Jesus at the table
A print version of this study may be downloaded here
Lenten Study 2
Luke 7:36-50 Simon the Pharisee & the woman of the streets
Have you ever felt uncomfortable about the company you have experienced at a dinner party or other social occasion?
Have there been occasions when someone off the street has wandered into church – and if so, what can you recall about the occasion?
Names and labels are a powerful social dynamic (both positively and negatively) – what are some of the more significant positive social labels in your own community? What about negative labels?
Do we slip into ‘spiritualised’ versions of labels in our own churches?
Passage – part 1 (to be read aloud in two parts)
(New Living Translation)
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat.*37 When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume.38 Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting 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 what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”
7:36 Or and reclined.
7:41 Greek 500 denarii. A denarius was equivalent to a labourer’s full day’s wage.
Did anything in this passage strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?
Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?
What questions does it raise in your mind?
Are there any characters you find it either hard to relate to or understand where they are coming from? (If you were asked to act out their role, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)
This is a particularly well-crafted narrative from Luke. The context is a Jewish form of the Graeco-Roman dinner party in the home of a Pharisee, starting with a meal, before progressing to the after-dinner drinks (‘symposium’) where the guest of honour is invited to lead a discussion with other invited guests. At this stage, many Greek and Roman well-to-do dinner parties would turn to entertainment, drinking and ‘female companions’ (usually attractive, wealthy and well-educated prostitutes). Anyone seeking to conduct a ‘respectable’ dinner party would go out of their way to make it clear that no such entertainment would be offered, and that the focus would be on serious philosophical or similar discussion.
The passage starts quite starkly, without names or background. Jesus is invited to a dinner party; he enters the house and ‘reclines’ (on his left elbow, head facing inwards and feet facing the wall). We are then introduced to a key figure who remains un-named: a ‘woman of the city’ and ‘sinner’. If we were to paraphrase ‘street-walker’, we would not be too far off the mark. However, the woman may well have had some wealth and been accustomed to being invited to other dinner parties as a companion. The point to note carefully is that woman at this stage is little more than a label: she enters with considerable social and irreligious baggage (compare the end of verse 39). She is the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
This early stage of the narrative has a growing character of incredulity to it. The story moves from being normal to curious to increasingly socially bizarre. Below the surface, verses 37 and 38 contain a series of statements all introduced by ‘and…, and…, and…, and…’, akin to someone retelling an event over a fence with an increasingly incredulous “and you won’t believe this” quality.
And behold a woman, who was a sinner
and when she learned…
and she stood behind him at his feet, weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears
and to dry them with her hair
and she continued kissing his feet
and anointing them with ointment
[try re-reading this, with an increasing emphasis on each ‘and’]
As we hear this, it is important to sense and understand the social unease and potential scandal in all this. The actions of a woman with a notorious immoral reputation (most likely sexual) would be akin (in our context) to a woman known to be an escort coming into one of our dinner parties, removing a wrap to reveal provocative clothing and thus expose herself (for this is how unfurled hair was perceived). Using an expensive jar of perfume that was otherwise kept as one of her ‘tools of the trade’, she proceeds to kiss and fondle the feet of a high profile guest. It would have every appearance of being a sexual ‘come-on’. We could well understand someone saying “Jesus, this doesn’t look good!”
It is from this perspective that we need to sympathise with the concerns of the Pharisee in whose home such compromising conduct is occurring—and before his other guests and friends. His conclusion (verse 39) is that Jesus (at the very least) shows an alarming lack of judgement.
Discussion points (1)
Imagine you are the host of such a dinner party, and the scenario noted above unfolds – how would you feel and react?
Continue with your imagination – what would you think if the special guest was a highly regarded conference speaker?
How would you feel and respond if you were the special guest, even if you knew the woman?
Passage – part 2
40 Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.”
”Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.
41 Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver* to one and 50 pieces to the other.42 But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
”That’s right,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet.46 You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.
47 ”I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”48 Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”
50 And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.
Further background notes
The dinner party host is now named for the first time named: Simon. Jesus tells one of his shortest parables (verses 41-42), and the point is clear.
We are not told the woman’s name, and in this instance it implies that the details of her life and any prior encounter with Jesus are private. We don’t need to know: it’s not our business any more than it is Simon’s. Nor do we know the reason for her tears: they could be tears of remorse and grief over her sin, or deep pain poured out, or perhaps even newfound devotion from a very deep place.
In the second half of the narrative Jesus in essence retells the episode, but the version Jesus sees is very different. The details are subtle but striking: looking directly at the woman, Jesus speaks to Simon (44). “Do you see this woman?” – with the implication that he did not see her truly, or at least as Jesus saw her.
In this deeper retelling, Simon stands condemned as the one who had wronged Jesus. Contrary to the expectations of genuine hospitality, Jesus had not had his feet cleaned upon arrival, nor greeted with a kiss, nor had his head anointed with oil. In Jesus’ eyes, the woman’s actions made up for the failings of Simon as a host: not water but tears; no towel but hair; no kiss of greeting but kissing of feet; no anointing but ointment; not upon the head, but onto unseemly and dirty feet.
Inasmuch as we are let into Jesus’ private dealings with the woman, we learn (verse 47) that her sins ‘though many’ are forgiven, and in this it becomes clear that the woman’s actions are those of gratitude and devotion. Whatever prior experience she had of Jesus, the next words addressed to the woman are as much for the onlookers as for her: “your sins are forgiven”.
While this statement has profound personal significance, it goes wider than that. She is freed of the baggage of a widely known reputation as a fallen woman, together with the label ‘sinner’ that accompanied her wherever she went.
We are not told of Simon’s response, nor of the final reaction by the other guests. In the end, they don’t matter. What we are pointed to is subtle but powerful. Speaking again to the woman, she is assured “Your faith has saved you” followed with a farewell greeting extended within the family of faith “go in peace”. With these words she is restored to God’s covenantal community, and may step out with the assurance that she is a daughter of Israel.
Discussion points (2)
The point of the mini-parable is clear, but do we overlook the deeper challenge? Can we identify with such gratitude ourselves? Do we take delight when other people with well-recognised shortcomings are forgiven?
Who do you identify with in this parable? Why?
While we may (rightly) seek to avoid placing labels on people, do we nonetheless judge by superficial appearances and subconsciously relegate people to ‘most unlikely to be saved’ categories?
The approach of the Pharisees was to separate themselves off from those with ‘lifestyle issues’ and lives of sinfulness. Jesus caused scandal by his association with and social acceptance of those whose notorious sinfulness was otherwise cause to be held at a distance – he brought change and transformation out of close relationships, love and acceptance. If Jesus was in our community, who would he be engaging and socially associating with?
To understand more of the role and social standing of ‘female companions’ at dinner parties, see ‘Hetaira’ at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/hetairai.html
A version of this episode based on the Contemporary English Version can be found on YouTube: ‘Simon the Pharisee Luke 7:36-50.mp4’
Consider the implications of this passage at multiple levels:
At a personal level, do we recognise and value the need for forgiveness and assurance of peace with God?
Do we take care with our language and the ways we speak of others?
What could be done to bridge the cultural and social gaps between our church communities and those regarded as immoral or ‘fallen’ in our wider society?
The early church was accused of having a disproportionate number of women, and for conduct that was considered scandalous and potentially undermining authority. Missional ministry seeks to accommodate cultural diversity as much as possible, while also challenging and subverting many of the values that uphold existing social order and hierarchies. Much of this was on display when Christian communities gathered, and especially as women frequently found freedoms not in evidence elsewhere in society.
Further study of these tensions can be explored in Kathleen E. Corley, Private Women, Public Meals: Social Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition. Hendricksen, 1993. A discussion of this passage is found on pages 121-130.
There are connections between this passage and the units immediately before and after. After considering the racially marginalised (7:1-10), and also the economically vulnerable (7:11-17), Luke has focused on the spiritual receptiveness of the crowds over against the Pharisees. ‘All the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptised with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptised by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves’ (7:29-30). The contrast between Simon and the woman illustrates this difference in response.
Immediately following this episode there are verses unique to Luke’s Gospel, noting a number of women whose lives were transformed by encountering Jesus, and were subsequently not only followers but also provided for Jesus and the other disciples.