The Sinful Woman Who Risked Everything – a Lesson in Forgiveness
Updated: Jun 11
Luke 7:37 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. 38 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. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “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 7:48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
What we learn about the woman:
~ While we know the name of the host, the woman remains unknown. Her name is not given in this account.
~ Though Jesus spoke to her, the passage doesn’t indicate she ever spoke to Him.
~ She is called a “sinner,” which is a generic term. The text doesn’t specify what sin she committed, but for the entire town to be aware of it, it was probably prostitution. The passage seems to indicate this also, because prostitutes were the women who generally wore perfume. The scent of the perfume was sort of advertising, alerting men she was available. Since it was a very rare and expensive commodity, perfume was not affordable for the average woman of the time – especially to waste wearing it around the house.
~ The passage notes this perfume was worth a year’s wages. Even the jar itself was costly as it was made of alabaster, a beautiful white and very expensive material. Since a woman alone couldn’t have afforded to take a year’s income (which provided her food and housing) to invest in such a costly item, the money was probably saved over a long time. So it was not only a financial investment and her future advertising, but also much of the money she had saved over years. And she sacrificed it all.
~ She had no way to meet with Jesus other than intruding in someone else’s home. Simon could easily invite Jesus to his house, but for a woman, especially a known sinner, to get so close to Jesus was much harder. In that day, it was unseemly for a woman to approach a man who was not her husband or relative. If she even owned a home, she could not invite Jesus there, either. Not only was it inappropriate for a man and woman to be alone like that, if she was a prostitute, her home would also have been her place of business.
~ She took a chance even going to a Pharisee’s home. Undoubtedly, the Pharisee would scorn such a woman, and, likely, his guests would do the same. This woman faced ridicule and shame just for entering the house.
~ She took on the task of the house’s lowliest servant, whose job it was to wash the feet of guests. Even the servants hated washing the dirty feet of strangers who entered a house. This is the same reason the disciples were so amazed that their master would lower himself to wash his disciples’ feet!
~ The Jews reclined at a table when they ate, leaning on their left elbow, with their feet stretched out behind. The text tells us the woman was standing behind him at his feet, so he couldn’t easily see her face. She didn’t intrude on his dinner conversation, just began to minister to him.
~ She was weeping – I think being in the presence of Jesus probably reminded her of the terrible sins she had committed. It appears she had heard Jesus speak of turning from sin, and had been convicted. She went to him this day to acknowledge her sinfulness and seek his forgiveness, and she did it as a penitent sinner.
~ First, she washed his feet with her tears, performing a servant’s duty. Then, she broke the alabaster box to release the perfume. If she had just taken the lid off, the box could have been used for something else, but her sacrifice was total.
~ Finally, she used her long hair to rub the perfume into his feet. Jewish women seldom ever let their hair down in public. Also, the Bible calls long hair a glory to a woman (1 Corinthians 11:15), so she was giving glory to Jesus by her actions. By removing her “covering,” she left herself open and vulnerable to his response.
What we learn about Jesus:
What shocked folks even more than this incredible display by a woman was the reaction of the rabbi from Nazareth. Although it was a grave breach of etiquette for a woman to greet a strange man in public, or to even talk to him, touching him was even worse. As the other guests watched in horror, Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he forgave her sins and used her sacrifice to teach his host a lesson.
What we learn about the Pharisee/ host:
~ Public opinion of the day held that Jesus was a prophet (Luke 7:16 ) and Simon, a religious man, probably wondered if he was. That was likely the reason he invited Jesus to his home – not to honor him but to study him. He probably wanted to investigate these claims about Jesus.
~ Since Simon did not want to compromise his position as a Pharisee, he invited Jesus to his home but omitted all the usual courtesies paid to an honored guest. Because of his status as a rabbi, Jesus should have had at least the basics. This was a slight of great significance.
~ Anointing the head was a mark of honor usually bestowed on the most distinguished guests. To anoint the feet was an extreme luxury (Pliny, Natural History, 13:4). The perfume this woman brought was far more valuable than the oil which would have been used for an ordinary courtesy.
~ The Pharisee was probably greatly disturbed by the actions of this woman. According to Pharisaic tradition, her touch would have made a man unclean. (According to later Jewish writings, Pharisees never allowed women to stand closer than four cubits.) Obviously, he felt she had made Jesus unclean.
~ Pharisees believed holiness was primarily a matter of physical separation from sin and from “sinners” (the word “Pharisee” means “separate”). That’s why they were so concerned that Jesus ate with sinners. For Jesus to allow this sinful woman to kiss his feet and use her hair to wipe them was unthinkable to Simon.
~ Simon’s immediate reaction was to condemn Jesus. How could a prophet not realize this was a woman of poor character and react appropriately? But Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisee, who was just as much a sinner as the woman he condemned. Jesus not only knew this woman was a sinner, but he knew Simon’s thoughts, too.
~ The woman recognized her sin, repented and went to the Savior for forgiveness. She risked everything she had, even her pride, to show her remorse for her sin, and her love for her savior.
~ She was pardoned, like the ones in Jesus’ parable who were “forgiven much.” She had been such a great sinner that she was more grateful than most for that forgiveness. The parable indicates she would love her Savior more than others because of this.
~ When Jesus saw her heart, he forgave her. The passage doesn’t say that Simon ever sought, or was given, forgiveness.
~ Simon could see the woman’s sin, but not his own.
~ No one is too bad for forgiveness, and no one is so good they don’t need it.
A note about the controversy over this passage:
Matthew, Mark and John speak of a similar incident, with John naming Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) as the one who anoints Jesus. Luke alone speaks of a “sinful woman.”
I believe these are 2 different incidents. Two different locations are mentioned, and 2 different reasons for the act are given. Luke’s description seems to occur much earlier in Jesus’ ministry than the one the others mention. In the John passage, Mary of Bethany provided this service to Jesus just before his death (it is noted this served as preparation for His burial). Luke 8:1 states that Jesus traveled from town to town proclaiming the gospel after that woman anointed him.
In Luke’s account, Simon condemns the woman in his mind. In the other passages, the disciples protest the waste of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. I also think Mary would have heard of the earlier incident and would want to show Jesus the same love.