We will be having class as usual, as much as we can on the day that is the culmination of our church’s bicentennial celebration week, when we have planned a homecoming day featuring pictures and exhibits from the church’s history, special food, members in costumes from just about every decade of the past 200 years, visits from all the living pastors and some of the Presbytery leadership, and an “old fashioned” Sunday school hour following the worship service that will feature sword drills and some some state-of-the-art (for 1955) flannelgraph, all of which will be requiring some last-minute readying and steadying. If you will be in the neighborhood, please consider yourself invited!
So here are my notes on this text from Luke:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT We have moved only a handful of verses farther along in the chapter of Luke’s gospel we began reading last week. All the things we know about Luke’s gospel still apply: the abiding interest in Gentiles, the inclusion of women, the emphasis on the activity of the Holy Spirit, the careful literary treatment and erudite Greek – all that.
The text poses several special issues.
One set of issues surfaces in the texts that are paired with this story by the Revised Common Lectionary, where it shows up in Year C, the Luke year. A preacher could choose from two Old Testament texts, either 1 Kings 21:1-21, the story of Jezebel getting Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab, or 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15, skipping some verses, the story of David marrying Bathsheba, Nathan confronting David with the parable of the man and the little baby sheep, ending with the Lord striking ill “the child that the wife of Uriah bore to David.” Both reflect a particular prototype of a sinful woman, despite Bathsheba’s status as more sinned against than sinning.
We don’t often question this prototype. Almost no commentary asks what the sinful woman’s sin “really” was; almost everyone assumes she was, or “probably was,” a prostitute. But – what makes us think this is “probable”? Is it what we know about how most women in the ancient world were employed? [Because most women weren’t prostitutes then, any more than most women are prostitutes now.] Is it what we know about sin, and the kinds of sin people are most likely to commit? [Because there are lots of sins, besides exchanging sex for money.] Or is it everything we know about stories, stock characters, and narrative logic? [My strong suspicion.]
But if this text is a story, told in prototypes [“Pharisee,” “prostitute”], then it “probably” makes less sense to investigate it as a careful account of an actual historical event.
A HUGE volume of the commentary on this passage revolves around questions like whether the woman in the passage is “really” Mary of Bethany or “really” Mary Magdalene or “really” some third, unnamed woman; whether there was “really” only one episode like this in Jesus’s life, or “really” more than one; whether the event “really” occurred in Bethany, or somewhere else; whether it “really” occurred just shortly before his death, or earlier, as Luke’s gospel presents it.
People have their reasons for coming to their various conflicting conclusions on the basis of their close examination of this text in comparison with the other texts that tell a story of a woman who anoints Jesus’s feet at a dinner party. [See Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13; and John 12:1-8.] I distinctly recall the sermon preached by our then pastor that spent a good deal of the sermon time explaining why he himself had concluded this was a separate event, and a different woman. [“Probably” because my response at the time was “You don’t seriously expect me to believe this – do you?”]
All of this exegetical energy presupposes (1) that there is real history “behind” or “underneath” the gospels’ accounts of events, (2) that we can reconstruct that real history from the material the gospels give us, and (3) that we need to, we need to get that real history right, to grasp what the Biblical text means for us.
Whatever we think about presuppositions 1 and 2, I’d like to challenge presupposition 3, at least with regard to this story.
A few other matters of context, in the text: Jesus starts calling disciples in at the beginning of chapter 5. A bit later, in Luke 5:12-15, Jesus heals a man “in one of the cities” with leprosy. A bit further on, he heals a paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof – making an explicit connection between healing and forgiving sins (Luke 5:17-26).
A bit later, in 5:27, Jesus calls Levi, and there’s a big party with “tax collectors and others” (5:29), a group who are referred to as “tax collectors and sinners” by “the scribes and Pharisees” who challenge Jesus’s choice of company. There has evidently been a good deal of discussion of what exactly it means for people to be “sinners” in that context; scholars have proposed various lists of immoral behavior, unclean occupations, and association or collaboration with Gentiles. It might include all of the above. The point is that “sinners” is a broad category – although not as broad as “others.”
After this episode, and after healing some people (on the Sabbath, which would be OK if the people were in real danger, but which might be less OK in the case of people with less-than-life-threatening conditions), Jesus preaches a sermon, to a crowd of people, including some real Others, Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon, which includes some pointed remarks about not judging, not condemning, and instead forgiving (Luke 6:37-38).
Then, after healing a [Gentile] centurion’s slave (our story last week), and after raising a widow’s [ethnicity unspecified, we generally assume Ioudaios] son from the dead, and after hearing from some messengers from John the Baptist, Jesus holds forth on the criticism he is receiving for being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). And then Jesus says “And wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35).
This is the immediately foregoing context for our text.
The next thing we read is this story.
The next thing we read is this (in chapter 8): a short account of how Jesus is being accompanied by “the twelve” plus a number of named women; the parable of the sower; its explanation; a proverb about a lamp, light, and listening; and Jesus’s pointed remark to his “mother and brothers”: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21) [And wisdom is vindicated by all her children.] A trip across the lake, during which Jesus calms a storm. An exorcism in Gentile territory. And back home, a woman healed on the way to raising a little girl from the dead.
Then, Jesus sends “the twelve” on to the rest of the mission. That is: there’s a narrative shift from the “calling” and “teaching” phase to the “sending” and “mission” phase, which will move through Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi (“you are the Christ!”) and the Transfiguration to the journey to Jerusalem, which will be a significant part of Luke’s gospel, and which will lead up to the events of the last week of Jesus’s life.
So, while Luke is known for devoting a lot of ink to stories about women, this part of the gospel stands out as being “the women’s section.” In light of that, it “probably” makes some sense to see our story as one of a pair of “book-ends,” the other being the story of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood and the raising of Jairus’s daughter, with the “books” being Jesus’s teaching on hearing and doing the word, and on the contrast of things hidden and things revealed, and Jesus’s demonstrations of his power over the world of wind and water, and over the unseen world of the demons.
And it “probably” makes some sense to use what we know about the way “women” work symbolically in these Biblical and specifically gospel stories while we’re reading it, too – that is, it probably makes sense to remember that women have been known to be show up in this literature as symbols or personifications of big ideas like Sin [Eve], and its defeat [the New Eve], and Wisdom, and The Church/The Bride of Christ.
CLOSER READING: In v36 Jesus goes and literally “reclines” at the home of a Pharisee, whose name we do not know, who has invited him to eat with him. I always think “dinner,” but the text doesn’t specify which meal. The text presumes the practice of the ancient world where the diners literally “recline” around the table, which probably suggests a formal event, not an everyday meal. This position probably matters, too, because it makes it more possible for the woman to do what she does, namely enter the house, stand behind Jesus at his feet, and begin anointing them with the myron, the “ointment,” which sounds a lot like “myrrh” by the way, and also with her tears, which are falling like rain.
I give up on verses 37-38. I hate Greek so much. It is through clenched teeth, with an unchristian spirit of bitter grudging resentment, that I admit that Greek is doing something awesome and superior here in this snapshot, this description of the very present woman by her very done deeds that I want to be able to put into English words but can’t because all our possibilities feel … less than all of that at once, bleepity-bleep it.
Moving on, the implication of the Pharisee’s [we still don’t know his name] unspoken thought in v 38 is that if Jesus were a real prophet, he would reject the anointing woman’s touch. Which implies that in the eyes of the Pharisee, the appropriate [holy, prophetic] response would be rejection. Of this sinner. But Jesus isn’t rejecting her, he’s accepting her. That response is calling his status as a prophet into question, in the eyes of this Pharisee.
Jesus’s next move implies that he knows what the Pharisee is thinking. [Maybe this is a miracle. Or maybe it means Jesus knows his own culture as well as we know ours. Or maybe it’s both.]
Now we find out the Pharisee’s name: Simon. [This will make people who know the other synoptic gospels wonder if this is “really” that meal at the home of “Simon the leper” where Jesus is anointed by an anointing woman in Matthew and Mark, and if that’s the case, is this Simon the leper “really” the same leper that Jesus healed back in Luke 5:12-15. It would make for a good story about forgiveness and gratitude if it were, wouldn’t it?]
Jesus tells a story about two forgiven debtors, who differ by an order of magnitude; 500 denarii vs. 50. A denarius was a small Roman coin; it’s a commonplace that a day’s pay would have been around one denarius. Both the debts are significant; both are beyond the debtors’ means to repay.
The word forgiven here, and in v43, is literally “given grace.”
We could meditate on this story for a bit: what’s the practical difference between 50 and 500, if you can’t pay it? Maybe that in one case you think you have a prayer, you still have a little bit of hope that you might scrape together those resources, and in the other you realize that you don’t even have that?
But Jesus asks a different question: “Who loves him [the creditor] more?” Jesus uses the agape word for love here. [So we’ll have to imagine it is possible for someone to agape love a creditor, even a forgiving one, for this to work. Since whenever I think of Wells Fargo I think hell might not be such a bad idea after all, this is a stretch. We’ll have to trust Jesus on this one.]
Simon supposes “the one to whom he gave the most grace.” The one who was in a more desperate situation to begin with. The one for whom forgiveness will be received as something unimaginable, something life-restoring, something like a miracle. Like being about to die and then being healed. Like being raised from the dead.
Or we might think of it this way: at first the debtors owed the creditor money. But now, after the debt has been forgiven, they owe the creditor gratitude. In proportion to the original debt. The currency has changed, but the debt remains. [“Owe no one anything, except to love one another …” Romans 13:8, a text Luke and his readers would or could have known.]
Jesus agrees, and then turns to the woman but speaks to Simon, about her. Can we imagine this scene in real life? Is Jesus gesturing at “the woman” while speaking with Simon, the way a person gestures at a blackboard? Or is Jesus looking at “the woman” while speaking to Simon, the way a person looks into someone’s eyes, or into a mirror? Either way, Jesus presents “the woman” as an object lesson, in particular as an object lesson in hospitality; “the woman” is a demonstration of hospitality.
[On this point, see Dorothea H. Bertschmann, “Hosting Jesus: Revisiting Luke’s ‘Sinful Woman’ (Luke 7:36-50) as a Tale of Two Hosts” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 40:1, 30-50 August 31, 2017.]
V47 can be read more than one way. The text reads (if we just go word for word) “What by grace I say to you her sins the many/much have been forgiven her because she loved many/much.” Maybe Jesus means “I tell you what, you can tell this woman has been forgiven a lot, because she has shown a lot of love, which is what people do when they have been forgiven a lot.” Alternatively, Jesus could mean “this woman’s many sins have been forgiven, as a consequence of the much love she has shown.” Or maybe both.
The text itself suggests the latter, when Jesus says to the woman, after his lecture to Simon, “Your sins have been forgiven.” That sounds like they weren’t forgiven until just then.
On the other hand, Jesus also says to the woman, after the grumpy guests have their thoughts in v49, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” That sounds like she may have known, or at least trusted, all along that her sins had been forgiven, and Jesus in v48 was confirming her prior trust. That would require us to think that her extravagant gestures were motivated by her faith, her trust, in something that Jesus had promised or had seemed to promise when it came to this forgiveness of sins or debts or to this healing of illness.
The “forgive” word here, and the three other times it occurs in vv47-49, is not the earlier word of “extending grace”, but a different word that is often translated “forgive” but sometimes something like “let go.”
Honestly, I think it makes most sense to stop focusing on which historical early Christian woman this woman was, or what her occupation “probably” was, and to read Luke’s woman living in the city, a sinner, as a personification of the church.
She worships Jesus, the canceller of debts and the restorer to life, as the beloved. She will keep on doing this, in practice, by receiving sinners, in the name of Christ, as Christ himself; offering those debtors extravagant hospitality in the form of washing with water, anointing, and love in the context of a meal.
In the context of this particular meal, acceptance rather than rejection becomes the demonstration of God’s holiness and the prophetic representative’s divine credentials: being a friend of sinners (like gospel Jesus was/is), communicating Christ’s healing and resurrection power by forgiving sins, pronouncing Christ’s blessing, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”