< June 13, 2010 >

Commentary on Luke 7:36-8:3

 

This portion of Luke's gospel includes two quite distinct sections: the long parable-within-a-story (7:36-7:50); and a short transitional section in which some of Jesus' women companions are named (8:1-3).

The two have little connection aside from the presence of women as significant actors in both portions of the reading. 8:1 begins with a shift in time from the preceding verses ("soon afterwards") and suggests a wide-ranging ministry over an unspecified period of time. As a preacher, my focus would be on 7:36-50.

The story of the silent woman who anoints Jesus' feet with her tears, dries those same tears from his feet with her hair, kisses his feet, and anoints them with the salve she herself brings may sound similar to stories in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. It is, however, a very different story with very different emphases. Luke's story, for example, comes quite early in Jesus' ministry, unlike the event in the three other gospels. It is not connected with his death by any explicit reference or by proximity in sequence.  We must look elsewhere for meaning.

One major concern of this story is established explicitly in both the external story (verses 36-40, 42b-50) and the short parable that Jesus tells Simon (verses 41-42a). That concern is forgiveness. In the parable of the creditor and debtors, the pair of words is opheilo and charizomai (verses 41 twice, verse 42, and repeated by Simon in verse 43). In the larger story, the more usual hamartia (verses 47, 48, 49) and aphiemi appear (verses 47 twice, 48, 49). The woman is also called hamartolos in verse 37.

Connected to this interest in forgiveness are two other points:
      1. faith and salvation (connected in some way to
          forgiveness)
      2. Jesus' status to offer both forgiveness and
          salvation.

The last two verses of Luke 7 use different words to describe the same reality for the woman:
        Who is this who forgives sins?
        Your faith has saved you.
        [You] Go in peace.

Trust/Faith that Jesus desires and is able to forgive sins restores this woman to the community of God's people ("saved you"). It also establishes God's shalom for a community where one who had been lost (a "sinner") has been restored. This theme will be explored fully in Luke 15, but is a constant thread throughout the Gospel and Acts.

The status of Jesus seems to be a driving question for the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner (verse 39) and a summative one for the crowd gathered around the table (verse 49). As the Pharisee, his other guests, and Jesus gather for dinner, the scene is set for conversation and discussion. This scene has the characteristics of a symposium where guests gather to eat, drink, and debate some topic of importance. Expectations for the evening's dining and discussion are interrupted by the sudden, surprising appearance of a woman. Or are they? Certainly teaching ensues because of her appearance.

Yet, discussion or debate is surely the wrong word to describe this "symposium." For we hear no word from Simon, nor the woman, nor even from Jesus until verse 40. The silence is broken when Jesus addresses Simon, apparently out of the blue. We readers of Luke's gospel, however, know that "God who knows the heart," and we are not surprised that Jesus likewise does.

In fact, in these verses, Simon's unspoken assumptions about what a prophet, let alone a king, would look like, his silent curiosity about Jesus' prophetic abilities, and his wrong presumption of the woman's status and motives generate the drama of this story. For it is to re-frame all those assumptions and presumptions of Simon (and his guests) that Jesus tells his parable.  We do not know how those present, aside from the woman, answered their own question, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" (verse 49).

Jesus re-frames what we take to be out-of-place or even misbehavior (woman as behaving erotically, seductively) to seeing with the eyes of God (deeply grateful). We are challenged to see not only ourselves, but, more importantly, those around us. This woman was seen, forgiven and restored to community by God through Jesus. Whom does any community decide not to see?

It is important to be clear that in verse 47, Jesus draws a conclusion based on the extravagance of the woman's outpouring of hospitality and Simon's own conclusion from the parable (that the one who would "love more" would be the one for whom greater debt was canceled, verse 43). The NRSV translates the Greek particle hoti as "hence," which gets the idea across well. Some translating license might work here. Consider something like: Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; see/see how she has shown great love.

To tackle Luke 7:36-50 for preaching is to take on a juicy set of possibilities. Both story and characters are unusually well-developed.  Both Simon and the unnamed woman merit some exploration. We enter the lives of both these people as they gather at or near the table with Jesus. It is very clear that both of them have some history with Jesus as well. In Simon's case, we can highlight several items:

  • he decided to invite Jesus to dinner, suggesting that he knows enough of Jesus to be--at least--curious about him,
  • as a Pharisee who values religious cleanness, he understood that Jesus would be a welcome participant at a dinner,  
  • he was well enough known to Jesus that Jesus accepted the invitation and knew where to show up for dinner.
    Within the narrative, we see that Simon has some clear ideas about how Jesus would behave if he knew what kind of woman had entered the dining room.  When Jesus accepts the woman's attention, Simon believes that he cannot be a prophet after all. This generates a nice irony for readers, who know that Jesus does know the woman and re-frames Simon's (and the other guests' perceptions) by his behavior.

We also see that Simon is willing to engage Jesus in a teaching scene, the parable and question/response (verses 40-43) and be declared "correct" by Jesus the teacher.  When Jesus brings the parable to bear on the situation at Simon's dinner party, it is clear who is less grateful. Simon is shamed for his lack of hospitality. But there is a future for Simon. After the story itself, he disappears. What impact will Jesus' teaching and the interrupted dinner party make on Simon? Recall that many Pharisees did come to believe that Jesus was God's own Messiah (e.g. Acts 15:5). His open-ended story summons us to ponder our own futures.

Meanwhile, the woman also has a history with Jesus, as we can tell from her acts of enormous gratitude. She is a sinner in the city. She has been forgiven by Jesus and pours out her gratitude in tears, kisses, and lotion.

Within the narrative, the woman shows extraordinary behavior. There is no doubt that she would not have been welcomed at the dinner party. Yet, on her own initiative, she takes the risk of entering a males-only gathering, a woman deemed unclean in a Pharisaic meal because her gratitude is too great to be contained within ordinary boundaries. We do not know her future either. How like us these characters are, in having encountered Jesus, yet needing to ponder and live from such an encounter in the uncharted waters of an unknown future.