Saturday, October 5, 2013

"One Who Is Forgiven Much, Loves Much" - Jesus and the "Sinful Woman"

This amazing story of how Jesus treated a social outcast appears in Luke 7:36-50:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This story is sometimes conflated with the story of the woman (John's Gospel says it was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, John 12:1-8) who broke an alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus' head just before He went to His death in Jerusalem.  But that story is set at the home of Simon the Leper, not Simon the Pharisee.  (Matthew. 26:6-13 and Mark. 14:3-9 also tell the Mary story but don't name her). "Simon" was an exceedingly common name in 1st-century Palestine, so the different modifiers would be used to identify different people.

Other differences:  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is never identified as a "sinful woman"  (i.e., a prostitute).   The perfume in Luke's story is never identified as being costly, as Mary's perfume was (its cost, not her reputation, was the source of the dispute in the Mary story). And Luke's story apparently takes place near the beginning of Jesus' ministry rather than near the end of His life.  Also, while the Mary story is explicitly set in Bethany (in Judea), this one appears to take place in Galilee, in a town called Nain. (Luke 7:11).  So I think it's pretty clear that this story in Luke is not about Mary and is unique to Luke's gospel.

However, the blurring together of gospel women is a well-established church practice, dating from the fourth century after Christ.  A article on Mary Magdalene (though it assumes-- erroneously in my opinion-- that there can have been only one woman in Jesus' life who anointed His head with perfume) details how Pope Gregory I (AD. 540-604) retold the stories in such a way that Mary Magdalene became the "sinful woman," effectively decommissioning her as a venerated, authoritative figure in the early church:
Cutting through the exegetes’ careful distinctions—the various Marys, the sinful women—that had made a bald combining of the figures difficult to sustain, Gregory, standing on his own authority, offered his decoding of the relevant Gospel texts. He established the context within which their meaning was measured from then on:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? 
There it was—the woman of the “alabaster jar” named by the pope himself as Mary of Magdala. . .  
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, “became,” in Haskins’ summary, “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”
Despite this, it seems clear from the texts that the "sinful woman" of Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, nor is she Mary of Bethany. She is a nameless woman, outcast from society, who has her own remarkable encounter with Jesus. That encounter is what I am going to examine today.

I'm indebted for much of this to Kenneth Bailey, Th.D., and his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, and David A. deSilva, Ph.D., and his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.

The first thing to be aware of when reading stories like this is the fact that Israel, like most of the rest of the first-century Roman world, was a patronage culture, as succinctly explained by Truth or Tradition:
Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.
A prostitute in that society was very much a "Have-not."  Jesus, even though He was a wandering preacher dependent on others to provide for Him, functioned towards the people in the role of a patron-- one who freely gave others what they needed, and who was to be given honor and loyalty as a result.  God was considered the ultimate Patron, and the recipients of His power in forgiveness, healing, provision and favor were the beneficiaries.  According to deSilva's book linked above, Jesus acted as the mediator of God's favor for the benefit of the people:
Jesus' ability to confer benefits of such kind derives from his relationship with God, specifically as the mediator of favors that reside in the province of God's power. . . The response to Jesus during his earthly ministry bears the stamp of responses typical of beneficiaries to their benefactors. (p. 134)
Whenever Jesus healed people, when He miraculously fed large groups of them, and when He declared sins forgiven, He was acting in the role of mediator-patron of God's blessings. The actions of the "sinful woman" towards Jesus in Luke 7 typify a beneficiary's response to a patron.  She had clearly encountered Him prior to this incident, because she deliberately brings with her the flask of perfume in order to honor Jesus by anointing Him with it.  In that honor-shame culture, the public honoring of patrons was the chief means by which their beneficiaries could return thanks.

Who knows exactly what their first encounter was like?  Just a few chapters earlier, in Luke 5:29, Jesus is seen eating and drinking with a large group of "tax collectors and sinners."  This woman may have been among them.  Her prostitution was probably her only means of supporting herself-- she could have been an orphan, a widow with no sons, or a divorced wife (women could be divorced by their husbands for pretty much any reason, even for burning food).  Though our instinct is to hold the men who took advantage of her situation responsible for her shame, she would not have seen it that way.

Jesus must have been different than any man she was used to encountering.

He must have treated her as neither an object of scorn nor as an object of self-gratification, but as a human being, a "daughter of Abraham" worthy of consideration and even respect.  When He saw that she wanted forgiveness and redemption, He may even have offered her a way out of her despised life. Perhaps He told her she could travel with His group and be supported out of their means.  Perhaps He connected her with another person who could help her to some other means of self-support allowable for a woman.  In any event, her biblical story begins with her appearance in Simon the Pharisee's home, knowing that Jesus has already considered her sins forgiven, and ready to do her Benefactor honor.

The rudeness of Simon the Pharisee, then, stands in stark contrast.

Kenneth Bailey's book linked above explains the cultural meanings that would have been understood by the original audience, which we tend to miss:

1.  The Pharisees had probably decided to invite Jesus to one of their homes in order to correct and mold Him, as a young rabbi who badly needed their wisdom and advice. They had already communicated (as I stated earlier) that they didn't like Him doing such things as eating with "sinners." The point of this dinner party was to shame Jesus into better behavior.

2.  Just as there are certain courtesies guests in our own homes expect, guests in homes of that day would have expected certain courtesies by way of welcome:  a kiss of greeting, then water and olive oil to wash and anoint their hands and feet before reclining at the low table to eat.  Simon offered Jesus none of these.  It was the same as if we were to open the door to a guest and then (in front of the other guests) turn away without a word, leaving the door hanging open for them to let themselves in, then ignore them when they speak to us and go on chatting with the other guests, making no room or offer for them to sit anywhere, and passing the refreshment trays over their heads without offering them any.  Jesus was quite deliberately being insulted.

3.  Jesus' response to this rudeness is to immediately go and recline at the table, without waiting for any older guests to recline first.  This was a probably a way of saying, non-verbally, something along the lines of "This is petty, childish behavior, so I'm assuming I'm the most mature person here."

4.  As is still traditional at Middle-Eastern meals, the lowliest members of the community are allowed to enter the room while the guests are being fed.  They can thus be beneficiaries of the host's patronage in feeding them, which accrues to his honor as a benefactor.  The woman would have entered as one of these persons, and would have been sitting against the wall when Jesus came in. She sees the way He is now being mistreated, and she is so upset that she begins to weep-- not for herself, but for Him.

5.  Her original intention was probably to anoint His hands and head after He had been washed and before He reclined.  This would have been an appropriate way to honor Him.  She did not plan to wash His feet (she brought neither water nor a towel).  But since (having been denied the washing) Jesus immediately reclines, His head and hands are now out of reach.  The woman determines to make up for the rudeness Jesus has just suffered, by washing His feet herself with the only means available-- her tears. By then kissing His feet, she is also offering an act of devotion so extravagant as to be a form of worship.

6.  Having no towel, the woman lets down her hair to dry Jesus' feet, thus willingly entering into the shame and public humiliation Jesus has just experienced by uncovering her own hair in public.  This mimics the behavior of a bride on her wedding night, which is a declaration of the ultimate loyalty to this man.  She thus opens herself to yet another rejection-- from Christ.

7.  What the woman has done is a blatant, non-verbal rebuke towards Simon and the other Pharisees.  By performing the washing ritual expected of the host, and by doing public honor to a person Simon wished to shame, she has turned the shame and dishonor back on the host (which was not how a lowly community outcast, there to receive food, was supposed to act!) and also has opened herself to attack from Simon and his Pharisee friends.

How does Jesus respond?  According to Kenneth Bailey:
Jesus accepted the woman's extraordinary demonstration, and in that acceptance confirmed her judgment regarding who he was-- the divine presence of God among his people. . . But Simon either could not see or perhaps could not accept any of this.  So Jesus turned to him (and through him to the entire assembly). . . The phrase "I have something to say to you" is a classic Middle-Eastern idiom that introduces a blunt speech that the listener may not want to hear.
 Jesus then tells a short parable in which the woman is identified with a sinner whom God forgives much, and Simon with a sinner whom God forgives little.  He thus reminds Simon that he, too, is a sinner, and ends up equating Himself with God the forgiver.  But the most extraordinary thing that Jesus does is this:  He verbally attacks the host for the same rudeness the woman has non-verbally (and very bravely) confronted.  Prior to the woman's involvement, Jesus was quite willing to simply convey His displeasure non-verbally as well, by reclining out of turn.  But now, as Bailey puts it:
Jesus shifts the hostility of the assembled guests from the woman to himself. . . Never in my life, in any culture, anywhere in the world have I participated in a banquet where the guest attacked the quality of the hospitality! . . . Jesus attacks Simon in public in his own home.  He is not a fool and must have a very good reason for launching such a public attack. . . By aggressively defending the woman, Jesus endorses her willingness to get hurt for him. . . (pp. 256-257) 
Jesus at last speaks to the woman, reconfirming her forgiveness by saying, "Your sins have been forgiven."  A rabbi was strictly warned again and again not to talk to a woman in any public place, not even to his own wife.  Jesus violates that dictum as he speaks to the woman with his word of reassurance. . . Simon and his friends refuse to follow Jesus' lead and shift their focus from the sin of this woman to her response to grace.  Simon focused on the woman's mistakes.  Now the invited guests focus on Jesus' "mistakes." . . . For Jesus, true prophethood involved getting hurt for sinners by confronting their attackers.  As the story ends, Simon is under the glass and is challenged to accept offered forgiveness, respond with love and revise the default setting of his outlook on the world. (pp. 258-259)
This is a story of a very courageous, faith-filled woman, and Jesus' final words to her, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace," are a tremendous affirmation of her dignity and worth.  His championing of the woman even goes so far as to deflect to Himself the anger she has incurred.  It is in more ways than one that He suffers on our behalf.

I myself have never been a prostitute, but I know what it is to be rejected and shamed by a roomful of people.  This story has resonated deep in my heart since I first heard it as a young, socially awkward high school girl.  Jesus' willingness to come to the defense of a social outcast-- His determination to enter into solidarity with her through unacceptable social behavior of His own--- reveal His willingness to come to my defense and His lack of concern with the social norms that labeled me an outcast.   As the article goes on to say:
Jesus’ attitude toward women . . . was one of the things that set him apart from other teachers of the time. Not only was Jesus remembered as treating women with respect, as equals in his circle; not only did he refuse to reduce them to their sexuality; Jesus was expressly portrayed as a man who loved women, and whom women loved.
Singer-songwriter Don Franciso probably said it best, retelling this story in a way that still makes me choke up whenever I hear the song:

Her sins were red as scarlet
But now they're washed away
The love and faith she's shown
Is all the price she has to pay
For the depth of God's forgiveness
Is more than you can see
And in spite of what you think of her
She's beautiful to Me.

I hope that wherever there is rejection, I too can learn to follow my Savior in championing the rejected and bringing them acceptance like this.


Marg said...

I really enjoyed your post, Kristen. There are so many nuances in this story that are lost to most modern, western readers, myself included. Thanks for making it clearer.

Donald Johnson said...

One aspect is that the Pharisees had a graded sin system, of course, they saw themselves as the least of sinners. But there were some at the bottom that sinned so much that they had no hope of being redeemed, they were (supposedly) continually in a state of sin and so this meant that (supposedly) God totally rejected them and therefore they (supposedly) had no hope. Such people were to be avoided, because of a false contamination of sin argument. Jesus turns this whole system on its head.

Kristen said...

Marg - thanks! Don - Yes, Dr. Bailey did mention that briefly, but didn't elaborate on it in the book. Thanks for adding more detail; I appreciate it!

EricW said...


Bettina said...

"Do you see this woman?" just jumped out at me for the first time reading this. Usually, I'm right there crying with the woman. Obviously, everyone at the house is aware of the woman but Jesus is asking Simon to "see". Jesus sees us a lovable, worthy of his attention and we need to "see" others too. Sweet!

Kristen said...

Bettina-- that's a great insight! Thanks!