FORGIVENESS: Role Reversal At Tables—Jesus, a Pharisee, and a Sinful Woman by John T. Carroll

sinful woman

From Luke: A Commentary

Jesus, the man with the well-earned reputation of enjoying a good meal and befriending sinners, finds himself in a banquet setting where he can befriend the righteous.  At the home of a Pharisee, however, the unexpected appearance of a woman with her own reputation in the town – as a sinner – turns the occasion into another display of feasting and embracing, and being embraced by, a sinner.  The twin themes of inside-out role reversal and divergent responses to Jesus continue, bound up with differing views of his identity.  Jesus defends the uninvited guest who honors him and criticizes the righteous host who finds fault with him.  Within the realm of God, honor and virtue are not what, in polite company, they appear to be.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among[a] themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

For the second time in the narrative, Jesus is dining in a house, but this time he feasts not in the company of “tax collectors and others [sinners]” but in the home of a Pharisee, the first of three such meals.  Each meal at the house of a Pharisee becomes an occasion for conflict, which centers on and thus clarifies the differing religious and communal visions of host and guest.  The meal hosted by Simon is no exception.  The importance of the host’s Pharisaic affiliation to the developing plot could not be signaled more clearly; he is identified as a Pharisee four times before he receives a name – when Jesus, for whom he is a person and not a party label, addresses him as Simon.  Luke’s audience may be pardoned for connecting this disclosure to Jesus’s call of another Simon, who, unlike this Pharisee, regarded himself as sinful and thus unworthy of being in Jesus’s presence.  Will this Simon also receive and answer a call to discipleship?

The account has parallels in each of the other gospels, but only Luke detaches the scene from the Passion narrative, making of it a typical event of Jesus’s ministry in which he extends forgiveness to sinners and thereby irks the righteous.  The host, as “one of the Pharisees,” is a representative character, and the part played so far by Pharisees – intensifying criticism of the conduct of Jesus and his disciples and rejection of John’s baptism, and therefore of God’s purpose – places a question mark beside this meal invitation to Jesus.  The conflict that ensues between Jesus and Pharisee will not be unexpected, even if the continuing openness of Pharisees to meal fellowship with Jesus leaves their response to him open for the present.

Conflict is sparked by the arrival of an uninvited guest, an unnamed woman whose reputation as a sinner has preceded her and only appears to grow with the extravagance of her actions toward Jesus.  Ancient readers familiar with the physical features of Palestinian houses would not (like many modern readers) puzzle over the woman’s ability to gain access to the banquet room but would be stunned by her audacity, particularly in view of Pharisaic concern with ritual purity and her own status as a sinner (of whatever stripe – the account leaves that gap to be filled by the reader).  If Luke’s audience is unfamiliar with the Pharisaic emphasis on ritual purity, the host’s objection to touch by a sinful woman implies such a concern, and it will become explicit.  Moreover, readers acquainted with the stereotypical depiction in Greco-Roman culture of women slaves and prostitutes as available for music (“flute girls”), conversation, and sexual activity at banquets would likely sympathize with the scandalized dinner host.

Employing a series of verbs connected with kai (and), enriched with three participles, the narrator lingers over a detailed description of the woman’s physical gestures.  Having become aware of Jesus’s dinner invitation, she comes into the dining room, carrying an alabaster vase of perfume, and positions herself behind Jesus’s feet.  Guests would recline on a dining couch, facing the table, so an approach from behind makes sense.  She then bathes his feet with her tears and keeps drying them with her hair, which must therefore be unbound, improper in such a public setting in her culture.  She kisses Jesus’s feet repeatedly and anoints them with perfume.  The string of imperfect-tense verbs (kept drying; kept kissing, etc.) makes the gestures more dramatic and, for the host, offensive.

The account leaves hidden the woman’s past conduct as well as the previous contact with Jesus that seems to motivate her present action.  However, the lavish treatment she gives Jesus, together with the parabolic commentary he provides, wherein love expresses gratitude for mercy received, does suggest that this is not their first encounter.  Echoing the people’s recent affirmation of Jesus as a prophet sent by God, but from a posture of skepticism, the Pharisee host objects “to himself”: If this man were a prophet, he would have realized who and what sort of woman it is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.  This contrary-to-fact condition – If this man were a prophet… [but obviously he’s not] – indicates that for Simon, Jesus’s conduct disconfirms his prophetic credentials.  By reading Simon’s mind, however, Jesus proves otherwise.  Moreover, as a prophet who stands in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’s offer of grace to an outsider is anything but disconfirming.  Evidence is beginning to accumulate that this prophet through whom God is visiting the people is redefining such matters as touch and purity, inside and outside, sin that alienates and grace that restores.

The host assumes that a true prophet of God would distance himself from a sinner, something the Pharisee does in his own dismissive, pejorative evaluation: “who and what sort of woman… a sinner.”  Jesus, aware of the host’s questioning of his authenticity as prophet, tied to a harsh view of the woman, captures the Pharisee’s attention.  With legitimating gesture and interpreting word, he answered the Baptizer’s doubting query; now he will do the same thing for the dinner host.  Simon, I have something to tell you.  Teacher, the Pharisee respectfully replies, Say it.  Though skeptical of Jesus’s standing as prophet, Simon still recognizes his role and authority as teacher (didaskalos).  Addressed as a teacher, Jesus will respond as one.  With the woman’s actions in view as object lesson, Jesus will now seek to draw his host into a deeper understanding of God’s mercy toward human beings, and what it means for life in community.

Jesus begins Simon’s reeducation with a parable about the cancellation of two debts, one large (five hundred denarii, more than a year’s pay for a laborer), the other a tenth as large.  When the two debtors are unable to pay, the moneylender forgives both debts.  The image of debt cancellation (using the verb charizomai) prepared for Jesus’s declaration of the sinful woman’s forgiveness (using the verb aphiēmi [release, forgive]).  Jesus then asks Simon a question that will begin to drive home the point of the parable: Which debtor will have greater love for the moneylender?  Simon gives the obvious answer, The one for whom a larger amount was forgiven, and Jesus endorses this response: You’ve judged [discerned] correctly. 

Effective choreography now heightens the contrast between Pharisee host and uninvited guest on which the parable is commenting.  While turning toward the woman, Jesus addresses to Simon a speech that defends her honor and, at the same time, shames him with a stinging rebuke.  Even the grammar sets these two characters in opposition.  The narrator’s detailed account of the woman’s action has linked a series of verbs with the conjunction kai (and) Jesus’s recounting of his host’s (in)action, however, abruptly introduces each of Simon’s acts of omission without a conjunction (asyndeton), but then follows the clause with the contrasting one, introduced by “but” (de) that recalls once more what the woman did.  Each clause describing what Simon failed to give begins with the thing withheld (water, kiss, ointment).  Each clause describing the woman’s acts begins, But she.

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.
You gave me no kiss.
But from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
You did not anoint my head with oil.
But she has anointed my feet with ointment.

The implication is clear.  Simon has failed to act as a hospitable host, and it is the unwelcome guest who has provided the hospitality that Jesus should have received from the Pharisee.  In Jesus’s view of things: honor for the sinful woman, but shame for the respected Pharisee.

Another aspect of the strategy of narration is intriguing.  Description of the host’s neglect of the gestures of hospitality follows the report of the woman’s extravagant act toward Jesus, and it is Jesus himself who provides the description, interpreting it in advance through a parable about two forgiven debts.  Only in the light of the sinful woman’s expression of care for Jesus, and his interpretation of this act in terms of forgiveness and love, can the Pharisee’s conduct and his own response to Jesus be evaluated.  The story gives the most dramatic enactment so far of the inside-out reversal that attends Jesus’s ministry: sinners receive welcome, while others who appear to be righteous voice indignation and thus put their own place at risk.

For emphasis, Jesus repeats his declaration of the woman’s forgiveness, first addressing Simon, then the woman.  The statement to Simon presents the full correlation of love and forgiveness for which the parable has prepared: Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; [that’s obvious] because she loved much.  On the other hand, the one who is forgiven little loves little.  The word to the woman, much briefer, focuses only on the gift of forgiveness: Your sins have been forgiven.  Verse 47 (Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.) is puzzling.  Elsewhere in the passage, love is a thankful response to the offer of forgiveness.  In v. 47a, however, forgiveness seems to follow the expression of love as its consequence.  A straightforward translation would be: Her many sins have been forgiven, because she loved much.  This surprising inversion in v. 47a hints that there is no simple calculus of forgiveness and love (or gratitude, or attachment to Jesus) in Jesus’s ministry.  Sometimes it may be that the initiative of a sinner (or a sick person) drawn to Jesus precedes the offer of forgiveness (or healing).  Willingness to leave behind a disordered life brings one to Jesus, and his acceptance, embodying divine mercy, then invites deepened commitment, perhaps even the radical step of discipleship.  Gratitude surely follow the acceptance of undeserved mercy, but for some persons openness to life-change in the company of Jesus may be the first step.

Nevertheless, the perfect tense that Jesus employs – Her many sins have been forgiven [and she continues in that condition] – intimates that also in this woman’s case mercy has preceded her demonstration of love.  Although readers cannot know when or how this happened, previous encounter with Jesus has evidently resulted in the offer, and grateful acceptance, of forgiveness.  Earlier stories in which Jesus has done precisely that make explicit narration here unnecessary.  Within its narrative context the sentence makes best sense if the phrase hou charin (therefore) and the word hoti (because) are seen as linked, with both modifying the clause, I tell you, rather than the clause, her many sins have been forgiven (which functions as the direct object of the verb, “tell”).  For clarity in the translation, I have therefore supplied in brackets the phrase, “that’s obvious.”  In other words, the woman’s actions, expressing love, are the reason Jesus can say that she has received forgiveness, not the reason she has been forgiven: I am able to tell you this – that her sins have been forgiven – because, as we can all plainly see, she has (like the forgiven debtor) loved much.

The puzzled query of the other dinner guests – Who is this who even forgives sins? –recalls 5:21 (And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”) serves as a reminder that Jesus is about God’s work of release, of forgiveness.  Behind the passive voice (have been forgiven) is the action of the merciful God.  The dinner guests, then do not have it quite right: the forgiveness that is affirmed and mediated by Jesus has its source by God.  All that remains is for the woman to live as one forgiven, as one made whole (healed, saved) because, in her openness to divine mercy, she dared, vulnerable and without shame, to approach Jesus.  So he dismisses her: Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.  That is, God has saved, and faith has courageously taken hold of the gift.

Chapter 7 ends as it began, with Jesus saving.  Faith opens persons – Gentile soldiers and their slaves, widows and their sons, women (even sinful women) and Pharisees (if they too acknowledge their need to reorient life toward God’s purposes) – to divine mercy, to the gracious offer of deliverance, whether in the form of forgiveness or healing or life itself, and to the restoration to the human community that each carries with it.  Festive celebration over a shared meal is the perfect way to mark this transformation of life and circumstance, but evidently not at the table of at least one respected community leader.


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