By Ched Myers, Fourth Sunday of Pentecost, Luke 7:36-8:3
Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016. Thanks to Wes Howard Brook and Sue Ferguson for their reflections that took us through Eastertide and into Pentecost; we’ll again now trade off more regularly during “Ordinary Time.” As this story represents a hermeneutic key to Luke’s social outlook, my comments here will be longer; their purpose is to reveal exegetical details that can help restore the dynamism of this encounter (I recommend acting the story out). Painting (above right) by Wayne Forte.
This Sunday’s story of the “anointing woman” is one of the very few traditions to appear in all four gospels. While Matthew’s version (Mt 26:6-13) of the scene follows Mark (Mk 14:3-9), Luke’s more elaborate account shares an important difference with John’s (Jn 12:1-8): the woman anoints not Jesus’ head, but his feet, using her hair. Both versions culminate with a remarkable commendation of this woman (named only in John, who combines the two traditions). Indeed, Mark’s emphatic underlining—“Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:9)—suggests that this story was extremely important to the early church. So should it be for us.
To get our narrative attention, Luke prefaces the scene by invoking the venerable Hebrew Bible trope of Lady Wisdom (7:35). This strange non sequitur concludes the preceding episode (7:18ff), which concerns Jesus’s interaction with disciples of John the Baptist, whom he contrasts starkly with Herod (25f) and calls “the greatest of those born of women” (28). This sequence articulates Jesus’ incredulity that prophets are damned if they are austere and ascetic, but also if they carouse and celebrate (31-34). Then comes his strange warning to skeptics resisting his message of liberation: “Wisdom (Gk sophia) is justified by her children” (Lk 7:35).
The image hearkens to Proverbs 8-9, which portrays Wisdom as a female prophet trying to get the attention of her village (the Hebrew chokhmah and the Greek sophia are both feminine). Lady Wisdom urgently “takes her stand, crying out—on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads, in front of the gates, at the entrance of the portals” (Prov 8:2). A woman would not typically have been seen in such prominent public places in the patriarchal culture of antiquity, where they were largely sequestered at home. But Lady Wisdom’s message of justice (8:15f) breaks gender taboos in its insistence and persistence. Sophia is next portrayed setting a table for a feast to which those “without understanding” are invited (9:1-5). Both images are profoundly maternal: the wise old crone demanding a hearing, and the householder offering warm, nurturing hospitality. This is Luke’s way of setting the scene for the next extraordinary episode, in which a woman inconveniently exhibits these very traits to men “without understanding.”
The scene is set up quickly: Jesus, perhaps surprisingly (in light of 5:33 and 6:2), receives an invitation to dine from a Pharisee (7:36; the Greek erōtaō most often in Luke connotes a formal request; see 4:38; 7:3; 8:37; 11:37; 14:18, 32; 16:27;Acts 16:39; 18;20; 23:30). As Jesus assumes his position reclining at table, our assumption is that his is the place of an honored guest—which, as we shall see, will be not turn out to be the case.
Enter a woman “such a kind that is of the city” (Lk 7:37a) a clearly euphemistic phrase alluding to prostitution (a trade we still euphemize today). “Who was a sinner” adds to the pejorative social label, which has already been used by Pharisees of Jesus’ companions in 5:30-32 and 7:34, repeated here in 7:38. It is worth pausing to reflect on how we routinely distance ourselves from persons and groups by using stereotypes and negative social labels!
“Having ascertained that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of myrrh” (7:37b). * The delicious subtext here is: how did she know? Was it “word on the street”? The implication is that she had a relationship with Jesus substantial enough for her to feel enfranchised to join him wherever he might be. But it is also that she somehow knew where this Pharisee lived, and knew how to get past the door there! A former client perhaps?
In any case, she shows up (with a precious tool of her trade!) and takes center stage suddenly and importunately. The poignancy of this scene is far better shown than told, and I always encourage readers to act it out. “Stationing herself” behind him at his feet, she proceeds with an embarrassingly intimate string of active verbs, each one worth lingering over (7:38):
- Weeping. Women usually took on the role of public displays of personal and political grief in first century Palestinian honor culture (cf Mt 2:18; Lk 23:28; Jn 11:31, 20:11; Acts 9:39). Luke’s Jesus commends this “blessed” behavior (6:21b), and even imitates it (19:41). Yet insofar as women “weep too much” because they suffer disproportionately from society’s violence and poverty, he seeks to attenuate their grief (7:13, 8:52). And let us not imagine this woman is quietly whimpering; her wailing would have been loud and disruptive, characteristic of mourning culture, which of itself would have been enough to “create a scene.” (Right: Pablo Picasso, “Weeping Woman,” 1937.) But there is more.
- Began wetting his feet with her tears. The verb tense here moves from aorist to present active. Poetically, the verb brexo (“to wet”) in every other use in the N.T. describes rainfall! And given the gendered role of grieving, it is interesting that “tears” are thrice ascribed to Paul the apostle (Acts 20:19,31; II Cor 2:4). Yet they are marks of pain that “will be wiped away from every eye” in the vision of John the Revelator (Rev 7:17, 21:4).
- drying them with the hairs of her head. This implies, of course, that she has unbound her hair, something a “proper” woman would never do in public, much less in the company of unrelated men! This gesture is almost painfully intimate, even erotic, a connotation strengthened by the final two verbs in the string.
- and she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with myrrh. These verbs, like the previous one, are in the indicative imperfect active—this behavior is going on for a while, implying a building tension in this “inappropriate” scene! While the most famous “kiss” in the gospels is one of betrayal (Mt 26:49), it is an act between men of both welcome (Lk 15:20) and farewell (Acts 20:37). Only here in the N.T. is it across genders, and it may connote both meanings: a welcome embrace, but also anointing with a burial spice (a nod perhaps to the dominant Markan tradition).
Suffice it to say that this socially suspect, ritually “impure” and uninvited woman, with her partial disrobing and overly personal touching of Jesus, represents a disaster of extreme social impropriety amidst this exclusive company of elite men. Nothing about it, however, seems to bother Jesus!
“Now when the Pharisee who invited him saw it, he said to himself…” is hilarious in its understatement (7:39). From the very first instant this spectacle was an elephant in the room, bringing civil conversation to a grinding halt and charging the atmosphere with tension, perhaps even violence. One cannot overestimate the social disaster unfolding here. In the honor culture of elites, guests were invited who would increase the prestige of the host; in turn, the host’s excellent hospitality, meal and conversation increases the cache of the guests. This was the social game of quid pro quo. Conversely, however, to dishonor guests ignites a downward spiral for all. No doubt the host is talking to himself! (This is one of several points in Luke’s gospel where the internal dialogue of a key character is revealed, usually an elite male, as in e.g. 12:17-19 or 16:3f).
Notably, the host is only concerned here with his own male honor and that of his guests, questioning Jesus’ prophetic credentials: “He should have known what kind of woman this is who is touching (Gk haptetai) him…” This verb is often used in N.T. healing stories (e.g. Lk 7:14, 22:51), but in at least one instance connotes sexual relations (I Cor 7:1)! “…that she is a sinner.” This social label (reiterating 7:37) is all this powerful man can “see” about the woman who is wrecking his dinner party, and the fact that Jesus apparently does not see this disqualifies him as a prophet in the host’s eyes. Here Luke alludes to one of the most important subtexts of his gospel: What is the true prophecy? Is it a vocation that protects orthodoxy, or that stands for justice?
“Simon, I have something to say to you” (7:40). Finally Jesus breaks the tension, addressing the host by name (implying a strategy of personal appeal). We can imagine a desperate Simon exploding into his first verbalization: “Teacher, speak—explain yourself, tell me my social world has not just come crashing down!!”
Calmly, Jesus spins a story (vv 41f). Though not labeled a parable, it is clearly so (para + bole = put side by side, a similitude; the word appears 18 times in Luke). Jesus turns, in other words, to a classical prophetic strategy for speaking truth to the clueless powerful, as most famously illustrated in the story of King David and the prophet Nathan (II Sam 12). It draws the target audience into a familiar scenario, only to turn the story in a way that implicates the hearer.
In this case, it is a tale of “a certain creditor” (Gk danistē, only here in NT) and two debtors. Now perhaps this captures Simon’s attention—it would be, after all, a scenario familiar to him. The revelation that neither large nor small debtor is in a position to pay back (Gk apodidōmi) immediately conjures righteous anger from the moneylending class—many of whom, we can assume, were gathered around Simon’s table. But here comes Jesus’ twist to the tale that freezes his audience like a nasty curveball. The response of this creditor is not what they would expect—punishment, increased debt, consequences—but rather “the free gift of debt forgiveness” (Gk charizomai). ° Simon’s nightmare just got worse: first his home is invaded by a “sinner” whose shenanigans shame his guests, and now Jesus presumes to declare a Jubilee?
To the reader paying attention to this point in Luke’s narrative, of course, none of this should come as a surprise. Jesus has in fact already declared Jubilee in his inaugural sermon (4:14ff), and taught in 6:34 that “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” It thus dawns on both host and reader that Jesus little “parable” means to illuminate the human backstory behind the socially labelled “sinner” who has crashed the party: she was most likely forced onto the street by debt. Indeed, Luke’s Lord’s Prayer will shortly make explicit the equivalence of “sin” and “debt” implicit here: “Forgive us our sins (hamartias), for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted (opheilonti) to us” (11:4).
Jesus’ question to Simon concerning the “moral” of this story is rhetorical, and the exasperated host’s answer is equally so, reflecting either resignation, sarcasm or defeat: “I suppose the one who forgave much” (7:43). To which Jesus replies: “Duh!” The economics of moralism have been trumped by the vision of a moral economy.
“Then turning toward the woman Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” (7:44) Let us not miss the politics of gesture here: Jesus is looking at the woman but talking to the host (demonstrate this with a group of three to really see its power). Simon is painfully aware of this woman’s unwanted and inconvenient presence at his party, but her humanity is invisible to him behind the mask of his social label. So this question is not rhetorical: Simon hasn’t really seen her—not as a person yearning for dignity and freedom… and love (the moral of the parable).
What transpires next deepens Simon’s nightmare exponentially. Jesus launches into a series of emphatic contrasts that “reread” this story, revealing damning new information, underlined by indirect (“she did this…”) and direct (“but you did not…”) address:
44b You gave me no water She wet my feet with her tears…
45 You gave me no kiss She hasn’t ceased kissing my feet
46 You did not anoint head She anointed my feet with myrrh
This is an extraordinary public shaming of the host in front of all his guests for his failure to observe the most basic laws of hospitality: washing of a guest’s feet, a formal greeting and a “freshening up” (this shock overturns our readerly presumption that Jesus was a guest of honor). Moreover, the disrespect of Jesus was only rectified by the party crasher! With each iteration of this review, the stature of the host plummets, while that of the woman rises.
This denunciamento is one way in which Jesus enacts the prophecy of his mama in her revolutionary Magnificat: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). And this episode is only the first of many (some parabolic, some object lessons) in Luke’s gospel which brook no mercy in their assault on the entitlement and presumption of elite males. Luke’s is a story intent on naming disparity and calling for a radical redistribution of power.
The punchline of the story returns to the parable’s theme of love (7:47). The New Revised Standard Version unfortunately changed its rendering of this verse to conform to the way it is usually interpreted by evangelicals: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love (similarly the NIV). Love indeed can be animated by forgiveness, but in this story, cause and effect are reversed, as better reflected in the RSV: “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much.” After all, as Robert Tannehill admits, forgiveness isn’t pronounced until the next verse (7:48). The Greek and the narrative are both clear: this woman’s compassionate initiative has opened space for Jubilee; those around the table, conversely, “love little.”
But the conflict grinds on, since Jesus’ pardon (as it did earlier in 5:20-24) further rankles the religious leaders at the gathering who were in charge of the “mercy business.” Now all the “fellow diners” get into the act (7:49), and astonishingly, their focus remains on Jesus and their theological outrage at his bold usurpation of their authority—in their space, no less! They still have not seen the woman.
Amidst all this male cacophony, Jesus in contrast retains his focus on the woman, offering her the customary Hebrew benediction “Go in peace.” His commendation of her faith is her final confirmation of dignity (as 8:48, 17:19, and 18:42). To invoke Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s feminist slogan: “Well behaved women rarely make history!” And Luke abruptly ends the story, with this calm at the center of a swirling storm. Party over.
There is an instructive epilogue to this stunning episode, which thankfully the RCL includes in the reading (8:1-3): Luke’s brief but telling portrait of the discipleship community. He takes care to note that the “Twelve” (men) are now also accompanied by women, representing a fundamental and permanent shift of gender inclusion. Three are named, the first two representing opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum—a liberated demoniac and a prominent Herodian courtier. The third is the mysterious “Susanna,” who never appears again, but who apparently heads up those who are “providing for” the community (Gk diakoneō) from their property/means (Gk huparchontōn). Luke’s characterization of “matrons of the movement” suggests that the Jesus community operates as an alternative household economy, which traditionally in the village was managed by women.
Malina and Rohrbaugh note that “women leaving behind family responsibilities [to travel] would have been considered seriously deviant, arousing suspicions of illicit sexual conduct…” (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 334). In such troubling company, then, we may imagine the woman of the previous episode found a home—the House of Sophia.
Luke is clear: women are to be seen, and reckoned with. Why then is this not fully the case in our churches?
* The Gk epiginōskō in Luke can mean to “find out” or “recognize,” but also “to come to know truly,” as in the very beginning (1:4) and end (24:31) of Luke’s gospel!
° This verb connotes an act of grace so powerful that Paul places it at the center of his theology (Rom 8:32; I Cor 2:12; Gal 3:18).