Historical Cultural Context
Though similar to stories reported in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8, Luke's report appears to be an independent tradition. Sensitivity to the cultural world in which this story originated makes it possible to highlight a few of Luke's special interests.
The central point of this story—forgiveness of sin—hinges on first-century Mediterranean peasant understanding of debt. Scholars estimate that excessive claims upon meager peasant resources (tithes, taxes, tribute, numerous tolls) consumed between 35 and 40 percent of total agricultural production. The path to enormous indebtedness required but a few small steps.
Peasants who were unable to repay their loans lost their land and became tenant sharecroppers. When this, too, failed, they were driven from their ancestral land. Since the scriptural evidence indicates that Jesus was known by all to be from Nazareth yet his ancestral ties extended back to Bethlehem, scholars suggest that at some point in history his ancestors experienced precisely this kind of fate. Such dispossessed people who lost their land frequently became artisans like Joseph and Jesus.
It is this experience of material indebtedness and both the hope and possibility of its forgiveness as in Jesus' parable (and the Lord's Prayer) that helped a peasant to understand the forgiveness of sin. Jesus' question to Simon the Pharisee was easy to answer: a person forgiven a large debt would exhibit greater gratitude than someone forgiven a smaller debt.
Our ancestors typically judged each other by external features and actions (1 Sam 16:7). Anyone who witnessed the woman's uninhibited display of love and gratitude could conclude from her actions that she had already experienced forgiveness of sin. “Her many sins have surely been forgiven by God since she has shown such love.”
The Woman and the Pharisee
Luke also paints a deliberate contrast between the Pharisee and the woman. By inviting Jesus to a meal, the Pharisee recognizes Jesus as an equal. In the Mediterranean world, only equals can invite each other to meals. But after Jesus' arrival, the Pharisee extends no other sign of hospitality, suggesting that he does not accept Jesus for who he is: God's prophet.
The woman stands in stark contrast. The story tells us she was a sinner but gives not a clue regarding the nature of her sin. Though her sinful reputation was known in the city, we do not know what city it was. That she boldly enters the men's space (reclining at table) and is not impeded by Simon. Some scholars suggest she might be a widow, but Simon's neglect may also be part of his determination to withhold signs of hospitality and respect for Jesus.
The woman, however, performs for Jesus all the signs of hospitality that the Pharisee quite intentionally omitted: she provides water for cleansing (Lk 7:44), tenders a kiss of greeting (Lk 7:45), and provides perfumed oil for anointing (Lk 7:46). It is precisely these deeds that tell us the woman has been forgiven. Simon's refusal to act like a host indicates that he has not experienced—perhaps not even sought—forgiveness.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University