Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3

The Hospitality of the Sinner

Do you consider yourself a good host? How hospitable are you?

William Holman Hunt made his fame by painting scenes rich with Christian symbolism in a detailed, realistic style. His most famous painting debuted in 1853 at a London exhibition. “Light of the World” portrayed Jesus knocking at the door. The night scene was light by a lamp Jesus held up in his other hand. In the background, there was a neglected, yet lush undergrowth. You may have heard the story about the painting. According to the fable, he revealed the painting first to family and friends. They knew he was proud of his extreme attention to detail, so they inspected the painting carefully. Suddenly, someone spoke up, “Did you forget something?”

“No,” Hunt said, “what?”

“Jesus can’t open the door. The door doesn’t have a handle.”

“No, I didn’t forget. The door represents the heart of the person and the handle is on the inside. Jesus knocks at the door, but only the person can let him in.”

Regardless whether the story is true or not, the painting makes a very clear point. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, we make him an honored guest. Letting him in requires repentance. Making him an honored guest requires hospitality. For a Christian, repentance and spiritual hospitality are interwoven.

Consider this narrative from Luke’s gospel.

Popular Translation

36 Once, a Pharisee asked Jesus to have dinner with him. So, Jesus went to the Pharisee’s home and sat down at the table. 37 When a certain woman found out that Jesus dining at the Pharisee’s home, she showed up with a bottle of scented oil. The woman was a sinner in the town. 38 She set herself at the feet of Jesus, wet them with her tears, and dried them with her hair. She kissed his feet and poured the scented oil over them.

39 When the host saw what the woman did, he said to himself, “If Jesus is really a prophet, he would know what kind of woman touched him. She’s a sinner!”

40 “Simon,” Jesus said, “I have something to say to you.”

“Okay, Teacher, tell me.”

41 “A businessman loaned money to two people. One man borrowed enough money to live on for a year and a half. The other man borrowed only enough money to live on for a month and a half. 42 When neither of the people had enough money to repay the loans, the businessman cancelled both debts. So, which one of the people was more grateful to the businessman?”

43 “I’m sure it was the one who owned the most money,” Simon said.

“That’s right.” 44 Jesus turned to the woman. “Simon, look at her. When I came into your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash up, but she washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You didn’t bother to greet me, but from the time I came in, she hasn’t stopped greeting me by kissing my feet. 46 You didn’t offer me oil to cool my head, but she poured expensive oil over my feet. 47 So, I tell you that God has forgiven her many sins because she showed a lot of love. The person who doesn’t show a lot of love doesn’t have that many sins forgiven.” Jesus looked at the woman and said, “You’re sins have been forgiven.”

49 The other people at the table mumbled. “Who is this that can forgive sins?

Jesus said to the woman, “Go in peace. Your trust in me has saved you.”

8:1 After that dinner, Jesus made his way throughout the towns of the area. He preached the Good News of God’s Kingdom. 2 The Twelve went with him, along with the women who Jesus healed or freed from the Devil. 3 There was Mary from Magdala who was freed from seven demon by Jesus. There was Joanna, the wife of Chuza; he was an official for King Herod. There was also Susanna and many other rich women who supported Jesus and his followers.

The reading from Luke can be divided into three sections: the entrance of the woman, the discussion with Simon, and the ministry of Jesus with the Apostles and the women.

Literal Translation

36 One of the Pharisees asked HIM, so that he might dine with HIM, and having come into the house of the Pharisee, HE reclined (at table). 37 Look! (there was) a woman, a sinner, who was in the city, and, having learned that HE was reclining at the house of the Pharisee, having brought (along) an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 having stood behind HIM at HIS feet, and weeping with (her) tears, she began to wet HIS feet and with the hair of her head she dried (them), she kissed HIS feet and anointed (them) with the perfume.

7:36-50. The narrative of the sinful woman does not indicate time or place. Thematically, it followed Jesus’ statement in 7:34: “Look!...a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

7:36 “HE reclined (at table).” IN the time of Jesus, Jews had adopted the Greek fashion for dining, reclining on mats around a round table filled with food. A guest would set himself on his left elbow and feed himself with his right hand by dipping bread into pastes or tearing meat from a cooked animal.

7:37a “...a woman, a sinner...” The term “sinner” strongly implied the woman was a prostitute.

7:37b “...an alabaster jar of perfume...” Alabaster was a precious, translucent gypsum that was formed into long jars with a pedestal base. Such a jar had a long neck without handles and was sealed at the top; it was opened by breaking the neck, then the contents were poured out. The jar had a one time use.

“Perfume” can also be translated “oil” since cosmetic scents were oil based, not alcohol based; aromatic scents were usually added to oil olive.

7:38 “...having stood behind HIM...” The woman stood at the feet of Jesus. He laid with his head toward the food and the other guests. His feet were oriented away from the table.

The scene opened when a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. Luke used the dinner setting to introduce the sinful woman who broke a few social taboos. First, the woman dared to arrive at a dinner gathering of males. The ancient world was based on a gender-segregated, male-dominated society. No proper woman would cross this boundary. This woman did.

Second, the woman was a public sinner, a prostitute. The Judaism of the Pharisees fostered a spirituality of exclusion and quarantine. Leviticus 11:45-46 extolled the people “to keep themselves holy” for God was holy. In this sense, holiness meant uniqueness, free from the pollution of sin and the profane. This sinner dared to touch Jesus, thus making him profane, unkosher (see Luke 7:39 below).

The woman, a public sinner, broke these taboos to make a public display about her repentance. She wept over the feet of Jesus, wiped her hair over them, kissed them, and anointed them with expensive perfume. Besides the allusion to hospitality that will be addressed in the next section, two images stand out: washing the feet and anointing with perfume. In John 13:1-17, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to tie leadership to service. In Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, a woman the house of Simon the Leper (!) anointed the head of Jesus with expensive perfume; Jesus turned this act of hospitality into a prophecy for his death (the oil prepared his body for burial). (John 12:1-8 retold the story of Matthew and Mark; this time, Mary, the sister of Martha, anointed the feet of Jesus, but the prophecy was the same.) When we combine the meanings of these two images that the other Gospel narratives provided, we can see that the washing of feet and the anointing with oil tied hospitality to service to the death of Jesus. In Luke, the woman made not only a public display of repentance, she made a public commitment to Jesus through her act of hospitality and service. She, like the other women listed in Luke 8:1-3, would follow Jesus to Jerusalem and to his death.

39 Having seen (this), the Pharisee, the (one) having invited HIM, said to himself, “If this (MAN) were a prophet, HE would know who and what sort of woman who touched HIM, that she is a sinner.” 40 Having answered, JESUS said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher, speak,” he said. 41 “(There) were two borrowers to a certain money-lender, one owing five hundred denarii but the other fifty. 42 When they did not have (the money) to pay (the lender) back, he cancelled (the debt) for both. So, which of them will love him more?" 43 Having answered, Simon said, “I assume (the one) whom I cancelled the greater (amount).” (HE) said to him, “You judged correctly.” 44 Having turned toward the woman, (HE) said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, (but) you did not give me (any) water for (my) feet. This (woman) wet my feet with tears and dried (them) with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss. This (woman) from (the moment) which I entered has not (completely) stopped from kissing my feet. 46 With olive oil you did not anoint my head. This (woman) with perfume anointed my feet. 47 For this reason I say to you, her many sins have been forgiven, because she (showed) great love. Whomever is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 (HE) said to her, “You sins have been forgiven.” 49 The (guests) reclining at table began to said to themselves, “Who is this who forgives sins?” 50 (HE) said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

7:41 A denarius was a Roman coin paid for a single day’s wage.

7:45-47 These three verses contain three different ways of showing hospitality to a guest in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Water was provided for ritual and customary washing of face, hands, and feet (see John 2:1-12). A kiss was (and still is) a greeting for people in the Middle East. Oil was poured on the head of a guest as a way to cool him.

7:48 While the English translation of this verse does not indicate the gender of the subject, the Greek clearly indicated the subject was female. Yet, Jesus implied the verse applied to Simon, the male Pharisee.

Jesus compared Simon’s lack of hospitality to the woman’s show of repentance. He began with a parable, then made his point. The Pharisee’s lack of hospitality was a deliberate act of hostility. Imagine if you were invited to a dinner where the host did not shake your hand in greeting, but made a point to shake the other guests in your presence. Imagine if your place setting had no knife, fork or spoon, when the other guests had theirs. Imagine if you were not given a wine glass when the host would obviously give a toast. While it is possible Luke used an extreme rhetorical device (your greeting was nothing like the sinful woman, so it was nothing), the point was clear. Jesus compared the woman’s sincerity with the host’s shallow (or non-existent) show. In doing so, he rejected the Pharisees’ fellowship and accepted that of the woman. She would be allowed into the Kingdom, because her sins were forgiven. Why? Because she demonstrated the type of love that was the hallmark of the Kingdom. She willingly washed the feet of the Master to show she was his servant. She kissed them as a sign of her fellowship with him. She anointed them as a preparation for his death and resurrection. Such actions would cause scandal, but they would show her faith and her salvation.

8:1 Soon after, it happened (that) HE made his way through the cities ane villages preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God, 2 the Twelve with HIM, and some women who were healed from evil spirits and illness, Mary, the one called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out, 3 Joanna, wife of Chuza, (money and/or household) manager for Herod, Susanna, and many other (women) who served them out of their (substantial) means.

Luke’s narrative was unique for its inclusion. Jesus just seemed to collect more and more followers. The beginning sentence from Luke 8 alluded to this fact. Jesus was followed by the Apostles, then by women of means. Because of her prominence and because of popular interest, we must make note of Mary Magdalene. In 8:3, Luke listed the women in order of importance, Mary from Magdala (who was cured of a some serious disorder), Joanna, the wife of a leading Herodian, and Susanna (someone who Luke’s initial audience must have known simply by name). Why was Mary Magdalene listed first (even on every list of women in the Gospels)? Her reputation and tradition in the community must have carried great weight; she was present at the crucifixion and was the one who first carried the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection to the Apostles (Mark 15:40-41, 47; 16:1; Matt. 27:55-56, 61; 28:1; Luke 8:2-3; 24:10). Beyond that, we push toward speculation. She was close to the Lord, but how close? She had some leadership function among the women, but did she have such a role in the early Church? Gnostic writings certainly asserted such. Was she the sinner from Luke 7:36-50? Probably not. This tradition began in the early Middle Ages with Pope Gregory the Great and was limited to the West; it does not date back further than the sixth century. We can however safely make one statement that would help explain her stature in the community beyond her critical witness. She was a woman of means who helped support the earthly ministry of Jesus. Beyond that, we are in the dark.

Luke 8:1-3 does present one other interesting piece of trivia. I have stated (and will state again) that the culture Jesus lived in was gender-segregated and male-dominated. I have also said that a widow would most likely end up homeless without the charity of her family or the family of her deceased husband to support her. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Single women of means were the exceptions. Rich widows could retain their wealth, especially if that money was specifically given to them; they could live as influential members of the community, despite cultural norms. The New Testament has countless references to these women. But, still, even the wealthiest women were second class citizens, for they could influence through example and charity , but never directly lead the community. That example and charity focused on hospitality and, by extension, repentance.

Does your hospitality reveal your Christian commitment? In other words, does your love for Christ help you to serve neighbors and strangers with kindness and a smile?

The story of the sinful woman can reflect our own story. Christ calls us to constant repentance. The Christian community insists upon our hospitality and charity. Both are connected. The sinful woman welcomed Jesus as a special guest by repenting. Our life in Christ and our life in the Church should be built on this example.

Christ is knocking at the door. Are our hearts ready to welcome him?

Reflect on Hunt’s painting. Imagine that your have opened the door and Christ has entered. What accommodations do you offer him? Now, consider that Christ lives in others. How do you open your heart to them? What accommodations to you offer them?