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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 5

Jesus anointed by a sinful woman

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 7:36-50

Whilst dining with a Pharisee, Jesus is anointed by a prostitute. Jesus contrasts the two reactions to him and his message. By faith, the woman's sins are forgiven. She repents and finds grace.

Whilst dining with a Pharisee, Jesus is anointed by a prostitute. Jesus contrasts the two reactions to him and his message. By faith, the woman's sins are forgiven. She repents and finds grace.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 5. This is entitled ‘Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman.’ We're in the Gospel of Luke and the passage we're going to study, shortly, is Luke 7: 36 - 50.

Introduction and Recap

Series 5 follows the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount which took up the whole of Series 4. This is the teaching by which Jesus was forming the discipleship community, showing them how they might live as followers of Jesus. Jesus has been travelling around Galilee and he's just appointed twelve Apostles who are going to be the foundational leaders for his discipleship community and then, ultimately, the Church. Series 3 was the first tour of Galilee where Jesus spent a lot of time travelling from village to village, town to town, preaching, healing, casting out evil spirits and proclaiming that the Kingdom had come. Series 5, as we've already discussed in earlier episodes, describes the second tour of Galilee. This time, although many similar things happen, Jesus is preparing his twelve Apostles to take on the responsibility of preaching, teaching, healing, and travelling. They will begin to do that step-by-step, as we will see. There are many remarkable incidents along the way and we've seen a few already: the healing of the centurion's servant, the raising from the dead of the young man in the town of Nain (who was the only son of a widow) and we'll see many other miracles as we go along the way.

The Gospel writers add in very telling stories that speak about the social and religious dynamic of what's actually going on in the nation of Israel. That's really what we're going to be focusing on in today's episode because we have a very dramatic story of extreme contrasts. The main characters in this story are a Pharisee, who invites Jesus to his home for a meal, and a prostitute, called ‘a sinful woman’ (basically that means she was a prostitute) who was a social outcast, considered very irreligious, considered to be someone who the religious community didn't want to associate with in any way. She dramatically bursts in on the scene and something very remarkable happens. This is a very powerful story filled with a lot of social drama, a lot of religious tension, and in this story Jesus reveals, very clearly, the nature of the Gospel that he's bringing and the sheer grace of God that comes to people who've done wrong and who need forgiveness. It's quite a long passage, I'm going to read the whole story and then we'll look at it in a bit more detail. Luke 7: 36 - 50,

36When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37A 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. 38As 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. 39When 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.” 40Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? 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. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not (pour) oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 48Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”’

Luke 7:36-50, NIV
Simon, The Pharisee

This really is a dramatic story. It's one of two stories about Jesus being anointed with oil and the other one is in John 12 where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus prior to his death. It's a separate incident and sometimes they're confused together but they are two different stories, with two different women, in two very different circumstances. This Pharisee, whose name is Simon, invited Jesus to dinner. Already the Pharisees were hostile to Jesus; we know this from much of the material that we've looked at already in various different episodes. They are resisting his message; they don't like what he's doing; they don't like his social attitudes; and they don't like the fact that he does not affirm, or agree with, all their code of religious practice that they've developed over the years through their own traditions. He's ignoring all that and so there is conflict. They don't believe he is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God who's come to deliver the nation. They think he's an impostor, a false messiah; we'll see their verdict in an episode coming up very soon. We can imagine Simon being cautious, or even hostile.

Why did he invite Jesus to come to his house? That's an interesting question. We don't actually know the answer; we don't know exactly what the reason for the invitation was. It may be out of friendship, may be out of an enquiry, but it doesn't look like it from the text. Maybe it was to ask him difficult questions, maybe it was to trip him up. One little clue in the text as to Simon's attitude is the fact that Jesus says that Simon didn't give him a warm greeting. You'll notice what is said about how the woman kissed him and poured oil on him and he mentions the fact that Simon had missed out some of the common courtesies - to provide water, for example, on arrival. We can get the impression that Simon wasn't a follower of Jesus, and wasn't drawn to his message. He was part of the Pharisees' group and he probably had some negative motivation in inviting Jesus; he certainly wasn't a warm host when Jesus came to his house. We know the hostility of the Pharisees. Just to illustrate this, if we go back to Luke 6: 7) we see a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about the conduct on the Sabbath - what we can do, or not do, on the special Jewish holy day. Luke 6: 7,

‘The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.’

Luke 6:7, NIV

That's a fairly negative attitude. When they saw a healing, Luke 6:11,

‘But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.’

Luke 6:11, NIV

These are comments about the Pharisees and their associates, the Teachers of the Law, that Luke has mentioned just prior to this incident. That gives you the context very clearly: a lot of hostility, a lot of suspicion.

Background Detail

Before we come to the story of the woman coming to the house which raises a lot of questions in itself, it's worth noting that the text says that Jesus ‘reclined at the table’ and then when the woman came, she stood behind him. We need to remember the eating habits and the style of the event of a dinner in that context. The Romans, and the Jews likewise, generally didn't sit up to the table as, for example, modern Western people do with a table and an upright chair - sitting straight up as I would do when I eat my food. No, they lay on their front, or on their side, with their feet behind them, the table in front of them, leaning on one elbow and eating with the other hand, in a reclining position. That was the standard way of eating because then, when you pause in your eating, you can rest and relax. It's a very informal setting and the significant point is that, if you are eating at table like this, then your feet are behind you because you're actually lying down rather than sitting down at a table. This is important in order to understand exactly what happens in the story when the woman comes.

The Sinful Woman

The arrival of the woman is really extraordinary. This woman is described as one ‘who lived a sinful life.’ Everybody knew (and the writer, Luke, is quite clear) this is a prostitute. This is a complete social outcast, from the point of view of the religious community. They did not approve of prostitution at all; they considered them people they didn't want to have anything to do with whatsoever. In fact, there was an expression, which we've discussed before in earlier episodes, it'll come up again, the ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ That's an expression the Gospel writers used for the people who were disapproved of most in Jewish society by the religious leaders. The tax collectors because they were corrupt: they were working for the Romans; they were selfish; they were materialistic; they were irreligious; they were involved in shady business deals; they were involved in black marketeering - that sort of thing. The sinners generally referred, not exclusively but generally, to prostitutes - especially when referred to women. The tax collectors and sinners were the outsiders and yet this woman has the courage - the audacity - to come into the home of a Pharisee, to a dinner party - an informal hospitality occasion when guests are there - and intrude on the privacy of that home. How did she get through the door? Why did they let her in? We don't know the answers to any of those questions - that would be really fascinating to know, wouldn't it? They could easily have turned her away at the door; the servants of the Pharisee could have just said, “No, you can't come in.” Somehow or other she managed to get in.

What was going through her mind? You see she'd heard that Jesus was in town; she knew her need; she was desperate for forgiveness and a fresh start in life; she was extremely unhappy with her lifestyle; she couldn't see any alternative at that point, probably - we don't know all the details. Her mindset and her emotional frame of mind, is indicated by the things she says and her attitude. She comes in on the scene - it's extremely inappropriate, socially; it's extremely challenging for her; it's extremely risky for her - she could have been thrown out of the house once she got in, once the Pharisees saw that she was there, but somehow or other she persisted and no one stopped her. Maybe because of Jesus' influence and maybe because they didn't want to offend Jesus because they knew that he was friendly with all kinds of people - including tax collectors and including prostitutes. She was desperate: she must have seen him before but she hadn't been able to speak to him, to get close to him, to receive his message in any firm way.

Not only did she come, but she came prepared with a gift - a jar with expensive perfume. Perfume was a luxury product in those times, as it is today (but even more of a luxury in their society) and proportionately more expensive than perfume in most modern societies. The interesting thing about this, is the great cost to her and also the fact that she may have used perfume in the context of her sexual clients, which was common in those days. The complexity of what's going on here is remarkable. She was looking around for a gift, she was looking for some way to honour Jesus, to draw close to him and to seek mercy and grace from him and she tried to think of the most appropriate way to do that and, in her context, this is what she came up with. She comes through the door with this jar and no one stops her as she goes to Jesus, goes to his feet (because he's reclining at the table as I explained) and pours this oil on his feet, kisses his feet and weeps and uses her hair to wipe his feet.

It's a remarkable scene! Incredibly awkward and embarrassing for the host Simon - really embarrassing and difficult - because he didn't want her there; he didn't like her; he didn't approve of her; he couldn't see why Jesus would have any time for her; but her actions demonstrated her sincerity. It's notable that Jesus didn't push her away; he wasn't threatened by the situation; he wasn't embarrassed by the element of intimacy involved in this - there's a certain level of intimacy if someone's actually washing your feet. He accepted her extravagant gestures and actions; he didn't say, “No, you shouldn't do this to me.” He allowed her to do it and he realised what these outward actions actually meant. He knew there was something going on deep inside her because Jesus had incredible intuition, incredible understanding of people. He had the Holy Spirit operating within him; he had the ability to have revelation so he knew what was actually happening in any one situation. He could interpret her actions; he could see that they weren't meant in any sexual way. They weren't related to her work as a prostitute; they were related to her inner emptiness, guilt, desperation, sadness, possibly even depression and feeling that she had completely failed.

A Story About a Moneylender

It is an incredibly powerful story and Jesus responds to her very decisively at the end of the story. Before doing that, he addresses Simon and he tells this little story about the moneylender and the two people who owe different amounts of money: one 500 denarii, another 50. If the denarius is approximately a daily wage for a manual worker, that's the amount of money we're talking about - so 500 denarii is well over a year's worth of income, just to give you an idea of the amounts that we're talking about. Jesus asks Simon the question, “You know, if you get your debts remitted, or forgiven, or cancelled, how much do you appreciate it? Does it depend on the amount of money that you've been forgiven, in terms of your debt?” The two people in this story had far different amounts of debt and Simon answered Jesus' question that probably the person who'd got the biggest debt would appreciate the cancellation of the debt the most. Jesus uses that story to point to the fact that this woman knew what it was to be forgiven many things. She had a list of sinful actions in her mind and in her heart and in her history, that was very long and probably went back many years. She had huge regrets and she was overwhelmed by the possibility that she could be forgiven. Jesus says, “Those who are forgiven much, love much.”

Grace, Faith and Repentance

Then he addresses the woman with two wonderful, short statements. First of all, he pronounces forgiveness. This is amazing! “Your sins are forgiven.” She hasn't said much to him; we don't know if she'd said anything to him at this point; it's not recorded that they have had a significant conversation; it's her actions, and the heart behind it, that Jesus interprets at this point. He says, “Your sins are forgiven” and then, as the guests began to ask, “How can this man forgive sins?” It was something only God could do! Jesus then says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Presumably, she just leaves the house - a transformed woman. Just think about that transformation. In a period of time that could have been less than an hour. She came in burdened with her sins and she left with the words of Jesus ringing in her ears: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” She's exercised faith in Jesus and displayed it in a very remarkable and moving way and Jesus says, “Go in peace. You don't need to be agitated anymore; you don't need to be guilty because you have got the peace of God.”

I'm sure you'll agree with me, this really is a profound story and it had a huge impact on those who listened and those who were present. Of all the stories that Luke heard as he researched his Gospel, he chose this one to tell us something about God's particular grace. One of the reasons he chose it is that Luke has a real emphasis in his Gospel on the redemption of the poor, the redemption of social outcasts and the redemption of women, in particular. This is a very good example of one of his themes. He is showing us something about the character of God and the love of Christ, demonstrated to individual people that he met along the journey of life. It's not the only story that has that kind of power. I'm going to briefly mention another one in Luke's Gospel that has a similar type of power but with a different person. In Luke 19, Jesus meets a man called Zacchaeus - we'll study the story at a later point in the life of Jesus, but I'll just mention it very briefly now. Jesus was, at that point, in the city of Jericho heading towards Jerusalem. He was passing through the city, with a huge crowd, and a tax collector - bearing in mind what I said about tax collectors being outsiders, corrupt, black marketeers, working for the Romans, taking more taxes than they should, unpopular with the religious authorities - this tax collector, named Zacchaeus, really wanted to see Jesus as he passed through the crowd but he was small, he wasn't very tall, so he went up a tree. Jesus called him down, went to his home, spent the night there, had a meal with him and talked to him about the Gospel. We'll study this in full detail later on but I just want to give you the conclusion. After Jesus had been in his house and the people said, “(He's) gone to be the guest of a sinner!” In Luke 19: 8, onwards it says:

‘Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”’

Luke 19:8-10, NIV

This is another example, in a different period of time, a bit later on, in a different location, with a person of a different gender and different social background. The reason for mentioning it is, we have the same theme here: Zacchaeus was an outsider, unpopular in his community, and he showed humility and repentance. In his case, that involved giving away the possessions that he'd accumulated in a corrupt way, paying back money that he owed people by overcharging them on their taxation. With the woman in the story we're studying in this episode, the implication is that she leaves her sinful life; she ends being a prostitute and starts a different form of life. In both cases, and in others we could quote, what we see is the power of repentance and faith. These two things always go together in the Christian life. Repentance means facing up to the fact that you are living independently of God, that you're doing things that displease him, that there is guilt inside you, there's sin inside you that you can't do anything about, and it's turning around. Faith is trusting Jesus to forgive you and to give you a new life, putting yourself under his authority, trusting his death on the cross and his resurrection and his atoning sacrifice as a substitute for you.

That's more explicitly stated later on when we study the death of Jesus. We'll come to discuss that more fully but it's all implied in the situation of Jesus on the road in Galilee and elsewhere, preaching and teaching. He offers forgiveness - but we don't receive forgiveness without repentance - in other words owning our own responsibility - and faith - actively trusting him. That's exactly what this woman did; that's exactly what Zacchaeus did. This woman is one of those unsung heroes of the Gospel: someone who made a very clear decision to move from one life to another by trusting in Jesus and coming to him boldly. The self-righteousness of the Pharisees and the other guests is exposed here. They were uneasy; they were out of their comfort zone; their religious prejudices were being challenged by Jesus' actions. He overturned their prejudices and very clearly stated in Luke 7, that her sins were forgiven.

This isn't the first time that we have a recording of Jesus specifically forgiving sins. The first time that it's recorded in a way that's personal and specific to someone in need, is in the story recorded in Luke 5 of the man who was unable to walk, who was let down through the roof of the house (and we studied this earlier on) by some friends. Jesus was in the house, they took apart part of the roof and, using ropes and a bed, they brought him down in front of Jesus in order for him to heal him. Jesus at that point said (Luke 5: 20), “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” That's the first thing he said to him. Later on, he healed him but the first thing he did was to pronounce forgiveness of sins. We see that Jesus has the capacity and the authority to forgive the sins of mankind.


As we conclude this episode, let me say that salvation is by faith alone - not by works. This woman had done nothing to deserve her salvation, nor had Zacchaeus. Nor, for example, had the thief on the cross (if you remember that story in Luke 23, which we'll study later on). One of the people who died on a cross next to Jesus, who was a convicted criminal, asked Jesus to have mercy on him and expressed faith even in that dying moment when he couldn't do anything good to earn his salvation. These stories, all these types of situations that we see described here, show one profound truth: there is no one too sinful to be saved. With repentance and faith, any sins can be forgiven. That is a message of hope that we should carry in our hearts every day of our lives. Maybe for yourself you need that message. Maybe some people reading this right now know that they're burdened with a tremendous weight of sin and guilt about things they've done. This story is for you. If this prostitute could find forgiveness, so can you. If you're a Christian following this then this helps shape your attitude to other people - it helps us not to judge people as outside the reach of God's love and grace. No, they're within reach - as you were before you believed in Christ. This is a great story and a wonderful episode. Thanks for joining us as we've been sharing it.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Jesus said, ‘whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.’ Does this mean that you love him more if you have sinned more?
  • Discipleship
    1. Are there areas of your life that you still hold on to, rather than asking Jesus for his forgiveness? Are there burdens you still carry? Encourage each other to let go of them
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Is it harder for someone to come to Jesus if they don't recognise their need as much?
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