Bible Study: Washing His Feet with Her Tears (Luke 7:36-50)

A close up of a person washing their feet in a bowl.
A circular logo with a silhouette of a woman in the middle holding her finger to her mouth as if to say, shhhh.

Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Bible Study: Washing His Feet with Her Tears

by Kristen West McGuire

Luke 7:36-50

And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him. And he went into the house of the Pharisee, and sat down to meat. And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. And the Pharisee, who had invited him, seeing it, spoke within himself, saying: This man, if he were a prophet, would know surely who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner. And Jesus answering, said to him: Simon, I have somewhat to say to thee. But he said: Master, say it.

A certain creditor had two debtors, the one who owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And whereas they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which therefore of the two loveth him most? Simon answering, said: I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. And he said to him: Thou hast judged rightly. And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon: Dost thou see this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she with tears hath washed my feet, and with her hairs hath wiped them. Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet. Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less. And he said to her: Thy sins are forgiven thee. And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves: Who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman: Thy faith hath made thee safe, go in peace.

(Douay Rheims Bible, 1899, public domain)

Context: This invitation to dinner came to Jesus against a backdrop of increasing tension. The Pharisees demanded ritual purity of their dinner guests. So, while Jesus was accused of dining with tax collectors and sinners, it is clear the Pharisees considered him at least worthy of their table.

Large feasts were open to the public in biblical times, and the poor could enter, listen and eat, so long as they were not disruptive. So, the presence of the woman at the table would not have been noticed before she began to weep. Only slaves cleaned feet; the sinful woman may have been poor, but she was not a slave!

When the woman begins to use her hair to dry his feet, the scandalized dinner guests must have been in shock. One’s tresses were never let loose in public, and to use one’s hair as a tool was a deep social embarrassment, both for her and for Jesus, who accepts her gesture.

Translation: This story in the book of Luke appears after several encounters with the Pharisees and general teachers of Judaic law. Two more banquet conflict stories are found in the book of Luke, in verses 11:37 and 14:1. This first account presents Jesus as the prophet of mercy.

Luke draws the reader in by presenting the salacious details first. The host has omitted certain customary courtesies toward Jesus, but we don’t learn of this oversight until after the parable of the creditors. A first century Greek reader would have been shocked at the heedless actions of the woman, but then disappointed at the self-centered reaction of Simon the Pharisee.

Vocabulary:

sinner: The Greek word amarantos has the connotation of misdeeds that do not fade away. Once one had “missed the mark” in this society, public opinion registered the negative verdict, often permanently. Likely the woman felt she had nothing to lose.

Master: The Pharisee calls Jesus “didaskalos” which was an ambiguous title (rendered in other translations as Teacher) indicative of his disregard, a subtle put-down.

loved much…loveth less: The Greek in this passage (agape) means love in the social or moral sense, implying an assent of the will. There is another Greek term for love, phileo, which connotes personal attachment and affection. It is the deep agape love, heedless of consequences, that Jesus highlights.

Many scholars have debated the identity and putative sins of this nameless woman in Luke 7:36-50. Does it matter who this sinner was? Does it change the quality of her repentance to know the details of her sins? Once her heart discovered the truth about Jesus, and she recognized his power to forgive her sins, she fell to the floor in gratitude and joy.

During Holy Week and the Easter season, I challenge myself to join her on the floor, and to weep with gratitude for the gifts of mercy that He brings to my life. Who is this, who even forgives sins? This is Jesus, and He has offered to forgive everything and make us new in the fire of His Passion. As Lent turns to Easter, may we find anew the saving power of His forgiveness, every day.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever done something so shocking that a room fell silent? If so, how does that experience affect your reading of this gospel? If not, does it bother you when others flaunt social conventions?
  2. Have you ever befriended a social misfit? Does this story prompt any ideas about doing so in the future? Why or why not?
  3. Have you ever worried that your sins have placed you beyond the mercy of even God? According to Luke, it is not our sins, but our lack of repentance that hardens our hearts. What freedom does Jesus offer to you in this story?

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