In the Home of a Pharisee

by Ed Gallagher

James Tissot, The Ointment of the Magdalene, ca. 1890, Wikimedia Commons

I never wear cologne and rarely lotion. I do use deodorant. In the winter, my hands get all dry, and sometimes I remember to rub some lotion into them so they don’t crack so much. That’s about it for me. But my wife uses lotion a lot more than I do, every day, I think. And then one of my sons will get really dry skin if I don’t lotion him up really well all over his body after every bath. So even though I personally don’t use lotion much, we always have a supply at the house and our family uses it constantly. None of us care too much about making ourselves smell a certain way with cologne or perfume, but we all would like to avoid stinking. If I were in a situation in which I couldn’t take a shower every day, I would probably use cologne, to try to counteract the stench. 

In the first century, I would have used cologne, or whatever oil was the equivalent. This practice is sometimes mentioned in the Bible. 

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:7–9

Jesus tells people to conceal the fact that they are fasting by washing their faces and anointing their heads (Matt 6:17). Some ancient Jewish literature, like the apocryphal stories of Susannah (v. 17) and Judith (10:3), mentions the use of oils and ointments after baths. If you were in a state of mourning, you would avoid using oils (2 Sam 14:2; Dan 10:3). 

The Bible uses several different words for the oil employed on such occasions. The story of the woman who anoints Jesus for burial in Mark (14:3) and John (12:3) has the term nard (from the Greek νάρδος, nardos, which itself comes from the Hebrew word nard [נֵרְדְ]), which also appears in the Old Testament a few times, all in the Song of Songs (1:12; 4:13, 14). In Luke’s telling of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus (7:36–50, the focus of this lesson), a couple other words are used. There is olive oil (Greek ἔλαιον, elaion)—still one of the best oils for healthy skin—which Jesus notes was not supplied to him by his host (Luke 7:46), and there is the oil that the woman uses on Jesus’ feet, called “ointment” or “perfume” in most translations, from the Greek word muron (μύρον, vv. 37, 38, 46). This same word also appears in each of the other Gospels in reference to their stories of a woman anointing Jesus (Matt 26:7, 12; Mark 14:3, 4, 5; John 11:2; 12:3, 5). The only other appearances in the New Testament are at Luke 23:56 and Revelation 18:13. 

Of course, Luke doesn’t tell us this story because he’s interested in the ointment—he doesn’t even tell us whether it was especially high quality ointment, or expensive—or because he wants us to know that Jesus had the very human needs of keeping his skin moist and fragrant, but because of the way Jesus interacts with the woman and with the Pharisee who had invited him to the meal. 

Comparison with the Other Gospels

Before examining the story in Luke, let’s notice how it is similar in some ways to stories told in Matthew, Mark, and John, while there are also many differences. Matthew and Mark tell the same story, about Jesus going to the home of Simon the leper in Bethany during the week before his crucifixion, and at this home, a woman (not labeled a “sinful” woman) pours expensive perfume on his head. Despite criticism from his disciples against wasting money, Jesus interprets this action as an anointing for his burial.

Matthew 26:6–13Mark 14:3–9
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table,
7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table.a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me.6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.
11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.
12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Immediately after narrating this incident, both Matthew (26:14) and Mark (14:10) report that Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests to cut a deal to betray Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. 

John tells maybe the same story, but the details are different. 

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1–8

Here, though the story takes place in Bethany (as in the story reported by Matthew and Mark), the home belongs to Lazarus and not Simon the leper. Like the story in Matthew and Mark, John’s story involves a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume (and the perfume is “nard,” as at Mark 14:3), but instead of pouring the perfume on the head of Jesus (as in Matthew and Mark), the woman pours it on his feet. And the woman is named Mary, whom we’ve already met in John 11. The question of reprimand is largely the same (John 12:5; cf. Matt 26:8–9 // Mark 14:4–5), but in John’s story the question comes from Judas Iscariot rather than from “some” who were there (Mark) or from “the disciples” in general (Matthew). The response of Jesus to this question is also largely the same across both stories, connecting the woman’s actions to Jesus’ burial (John 12:7; cf. Matt 26:12 // Mark 14:8) and reminding his listeners that the poor are always with them (John 12:8; cf. Matt 26:11 // Mark 14:7). 

Luke’s story of a woman anointing Jesus (Luke 7:36–50) is similar to both of these stories in a lot of ways, and yet further from these other stories than John’s story is from the one in Matthew and Mark. For one thing, the story in Luke does not take place in Bethany but in Galilee, and it’s at the home of someone named Simon (as in Matthew and Mark) but this Simon is not “the leper” but “the Pharisee.” There is nothing to suggest that the woman in Matthew/Mark is an outcast or immoral; indeed, quite the opposite—the fact that she has an expensive bottle of perfume suggests that she is not without significant resources. The woman in John’s story is Mary of Bethany, obviously not an outcast but a member of a respected family. But the woman in Luke’s story is labeled several times “a sinner.” This sinful woman brings “an alabaster jar of ointment” (Luke 7:37), which is reminiscent of the alabaster jar owned by the woman in the story in Matthew/Mark. (No jar is mentioned in John’s story.) The sinful woman seems to engage in a series of actions: first she cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and finally anoints them with the perfume while also kissing his feet (v. 38). These actions have very little resemblance to the actions of the woman in Matthew/Mark, though in John’s story Mary of Bethany also anointed Jesus’ feet with the perfume and used her hair to dry them (not drying them from her tears but from the perfume, apparently). In Luke, as in the other stories, the response to the woman’s actions is indignation on the part of the bystanders, but the actual words used in Luke do not correspond to the wording in the other stories. The continuation of the story in Luke is nothing like the stories in John or Matthew/Mark. 

Odd Features of Luke’s Story

Luke’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the sinful woman at the home of a Pharisee is wonderful and inspiring in several ways, which we will mention in a moment, but it also presents, perhaps, a few odd features that are worth thinking about. 

First of all, Jesus was eating with a Pharisee. This never happens in the other Gospels, but in Luke it happens twice more after this time in Luke 7 (cf. 11:37; 14:1). Jesus’ eating with Pharisees seems odd because usually we think of Jesus as at odds with the Pharisees; it seems like neither Jesus nor any Pharisee would want to sit down and share a meal together. The appearance of the Pharisees so far in Luke’s Gospel probably confirms us in our view of the Pharisees as typically opponents of Jesus. They make their first appearance at 5:17, where they are present to hear Jesus teach, but they soon complain about Jesus when he pronounces forgiveness of sins on the paralytic carried by his four friends. That’s the first in a series of confrontations with the Pharisees. The Pharisees complain at Jesus eating with Levi and his sinful friends (5:30), and they twice complain at him for healing on the Sabbath (6:2, 6). This last event made the Pharisees so mad they “discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11). There has not been a positive encounter between Jesus and Pharisees up to this point in the narrative. 

So what do we make of this dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee? The text says that the Pharisee invited Jesus for dinner (7:36), but it doesn’t say why. I guess we could imagine all kinds of reasons. Sometimes a Gospel story specifically says that a person approaches Jesus with the intention of trapping him (Matt 22:15, 35). Could Simon be doing that? Well, sure, I guess we could read the story in that way. But let’s also remember that Pharisees were not monolithic. We should resist the temptation—so common today, just like always—to give someone a label (Pharisee) and then interpret that person completely through our views on that label. In the Gospels, we usually get the stories about the conflict that Jesus had with Pharisees, because the Gospel writers need to explain why Jesus ended up dead (before he ended up alive), and stories of conflict tend toward that goal better than stories of harmony. The Gospels also give us glimpses into these stories of harmony, like when Nicodemus came to visit Jesus, apparently with a genuine desire to understand him better (John 3). Joseph of Arimathea was not a Pharisee, as far as we know, but he was a member of the same Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus (Luke 22:66–71), and yet he took care of Jesus’ corpse (Luke 23:50–53), because, as John says, he was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). And in Acts, Luke reports that some Pharisees had become Christians (Acts 15:5). 

I don’t know why Simon invited Jesus to his home, but I lean toward thinking that he wanted to learn more about him. Simon had heard a lot of grand things about this itinerant prophet and healer, and he had heard some negative things about him, and Simon just wanted to see for himself. I interpret this invitation positively. 

We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus accepted the invitation. Simon and Jesus present a good model for engagement with people with whom we will likely have disagreements. Simon extended an invitation; Jesus accepted. Those excellent first steps toward understanding are too often neglected, even intentionally shunned. This point deserves much thought and emphasis (and enacting), but we will move on. 

A second odd thing about the story: this lady is there. Who is this lady? Why is she in this Pharisee’s house? Simon seems surprised to see her, or repulsed by her, so it seems like she hasn’t been invited. I don’t know why she’s there. Maybe this Pharisee’s house was a little more open than we usually consider our houses. Like, maybe, it wasn’t a complete breach of social etiquette to walk into someone’s house. (I’m just spitballing here.) Or maybe this little dinner party was on a patio or something such that this lady didn’t have to actually walk into the house to get at Jesus. 

Third odd thing: what’s the deal with the lady being behind Jesus and getting at his feet (7:38)? Can you picture that? I do have an answer to this one, and it has something to do with the way ancient people sat at a meal. Luke says explicitly that Jesus “reclined” to eat (7:36), though translations often obscure this word, using instead “sat down” or some such (the ESV is a good exception). For the lady to be behind Jesus and touching his feet, you’ve got to imagine Jesus either lying on his belly or on his side. Strange to say, that’s the way people liked to eat in antiquity. I wouldn’t want to eat like that, but they did. (More information here and here.)

A Woman Who Is a Sinner

Luke’s story identifies the woman as a sinner. It’s not just that Simon the Pharisee thinks she’s a sinner–which he does (7:39)—but the narrator of the story says the woman is a sinner (7:37), and Jesus says that she has many sins (7:47). 

What kind of sins? The story does not say. 

People often think she’s a prostitute. I suppose what gives that impression is that any woman who is a known sinner—well, we know what she’s been up to. If she’s not actually a prostitute, then she’s been passed around like that Samaritan Woman in John 4 (see v. 18). And also Jesus has that saying about prostitutes preceding religious leaders into God’s kingdom (Matt 21:31). 

Maybe. Biblical scholar Michael Bird, for instance, thinks she’s a prostitute because of “her access to expensive perfume.”1 Sometimes people cite her hair—the fact that it’s unbound, hanging free—as an indication that she might be a prostitute: loose hair, loose woman. 

I myself am not convinced and I think it would be better to leave the matter open. First of all, Luke does not actually say that this perfume is expensive, but even if it were, access to expensive perfume is not a very good clue that this woman is a prostitute. I guess we also imagine that she is poor, but that might not be the case. Certainly, we should not interpret the story in the other Gospels, where the perfume is explicitly identified as “expensive,” as if the woman anointing Jesus is a prostitute. 

Second, the hair thing is not in any way definitive. Loose hair sometimes did indicate a sexually provocative woman, but that was just one possible meaning among many. 

When a woman wears her hair unbound/unbinds her hair, this can be a sexually suggestive act, an expression of religious devotion, a hairstyle for unmarried girls, a sign of mourning, a symbolic expression of distress or proleptic grief in the face of impending danger (and a way of pleading with or currying the favor of those in power, whether gods or men), a hairstyle associated with conjury, a means of presenting oneself in a natural state in religious initiations, and a precaution against carrying demons or foreign objects into the waters of baptism.

Charles H. Cosgrove (2005), p. 6912

Cosgrove (p. 689) points out that the woman apparently does not look like a “sinner” since Simon thinks that Jesus as a prophet should have known better (7:39), not that anyone would have known. Cosgrove (p. 692) suggests that a first century audience hearing Luke’s Gospel would most likely interpret the woman’s unbound hair “as a gesture expressing grief, gratefulness, or solicitation.”

Third, the word “sinner” itself does not really narrow things down very much. This is one of the distinctive things about Luke: he talks about “sinners” a lot more (18x) than the other Gospels (15x combined). (Luke 5:8, 30, 32; 6:32–34; 7:34, 37, 39; 13:2; 15:1–2, 7, 10; 18:13; 19:7; 24:7.) Think about these verses and what kind of “sinners” we’re talking about.

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 5:30

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

Luke 6:32

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Luke 7:34

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (= Zacchaeus).

Luke 19:7

The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.

Luke 24:7

Sometimes Luke associates sinners with Gentiles (24:7; note 6:32; cf. Matt 5:47). Often he associates sinners with tax collectors (see also Luke 15:1–2). In ancient Jewish literature, a “sinner” was one who had abandoned the Law of Moses, especially in two ways: by adapting to the wider Gentile society, or by oppressing the poor.3 The rich man in Luke 16:19–31 is not identified as a “sinner” but he clearly is one (notice where he ends up). 

It’s at least possible that this lady who comes to Jesus in the Pharisee’s house is a well-to-do woman, who has, let us say, oppressed her workers, or profaned the Sabbath to advance her business interests, or eaten unclean foods with Gentiles, or in some other way not maintained her distinctive Jewish identity. 

We like to think of sinners as the oppressed, the downcast or the outcast—partly, maybe, because we feel like we have something to offer them: a word, a gesture of love, a gift of grace. I’m not sure that the sinners in the Gospels are the outcast. Certainly the sinners in Luke 24:7 are not outcasts. Zacchaeus was not an outcast. The problem with the sinners in Luke 7:34 was not that they were lonely, but almost the opposite: they fit into society too well. Tax collectors had plenty of money, and therefore plenty of friends. (I know I’m generalizing.) These were successful people, who might look down their noses on “the God-fearing” as poor schlubs who haven’t learned how to make it in the world. But they themselves were sinners, and they needed to repent. That’s what Jesus told them (Luke 5:32), just as John the Baptist had (Luke 3:10–14). 

And sinners came to Jesus, just as they had come to John. They recognized their sin, and they sought redemption. That’s what Jesus offered them. He had earned a reputation as a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). Other Jews might have looked at tax collectors the way we might look at loan sharks, or a small-time mafioso. Everybody saw them as sinners; Jesus became their friend and called them to repent. And they did. 

I don’t know what this woman had done, how she had earned a reputation as a sinner, and Luke doesn’t help us narrow it down. But like other sinners who encountered Jesus, she recognized a friend, someone who was calling her out of her sin, someone calling her to God. 

As for her precise motivation for coming to Jesus at this time (in Simon’s home), the story can be read in a couple different ways: either she is looking for forgiveness right now, or she is expressing gratitude for forgiveness previously granted. If the latter, then we’d have to imagine that Luke omits a story in which this woman has already met Jesus, and Jesus has already offered her forgiveness. That’s the way I take it, because it makes better sense of the parable Jesus tells. Taking it in this way would mean that this act of anointing the feet of Jesus is this woman’s expression of gratitude, of love, because she has been forgiven much. Whereas we might imagine that Jesus pronounces her sins forgiven at vv. 48 and 50, we could also interpret those statements as reassurances that she really has been forgiven (as Jesus had, hypothetically, already told her in their hypothetical initial encounter). 

The Point of the Story 

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Luke 7:44–47

Jesus interprets the woman’s actions as if she has played the host better than Simon. And Jesus related it all to the woman’s, and Simon’s, perception of their own sinfulness. 

The point seems to be twofold: Jesus welcomes sinners (who repent); and—this one is more subtle—Simon ought to recognize his own sinfulness. After all, the greatest commandment in the Torah (recognized by everyone; cf. Luke 10:25–28) is to love God. Simon the Pharisee knows full well that this commandment is the sine qua non of Judaism; he recites that commandment to himself twice everyday. (These points on the Shema are explored further in the lesson on the Good Samaritan.) Jesus says that you can accomplish this commandment really only if you recognize how much God has forgiven you. The woman does a better job than Simon of obeying the greatest command because she recognizes that “her sins, which were many, are forgiven” (7:47). 

In other stories, Jesus condemns the Pharisees, pronounces woes upon them, warns against them. Not in this story. Yes, Jesus welcomes this sinful woman who has recognized her own sinfulness. But Jesus also welcomes the Pharisee, and invites Simon also to recognize his own sinfulness. 

And the story ends, like so much in the Gospel, without perfect resolution. What did Simon do? The others sitting around the table still display hard hearts (7:49, echoing 5:21), but Simon’s response is not recorded. Luke leaves his readers to reflect on what Simon’s response likely was, and on what it should have been, and on what ours should be.

Discussion Questions 

Is it surprising that Jesus would eat with a Pharisee (Luke 7:36)? Is it surprising that a Pharisee would ask Jesus over for a meal? The same thing happens later in Luke (11:37; 14:1). Why do you think Simon the Pharisee wanted to have a meal with Jesus?

A woman interrupts the meal. Who is she, and what does she do? Why do you think she does that?

Imagine you were hosting this dinner party on your back porch. How would you respond to this woman’s actions? How would your response compare to the response by Simon? 

What does Jesus’ response to the woman and to Simon indicate about how he views these two people? 

Why do you think Luke includes this story in his Gospel? What does he want his readers to know about Jesus? What does he want his readers to know about discipleship?

Endnotes

(1) Michael F. Bird, “Sin, Sinner,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., ed. Joel B. Green (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 863–69, at 866.

(2) Charles H. Cosgrove, “A Woman’s Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the ‘Sinful Woman’ in Luke 7:36–50,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005): 675–92, at 691. Cosgrove surveys ancient tellings of women with loose hair (pp. 678–86) and finds that their unbound hair has widely varying significations. 

(3) For the range of meanings for “sinners” in the Gospel, see Bird, “Sin, Sinner.” 

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