The Sinful Woman Who Wiped Jesus' Feet

When Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to come and dine at his house, he didn't expect a woman to show up with an alabaster box of ointment. In particular, Simon must have been surprised to see that particular woman appear. Luke's narrative says that this woman stood behind Jesus weeping, “…and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7:38). The woman's identity may have been well known in the community, or at least known to Simon, for the narrative says that Simon thought to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

Jesus, well aware of what Simon was thinking, told him he had something to tell him. Jesus told Simon a story about a creditor with two debtors: one owed 500 pence, and the other owed 50 pence. When they had nothing to pay, the creditor forgave them both. Jesus asked Simon which of the debtors would love the creditor more. Simon said the one whom he forgave the most, which Jesus said was the right answer. Then Jesus turned to the woman, and still talking with Simon, underscored his point.

…Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. (Luke 7:44–46)

Jesus told Simon that her sins were many, but that he forgave them because she “…loved much. “…But,” he continued, “to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47). Simon couldn't have missed the point, and the woman was saved by her faith.

Just four verses after the narrative of the Sinful Woman, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as the woman out of whom Jesus cast seven devils. Many confuse the Sinful Woman in Chapter 7 of Luke with Mary Magdalene, whose story begins in Chapter 8. The fact that the Sinful Woman carries an alabaster jar further adds to the confusion, since artists throughout the century have depicted Mary Magdalene with an alabaster jar.

Pope Gregory the Great, in his Homily XXXIII, even combined the stories of those two women with Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) to create a compelling composite image to show the forgiving nature of the church. His effort turned out to be quite effective, and 2,000 years afterward, many Christians have believed that the woman named Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. However, the truth is that there was never any biblical or historical evidence to prove that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute, or that she was the Sinful Woman of Luke or Mary of Bethany. The stories of those women are nonetheless inspiring, and their tales will likely be retold for another 2,000 years.

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