The Pharisee’s Bad Manners
The next section in Luke 7:36-50 is one of the longer stories in the book of Luke. A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dinner at his home. This was seemingly a friendly move, but when He arrived for dinner, He immediately discovered the setup. The story was set up in the form of a Step Parallelism where the central theme (in the middle) is an “encased parable.”
A.Introduction (Luke 7:36, 37)
B.Woman’s Acts (Luke 7:38)
C.Dialog #1 (Luke 7:39)
D.Encased Parable (Luke 7:40-42)
C2.Dialog #2 (Luke 7:43)
B2.Woman’s Acts (Luke 7:44-48)
A2.Conclusion (Luke 7:49, 50)
The story assumes background information about the woman without informing us. Obviously, she was (or had been) a woman of ill repute. Lightfoot suggests that she was Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven devils had been cast, perhaps some weeks earlier.
Luke places the story immediately after verse 35, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” presenting this woman as an example of someone who hears and responds to the divine law and thus receives forgiveness of sins. This is, of course, contrasted to Simon the Pharisee himself.
Hospitality in that Culture
The story begins in Luke 7:36, 37,
36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him. And He entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, there was a woman in the city who was a sinner…
The story does not tell us immediately that all of the usual courtesies were ignored when Jesus arrived. We are not told this detail until later in order to provide a progression of revelation that brings the story to a climax. Nonetheless, we may understand the tension in the atmosphere from the start. It is obvious that the Pharisee did not intend to honor Jesus, but to test Him publicly and prove to all present that He was not a prophet. So he was not friendly toward Jesus, but had called Him to dinner in order to grill Him over some point of law or to find some proof that He was not truly a prophet. Obviously, they resented Jesus’ popularity and were jealous of Him.
Simon the Pharisee had a name which meant “hearing/obeying” and so he ought to have lived up to his name. But it is obvious that he did not hear or obey the very law which he proudly upheld. By way of contrast, however, a “sinner” from the town—that is, a lady of ill repute—heard and obeyed, thus fulfilling the law.
Kenneth Bailey comments about this opening scene from the perspective of Middle East culture:
“This scene is filled with tension introduced by what did not happen. As Jesus entered the house, all the traditional courtesies were omitted. Custom required a kiss of greeting, usually on the face. After the guests were seated on stools around the broad U-shaped dining couch, called a triclinium, water and olive oil would be brought for the washing of hands and feet. Only then could the grace be offered. Finally the guests would recline on the couch (or couches) and the meal would begin….
“To omit the entire list would be a calculated and pointed insult…. When these common acts of welcome were omitted, Jesus had the full right to say, ‘I see that I am not welcome here!’ and leave, flushed with anger. This is not the way He responded.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pp. 242, 243)
Jesus’ first response was to recline at the table. No greetings or small talk are mentioned prior to taking a seat at the table. In the culture of the day the eldest was to seat himself first, but Jesus was only about thirty. The Pharisee’s condescending attitude probably indicated that he was older. The implication, then, was that Jesus acted as the adult and sat down at the table first. This act only increases the tension in Luke’s story.
The Woman Intervenes
In verse 37 the woman is introduced in the story as a “sinner,” who no doubt had heard Jesus’ words of love and forgiveness from some hidden place apart from the townspeople. She had been greatly moved by His words, and so when she heard that He had been invited to the house of the Pharisee for dinner, she came as well and joined the crowd that had gathered in the background of the house to observe and hear what was said.
We do not know if she personally witnessed the public insult or if she arrived later and heard about it from others, but it is plain that it broke her heart. So she did what she could to make up for Simon’s omissions. Luke 7:37, 38 continues with the woman’s actions:
37 … and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 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.
In that culture, it was mandatory that a woman should cover her hair in public. Yet she let down her hair in order to wipe His feet. Obviously, when she had come to the house, she had assumed that Simon would honor Jesus. If she had planned ahead of time to anoint His feet, she would have brought a towel as well. Yet she had no towel, so she wiped His feet with her hair.
Kenneth Bailey informs us (page 248),
“The Mishnah lists the offenses that justify a man divorcing his wife without giving her a ketubah (a financial settlement). Among the items mentioned are, ‘If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man’… If going out ‘with her hair unbound’ would trigger such a personal and financial disaster, then clearly such an act was considered an intolerable offense with dire consequences.”
This woman washed Jesus’ feet as a bold act to make up for Simon’s inhospitable behavior. Yet Simon could not see beyond the woman’s bad reputation and how she was defiling Jesus by touching Him. In fact, if Simon had intended to honor Jesus, would he not have been alarmed by her action and moved quickly to have her removed from the house? But instead, not only does he allow her to continue, but uses the incident to justify his own insulting behavior. No doubt he viewed the situation with a certain amount of satisfaction, for it seemed to prove to all that Jesus was not a true prophet.
The Pharisees’ Reaction
39 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 is a sinner.”
The Pharisee thus satisfied himself that Jesus could not possibly be a prophet, for a prophet would never allow such a woman to touch Him. Simon and his Pharisee friends probably exchanged knowing looks, as if to say, “See, what did I tell you?”
The Encased Parable
Jesus saw this in their eyes and responded with the parable that forms the central core of this Step Parallelism:
40 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you…”
This phrase, says Kenneth Bailey, “is a classical Middle Eastern idiom that introduces blunt speech that the listener may not want to hear.”
40 … And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender [banker] had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.”
In Scripture, all sin is reckoned as a debt, because the law judges sinners by making them pay restitution directly proportional to the loss of their victims. Hence, a sin of theft normally requires double restitution (Exodus 22:4) in order to be forgiven in the eyes of the law. Jesus’ parable here employs the same “debt” theme as found in the parable of Matt. 18:22-35, where the man owing 10,000 “talents” was forgiven his debt.
The obvious message that Jesus was conveying was that Simon and his friends owed God fifty denarii (or dinars) for their sins, while the woman owed God five hundred. Both were forgiven (including Simon), but the woman loved Jesus more.
Only then do we get the full impact of the story. Only now are we informed of Simon’s lack of social amenities, which reveal the real reason why he had invited Jesus to dinner.
The Woman’s Righteousness Exceeds that of the Pharisees
Luke 7:44-47 lists three items contrasting Simon with the actions of this “sinner”:
44 And turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.
One can always tell the difference between a sinner and a Pharisee. It is not so much a difference between their acts, but of pride or humility. A Pharisee is willing to point out the faults of “sinners” in order to elevate himself in the eyes of his peers. Both are forgiven, but a sinner, having found forgiveness and rest, has a much deeper love for Jesus Christ.
I first took note of this as early as my Bible College days. The student body was a mixture of saints and sinners, and I observed the pride of the saints and their disdain for the sinners. It was then that I first observed that “a little sin is good for the soul.” I recognized that the saints needed to learn some humility, which probably could only be learned if they saw the true condition of their own hearts. Such revelation would probably come to them only if God tripped them so that they stumbled.
Of course, no one should deliberately go out and sin in order to learn humility, for that would defeat the lesson. People might then become as proud of their sin as they had been of their righteousness. But if they try hard to be righteous, yet fall, then their weakness is exposed, and they have opportunity to learn humility.
The woman in Luke’s story needed no reminder that she was a sinner. The community, no doubt, constantly reminded her of this. So Jesus felt no need to extract any confession from her, nor any promise of future good behavior. Luke 7:48 says,
48 And He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”
Jesus recognized her faith and her love. He saw her heart and needed nothing further before telling her that she had received full forgiveness.
49 And those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The other people at the table were, no doubt fellow Pharisees in Simon’s circle of friends. Simon was only “one of the Pharisees” (Luke 7:36). Like Simon, they had all conspired to trap Jesus in order to prove He was a false prophet. Because this heart idol already ruled their hearts, the lesson of love, faith, and forgiveness was lost on them. They made no comment about Jesus’ parable and showed no remorse for their insulting behavior. They could only continue in their criticism. But Jesus went about His business of extending forgiveness to those whose hearts had already received the truth and had responded with love.
This story is a good example illustrating Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:20,
20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
For a woman to show greater righteousness than the Pharisee men is part of the irony in Luke’s account. This is Luke’s example of how wisdom is justified by her children.