Having dealt with that transition, we now move on to an examination of Jesus at a meal at the house of a Pharisee. At this particular meal, we learn that “a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house,” and that “she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil” (7:37) to this house. Jesus, of course, was in the customary reclined position on the dining couch, with His feet away from the table, and this woman “As she stood behind Him at His feet, weeping… began to wet His feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil” (7:38). At first glance, this may seem to be a repetitive presentation, as we have already encountered a similar story of perfumed anointing in our examinations of the meals of Matthew and Mark. However, this is clearly a different function and a different woman, with this event taking place well ahead of the anointing story chronicled in Mark and Matthew. As a matter of fact, Luke omits the particular anointing story found in Matthew and Mark, providing this one instead.
There are a lot of very interesting things that could be said concerning what this woman is reported to have done. She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair (7:38). Jesus calls attention to this when He speaks to the Pharisee, pointing out the fact that she is now doing that which the Pharisee had failed to do when Jesus entered his house, which was wash Jesus’ feet (7:45). We need not dwell too long on this one point, but for a woman to take her hair down and to use it in this way would bring much reproach. Clearly, this woman is unconcerned with the reproach and shame that she is bringing on herself, and is only concerned with honoring Jesus and making up for the dishonor that was extended to Him when He did not receive the customary foot-washing. She is more than willing to take shame upon herself so that the one that she obviously looks to as Lord might be honored, which is a cruciform expression of love.
In addition, she was said to have kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil (7:38), whereas Jesus did not receive this courtesy from His host (7:46). Though Jesus saw these acts as expressions of love, the Pharisee looked upon them quite differently, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39). As Jesus was quite familiar with the responses that He received in association with His dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” we can imagine that He was sensitive to the demeanor of His host. Being obviously aware of what was being thought of Him, Jesus proffers a short parable to the Pharisee, posing a question concerning the forgiveness of debts, to which the Pharisee responds correctly. It is upon receiving an appropriate response that Jesus turns the tables on the one that had been subjecting Him to such critical thoughts. When He calls attention to her acts, not only does Jesus honor this woman, but in the process, He shames the negligent Pharisee. The Pharisee had sought to shame Jesus and the woman, but Jesus reverses the situation.
Jesus says: “Do you see this woman? I entered your house. You gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfumed oil” (7:44-46). By this, Jesus makes it clear that this man had acted improperly towards Him, and that the woman was making up for the slighting. In a sense, it can be said that by shaming herself at Jesus’ expense, she was attempting to enter into the indignities to which Jesus was being subjected. As we consider this, it is almost impossible to not think of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, in which he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body---for the sake of His body, the church---what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (1:24).
Jesus then provides proof that He knew precisely what type of woman this was that was touching Him, by going on to say, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much” (7:47a). This did not call for supernatural insight. Her expression of love was all He needed to see to confirm the forgiveness which she felt. Much is spoken in these words. We must notice that Jesus provides us with a sense of time and distance with His words. Even though we immediately go on to read “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (7:48), His words concerning her response indicate that this was a reiteration of something that she had already experienced. In regards to what she had done at the feet of Jesus, He said that “she loved much,” indicating that the acts of love (as we do not forget the suffering and shame associated with those acts) were in response to the fact that she had already had a sense of forgiveness, and had already passed into the kingdom of God. Jesus did not need to inform her that her sins were forgiven, as she already knew.
Clearly then, the words were spoken for the benefit of those in attendance at the meal, and who were surrounding Him at the table. We apprehend this when we go on to read “But those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (7:49) Why would this be said? It would be said because forgiveness of sins was provided at the Temple and was the domain of the Temple. One could be absolved of sin, but only by presenting a sacrifice at and for the Temple. With these simple words, Jesus shows us that He believes Himself to be Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God, and therefore the true Temple. By extension then, this woman’s costly act of sacrifice was, in fact, performed at and for the Temple. This allows us to understand the full import and impact of His words when He says to the woman that “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50). Were not these words the words that would be spoken to those who had brought their sacrifices to the Temple, so as to receive confirmation of their forgiveness and right-standing before God there?
Understood in this way, this story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil lines up quite well with the other record of the same (in Matthew and Mark), in that both women, as far as Jesus is concerned, are performing sacrificial acts towards the true and lasting Temple. With all of this, Jesus provides further demonstration of His Messianic self-understanding; and it does not escape our notice that this straightforward and dramatic presentation of Himself as Messiah has yet again taken place at a meal.