The story of the woman with the alabaster jar is one of my favorite in the Bible (Luke 7: 36-50). Jesus had been out on one of his typical days, preaching the good news, raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and healing the blind. One of the Pharisees, the religious leaders, asked Jesus to come to his house to eat. It would be like being at a dinner party of well-known pastors and tv evangelists, seminary professors, and theologians today. The Pharisees were the well~ educated, the law~observers and the law~abiders. And yet they missed the very heart of the law, which is love.
Luke says that a woman in the city, who is identified as a sinner, knew that Jesus was at the Pharisee’s house, eating, and came there. We don’t know what this woman did, what her specific sins were. The culture then was male-dominated, and a woman with a bad reputation as a sinner usually meant she was a prostitute or an adulteress. Whatever her sins were, we can be sure they were significant for Luke to use this term, sinner. I identify with this woman, as she represents the way I used to be when Jesus found me: desperate, bound, and nowhere else to go, because I had hit rock bottom. She saw that only Jesus could help her, and when she found Him, she was so very grateful.
We often see art pictures of this story, showing the woman kneeling down in front of Jesus’ feet, kissing them or wiping them with her long, beautiful hair. Yet Luke says the woman stood behind Jesus at His feet, and she then began washing His feet with her tears, kissing and anointing them with the fragrant oil. She was behind Jesus because she knew her place ~ to follow Jesus. It was a position of revelation, humility, and brokenness.
But all the Pharisee, the religious leader, could do was stand and judge Jesus and judge this woman. You would think someone who had studied the law so diligently and heard of all Jesus had done would know the truth. Verse 39 says, “Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
The law is a harsh task~master where grace is absent. The Pharisee was secure in his own law~honoring position with God, not realizing that he was a sinner, too, and desperately needed God’s forgiveness ~ he should have been at Jesus’ feet! He was like the Pharisee in Luke 18: 10-14, who prayed at the temple, saying, “God, I thank You that I am not like the other men ~ extortioners, unjust adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” But the tax collector beside him stood far off from the altar, not even able to raise his eyes to heaven, beating his breast and crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The Pharisee was self-righteous. How often do we as Christians look down at others who we think are “greater” sinners than us? And yet all things are level at the Cross. We cannot judge others, because there is only one Judge, God, and His judgments are true and just (Matthew 7: 1, John 5: 30).
Jesus rebuked this Pharisee, and commended the sinful woman. He asked the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?” See her? The Pharisee was blind with pride. But she was a godly example to others!
Jesus knew how the Pharisee had judged him for allowing the woman to touch Him and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
“Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.”
“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
I love how the Pharisee answered Jesus, “I suppose.” It sounds like he knew the correct answer and was just hedging, because he could see what was coming ~ he needed to deal with his own heart, not hers! How often we do look at others, point the finger, blame, accuse ~ when we need to look within our own hearts and confess our sins there!
In those days, the roads were not paved like they are today, and were dusty or muddy. Shoes (usually sandals) were made of soft or hard leather, and were easily dirtied, so people left their sandals outside the door of their host’s home. Foot washing was an important custom in Jewish culture. If someone had slaves, the slaved washed the feet of the guest ~ the one washing the feet being the lowest member of society. And yet Jesus Himself washed His disciples’ feet as an example to them and to us, of servanthood and of love (John 13: 3-17). If the host did not have any slaves, he offered a bowl of water and towel for the guest to wash his feet.
The Bible says that a woman’s long hair is her glory (1 Corinthians 11: 15). Yet this woman used her hair to wipe Jesus’ dirty feet. A sign of respect for guests when greeting them in Jewish culture was to give them a kiss and to anoint their forehead with oil. The Pharisee did neither, even though Jesus was his special guest and he knew that Jesus was a distinguished teacher.
Have we made Jesus our special guest in our homes and in our hearts? Do we treat Him with the respect and honor He deserves, through obedience to God’s word?
What are we doing for God? What are we offering Him? And what are we withholding from Jesus?
This woman knew who Jesus really was, and was aware of how much He had done for her ~ and she did these things to show Him her deep gratitude. Despite her sins, she loved much. She had been forgiven, and Jesus gave her peace.
If we have been forgiven of so much and loved so deeply by God, if we have this peace from God, then we too should share this same forgiveness and love with others. Let us not be Pharisees, who look down on and judge others, but be like this broken, thankful woman, staying at the feet of Christ, pouring out our love on Him and others as a demonstration of our gratitude to God ~ our lives saturated with the fragrant anointing of Jesus. Broken and humble before Him, that we might be used by Him for His glory.
An alabaster jar