The Penitent Woman
Ordinary 11 Year C
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 7: 36 – 50
In our Gospel passage for this week the Church holds up for our reflection and prayer, yet another person restored to fullness of life when they were without hope. In this case, it is not a dead person, but someone whose life and miserable bondage had, in fact, been worse than death.
Many books of reference, such as commentaries, show a major preoccupation with who the penitent woman is, and how the story should be reconciled with similar accounts such as Matthew 26: 6 – 13; Mark 14: 3 – 9; and John 12: 1 – 8. Our objective, putting those issues aside, is to discern the message presented by the Church in selecting this for our focus and meditation. On that basis we will, as it were, take a walk through the account recorded by St Luke, and take in his particular emphasis and presentation.
(There is an Appendix of Additional Notes at the end for those who
wish to study this text in more detail. They are not essential reading
for this reflection but could assist students of Sacred Scripture.)
Some Reflections on the text
“A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered
the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.”
The reference to a Pharisee is a clear indicator that this man is highly trained in knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures. He had heard of Our Lord’s amazing ability to apply Scripture to daily situations, and His ability to act and speak as a prophet of Israel. The Pharisee has no hostility towards Jesus, unlike some of his fellow rabbis, and, in fact, shows a certain courage and openness to meet Our Lord and let Him speak for Himself. How natural, therefore, to invite Him to an evening meal, at which Jesus has agreed to attend. Upon entering the home of His host, He removed His sandals and “reclined at table” ― meaning He lay down on a couch in the customary manner, top half of the body near the table, with legs pointing away.
Verse 37 ― 38
“Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was
at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask
she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his
feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed
them, and anointed them with the ointment.”
There is nothing in this text to identify this woman as Mary of Magdala or the sister of our Lord’s friend, Lazarus. We only know for sure that she had been a person of debauched life and conversation. We say, “had been“, since the Lord indicates she “used to be“. We have no information about the males who took advantage of her.
The woman had wanted to locate Jesus and ascertained He was spending the evening at the Pharisee’s home. She has no trouble gaining entry, though not an invited guest: it was Jewish custom to permit the poor to stand beyond the outer perimeter of the reclining guests to receive any portions of unwanted food.
The question comes to mind, “Why would this woman ― well known around town ― want to find Jesus in order to anoint His feet.
In verses 29 and 35 of this chapter of St Luke, there is a short interaction between the disciples of St John the Baptist who had come to hear and observe Jesus and report back to their master. In the process Our Lord let it be known even the worst sinner can repent and let God turn their life around. The woman in our reading has heard and been inspired by this teaching of Jesus and has been completely transformed. She therefore approaches Our Lord and shows her gratitude that “even she” is not excluded from His mission. She now displays true and robust virtue in believing in His word and acting as the Holy Spirit leads her. We note how respectful she was of Jewish etiquette ― that she anointed only His feet and not His head.
“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said
to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know
who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,
that she is a sinner’.”
In the Greek text the implication is: “If this man were really a prophet” ― meaning, contemptuously that He is not ― He would know He shouldn’t be letting this woman touch Him. If Simon were as well instructed in the Scriptures as he prides himself in being, he should have been aware that all things are not necessarily revealed to God’s Prophets. Thus judgment is out of order; and he is in for a bog shock! For Jesus Messiah demonstrates He knows not only the woman’s circumstances, but can read his secret, demeaning thoughts. Our Lord seems to care less about Simon’s attitude to Him than to the woman. The learned Pharisee has completely missed the obvious ― that this penitent woman is exhibiting radiant signs of repentance which should be a joy to Him. His failure to discern this is, in our Lord’s scale of values, extremely serious.
Verse 40 ― 43
“Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Simon, I have something to say
to you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said.
‘Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five
hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for
both. Which of them will love him more?’
Simon said in reply, ‘The one, I suppose, whose larger debt
was forgiven.’ He said to him, ‘You have judged rightly’.”
Our Lord makes a surprise move. He doesn’t call his host a hypocrite but instead gives the Pharisee an opportunity to reflect on his unworthy, self-righteous attitude. In other words, Jesus gives his host the same opportunity that the woman was given, to see where he went wrong, and turn his life around.
Even the opening words of Our Lord to Simon are a sign to him of the Lord’s patience:
“Simon, may I put something to you?” Simon’s response is not without promise. His words amount to “Go ahead Rabbi; I’m listening”.
“Simon, may I put something to you?” Simon’s response is
not without promise. His words amount to “Go ahead Rabbi;
Jesus relates a short parable demonstrating that we are filled with love and gratitude in proportion to how great we see God’s forgiveness of our shortcomings.
At the end of the parable both Simon and Our Lord are in agreement about which of the characters would have loved their creditor more. We do not know anything of how this affected Simon the Pharisee. His response was hypercautious on this occasion ― but that is human. Let us hope he gave it generous thought afterwards.
Verse 44 – 46
“Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
‘Do you see this woman? When I entered your house,
you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed
them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing
my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed
my feet with ointment’.”
Our Lord speaks to Simon, His host, while looking at the woman, and lists the courtesies she has shown Him in sharp contrast to Simon’s lack of warmth. It is quite an indictment, and we seem drawn towards condemning the host whom we are inclined to label as the villain of the story. In doing so, we would miss the point ― and could well fall into the same trap he did. We do not have enough information to judge him without jumping to conclusions. He failed on this occasion, but Our Lord reflected this to him firmly without condemnation. He left the door open for Simon’s repentance. What follows is for Simon’s sake as well as for the woman’s.
As Our Lord draws attention to the woman’s actions, it is clear that nothing she did is considered in the slightest way excessive. Her behaviour is merely a reflection of the true value she puts on being delivered by the word of this Prophet from a life of misery and enslavement. She saw herself rescued from foul bondage and nothing ― absolutely nothing ― was too much to do for Him! And it did not matter to her who thought she was foolish, too demonstrative or emotional.
Verses 47 and 48
“So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence,
she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is
forgiven, loves little.”
“He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’.”
The depth to which this woman has been forgiven is manifest in the height to which she displays her love and gratitude. It is unique. Our Lord has openly displayed how happily He received her response to His forgiveness. He then declares what had already taken place before the evening’s events ― “Your sins are forgiven.” He could just as reasonably have said, “Welcome back into the family.”
Sadly this passage ― verse 50 in particular ― has been a battle ground for those wishing to establish or refute the doctrine that we are “justified by faith alone.” The plain truth about this incident is that the penitent woman is full of love, gratitude, hope and faith: all focussed on Our Lord. As we will see, Jesus acknowledges not some academic concept of faith ― some definition she adhered to ― but her total trust in Him. This is a pure and holy response to the word she has heard from Him; and He is profoundly moved.
Verses 49 and 50
“The others at table said to themselves, ‘Who is this who
even forgives sins?’
But he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you;
go in peace’.”
We wouldn’t want to criticise the other guests for thinking quietly, “What have we got here?”
Our Lord simply draws the incident to a conclusion by saying ― as it would have been heard by the penitent woman ― “You are saved, (or God has saved you) because you have believed my teaching.”
Then with a gesture of the hand He imparts His blessing: “Shalom!” This one word said all she has ever hoped for.
“Go now in the the peace and harmony you have desperately
sought after for so long. They are yours for the rest of your life!”
Our Lord, in commencing the establishment of His Church, is well aware that sound religion produces saints, but even Biblical religion can be hijacked by those who think they are superior, and who thus become on obstacle in the spreading of God’s plan of restoration. He met this in Judaism and also foresaw it always being a danger for His followers. It would not be wise for us to point the finger in any direction except our own. A commentator on this passage sums it up with appropriate advice to steer us away from self righteousness.
The great lesson of the whole transaction taking together the signs
of contrition in the woman and the Lord’s approval of them, is this,
that the publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom of God before
the self-righteous; that God may make even gross sinners monuments
of His mercy (as He did St. Augustine), whilst men who live decent
and respectable lives may be far from God through pride, through
selfishness, through coldness arising from indifference ― that
indifference having its root in self-satisfaction and a desire to remain
as they are rather than to come nearer to God. Sadler.
After all is said and done we have in this account a wonderful story of a person restored to life ― abundant LIFE (Jeremiah 29: 11. John 10: 10)
In the mission left to us by Jesus Messiah: “Proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16: 15), we dare not write off people as beyond the reach of Our Lord’s message. The penitent woman, in our Scripture passage could well have had the most tragic early youth ― perhaps even being sold by her parents in desperate circumstances ― and thus immersed in a life of impurity from which she could not escape. (Sadler). Later in life, by God’s grace, she hears Our Lord teaching His message, and this awakens a sense of sin and at the same time a sense of goodness and virtue. She responds with an open mind and heart. As a result, she is not just restored to life ― she is given a new life. She is fully aware of this and nothing can stop her pouring out her love and gratitude to the One she knows has brought her this precious gift.
Meditating on the power of Jesus Messiah’s Word can fill us, likewise, with the same faith, hope and love. When it does we will not be able to suppress it ― we will feel urged to share this treasure with all who will receive it. That can be no surprise, for it is exactly what Jesus Messiah has commissioned His Church and each of its members to do while they await His promised return at the end of time.
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“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus is the real answer to the real needs of the world.
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
The Penitent Women
Ordinary Sunday 11 Year C St. Luke 7: 36 — 50
1. Simon, the learned Pharisee, was a fair man ― though somewhat judgmental.
We, too, can easily make similar errors unless we learn to see others as our
2. Nothing in all Sacred Scripture quite matches the apparent sensational
3. The early Christians cared little for any judgment cast upon them for sharing
“Go now in the peace and harmony you have so desperately sought after for so
Luke 7: 36 ― 50
36 10 11 A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the
37 Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was
38 she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to
40 Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to
41 “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five
42 Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.
43 Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was
44 Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see
45 You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my
46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet
47 So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has
48 He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even
50 But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
10 [36-50] In this story of the pardoning of the sinful woman Luke presents two different reactions to the ministry of Jesus. A Pharisee, suspecting Jesus to be a prophet, invites Jesus to a festive banquet in his house, but the Pharisee’s self-righteousness leads to little forgiveness by God and consequently little love shown toward Jesus. The sinful woman, on the other hand, manifests a faith in God (⇒ Luke 7:50) that has led her to seek forgiveness for her sins, and because so much was forgiven, she now overwhelms Jesus with her display of love; cf the similar contrast in attitudes in ⇒ Luke 18:9-14. The whole episode is a powerful lesson on the relation between forgiveness and love.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
Additional Notes: A variety of Quite Different Perceptions
J. Steinmueller (Commentary on the New Testament, 1942)
39. The Pharisee argues secretly as follows: Jesus naturally observes the
Shall be forgiven her: the Greek has the perfect (i.e. past) tense of this
M. F. Sadler — (Commentary on Luke, 1898)
Verses 40 ― 43
Taking what we have said into account it seems easy, for it is not the
And so the relief felt by any sinner at the forgiveness of his sin does not
And this, of course, depends upon the grace of God; for repentance,
Now, God is a just God, “righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His
The answer to this is, that in a world constituted as ours, God would not
Such, it seems, is the relation of the teaching to the penitent women and to
The great lesson of the whole transaction, taking together the signs of
Verses 44 ― 46. “And he turned to the woman, and said auto Simon,
Such is the innermost teaching of the incident, the difference which the true
Christ cannot be treated familiarly and on terms of equality by one who has
Verses 47 ― 50 (Main focus is verse 47)
The story is somewhat breathlessly told; the Pharisee, who has been
Does this verse mean that man’s love is the motive of God’s forgiveness, or
Some modern editors, accordingly, propose the interpretation, “She has
We might, indeed, suppose the sentence to mean, “Many sins have been
The mistake we make is to suppose that gratitude for sin forgiven is
48. The penitent’s gesture is not one of gratitude for an act of grace
This seems, on the whole, to be the most satisfactory explanation of a
Note from Ronald Knox’s Translation — Verse 47
This may mean that the woman has shewn great love because she has
C. J. Callan, O.P. (The Four Gospels)
# forgiven ― dismissed (sins): used regarding the discharge or acquittal of a
It is doing violence to the text and to the ordinary meaning of the Greek
Charles Gore (New Commentary on Holy Scripture, 1928)
J. A. Kleist, S. J. ― (The New Testament ― 1952)
7: 47. Simon condemned the woman as “a scandal in the town” (verse 39).
The application of the parable to Simon himself is somewhat unexpected,
# brachylogy ― A brachylogy is an intended brevity in a speech or text, possibly
Care has to be taken reading a modern English version of a 2,000 year old
* nugatory ― invalid.
Reflection: — Don Schwager
Why did a rabbi invite Jesus to a nice dinner and then treat him
The Pharisees shunned the company of “public sinners” and in so doing they
In the parable Jesus told, the man could neither believe in love, accept it
The stark contrast of attitudes between Simon and the woman of ill-repute,
Joseph Dillersberger ― (The Gospel of St. Luke)
THE TIME OF GRACE FOR WOMEN
And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him. And he went
A new section of the “acceptable year of the Lord” begins in Galilee.
The story itself is as vivid as any that even St. Luke tells in the life of Jesus.
We are surprised by the care with which Jesus contrasts all these signs
Thus in these gestures the usual signs of affection are surpassed three
If we think of the previous contrast, where it was pointed out that the Pharisee
But this is not the only point which is not easy to comprehend at first.
The parable of the two creditors, of whom one owed a great sum and the
The reasons for this remarkable hysteron-proteron #, this reversal of all
Only in this way can we thoroughly understand all that happened.
There is nothing accidental in the great laws which govern human speech.
End of article