The Sinful Woman
Let’s see what Liz Curtis Higgs has to say about this bad girl. Suppose we join her for dinner.
“Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.“ Luke 7:36
Don’t you know everybody must have wanted Jesus over for chicken and dumplings? The man was the talk of the town –healing the leper, giving sight to the blind, raising the widow’s son right out of his coffin. Honey, his dance card had to be full of invitations to one social occasion after another, Simon the Pharisee’s dinner among them.
“When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town…“ Luke 7:37
Another bad girl without a name. At least the woman at the well had a consistent label. This shady lady is variously referred to as the sinful woman, the woman who anointed Jesus, or the woman with the alabaster jar. Considering the whole town knew her reputation, it’s odd they didn’t also know or mention her name.
Her sins aren’t detailed, but we can surmise she was a woman of the streets – possibly a prostitute with a long history of sin. The Amplified Bible calls her “an especially wicked sinner“ and, in verse 39, “a notorious sinner“ and “a social outcast, devoted to sin.“ The New Living translation describes her as a certain immoral woman. OK OK, we’ve seen that movie. Whatever her shortcomings, she stayed well informed about the late-breaking news of the day.
“She learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house…“ Luke 7:37
That’s odd. What would a woman of the street want with a man of the cloth?
Lucky for her, a personal invitation to Simon’s dinner wasn’t necessary. The less fortunate were allowed to visit such public banquets in order to snatch up the leftovers.
Since women weren’t permitted to serve the food at fancy meals like this one, let alone recline at the table as invited guests, the best Miss no-name could do was hang around the periphery, hoping for a few table scraps and an occasional glimpse of the grand pooh-bas lounging around the head table.
The minute she heard about the banquet in progress, our bad girl quickly located the one item most precious to her and made tracks for Simon’s place.
“She brought an alabaster jar of perfume…“ Luke 7:37
Alabaster jars were common. It was the substance hidden inside that was valuable. Her jar undoubtedly contained all the perfume she owned. Pure nard, all essence, no alcohol, very expensive.
But she wasn’t wearing the perfume, drawing attention to herself with its luscious scent. She was carrying it in a small alabaster vial, her attention fixed on finding one particular dinner guest who might appreciate a fragrant aroma of her sacrifice.
Perhaps she only meant to catch a glimpse of him from afar, but seeing his gentle countenance, she was drawn toward him, closer and closer, until she stood right behind him. That’s when the tears came unbidden.
“And as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. “ Luke 7:38
She could not move, could not speak for all her anguished weeping. From a well so deep inside her that the murky waters have never seen the light of day, tears poured out in an endless flow, streaming over her cheeks, and slipping down her neck.
Every impure thought, word, and deed of her past welled up in her heart and flowed down her face. The tears of a harlot held back in anger from years on the street were suddenly released and spilled out like perfume, leaving her vulnerable, exposed, repentant, not caring who saw her or what they thought of her.
Were they tears of sorrow or tears of joy? Yes. Unlike the woman at the well, this thirsty soul brought her water with her. Standing so close to him, she knew! She knew that Jesus alone understood her, forgave her, and loved her.
He hadn’t sent her away, had he? Hadn’t brushed off her tears in disgust. Instead, he allowed her to baptize his feet with her salty tears. More than allowed, he’d accepted her worship. His grace only increased her devotion. With her head bowed in reverence, her body soon followed as she dropped to her knees only inches from the feet of her beloved Savior.
“Then she wiped them with her hair…“ Luke 7:38
Her hair would have been bound up, according to social custom. Let down her hair in public? That was considered so bold, so provocative, so abhorrent it was grounds for divorce.
Loosening her long hair, she let it fall around her shoulders, then bent over farther still, until his tear-drenched feet were all that her eyes could encompass. Using the dark strands like a silken hand towel, padding and wiping and caressing, she rubbed his heels, arches, and toes until they were dry once more. She didn’t dare speak, but her thoughts were surely spinning. This Jesus did not rebuke her for touching him! He had received her adoration, not once drawing back.
Overcome with emotion, gratitude, with devotion, she let her mouth follow the same path her fingers had taken and lightly touched his feet with her lips.
“She kissed them…“ Luke 7:38
In the most public of places, she performed one of the most intimate, yet innocent of acts. She pressed her mouth to his feet.
Which is why her unabashed affection and total humility were breathtaking. To kiss an adult man’s cheek or his hand or the edge of his garment was one thing, but his bare stone-bruised feet? Scandalous.
But physical affection was how she made her living. It was all she knew to offer him. Men paid her money to touch them with her hands, her hair, and her lips. That she lavished such attention on this man for free was her ultimate gift to him. Nor was she finished. She had one more expression of love, quite literally up her sleeve.
“And she poured perfume on them.” Luke 7:38
Extravagantly yet with purpose, she poured the contents of her precious alabaster jar over his feet.
No doubt their whispers swirled around her, even as her ministrations required every ounce of concentration, rendering her immune to their cruel commentary.
You’ll find a different but similar story in the other three gospels – a tale of a woman who spilled out her costly perfume from an alabaster jar, twice on his head, once on his feet. In that story, however, her actions lead to the disciples whining about how the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.
In this scene, the woman and her worship are the focus of the story, not the perfume. Check out the reaction from the Lord and those around him:
“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself…“ Luke 7:39
“Said to himself” means Simon was thinking, not speaking out loud. Unless he was mumbling under his breath and a whisper meant to be heard by the audience.
“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.“ Luke 7:39
Doubt was setting in. Prophets were supposed to know everything, the seen and the unseen. Could it be Jesus isn’t much of a prophet after all? The healings this week were impressive, but who knows? Maybe it was all smoke and polished bronze.
Simon’s disgust at the situation was surely written all over his face. Look at her! Touching him like that. Maybe if she had been a normal woman, he would have overlooked her actions. But it was her station in life that upset Simon. “The kind of woman,” a sinner.
Of course, for members of this legalistic sect, anyone who wasn’t a Pharisee was a sinner. She was merely the worst of the worst.
The host of the party may have been sympathetic toward Jesus and his ministry, but he was completely unsympathetic toward the woman. A popular Greek proverb, later recorded in Scripture, would have suited Simon’s mood well. It’s easy to imagine him quoting this for Jesus’ benefit, with a face devoid of compassion.
“Do not be misled: “Bad Company corrupts good character.” 1 Corinthians 15:33
But the fact is, Simon hadn’t said a word. He only thought these things. That’s why the next verse is startling.
“Jesus answered him…“ Luke 7:40
Stop right there. “Answered“?
Does this mean the Lord interpreted the man’s body language, the look of displeasure in his eyes, the frown of distaste? Or… Did he literally read Simon’s mind?
Fully God, remember. Jesus heard every word in the man’s heart, spoken or not. These verses elsewhere in Luke confirm it:
“Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked…“ Luke 5:22
“He saw through their duplicity and said…“ Luke 20:23
And we think we can keep our sins a secret! The Lord knows about them, child. All of them.
Jesus immediately got his host’s attention.
“Simon, I have something to tell you.” Luke 7:40
Polite, inviting, and confidential. It drew Simon right in.
“Tell me, teacher, “he said. Luke 7:40
Jesus didn’t teach unless there was a ready pupil. Eye to eye now with Simon, he spun out a parable – a story with a lesson -as only the great teacher could:
“Two men owed money to a certain money lender. One owed him 500 denarii, and the other 50. Neither of them had money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?“ Luke 7:41-42
Simon (proud of himself, no doubt) came up with a quick answer.
“Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.“ Luke 7:43
Ever the good teacher, Jesus acknowledged his pupil’s right response.
“You have judged correctly, “Jesus said.” Luke 7:43
He affirmed, encouraged… And lowered the boom.
“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon…“ Luke 7:44
Looking directly at her, while still speaking to Simon, Jesus said five words that changed the lives of both his listeners.
“Do you see this woman?“ Luke 7:44
Simon had seen her, but only for what she was, not who she was. He had looked at her form but not her face. He had eyed her actions but not looked her in the eye and connected with her, human to human.
“See her, “Jesus implored. “See her as I see her.“ Mea culpa, Lord. I am no better than the Pharisee.
“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.” Luke 7:44
Barefoot or in sandals, travelers of the day arrived with their feet covered with dust and dirt. It was customary for a host to offer water and a towel for a quick foot scrub. Simon dropped the ball. The woman, however, did the right thing.
“You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.” Luke 7:45
A brotherly kiss on the cheek was a common greeting, especially for the host to offer his guest of honor. Simon neglected that duty too. Once again, Miss No Name earned a brownie point.
“You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.“ Luke 7:46
Meshiach in Hebrew, and Christos in Greek – both mean “anointed one. “ If our stingy host had put a bit of oil on the head of Jesus, we might have overlooked the foot-washing blooper. But Simon missed this opportunity as well. Instead, a woman who embodies everything the Pharisees hated earned her a four-star hospitality rating, in his own house.
By pointing out the things she did right and the things Simon should have done, Jesus managed to affirm her and admonish him at the same time, without stripping either one of dignity. He let the contrast of their actions speak for themselves:
No water from him versus many tears from her.
No towel from him versus gentle hair drying from her.
No kiss from him versus endless kisses from her.
No oil from him versus expensive perfume from her.
This is especially interesting, considering that… He was a pious man and she was a sinful woman.
We’re not told how Simon the Pharisee reacted. Was he angry? Stunned? Ashamed? Repentant?
He couldn’t have missed the message. This parable was anything but subtle.
Jesus took every opportunity to remind religious leaders of their hypocrisy, as in this little pronouncement to the chief priests and elders on another occasion:
“Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.“ Matthew 21:31
Ouch! Politically correct? Not Jesus, no way.
And what of our dear sister, still on her knees before the Christ? Did her face remain bowed during his brief, pointed words to Simon? If so, we can imagine the blush of delight mingled with embarrassment that danced across her features while Jesus sang her praises. Or perhaps she looked up to gaze at last upon the one whom she loved and worshiped so completely. Without question, her head would’ve snapped to attention on hearing this:
“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.“ Luke 7:47
True, he does acknowledge her “many sins.“ No getting around her former bad girl status. But he doesn’t condemn her for her many sins. He doesn’t even charge her to go and sin no more as he does a woman caught in adultery in another setting.
Since Jesus knew everything about this quiet worshiper, perhaps she’d already given up her life of sin. After all, the evidence of a changed heart was kneeling at his feet. Without a word, she expressed repentance. Without a sound, she cried out for forgiveness. Without a syllable, she spelled out the desire of her heart: to love him. Her actions said it all. And it was good.
Our love and worship make us beautiful to God. And why are we surprised?
“But he who has been forgiven little loves a little.“ Luke 7:47
Liz says when she sits in church on Sunday morning feeling disconnected and out of tune with the music, the elements, and the worship, it’s easy to blame a bad night’s sleep or a prickly discussion with her husband Bill in the parking lot. The truth? She’s not willing to confess her sins so that true worship can begin.
We have forgotten how much we have already been forgiven so our gratitude can flow and ceaseless praise. Quite simply, our love has grown cold.
Worship is about rekindling an ashen heart into a blazing fire. This woman was a torchbearer. Jesus surely felt the heat in her touch, her tears, and her kiss. She came asking for nothing, concerned only with giving him glory, honor, and praise the only way she knew how.
Seek him openly.
Worship him completely.
Embrace his forgiveness joyfully.
“Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.“ Luke 7:48
Finally, he spoke directly to her. Simon wasn’t included in this one. Forgiveness is always personal with Jesus. He died for the sins of the whole world, but forgiveness comes to each of us, individually, when we demonstrate our readiness to accept it.
The rest of the party guests were less enthusiastic.
“The other guests began saying to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49
Even while stuffing their faces, they’d tuned in to the drama unfolding at Jesus’ feet. For once, they stopped talking about her and shifted their gossip to him.
“The nerve of this guy.”
“Who does he think he is forgiving sins?”
Jesus ignored their grumbling, keeping his focus on the woman kneeling before him as he offered her a benediction:
“Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you…” Luke 7:50
It was not her love that saved her. It was her faith in his power to forgive her. It was her faith in his steadfast love for her. And it was her faith expressed in actions, not words. While the story of the woman at the well was all dialogue and no action until she ran back to town, this woman teaches us without speaking one syllable. When his forgiveness flowed toward her in the silence of their communion, love, and gratitude filled the air with the fragrant aroma of a soul set free.
“Go in peace.” Luke 7:50
Peace. What everyone hopes for, prays for, and longs for. The Amplified Bible version phrases it, “go (enter) into peace (in freedom from all the distresses that are experienced as the result of sin.”
Peace comes to those who are willing to move away from sin and toward the Prince of peace until his peace becomes their own.
What lessons can we learn from the sinful woman?
1. People will talk, no matter what we do. When the sinful woman sacrificed herself in worship, they mumbled about that. When Jesus forgives her sins, they wagged about that. Don’t worry about what gossips say, instead turn away from the noise and focus our eyes and ears on the One whose opinion really matters, Jesus. “We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4
2. The Pharisees thought they were the good guys. The Pharisees were righteous men of their day, avoiding sin and proclaiming God’s Word. While Simon had invited Jesus to dinner to be taught, what he wasn’t willing to do was humble himself and worship Christ as the sinful woman did. If we have been involved in church for any length of time, we might want to check ourselves to see if we have a little Simon in us. “No one is good – except God alone.” Mark 10:18
3. One person’s beautiful is another person’s ugly. Since we can’t change the aroma of Christ that lingers around us, even when it offends others, we might as well break open the whole bottle and let the world catch his scent. “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” 2 Corinthians 2:15-16
4. Silence speaks volumes. Did you notice this woman didn’t vocalize anything, let alone her need for forgiveness? Jesus can discern our thoughts and read our intentions as if we each were a well-worn book. Public confession and testimony work best with words. But when we’re talking to Jesus directly as she was, we can hear better when we’re listening in silence and worshipping…not talking. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20
Thank you so much Liz for another lesson on a bad girl from the BIble. These bad girls give me hope that I haven’t messed up my life so terribly the Lord is finished with me. The sinful woman is a great example.
Until next time, be blessed and seek the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.