Who is the “Sinful Woman?”

My pastor had a great sermon on Mother’s Day, highlighting and extoling mothers, and all women. In his sermon, he mentioned one woman, “the woman who lived a sinful life,” found in Luke 7:36-50. In Luke’s Gospel, the woman is unnamed – the only thing on her nametag was “Sinful Woman.” Wow. This is not unlike the scarlet A on the chest of the woman in the novel “The Scarlet Letter,” (which stood for “Adulteress”). The biblical woman was tagged for life. She may have been a prostitute or an adulteress; regardless, no one would ever look at her in any other way than a wicked, lowly, worthless, immoral and indecent person.

But Jesus saw her, really saw her, and something happened to her when she met Jesus. Please remember that no matter who you are, or what you have done in the past, Jesus sees you, forgives you, and redeems you.

All four Gospels record an account of a woman who anointed Jesus. The accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are a little different from the account in the Gospel of John. All the authors placed their stories in certain positions for certain purposes. The accounts in Matt 26:6-14, and in Mk 14:3-9, for example, are positioned within their larger narratives to contrast the hatred of the religious leaders and the betrayal by Judas, with the love and devotion of an unnamed woman.

The main male character is the same in the Synoptics – Simon. In Luke’s Gospel, he is labeled a “Pharisee;” in Matthew and Mark, he is “Simon the Leper.” It is most likely that Jesus healed this Jewish leader from his disease, and yet Simon is an arrogant man, a poor host, and he continued to challenge Jesus.

All four Gospels note that the unnamed woman brought an “alabaster jar of very expensive perfume made of pure nard” to anoint Jesus. “Nard,” by the way, is an aromatic root and plant related to ginseng that was used by the ancients as a fragrant ointment. In Palestine, it was very rare and very expensive to purchase. This implies that this woman was from a wealthy family. She was not a poor, beggar woman who came in “off the streets” when she recognized Jesus.

She knew exactly what she was doing. She walked into the dinner, ignored the stares of the men, and approached Jesus, who was reclining at the table. She broke the bottle of perfume, and poured it on Jesus. At once, his disciples were “indignant” at her action, primarily because of who she was, and that she had the nerve to invaded the men’s dinner. Remember her reputation? She was that “sinful woman!” How dare her!! While she anointed Jesus with her tears and her perfume, some of the disciples demeaned her, and degraded her actions. The perfume could have been sold for a great deal of money and the money “given to the poor.” In fact, in John’s Gospel, her actions push Judas to the limit, and he just goes away mad….thus, initiating his betrayal of Jesus (Jn 12:4-5).

It is interesting that in Mark’s Gospel, the woman pours the expensive perfume on Jesus’ “head,” which was the most expected place for someone to be anointed. The other Gospels declare that she anointed his “feet.” In the ancient world, the washing of feet was performed by the lowest, most humble servant of the household. It was a very unpleasant task to touch stinky feet soiled by dirt, dust and grime. In Luke’s Gospel, Simon was totally disrespectful to Jesus for not giving him any “water for my feet, or oil for my head…” But the woman bathed his feet with her tears, her hair, her kisses, and her perfume. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said “she has done a beautiful thing to me.” What a contrast!  This unnamed woman of low esteem stands out in sharp contrast to the dignified (but unbelieving) Jewish leader.

In John’s Gospel, we see a different time and location of the anointing (12:1-11). Jesus is at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha instead of Simon’s house. John also places this anointing “six days before the Passover,” only days before Jesus’ Passion Week begins. This dinner was held in Lazarus’s honor because Jesus had just raised him from the dead (in John ch. 11). Only John has the story of the raising of Lazarus. So, can you imagine the celebration?! At this dinner party, Mary (so named) poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.

There is a possibility (and I think a very good one) that the “unnamed” woman in the Synoptic Gospels is the very same “Mary” who was the sister of Martha (Lk 10:38-40), and the very same “Mary” who anointed Jesus at their home in Bethany in John 12:1-8. That is, Mary is the “sinful woman.”

Early in his ministry, a sinful woman named Mary anointed the head of Jesus with perfume, expressing great devotion and love. Why? Because Jesus forgave her, and she was transformed by his love. This might explain some kind of friction that readers sense between Mary and Martha. Martha, the “good girl,” stayed home, kept the home fires burning, and her sister was out being a “sinful woman.” Upon meeting Jesus and hearing his teaching and preaching, Mary repented, and anointed Jesus the first time, recognizing her own sin and his forgiveness. She became a different woman. Sometime later, after Jesus raised her brother from the dead, Mary again anointed Jesus, not on his head, but on his feet, recognizing his divinity and his grace. 

What is the point of these stories? Why would Mary anoint Jesus twice? The key is in Luke 7:47-48 – it is forgiveness. Though she was a “sinful woman,” she recognized her need for grace, and she boldly went to Jesus for it. Jesus looked at both the woman and Simon, and saw the same thing – their need for forgiveness. Jesus said, “her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown….Your faith has saved you; go in peace (Lk 7:47-50).

Repentance turned her world upside down, opening up an entirely new view of life. Jesus forgave her, gave her dignity, value and worth. He removed the stigma, the shame, the guilt and the name that society had given her. Simon, on the other hand, was a “religious” man who, no doubt, had done his best to live a respectable, law-abiding life. His sins were tucked away, hidden perhaps even from himself. His habit of judging others formed a fence around his strictly one-dimensional view of the world (“his way or the highway”). Mary knew that only God can forgive sins, and thus, she fully understood that Jesus is the Son of God, so she anointed him again as her Messiah, her “Lord and God” (see Jn 20:28).

Both Simon and the woman owed a huge debt that neither one of them could ever repay. He may have been healed physically, but he was not healed spiritually. His sins were less obvious, but more dangerous. The sins of the woman may have been greater (on the surface), which meant her forgiveness was greater. Forgiven much, she loved much. 

Finally, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus said that “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world [that is, the forgiveness of sins for everyone], what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” We don’t know what happened to Simon, but even so, today, we are still thinking about her…. (26:13; 14:9). This is the only place in the Gospels where we see this kind of affirmation of a woman by Jesus. The story is not in Scripture so we can see the forgiveness of one sinful woman. It is repeated in Scripture so that we can all know, that no matter how sinful, how broken, how entrenched in the muck we might be, grace and forgiveness are available if only we seek Christ in faith.

Apostle Paul said, “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8). Where there is great forgiveness, there is great love. Amen.

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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