This week, as we continue with our theme of forgiveness, we are looking at the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany (Luke 7:34-50) 1. This is the snapshot of Jesus attending a banquet at the house of a Pharisee in the town of Bethany, when a woman from the town who everyone knows as a ‘sinner’, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and then anoints them with expensive perfume. This account is in all four gospels, and I would encourage you to read each of them before continuing on:
Interestingly, Luke has a bit of a different take on this account than the other three, and there is discussion over whether these are two different accounts. But if you bear with me and for the sake of discussion consider them one account, each from a different viewpoint, some interesting things come to light about forgiveness.
I wonder, is this story more about the woman or about the host of the banquet?
The host of the banquet is a Pharisee (a pious Jewish man belonging to a strict religious sect) who Luke later names as Simon. All the other accounts above call this man Simon the ‘leper’. Nicknames were often used and could have some basis in the truth, but this host was obviously not a leper. We know this because the Bible shows us that lepers were outcasts, untouchables, and had to cry out “Unclean, unclean!” if other people came near them. They lived outside city walls in camps and were considered dead to their families. The fact that this man, Simon the leper, was hosting a banquet in his own home indicates he was clearly not a leper. But did the nickname have basis in something from his past? Perhaps Jesus had healed him. We know Jesus healed lepers, and we know from Luke 17:11-19 that some did not show the gratefulness to Jesus they should have. The one healed leper who was grateful was a Samaritan – not a Jew.
Banquets, in the time of Jesus, were held as special occasions, and this was a special occasion because we are told they were reclining at the table. If it were a normal meal, they would have been sitting. Guests reclined on cushions propped on one elbow with their feet out behind them, away from the table. We also know that during this era, banquets were a time for moral teaching, so if a rabbi (teacher) was the special guest, it is likely people would have gathered at the banquet to hear what he had to say. Often well-to-do hosts would also let in the poor, and they would gather quietly at the banqueters’ feet to listen to the discussion…but they weren’t allowed to disrupt the festivities. Perhaps that is how the ‘sinner’ ended up at the feet of Jesus.
What reason would Simon “the leper” have had for hosting a banquet in Jesus’ honour? Could it be that perhaps Jesus himself had healed him? We clearly see in verse 39 that Simon is wrestling with whether Jesus is a prophet. This is a sign of great respect considering that a Pharisee like himself would believe that there had not been any prophets since the era of the Old Testament (400 or so years before Jesus). But what would give him reason to consider that in the first place? I take you back to the possibility of Simon being healed. Whether or not this was the case, he still has the nickname “the leper”, so it is highly ironic that Simon is so offended by the woman touching Jesus, as we see in verse 39. If he had been a leper, he himself had been an untouchable, an outsider, not worthy to touch a prophet. Perhaps a little more compassion could have come her way from the host. It seems that is what Jesus thought as he heard Simon’s thoughts.
Jesus starts telling Simon a story about two people who owed money to a moneylender, one having a much greater debt than the other. He asks Simon a loaded question:
Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?
Simon answers with the obviously correct answer – the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.
You have judged correctly, Jesus said.
I love this next part.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon…
The whole point of the story is aimed at Simon, even though he is facing the woman. It makes me wonder, is Simon the one with the bigger debt?
Jesus goes on to point out to Simon that when he entered the house, Simon did not wash his feet or greet him with a kiss or oil his head. Now at first I was imagining Jesus sitting at the banquet table with dirty feet, but this may not have been the case. People who were rich enough to hold a banquet like this would probably have a servant do those menial and lowly tasks. But oh the irony of this situation!! If Simon had been a leper healed by Jesus, suddenly we see a man who was healed from a living death, once considered untouchable, who did not even come to personally greet Jesus when he arrived, did not consider himself low enough to come and touch the man who had made him touchable again!! Simon just didn’t get it.
The woman did. She broke an alabaster jar of nard – imported perfume worth one year’s wages of a common laborer. It could only be used once. It was probably an heirloom and/or a symbol of status or wealth – maybe her only status considering how she is described. But she knew it was worth nothing next to what Jesus had done for her, next to who he was. She got it.
Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.
But what about you, Simon? Do you not see you are just as much in need of forgiveness as this woman? Should not your gratitude be spilling over like this woman’s? Yet you could not even greet Jesus at the door…
What about us? Do we truly realize what Jesus has done for us? Are we grateful enough? Is our love spilling over, because we have been forgiven much? Is our love given to Jesus first before it is given to other people or things?
The following can be used for discussion around the table or at bedtime.
Recall a time in your life when you were overwhelmed with thankfulness. What was it in regard to? Did you extend a thank you to the person responsible? How did you thank them?
If you’d like, leave a comment with your thoughts, or respond to the discussion ideas on your own blog and link back here.
- For more, please see Craig S. Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1993)