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. Luke 7:36-38
This woman was probably unmarried or widowed without family, since the Bible commentaries suggest that she had been a prostitute. No one loved that kind of woman. She fit no one’s notion of gentility and grace, great intelligence or interpersonal skills. Her body, having suffered beatings and perhaps sexually transmitted diseases, was no great prize. Having no husband to care for her in a society where women had no civil rights, she was probably taken advantage of, and perhaps lived in poverty in a dangerous part of town.
For a woman like her to anoint the rabbi’s head would be unthinkable. Simon had deliberately omitted the kiss of peace, the greeting he should have given Jesus, and then waved away the servant who stood by to wash Jesus’ feet. Another insult, most certainly intentional, and a shock to the other guests. Instead of leaving the banquet, Jesus let the offenses roll off his back.
The woman, alone among the guests who notice the insult, could not stand still as would those with greater social skills, and a political mask prepared for any occasion. Forgetting that she herself was not welcome in the midst of the invited men, she impulsively took action.
She knelt before Jesus and kissed his feet, but that’s when, finally, the tears of love and outrage burst from her eyes. The tears fell on Jesus’ dusty feet and rolled off, leaving streaks. So she made a further offense to the company: she let down her long hair, uncut since childhood, from her hair covering. Waves of dark, lustrous hair cascaded over Jesus’ streaked feet, and the men stared in fascination, lust—and outrage. The act is one that’s reserved for seducing a husband, in the intimacy of the bedchamber.
After rubbing Jesus’ feet with her hair, the woman opened her alabaster jar, and the room filled with the warm, soft, sweet scent of her perfume.
She brought the only thing of material value that she had, perfume she used in her business—perfume that covered the scent of what she did with the men of her town. It was expensive, the sort of perfume with which bodies were anointed before the funeral.
Could a woman who used her body to have sex with strangers, actually love? Could she see past the heaps of abuse and neglect she’d been dealt, and reach out to give her heart?
With the rich scent now hanging in the air, the woman continued to weep over Jesus’ hair-swept feet. She poured out her heart with the perfume. She expected nothing in return for her love, and felt only gratitude that the rabbi had not snubbed or shamed her, but seemed to enjoy her ministrations.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
Jesus perceived the man’s thoughts. He knew perfectly well what kind of woman this was. Not only was Galilee home to Jesus, he could tell by the woman’s actions and her looks, what kind of woman she was.
But Jesus wanted to talk about what kind of man Simon was: the kind who would invite a popular rabbi to his feast so he’d be seen as open-minded, popular, and wealthy, and the kind who would hurl one insult after the other at his guest to silently state his disapproval of the guest’s inferior social and political status, and poverty.
Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That's right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn't quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn't it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”
Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.”
That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!”
He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
At that, the woman had no words, but if she’d been allowed an education in the scriptures, she might have replied in the words of Ruth, a foreign laborer in Israel a thousand years before: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
But not being a poetess, not being a woman of noble character or good background, not even having a name worth mentioning at this gathering of Pharisees and the Rabbi, she had poured out her frustrations—and devotion—at the feet of Jesus. He had honored her faith, not kicked her aside, like the men in the room, some of them her clients.
She loved absolutely, with no room for doubt or insecurity. She would do anything for Jesus. Here was a woman who was despised by her community, universally recognized as a sinner, but publicly honored and forgiven and restored by Jesus.
And when he told her that she was forgiven and could go in peace, in shalom, she went with his blessing, and under his name. She was loved at last, after loving much.
Rewritten from an article by Christy K. Robinson published in ASM Bulletin, Dec. 1987