"36 Now one of the Pharisees (Simon, see verse 40-46) was asking Yeshua to eat with him, and Yeshua entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner (That is, she was known to be sinful); and when she learned that Yeshua was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume 38 and standing behind Yeshua 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. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Yeshua 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 she is a sinner.”40 And Yeshua answered him (that is, Yeshua answered Simon’s inner voice), “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed a year and a half’s wages, and the other two months wages. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?”43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And Yeshua said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 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 didn’t 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.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
We can deduce from the text—verses 40-46—that the Pharisee in question was Simon, given that Yeshua clearly credited him with the oversight for the dinner engagement and the proprietary responsibility for the home.
Yeshua—and the other guests—reclined, this is familiar to the Passover practice of reclining to eat as free—not slaves—Jews.
“A woman of the city who was a sinner:” The fact that she was known in general—to the city residents—as a sinner or immoral person infers that the sin was one of public and perpetual disgrace. It is possible that she was a prostitute, which might explain the freedom she enjoyed—neither Roman or Jewish men would have been fond of having their prostitutes locked up—given that other acts of perpetual sin—theft and the like—might have led to incarceration by Roman authorities.
She had heard that Yeshua was in Simon’s house and bought an expensive alabaster vial of perfume with her. This is a premeditated act of giving, supplication, repentance and humility, which emulates the rhythm of some Temple sacrificial practices. As with our father Abraham, her intention is shown in her action. If the alabaster vial was a similar size to those mentioned in other gospel accounts, it would have been worth approx. 12 months’ salary. I wonder how many of us would part with a year’s wages as a symbol of our repentance.
Guests sat facing the lowered table, with their feet laid out behind them, this is how she was able to stand behind Yeshua at His feet.
It seems that she wept in repentance and supplication, hoping to gain Yeshua’s favor and forgiveness. Having wept on Yeshua’s feet, she then bends down to wipe them clean with her hair. It is worth remembering that a woman’s hair is her glory:
“But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
1 Corinthians 11:15
This woman is choosing to use the mantel of her glory—that is a sign of the created order of Genesis—to wipe Yeshua’s feet, a symbol, not only of her own submission and repentance but also of the submission of humanity to Messiah. She then began to kiss Yeshua’s feet, an intimate act but unlikely to have been a sexual come on—as some have suggested—because feet that have traded in the dust of Israel are not a prelude to the erotic, nor are her previous actions proof of foreplay.
Remembering the public nature of this event allows us to understand the utterly humiliating position she placed herself in, an action that wasn’t emulated by any of the religious leaders—some of who were greater sinners than she. She also anointed Yeshua’s feet with the costly perfume she had bought. It is important to note that unlike the similar events of Matthew and Mark’s gospels, here the woman anoints His feet in repentance rather than anointing His head in preparation—for burial. In addition, there is nothing to indicate that the woman in this account is Mary, Martha’s sister, given that Mary was not known as a sinner in the town of Bethany—some have speculated without good foundation that Mary the sister of Martha was sexually immoral. One possibility—and it cannot be known for certain—is that the woman in this story is Mary Magdalene the prostitute who was known as a close follower of Yeshua later in the chronology of the gospels.
Simon doubted the prophetic credentials of Yeshua. It’s true to say that, “a prophet would know that the woman was a sinner” and Yeshua did know this. What Simon missed was that a true prophet not only knows the truth about people, He also knows the path that G-d has ordained for the reconciliation of those people. It is not what a person knows but rather it is the way they act on that knowledge that proves them righteous.
Yeshua addresses Simon by name, knowing what he is thinking—what kind of man knows what another man is thinking?—and formulates a parable in order to illuminate Simons question—that is the one he had asked in his mind. Simon correctly interprets the parable answering that the one with the greater cancelled debt will love more.
Yeshua turns away from Simon and speaks to him while facing the woman. This is a powerful gesture of rebuke to Simon and a merciful invitation to the repentant woman. Yeshua begins to unpack the situation for Simon step by step to ensure that he understands just how hypocritical his thoughts have made him. Please bear with me as I paraphrase the following text for you:
“Firstly,” says Yeshua, “When I entered your home you didn’t have your servant wash my feet as is the custom of our people, in fact, you had no intention of offering even the simplest of welcoming gestures to me, so just why did you invite me here? This woman—who you despise—not only washed my feet, she washed them with her tears and dried them, not with a waist towel but with her hair, an act of utter humility. Her right action directly opposes your flagrant disrespect!”
“Secondly, you did not greet me—as is the custom of our people when honoring a guest—with a holy kiss. This would have been a personal affirmation of my standing in your eyes and a show of approval to your other guests. This woman has not stopped kissing my feet, feet that have dragged in the dust of this city and have touched unsightly things as I have walked through these streets. Her truly repentant actions are making you look like an ass!”
“Thirdly, you didn’t have your servant anoint my head with oil—as is the custom of our people—in order to dampen down the dust of the roadways and freshen my head. This is also a sign of honor to a guest, one that you intentionally failed to show me. This woman—who you despise—bought perfumed oil purchased with a years’ worth of her wages and anointed my feet because she didn’t even deem herself worthy of playing the role of the lowest of your household servants. Again, her right action directly opposes your intentional disrespect!”
Water represents cleansing, the kiss, approval, and oil symbolizes the Ruach Ha-Kodesh—Holy Spirit.
The repentant among the people of Israel had been cleansed in the baptism of John for the forgiveness of sin, they had been proved by Yeshua, who was about to be betrayed with a kiss, and they would soon be given power from on high—the Holy Spirit—following His resurrection from the dead.
In verse 47 Yeshua says that her sins have—passed tense—been—past tense—forgiven, because she loved—past tense—much. We understand here that she has been forgiven at this point and because she has been forgiven she has also loved much. This infers that even prior to anointing Yeshua she believed that He would forgive her and that Yeshua, functioning outside of time and space had in a sense, already died as the atonement and cleansing sacrifice for her sin. This interpretation best relates her actions to the parable Yeshua told. Given this explanation, why does Yeshua proclaim publicly, “your sins have been forgiven?” The answer is what follows, those present asked, “Who is this man that forgives peoples sins?” In other words, “You can’t forgive this woman, you don’t even know how bad she really is. So we see that Yeshua said that her sins were forgiven, not for her sake but for the sake of those others present.
We must keep in mind that this simple statement of forgiveness bears great weight. In saying this, Yeshua is inferring that the Temple sacrificial system is not needed in order for sin to be forgiven. Yeshua new, of course, that His sacrifice would make the Temple system redundant. However, those present could not conceive of such a thing, this was utter blasphemy, why? Because the sacrifices alone were not capable of offering forgiveness, nor were the Priests’ who performed them able to grant forgiveness. It was a known fact to all Jews that it is G-d alone who has the power to forgive. This is yet another blatant and offensive claim of divinity on the part of Yeshua. A claim that is humbly and freely accepted by the sinful woman. Her actions were her participation in a sacrificial rhythm of repentance that relied entirely on the provision and decision of G-d in Yeshua, who she recognized as G-d’s King Messiah. It is this belief, this faith that saves her. Not faith in His miracles and words alone, but faith in who He is.
Finally in verse 50 Yeshua says to the woman, “Your faith—that I am the King Messiah who takes away the sins of the world—has saved you. Shalom lach—Peace as you go.”
We should be careful who we disapprove of. We are challenged by Yeshua in this text to be vigilant in humility and ever ready to welcome His coming. Only then will we have peace as we go.
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.