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 notice that this straightforward and dramatic presentation of Himself as Messiah has yet again taken place at a meal.
It is not until the eleventh chapter of Luke, in passing over the feeding of the five thousand, that Jesus can once again be seen at a meal. In the thirty-seventh verse Luke writes “As He spoke, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have a meal with him” (Luke 11:37a). As Jesus is rarely in the habit of turning down these meal invitations, regardless of who is making the request, “He went in and took His place at the table” (11:37b). One is left only to wonder which position at the table has been taken by Jesus. Does He take the position of most honored guest, sitting immediately to the right or left of His host, who would be seated in the protoklisian (chief seat), or would Jesus position Himself at the lowest place, that being the seat known as the “eschaton”? It is not important to settle this question here, as the fourteenth chapter of Luke will give provide a greater insight into a potential answer.
As is common, Jesus is immediately questioned. It is not presented as an outright question, though one can imagine something being said by the Pharisee that would engender the response that is forthcoming from Jesus. Luke reports that “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash His hands before the meal” (11:38). This is akin to the hushed murmuring that so often accompanied Jesus, which was “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.” This act of “negligence” on Jesus’ part becomes yet another charge against the possibility of Jesus being the messiah---an ever growing litany of factors, in the minds of some, weighing against this possibility. In response, Jesus is somewhat less cordial than He has been in the past.
When He was subtly accused of impropriety when it came to the woman that washed His feet with her tears and hair, Jesus offered up a question of His own to His concerned host. However, Jesus does not here propose a question, nor does He offer up a parable. Rather, He lets loose upon this Pharisee, and presumably upon other Pharisees in attendance at this meal, saying “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (11:39). A stinging rebuke indeed!
He does not let that stand on its own, adding “You fools! Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well?” (11:40) With this, Jesus reminds them of their Creator---the God of Israel. Jesus, operating inside Jewish custom, indicates that the purpose of the washing of hands was the remembrance of the Creator God and His covenant, but this washing had been reduced to a mere formality and custom. One can imagine that it was used as yet one more barrier, separating the chosen ones of the covenant God from the “tax collectors and sinners” that stood outside of the covenant.
How can this be imagined? Well, it is not difficult to surmise that Jesus, Who is routinely concerned with the kingdom of heaven and its practical outworking, has that inclusive kingdom in mind when He says, “Woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God! But you should have done these things without neglecting the others” (11:42). This follows His insistence to “give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you” (11:41).
Beyond that, one must not fail to assess the placement of the record of this meal within the overall narrative structure of Luke. In this telling of the life of Jesus that could very well be designed to be read or recited as a performance piece in a single sitting, one is not far removed from the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” That parable is prefaced by an expert in religious law standing to test Jesus, just as He is being tested at this meal with this Pharisee, and saying “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25b) Jesus asks for this expert’s opinion, which comes back as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (10:27). Jesus acknowledges His answer by saying “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (10:28).
When pressed by the expert as to who would be his neighbor, Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the good Samaritan. The parable closes with Jesus asking the expert to identify the neighbor in the parable. “The expert in the religious law said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him” (10:37a), that “him” being the wounded man. To this, Jesus replied “Go and do the same” (10:37b). With this parable, Jesus presented His expectations concerning the kingdom of His God and its requirements for costly acts of sacrificial love that show little concern for self, as demonstrated by the Samaritan.
One does not travel very far from that telling within Luke’s Gospel before again hearing Jesus speak of love and a need for just actions, as in His first pronouncing of “woe” to the Pharisees that are present. Indeed, there is a nearly direct parallel with the parable. In addition, it should be noted that the Samaritan gives, and Jesus, unsurprisingly, speaks of a need to give from the heart to those in need. This is unlikely to happen as long as His followers are overly concerned with the desire for conformity to communal norms that have little or nothing to do with the manifestation and advance of the kingdom.