaware of how society worked in those days, and assume that these reports speak of one and the same event. This supposed inconsistency is even quoted as some sort of proof that people who heard the story second or third hand concocted the Gospels at a later date. Many theologians do not seem to understand that Jesus' ministry involved a lot of similar events, and that a prostitute turning from her sinful life had one really effective way of demonstrating that she really meant it – that was by surrendering the most expensive tool of her trade, her perfumed ointment. Similar circumstances must have arisen on many occasions.
The problem for the Gospel writers was in selecting individual stories for written publication from the large number of similar stories about similar occasions. This particular story was so memorable and so sensational it must have really stood out in their minds. Again, it involved the downfall of a well known Pharisee, which was likely to be a popular theme for ordinary people. It would have helped to show Jesus as someone who identified totally with ordinary people and the situations in which they found themselves.
Luke 8:2-3 goes on to refer to numbers of other women, some with life-controlling problems, whom Jesus had healed. They included: “Mary (who was called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had been driven out; Joanna, whose husband Chusa was an officer in Herod's court; and Susanna, and many other women who used their own resources to help Jesus and his disciples”.
Jesus' popularity grew and grew, in town after town, everywhere he went. (Luke 8:4) Jesus was the man for the people. Looking back at the ministry of Jesus, seeing the way he confronted the wrong-headed ideas of Hasidic Judaism, reveals his remarkably courageous character. The religious authorities rightly perceived him as a threat. These people had the power of life and death over him, an option they of course ultimately took.
In the Resurrection it was Jehovah, the God of Israel, who over-ruled their actions.
In his ministry Jesus re-defined what it is to be “The People of God”.
37 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 168, 169, 185
38 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1980): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans. Chapter 1
39 There is the possibility, which we should not exclude, that the woman was planted in the crowd at Jesus' feet by Simon, with the intention of using her presence to humiliate Jesus, a ploy which really ought to have been effective. Unfortunately for Simon, plans by Pharisees to humiliate Jesus were most unlikely to succeed.