Luke 7:36—8:3, Human Love Responds to Divine Love in the Midst of Our Sin

[June 16, 2013] Today we come to another touching story in the Gospel according to Luke that centers round a woman, followed by the introduction of the band of women who accompanied Jesus and the Twelve and supported all of them in their work.

The anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and His testing in the wilderness was followed in 4:16—7:15 by a section in which Jesus inaugurated His apostolate in Nazareth by initiating the messianic “Year of Jubilee,” identifying Himself as the agent of that liberation, and then demonstrating this liberation in a series of acts. See Luke 4:18-21 where Jesus quotes the words placed in the mouth of the Servant of YHWH in the latter part of the Scroll of Isaiah (61:1-2a). A coordinated series of acts follows in 4:31—6:11, capped by two more acts in 7:1-15. After liberating Capernaum from its demons and setting up His apostolic base there, He went on a tour of Galilee in which He gathered disciples and selected the Twelve from among them. He then gave a second sermon in 6:20b-49 (the first being 4:18-27) in which He addressed His disciples, describing them as blessèd and telling them what they were to become. This was followed by His return to Capernaum, His remote healing of a gentile’s slave by His Word alone, and His raising the son of a Jewish widow from the dead in the town of Nain.

In 7:16 the people respond by saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people.” John the Baptist, sitting in prison in Machaerus (a fortified hilltop palace passed on to Herod Antipas by his father), sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are You the Coming One?” (that is, the Messiah). Jesus says to them, “Go and report what you have seen and heard,” and refers back to the passage from Isaiah 61, calling John blessèd if he does not take offense at Jesus. John, Jesus tells the crowds, was the messenger foretold in Malachi 3:1 who would prepare His way before Him, the greater One. But, He said, the people of this generation complain that John the Baptist is an ascetic and therefore must have a demon, and that Jesus is “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

This section, from 7:16 to 9:36, identifies Who Jesus is. It begins with the proclamation by the crowd in 7:16 followed by the question of the Baptist. In 8:4-18 Jesus gives a series of parables, the import of which express that the one who has proper ears can hear what is being told them (8:8b), followed by His identifying His true mother and siblings as those “who hear the word of God and do it.” In the story that follows (8:22-25) Jesus performs a sign after which His disciples ask, “Who then is this?” This is followed by a number of other signs, during which Herod Antipas asks, “Who is this man about whom I hear such things?” (9:9). At last, in 9:18, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” and then He asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” After Jesus announces, for the first time, that He will die and rise from the dead, and that His disciples must also lose their soul (9:22-27), He is transfigured before three of them and a voice from heaven announces, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen [sh’ma] to Him!” (9:28-36). These definitive words from heaven say to the disciples what the same voice said to Jesus at His anointing (when John baptized Him), “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (3:22).

It seems clear, then, that this block of text (7:16—9:36) forms a single unit and that its purpose is to show Jesus to be not only the Messiah (the Coming One) but the Son of God, that this is Who the Messiah is. With this contextual purpose in view, then, we take a look at the story in 7:36-50. The crowd is hailing Jesus as a great prophet and saying that God has—once again, and after so long a time—visited His people (7:16). But rumor also has it that He is “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34; see 5:27-32). Now a Pharisee—named Simon (which was an extraordinarily common name)—invites Jesus to a meal at his house to see for himself whether Jesus is a prophet such as people claim (see verse 39). What he gets from Jesus is more than he bargained for!

The anointing in Bethany (see Matthew 26:6-13, which Luke does not repeat; see also John 12:1-8) has some similarities to this one but in my view the differences are too pronounced for the eyewitness accounts to have confused or conflated them.

Jesus Is Invited to Dine with a Pharisee (Luke 7:36)

In Luke’s gospel Jesus is often teaching during meals. The setting of the early church was also usually domestic: the apostles went from house to house and the believers gathered in each other’s homes. That Jesus set this pattern is not surprising. Jesus taught in the synagogue, on the lakeshore and in the open markets, in open outdoor settings, and in people’s homes.

Jesus also dines with a Pharisee in 11:37 and a leader of the Pharisees in 14:1. Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was more complex than might at first appear. In the ways He thought, Jesus basically was a Pharisee (not that He was a member of the guild, however). This was why He was so closely associated with them and so critical of them. Many Pharisees admired Him and saw Him as a reformer, just as many Pharisees despised Him. The two main schools of the Pharisees, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai seem to have divided along this line. Followers of Hillel would have agreed with Jesus in most of His interpretations of the Torah (the Halacha) and the Prophets; the intolerant zealots and fanatics who opposed Him seem to have been with the school of Shammai. Jesus also dined with tax collectors and sinners (besides 5:29 and 7:34, see 19:5), sometimes with them and sometimes with the Pharisees.

Reclining to eat seems to have been the normal practice, though Joseph A. Fitzmyer (Anchor Bible, 1981, page 688) says that the word used for reclining reveals that the dinner was a festive banquet (referring us to J. Jeremias’ Eucharistic Words, 20-21).  Jeremias regarded it as a Sabbath-meal to which Jesus was invited after preaching in the synagogue. This is more than Luke tells us. In any case, Jesus would have removed His sandals when He entered the house (if He was not barefoot—see 10:4) and when He and the other guests reclined at the table, it would have been on couches with their feet stretched out away from the table.

In Comes a Woman (7:37-38)

Luke tells us that the woman was a sinner, and apparently she was known as such. Simon knew who she was but presumed that Jesus would not, apart from a prophetic gift, which means that the story probably did not take place in Capernaum. Tradition and often commentators assume that the woman was an adulterer or prostitute, though we do not know this. Technically a sinner was simply a non-practicing Jew, though the woman’s reputation implies more than that. That she was, literally, “in the town a sinner,” means that she was an outcast, at least to the religious and perhaps the “moral” or “upright” folk.

“When she learned that [Jesus] was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house,” she came in. This seems to “suggest that the woman waited until Jesus was being entertained by the Pharisee and then crashed the party to see him, when it would have been maximally embarrassing.” Obviously she could have waited, given middle-eastern standards of etiquette. (Allan J. McNicol, editor, with David J. Dungan and David B. Peabody, in Beyond the Q Impasse—Luke’s Use of Matthew (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), page 37). I do not yet understand the significance of this.

She brought an alabaster vial of perfume. Luke does not tell us that it was spikenard, which was considered an aphrodisiac, and therefore, unlike the Gospel according to John, no erotic undertones are probably implied here by Luke (though they might have been there in fact). The vial was made of a yellow or creamy soft stone. Pliny the Elder tells us that “ointments are very well preserved in alabaster flasks.” Luke does not tell us about the perfume.

Jesus was reclining on a dining couch with His feet stretched out away from the table. The woman came behind Him and knelt down, facing the bottoms of His feet, away from His face.

“She began to wet His feet with her tears.” Why was she weeping? These were tears of immense and deep gratitude and love. She might not have been able to articulate that she was forgiven (Jesus does this for her in verse 48), but she was responding to Jesus’ receptivity of her, His welcome and acceptance and love. Verse 42 shows that her love was in response to His having forgiven her what she had perceived as a great debt (presumably a debt to God, which was a common way of understanding sin).

“And [she] kept wiping [His feet] with the hair of her head.” She would have loosened her headdress and unbound her hair to wipe away her tears with it. This was not only love, it also expressed deep humility, for a woman’s hair was considered her glory (1 Corinthians 11:15) and the feet are what comes in contact with the dirt of the road.

She kept “kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume.” This expresses humility on her part but also great honor and respect and love towards Jesus. She spared nothing. Her kisses without doubt express her great affection for the Lord Jesus, her lips touching His feet expressing her love for the sweetness (the sweet taste, metaphorically) that she found in Him, even in His feet.

What the Pharisee Thought (7:39)

When the Pharisee saw what Jesus allowed the woman to do, he despised Jesus, thinking silently 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.” It was commonly thought, and this Pharisee assumed it, that a real prophet could discern the character of a person who came to him or her.

Not only did Simon think dismissively of Jesus, he was disgusted by “who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him.” He thought he knew who and what this woman was, just as he thought he knew who he himself was. It did not matter that his opinion would have agreed with his neighbors’. He felt capable of measuring Jesus, the woman and himself. In fact, he was blind on all three counts.

Jesus’ Prophetic Ability (7:40)

Ironically, Jesus demonstrates that He not only knew who this woman was—and knew her well—but that He also knew what this Pharisee, Simon, was thinking, proving to him His prophetic ability. Simon called Jesus, “Teacher” (didaskalos). The word was used of John the Baptist in 3:12 and is used of Jesus for the first time here. It suggests that Jesus was one of the revered teachers of Palestine (see Fitzmyer, page 690). Luke does not use this word to translate rabbi; instead he uses epistata (master). If this was how Simon actually felt about Jesus, it did not speak well of him that he was treated Jesus so casually (verses 44-46).

Jesus Gives An Illustration (7:41-43)

Jesus tells Simon a parable, really an example rather than a parable, the conclusion of which is: “So which of them will love him more?” In verse 47 Jesus will apply it: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much.” The meaning is that she loved much because she was forgiven much, not the other way around. Some people have gotten confused on this point and interpreted the story to mean that the woman earned forgiveness by her love. This example of the two debtors should clarify this. Her love was the effect of forgiveness. First there was forgiveness. Love issued from this.

The example speaks of two debtors. Simon would have perceived the woman as the greater debtor and he as the lesser. Nevertheless, in the example that Jesus gave, neither debtor is able to repay the loan. In the same way, no one can repay God for the debt they have incurred, regardless of whose debt is greater. In this example, the moneylender forgave them both. The implication is that God forgave both the woman and Simon. But Simon could not appreciate the extent of his indebtedness. The woman did. In reality, we cannot measure whose debt toward God is greater, only our appreciation of it. Simon, a practicing Pharisee, actually thought that he was better than this woman based on his outward standard. But when God looks at the heart, who knows what God sees? Very few people have begun to know themselves. Mostly we are deluded about ourselves. Any psychoanalyst can testify to this. No one knows themselves as God knows them. Even psychoanalysis can only probe the surface.

Now He Applies It (7:44-47)

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Jesus did not mean this question to be casual but searching. “Have you really looked? Do you see her? In fact, Simon did not. Simon already had her figured out and pegged. As a result, he could not see her as she was. Jesus saw her, just as He saw Simon. He saw them both and He knew them. When we look at people, do we see them? Or at least, do we recognize that perhaps we do not see them? In reality, we never do.

Simon did not give Jesus water for His feet, nor did he kiss Jesus when He entered, nor did he anoint Jesus’ face with oil (or give Him oil to do so). What would normally be expected of a host? These would probably have been special courtesies. Perhaps Simon had not been particularly rude; he just treated Jesus as a casual guest (perhaps as a social inferior). Nevertheless, Jesus pointed out its contrast to how the woman behaved, and how her behavior demonstrated her love for Jesus and the kind of love she had for Jesus. Thrice Jesus mentions the attention that the woman gave to His feet. She did not, like a servant, take a basin of water and wash His feet as He sat. She wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. With her lips she kissed His feet over and over without stopping. And she anointed His feet with perfume. This agrees with the position she took behind Him so that the soles of His feet faced her. There was humility but there was also love and devotion and affection. Her entire behavior expressed her gratitude.

Verse 47 begins with the words “ou charin” which is sometimes translated “therefore” with a causal meaning. Instead it should be translated, in this case, “for this reason” (or something like this), for it it summarizing the words that preceded it in verses 44-46. Jesus was not saying, because she did this her sins are forgiven, but rather that what she had done was the reason for Jesus to say that her sins had been forgiven (for indeed she had done this because her sins had been earlier forgiven). “For she loved much”: the word “for” (hoti) in this context likewise does not have a causal sense, as if her loving much is the reason for her being forgiven. Here the word has a logical sense: We know that she has been forgiven because she loves much. The next phrase should make the meaning of the prior words clear: “but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Most commentators connect this demonstration of a woman who loves much with the women in the following verses, 8:2-3, which include “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses.” In any case, this story does immediately precede their introduction, the introduction of “the women” who accompanied Jesus and the Twelve, and who supported them, and who also remained faithful to Jesus to the very end and beyond, in contrast to all of the male disciples. Some have even concluded that “the woman” formed a distinct group of Jesus’ disciples much as the Twelve did.

Who Then Is Jesus? (7:48-49)

Jesus says to the woman, “Your sins have been forgiven,” and those at the table begin to say to themselves, “Who is this Who even forgives sins?” Again, the question of Jesus’ identity (“Who is this?”) is raised. This question was raised earlier in 5:21 when Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. “Who is this man Who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Within the larger context of Luke’s gospel, this question may well be at the heart of the story.

Modern Christians often assume that God freely hands out forgiveness and that it falls upon us to forgive people because God does. This is a false way of thinking. I can only forgive a person who has sinned against me; I can only release a person from a debt that they owe to me. I cannot release a person from the debt that they owe to God; I cannot pronounce that God forgives his or her sins—unless this has been revealed to me. When we declare that God has forgiven someone, it is conditioned on their true repentance and faith (and we do this on the basis of what the Scriptures reveal). So the question that the people are raising about Jesus is not moot. He is proclaiming absolutely that God has forgiven this woman: “Your sins have been forgiven.” What right does He have to do this?

Perhaps, as Joseph A. Fitzmyer says in his commentary, Jesus is “an agent of the declaration of God’s forgiveness for sinful humanity” (Anchor Bible, 1981, page 688). In other words, it was revealed to Jesus that God forgives this woman. From Simon’s point of view, that would certainly be presumptuous, but for a prophet not impossible. More, however, is going on than this.

The woman comes to Jesus and weeps at His feet because He has forgiven her, not because He has shown her that God (as a third Party) has forgiven her. It is Jesus Who is the object of her love. She loves Him much because He has forgiven her much. Jesus applies the same standard to Simon himself. Simon loves Jesus (not God per se) little (shown by the courtesy he extends Jesus) because he has been—or so he perceives—forgiven little. Again, in Jesus’ words, Jesus is the object of Simon’s little love (even though Simon is not looking to Jesus for forgiveness). Furthermore, the example that Jesus gave of the two debtors makes the same point. It is the moneylender to whom they are indebted and who forgives them whom they both love, one a little and one more. Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the moneylender! It is He to Whom they owe their debts.

Yet the moneylender is obviously God. Simon and the woman are both sinners with respect to God and need forgiveness from God. Jesus implies that it is He who forgives their debts, this debt, that is, their debt to God. Unmistakably Jesus is here identifying Himself with God and has forgiven the woman’s debt to God as if it were a debt to Himself. Therefore the woman loves Him “much.” This identification is not explicit, yet it is nevertheless the unmistakable message.

Who then is Jesus, Who is the friend of tax collectors and sinners? He is the Face of God, His Person, and speaks and acts as God. When God (the Father) declares Him to be the Son of God, this is what that expression means. (So God in the divine nature is in all places and at all times and is not limited to the human body and time of this Individual, yet God’s Person, which can be distinguished from the divine nature, can be the Person of this Individual. The essence of the Christian revelation is simply this: that God in fact is three co-inhering Persons with only one indivisible nature, essence or being.)

Beginning with Faith, She Ends with Peace (7:50)

Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” What faith? It is the woman’s faith in Jesus, that is, her commitment of trust and loyalty and fidelity and indeed fealty to Him. It is this faith that has brought her forgiveness for which she is so grateful to Him. Her faith in Him has brought her forgiveness which has issued in her deep love for Jesus. Now Jesus grants her peace (and wholeness, shalom).

Luke knew Paul, and we hear similar words from Paul in Romans 1:16—“the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 in the next verse, “The righteous one shall [have life and] live by faith.” See also Romans 10:9-10. In Matthew 9:22 and Luke 8:48 Jesus will tell the hemorrhaging woman whom He healed, “Your faith has saved you” (using the same words: he pistis sou sesōken se), adding in Luke’s account, “Go in peace” (using the same words as in 7:50: poreuou eis eirēnēn). Again in Luke 17:19 Jesus will tell one of the ten lepers whom He healed, and in 18:42 the blind man outside of Jericho whom He healed, “Your faith has saved you” (using the same words). In view of this repeated usage, and of its usage in 7:50, the word “saved” (often translated “healed” or “made well”) has in each case spiritual meaning and not merely a medical one. Faith in Jesus brings salvation, which begins with the forgiveness of sins.

Faith in Christ Jesus results from His call. He calls us through His revelation. Our response of faith is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, working in us through this revelation. When we turn to Christ with faith, He is there receiving us. In this receptivity we discover that our sins are forgiven, that the Father of our Lord Jesus receives us too as His own dear children. Our love for Christ issues from this, from our surprise (astonishment!) and gratitude and awe. Our love for Christ, and our new (and original) Father, overflows in our love for all whom Christ loves, for all people. It issues in our compassion. Knowing the debt that we have been forgiven frees us from that temptation to judge others; we leave that to God Who has been so generous to us. Out of this new condition that we find ourselves in—this state of faith, forgiveness and gratitude, and love—we find peace and inner reconciliation: peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others, peace with our existential being, our createdness, and with creation itself.

“Go in peace” can be a common dismissal formula (see Acts 16:36) but I think Jesus gives it deep importance (so also in Luke 8:48); for Luke too there is nothing trivial in the word “peace.” The expression has roots in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 1:17; 20:42; 29:7), but its meaning takes on a fuller significance when Jesus uses it, for it follows the words, “You faith has saved you.” This enables and makes possible the “go in peace.”

Unless we see in Jesus the face of God, the Person of God come to us—unless we encounter God in this meeting—all I am saying here is mere words; it falls flat. The word “God” is not some idea that we can throw around, a word corresponding to something we mean. God is the reality that undergirds our very ability to form words, to even be conscious. By God we mean a reality that is overwhelming and ultimate for which there can be no concept, no comprehension. The only proper response to “God” is the fear and trembling of complete awe and humility. We are vapor, granted our own reality by this prior and underlying and surrounding and following reality. Yet we are granted our being, our conscious and physical being, out of love, a love that longs for union.

The place of peace is not simply the stillness of nothingness. It is the peace of community, of an affectionate community. Our love for Jesus is affectionate, as is His love for us. And this makes us affectionate with one another. We are drawn to community. And Christians in community ought to be marked by affectionate love operating in deep humility. There is no room for a judgmental attitude. But the community does not arise because we try to be this kind of community; the community arises spontaneously, from our knowing Christ (if we truly know Him). Christ (His revelation) brings the community into being; it does not birth itself because it wishes to be this kind of community. It is a question of what causes what. Christ precedes and forms our intentions. Our will for the result is not generative of this kind of community.

In this story, the woman’s gratitude to Jesus and her love of Him resulted from her faith in Him: her response to Him resulted from His presentation of His Person to her, His love for her. Our love for Him results from His love for us. Our love for Him does not earn or merit His love. His love is first, then our love results. Before He loves us, we are sinners and prisoners in our sin, and by sin we mean our willful alienation from God. He finds us before we find Him. He seeks us before we seek Him. If we are seeking Him truly, and we are not just deluding ourselves and imagining that we are seeking Him, it is because of the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us, creating that desire and gnawing hunger within. If we truly seek Him, when we find Him, we discover that His seeking us had preceded and prompted us.

Jesus Goes on a New Apostolic Tour (8:1)

In 8:1 Jesus begins another apostolic tour, “going around from one city and village to another.” This is identical to the work of apostles such as Paul and Barnabas and Silas in the Acts of the Apostles. It continued to be the work of the bishops of the second century who followed in the shoes of the first century apostles. Ireneus was the bishop of Syria, traveling from town to town, and Polycarp was the teacher of Asia Minor, doing the same. Again, Jesus set the pattern that the early church followed. The words Luke uses echo Matthew 9:35 and 11:1, the verses that open and close Jesus’ Missionary Discourse in that gospel (“missionary” being the Latinized word for the Greek “apostle,” a sent one).

Jesus was “proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God.” The word for proclaiming (kērussō) means to give notice, to make known, to herald or proclaim something, the something here being the kingdom of God. The word for preaching (euangelizō) means to tell or announce the good news or story. It is the good news or story of the kingdom of God: that it has come, or has drawn near. This is the same as Matthew 4:17 where Jesus announces that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near in His own Person. The kingdom of God is not the church nor is it the world when it has adapted more just ways of doing things. The kingdom of God is the overthrow of the world which is beginning to take place in the church (and perhaps elsewhere too); it is on the basis of the kingdom that the church will be judged; but the kingdom itself does not come until Christ comes again in glory (the universal manifestation of the revelation of Who He is).

The Twelve accompany Jesus to learn how the apostolate works, how it is done, for He will soon send them out on their own.

The Women with Jesus (8:2-3)

Luke then mentions “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses,” three of whom he names, and “many others,” who also went with Jesus, “who were contributing to their support out of their private means.” Perhaps a comparison is being made between these women who had been healed and the woman in 7:36-50. They too loved Jesus much and showed it by their following Him and their material support. They are mentioned again in 23:49 as having watched the crucifixion after the Twelve had fled, again in 23:55-56 as witnessing His being laid in the tomb and preparing the burial spices and perfumes, and 24:1-11 as having first witnessed the empty tomb on Easter and meeting the two men in dazzling clothing who told them that Jesus had risen. They reported this to the eleven who thought their words were nonsense. Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again by name. They are a marked contrast to the twelve men, particularly in the love, courage and fidelity that they showed to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is one from whom Jesus had cast seven demons. “Magdalene” means that she is from the town of Magdala (meaning “fish tower,” also known as Tarichaea), a fishing village in Galilee. Joanna is the wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward. Herod Antipas we know: he was mentioned in 3:1 and in 3:18-20 we are told that he arrested John the Baptist. In 9:7-9 we will be told of his curiosity about Jesus, and in 13:31 some friendly Pharisees will warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him (as he killed the Baptist). In 23:7-8 Herod finally gets to meet Jesus when Pilate has Jesus sent to him, though Jesus refuses to speak to him. Nevertheless he finds no crime in Jesus that is worthy of death and sends him back to Pilate. Herod’s “steward” was the palace manager, and therefore Joanna would have been relatively wealthy. This sizable group of women then was by no means homogenous, but socially complex, one of them at least was drawn from a household with the backing of Roman authority. Susanna (meaning “Lily”) is the other woman mentioned, but she is otherwise unknown. Mary Magdalene is the only one whose healing is described, though what we are to surmise from her having seven demons is not clear. Luke is far more conscious of the presence of women in the Gospel than Matthew was. When John writes his gospel, we find that feminine imagery is central to his thought and integral to the structure of his narrative.

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