|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
Our lesson includes Luke's version of the anointing of Jesus (7:36-51), which is found in all four gospels; and a statement about the women who share in and financially support Jesus' ministry (8:1-3), which is found only in Luke.
In most of my outlines of Luke, there is a break between these two stories, yet they are connected by the fact that both represent positive responses to Jesus by women. One, who was a sinner and forgiven, responds with "great love." The others, who were "cured of evil spirits and infirmities," respond by following and (financially?) supporting Jesus' ministry.
In contrast to the positive response of these women, there is the response of the Pharisee in the first part of our lesson. He starts out positive by asking Jesus to eat with him -- and Jesus' accepts. Three times in Luke Jesus eats with Pharisees (7:36, 11:37; 14:1). There is no record of Jesus eating with Pharisees in the other gospels. I believe that it's part of Luke's inclusivism. Jesus eats not only with "sinners," but also with Pharisees. [In the parallels in Mt and Mk, the host is a leper.] What might this say about our pastoral approach to pharisaic-like members? (I don't know about others, but when I get invited out to eat -- I go!)
There are similarities among the women in our text:
there are costly actions in both stories;
all (or most?) have been healed/forgiven of diseases/demons/sins.
There are also some possible contrasts between the women in these two stories.
The group of women is following Jesus. The one is sent away ("go in peace").
The group has the resources to provide for the disciples and Jesus over time. The one just provides ointment for a "one-time-event," and the ointment is not called "costly" in Luke as in the parallel accounts. Could this sinful woman have been poor?
Luke is fond of picturing Jesus in meal-time situations:
Levi's banquet (5:29)
Feeding the 5000 (9:12-17)
At Mary and Martha's house (10:38-42)
At a second Pharisee's house (11:37-41)
At a third Pharisee's house (14:1-6)
The Party for the Son(s) (15:11-32)
The Passover Meal (Last Supper) (22:7-23)
The Meal at Emmaus (24:13-35)
The Meal in Jerusalem (24:36-43)
Jesus' meal/fellowship is called into question by the Pharisees:
"Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" (5:30)
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (15:2)
Just before our text, Jesus is apparently quoting his critics:
"The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (7:34)
The issue of table fellowship continued into Acts. After Peter returns to Jerusalem from Cornelius' house, "the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (Ac 11:2b-3). Paul refers to the same (or similar) situation in Gal 2:11-12.
Yet, Paul writes in 1 Cor 5:11:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. DO NOT EVEN EAT WITH SUCH A ONE (emphasis added).
Such verses indicate the importance of table fellowship in biblical times. It is important for Luke to indicate that Jesus not only ate with the "tax collectors and sinners," but also the Pharisees! It may be that by the time of Luke, the believers had begun to look at the Pharisees as the "outcasts," as the Pharisees had done to the "tax collectors and sinners" during Jesus' day.
Whether it is a sin of self-righteousness or of sinful living, Jesus accepts them both -- the Pharisee's invitation to a meal and the sinful woman's (scandalous) acts of love.
Only in Luke is this woman described as a "sinner" (hamartolos). Throughout Luke, Jesus has positive regards for "sinners."
He invites sinful Peter to follow him (5:8ff).
He eats and drinks with sinners (5:30; 7:34; 15:2; 19:7)
He came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:32)
He relates the heavenly joy over repentant sinners (15:7, 10)
He presents a sinner as an example of proper praying (18:13)
Yet, he will be handed over to sinners to be crucified (24:7)
In addition, every time in Luke that the word hamartia = "sin" is used (11 times), it is being forgiven by Jesus (see 7:48, 49). More about forgiveness later.
This woman is not anointing his body prior to burial as in the other accounts. Her ointment is not described as being costly as in the other accounts. (Perhaps suggesting that she is not wealthy like the other women who are financially supporting Jesus' ministry.) The emphasis is more on her actions of bathing, drying, kissing, and anointing his feet.
Note that the words (kataklino -- "took his place at the table" in v. 36) and (katakeimai -- "was eating" in v. 37) literally mean, "to recline." Jesus was lying down with his feet stretch out away from the food, so that the woman could approach his feet. She didn't have to crawl under a table to get to them!
Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) offers a number of comments about foot washing in the first century. (In the parallel text in John, it is Mary, Lazarus' sister, who washes Jesus' feet.)
People generally washed and anointed their own feet. Foot washing was a routine matter of cleanliness, and the use of oil or ointment on one's feet was soothing for those shod in sandals. When guests arrived at someone's home, especially after a journey, the host usually provided a basin and water for the guests to wash their own feet before sharing the meal. In the Scriptures, for example, Abraham welcomed visitors to his tent by saying, "Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree" (Gen 18:4). The same practice is attested in other biblical texts and Greco-Roman sources. In some cases, a host might also provide oil for his guests, although they would ordinarily rub it onto their feet themselves.
A slave was virtually the only one who could be expected to wash and anoint the feet of another person.... washing or anointing the feet of another person remained identified with slavery.
Because of these connotations, those who voluntarily washed someone else's feet showed they were devoted enough to act as that person's slave....
The act of anointing Jesus' feet, when taken in its literary and cultural context, displays Mary's utter devotion to Jesus following the resuscitation of her brother. Other elements of the action are consistent with this. The ointment she used was very expensive.... Since there is no indication that Mary belonged to one of the wealthier classes -- the meal was served by Martha rather than a servant -- the ointment was apparently a major expenditure. It was also significant that Mary wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, since well-kept hair contributed to a person's dignity in the ancient world. Women took pride in long hair, which was considered attractive, and damage to one's hair was considered degrading. By using her hair to wipe the feet of Jesus, Mary heightened the sense of self-effacement already reflected in her willingness to serve him as a slave. [pp. 112-114]
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) writes about her actions:
As the woman stood weeping behind Jesus, she began to wash his feet with her tears. In a spontaneous act, she let down her hair and began to wipe the tears from Jesus' feet and then anointed them with the perfume. The woman's act expresses love and gratitude, but it also violated social conventions. Touching or caressing a man's feet could have sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair, so a woman never let down her hair in public. Moreover, the woman was known to be a sinner. Assuming she was unclean, she would have made Jesus unclean by touching him. [p. 170]
Whatever sexual overtones might have been suggested by her actions, Jesus makes no mention of them. He only describes them as acts of "great love" related to showing hospitality in contrast to the Pharisee's lack of hospitable actions.
I wonder if the Pharisee might not have put this woman up to her deeds to test Jesus -- to discover if he were really a prophet. Whether or not the Pharisee had anything to do with the woman's actions, he makes two assumptions:
(1) If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman she is who is touching him, namely a sinner and he wouldn't allow such a woman to touch him.
(2) Since Jesus did not stop the woman, he must not be a prophet.
Is Jesus a prophet?
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus raised the widow's son at Nain. The people glorify God and say, "A great prophet has risen among us!" (7:16). A little later Jesus is talking to the crowd about John the Baptist. He asks them, "What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet" (7:26). We also know that John did not feel worthy to untie the thong of Jesus' sandal. If John were "more than a prophet," Jesus must be "much more than a prophet."
Jesus doesn't seem to pass this Pharisee's test about knowing about this woman and refusing her touch, but Jesus knows all about the Pharisee's thoughts! Jesus is a prophet -- but the Pharisee probably wishes that he weren't!
In v. 40, Jesus calls the Pharisee by name, Simon. There can be a great difference between "one of the Pharisees" and "Simon." I had a conversation once with a member of a large neighboring church. For some reason our conversation got onto female clergy. This man said that he didn't like female clergy. That surprised me. I asked him, "What about Sally?" Sally was the name of one of the three pastors at his church. "Oh, Sally," he said. "She's different." He was prejudiced against female clergy, but not against Sally. I've heard a similar kind of thing about "all those old people at the nursing home," but when we talk about John or Emma living at the home, it's different.
Jesus calls this Pharisee by name.
Jesus tells Simon a brief parable about canceling debts. The Greek word translated "to cancel" is charizomai. It is a verbal form of the noun charis = "grace, kindness, mercy." This word is used only three times in Luke: twice in our text (vv. 42 & 43) and earlier in the chapter when we are told that Jesus has been giving sight to many who were blind (7:21).
There are two Greek words that refer to "canceling" a debt. Although they overlap in meanings, the verb in these verses implies more a sense of "to being gracious towards" = "giving something that isn't deserved." The other term -- aphiemi -- a word that a frequently translated "to forgive" (see 7:47, 48, 49) -- implies more of a "releasing from" something, e.g., canceling financial obligations or releasing from (punishment for) sins = "forgiveness".
I think that many in our society understand the bondage from being in financial debt and can understand what freedom or release from those debts might feel like. That may be more "real" to them than "forgiveness of sins." There are those who have piled up credit card debts or other financial obligations that keep them in bondage. One may also be bound by family or even work obligations -- all those "have to's" one may be enslaved to. What would it mean to be released from them all?
Part of my growth in faith is to become more aware of the depth of my sinfulness. In younger days, sin was bad things one did. Forgiveness implied not being punished as I deserved for doing those bad things. Since the bad things I might do weren't all that bad nor that often, I didn't think I needed much forgiving -- not like those other sinners in the world. However, I've come to realize that my sinfulness is much deeper than my bad deeds -- it involves inner attitudes, desires, motivations, etc., and thus, I also am in need of forgiveness and grace that reaches those depths.
Simon had called Jesus "teacher" in v. 40. Now, in v. 44, Jesus tells him to look at this woman. She can also be his teacher. She can teach him about being forgiven. She can teach him about receiving grace. She can teach him about love and hospitality. However, it begins by seeing her as an individual, a person, a woman, rather than primarily, "a sinner".
Where do we learn how to love others and show hospitality -- especially in terms of our congregations? In this story there is a difference between Simon inviting Jesus to his house for a meal and being hospitable or showing love to his guest. (Is that frequently a problem in congregations? We invite people to come through yellow page ads, signs by the street, etc., but we may not always be very hospitable to those who do accept our invitation.) At least from this text, a key to our hospitality is our own understanding of our sinfulness (Is it great or small?) and the resulting forgiveness and grace we have receive from Christ (Is it great or small?).
Another place where we can learn about hospitality is indicated by the book: Feeding the Flock: Restaurants and Churches You'd Stand in Line For, by Russell Chandler (The Alban Institute, 1998). The basic premise of this book comes from two groups of questions the author frequently asks congregations:
What makes a good restaurant? A "successful" restaurant?
What makes a church "successful"?
Are there parallels between good restaurants and churches?
What makes a restaurant fail or go downhill?
What makes a church fail or go downhill?
Are there parallels?
Certainly an aspect of "successful" restaurants and churches is their ability to be hospitable. Perhaps we need to observe good restaurants. What are they are doing to really welcome their guests, to make the best first impression possible, to encourage first time guests to return again and again? Can we apply any of that to our congregations?
Tannehill (Luke) on translating verse 47:
There is an ambiguity in the Greek of verse 47. It would be possible to translate, "Her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love," understanding her love as the basis for receiving forgiveness. This, however, contradicts both the parable, where forgiveness leads to love, not vice versa, and the final statement in verse 47 (little forgiveness leads to little love). It seems necessary then, to understand "because she has shown great love" as providing the reason why Jesus is sure that she has been forgiven, connecting this phrase with the beginning of the sentence, "therefore, I tell you." The sense then would be, "Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, (and I can tell you this) because she has shown great love." The implication of the NRSV translation is similar. Simon is being shown the value of the woman's experience, not just for her but for him. It is valuable not because Simon also has many sins (no such accusation is made), but because Simon can learn about the depth of God's forgiveness and its powerful effect through the experience of the woman. If Simon can accept her, the woman's experience can revitalize Simon's understanding of God. [pp. 136-7]
The first verb in Jesus' statement in v. 27 is a perfect tense (= "have been forgiven" = a past action with continuing effect in the present), followed by an aorist (= love = at some particular point, usually in the past -- most likely the actions that occur within this text).
Related to this, Joel Green (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT) writes:
When had she been forgiven? As in narratives more generally, so here we are confronted with a gap in the story line, and we must assume some prior encounter the effect of which was her forgiveness. This is hardly unusual for Luke who occasionally introduces persons into the narrative who have already begun the journey of discipleship in some sense though we are never told when or how [footnote: See, e.g., 7:1-10; 8:43-48; 19:1-10; 23:40-43]. What we are told is that she had already been forgiven. Jesus' affirmation of her forgiveness is told in the third person, still addressed to Simon. Simon is not aware of her new status; he still regards her as a sinner with whom a man of God ought not to associate. Jesus' affirmation is thus for Simon's sake, in order that he might realize her condition and embrace her in the community of God's people. [pp. 313-4]
If this had been the moment of forgiveness, we would expect Jesus to address and declare to the woman in some way, "You are forgiven" or "I forgive you." As this event is interpreted by Green, is seems to be more like the party for the prodigal son. The father accepts the "sinful" son back into the family, will the older brother? Jesus indicates his (prior) forgiveness and acceptance of this sinner, will the Pharisee?
The first time "love" is used in this verse, it is an aorist tense, which normally implies an action at a particular time. Most likely it refers to the events within the text.
Both "forgive" and "love" in the last part of this verse are present tense verbs, which imply repeated or continual action. So it might be translated, "The one who continues to be forgiven little, continues to love little."
Love, as it was illustrated in this text, is one's ability to express hospitality and devotion towards Jesus. The woman did it much. Simon did it little.
Perhaps this quote from Jonathan Swift in 1711 can fit this situation: "We have just enough religion to hate, but not enough to make us love one another."
Some have received just enough grace/forgiveness to remain judgmental of others, rather than enough to cause them to be graceful/forgiving as God has been toward them.
Perhaps we want just enough forgiveness so that we don't feel so bad, but not enough to make us change our lives -- to become so devoted to Christ that we act in ways contrary to society's expectations.
I wonder how many of our religious wars, fights, skirmishes are caused by having "just enough religion to hate"?
If her sins had been forgiven earlier, why the declaration now? Tannehill (Luke) offers this explanation:
...reassurance of forgiveness may be important, since the woman must face people who share Simon's negative attitude. Jesus also speaks about her faith (v. 50). As in 5:18-20, faith was demonstrated in bold action.
Jesus' assurance of forgiveness creates a question in the minds of the other dinner guests. This question is a milder version of the question that follows Jesus' words of forgiveness to the paralyzed man (5:20-21). It reminds the Lukan audience of that occasion, when he proclaimed his authority on earth to forgive sins. The question "Who is this?" will become a repeated theme in the narrative, leading up to the christological revelations in 9:20, 22, 35. [p. 137]
Suddenly in v. 50, the topic of faith is brought in. Up until this time, the commendable quality of the woman was her love, not her faith.
Fred Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) makes these comments about Jesus command to the woman, "Go in peace."
Where does one go when told by Christ "Go in peace"? The price of the woman's way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her. The one place where she is welcome is the street, among people like herself. What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. The story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, "You are welcome here." [p. 106]
I wonder if Simon would be able to go in peace. It seems to me that his encounter with Jesus and the woman would cause his peaceful world to fall apart.
Throughout Luke, women play important roles, e.g., the sinner woman in the first part of our text. In 8:1-3, we have a clear indication that women were part of Jesus' traveling group.
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write about these verses:
Travel for other than conventional reasons (feasts, visiting family, business) was considered deviant. Women leaving behind family responsibilities would have been considered seriously deviant, arousing suspicions of illicit sexual conduct. Since the women specified are all said to have been healed by Jesus, they could have returned to their proper places in their own communities. The fact that they travel with Jesus and provide support implies reciprocity: paying off the debt incurred when they were healed. It may also imply that they were widows who now see the surrogate family as taking precedent over biological family. [p. 334]
I imagine that seeing a teacher with a group of male and female followers would have created quite a stir among the people. It wasn't the way things were supposed to be done -- but Jesus had a habit of doing that.
Another Lukan theme that comes out in these verses is the proper use of wealth and possessions. If the earlier story was about loving Jesus, this story goes a step further and shows people "investing" in the ministry with their resources.
The verb diakoneo generally means "to serve," "to take care of," such as preparing and serving meals (cf. 4:39; 10:40; 12:37).
However, a noun form of the word, diakonia = usually "ministry" or "service," can be used in terms of financial contributions (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 89:4; 9:1, 12, 13). However, if we interpret this text as financially supporting Jesus' ministry with our wealth and property, we've started meddling, haven't we.
Loren Mead's latest book is Financial Meltdown in the Mainline. Near the end of the book he asks, "Are you rich?" He writes
I have taken to using that question a lot -- in public meetings. The public response is always the same; I can predict many of the individual reactions immediately.
There will be a murmur. A sort of collective, "WHAT A MINUTE. WHAT RIGHT HAS HE TO ASK THAT?" then a few hands will go up, tentatively. Somebody will blurt out, "Compared to what?" If I hold the silence long enough, I'll start to get comments such as, "With my mortgage and tuition payments, I'm darned near broke!" Nervous laughter. There is always nervous laughter.
Why does that question turn us inside out? Why did it probably make you feel uncomfortable? In my group sessions everybody tells me that his or her first reaction was that I had stepped out of line. Some say it feels as if they had been punched in the gut.
If I were to ask, "Are you married?" or, "Do you like to play golf?" I would tap into very different emotions. And other personal questions -- "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in universal salvation? Do you believe in a personal devil? Do you believe you have been saved?" -- could lead to discussion and possibly to argument, but nobody would feel I had mounted a sneak attack. In a post-Oprah world, I could probably come close to getting away with even more intrusive questions: "Do you think women should have the option to have an abortion?" or, "Do you think adultery is sometimes acceptable?"
In our society I don't think any of those other questions packs the emotional punch of "Are you rich?"...
The simple question packs punch because in our society and in our churches this is simply not a subject you can talk about. I'm always conscious that I've done something "naughty" when I ask it. People sometimes throw their discomfort onto me. They ask me to define what I mean; they sometimes say "none of your business"; some people really get angry with me.... [pp. 112-3]
If you want to keep the congregation relatively happy, just talk about lots of sins being forgiven and responding with lots of love for Jesus. If you want to hear nervous laughter, mention how wealthy we Americas are and the need to respond with one's possessions and pocketbooks for the sake of Jesus' ministry.
In some ways, the "sinner-woman" was a mayday steward -- she gave what she could for a specific moment in Jesus' ministry -- not "mayday" in the sense that she was bailing him out of a problem. The other women were payday stewards. They continued to contribute to the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus and his disciples.
Finally, the June 1, 2004, issue of The Christian Century, contains two, one-page articles by Michael Lindvall called, "Living by the Word". In his comments on Luke 7:36-8:3 he shares this illustration:
A few years ago I introduced a new element into the weddings at which I officiate. Several weeks before the ceremony I ask the couple to write each other love letters. Write privately, I tell them. Don't show the letter to anyone, not even to each other. Just seal it in an envelope and give it to me. And then I ask them if I can select excerpts from their letters to read as a part of the wedding sermon. Invariably the letters are quite moving. When I read from them everybody in the family has a good wedding cry, and some break down and sob.
A couple of attractive and bright graduate students wrote a pair of especially unforgettable letters. When I read one of the letters, it was not just the family members who cried but also the cellist, a stranger hired for the occasion, and I, the pastor.
It was the groom's letter that did it. He wrote about how his wife-to-be loved him. Not knowing that he was penning Lukan theology as well as declaring love, he said that his fiancée's love was most amazing because she loved him as he was, imperfections, male foibles and all. That was amazing enough, he wrote, but even more wondrous was the fact that her unconditional love had this way of pulling him to grow to be more worthy of it.
Similarly, one of the best lines I've heard in a movie is Jack Nicholson's in As Good as It Gets. Helen Hunt insists that he complement her. He says, "You make me want to be a better person."
Mark Allen Powell writes about an experience he had:
Basically, I thought the good news revealed in and through Jesus Christ was that "God accepts us just the way we are." A lot of Lutherans think that.
Then, I encountered liberation theology. I remember a seminar I attended in college. A large African-American man had two big signs up front. One read, "Jesus Christ accepts you the way you are." The other said, "Jesus Christ will change your life." Both are biblical and both are good news, the speaker affirmed. "So why is it that you Lutherans equate the gospel with one sign and not the other? You say, 'Jesus will change my life? Well, that's nice, but the really good news is that he accepts me the way I am!' You get so excited that Jesus will accept you as you are that, after a while, some of us begin to wonder whether this isn't because you plan on staying the way you are -- whether Jesus will change you or not. Now, where I come from, in the inner city, I know some folks who -- if you tell them, 'Jesus accepts you the way you are' -- will respond, 'Well, that's nice of him, but the fact is I don't really like being the way I am. My life isn't so good. It's nice that Jesus loves me even though I'm poor and hungry and my life is a mess, but you know what some really good news would be? Really good news would be if he'd change my life so that I don't have to be this way.'" [Chasing the Eastern Star, p. 181]
John Bell brings these aspects in a short hymn (#814 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship). The first of two lines is: "Take, oh, take me as I am; summon out what I shall be." God's summon changes us.
The love of Jesus makes us want to be better people. The women in our texts have been changed into better people by that love. Christ has summoned out what they might be.
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901