Luke 7:36-50, this story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus, is about disruption. Here, Jesus and the disciples are just lounging about at Simon's, talking and eating. Maybe they are talking theology. Maybe not. The point is that here they are in their own world and this woman--- who is a sinner, the author reminds us--- crashes their party. She transgresses into this world they have made for themselves.
These are the words from which we begin. We are left to imagine for ourselves her entrance into the scene. Did those who served Simon the Pharisee welcome her inside knowing her plan before the meal, allowing her to wait in the shadows until Jesus was reclining at the table? If so, she could have emerged quietly to place herself at Jesus' feet so smoothly perhaps she would not be noticed at first. Did she push her way into the building until she found herself at Jesus' feet? Pushing her way in could have alarmed Simon and his other guests. Certainly each possibility, and there are many others, has much different consequences for the ways in which she was disruptive, but the author leaves it open, writing only that when she learned Jesus was at Simon's house, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment with her.
But however the woman comes to Jesus' feet, she is ultimately an interloper. She has crossed into a space constructed such that she and her emotions are unwelcome. Yet she brings with her sacred space. Here she is a woman, a sinner crossing into a space seemingly reserved for men, the educated, the religious, yet she is not a sacrificial goat. She is not like the woman accused of adultery in John 7:53- 8:11, presented to Jesus as a sacrifice, forcing him to chose between her and the law of Moses. Instead, the woman who is a sinner in Luke 7:36-50 is a priestess at the crossroads.3 She enters into Simon's house with her alabaster jar to make sacred the space, ministering to those witnesses at the table; her presence is disturbing in a prophetic way. She disrupts.
Introduction to Interpretation
Now we have established where the sinful woman is, but before exploring the text further, we must establish where we are as interpreters.4 We are not approaching this text from a void, but are influenced by our social locations. For instance, you will notice so far that when I speak of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, I have not referred to her as a prostitute. There is absolutely no textual evidence to label her as a prostitute; it is tradition that has imposed a misogynistic view that a woman's greatest sin is a sexual sin, thus, if the sinful woman in this story's sin is so great she washes Jesus' feet with her own tears, it must be a sexual sin.5 Notice that when a man is presented as a sinner in Christian scriptures, we never once ask ourselves if his sin is sexual in nature, but tradition has us labeling women like this woman and Mary Magdalene as prostitutes with no textual evidence. The label prostitute could have been used by ancient church leaders as a way to discredit women's prophetic voices in scripture as a way to discredit women's prophetic voices within their communities.6
My own location as a feminist calls me to bring into question traditional understandings of this story of the woman anointing Jesus. However, I am also a white, middle-class, US American woman, and therefore am susceptible to readings of Luke 7: 36-50 that do not challenge traditional interpretation or that instead glorify the woman's gender in a way that does not question her work. Therefore, I am attempting here to read this passage with you as a feminist who is in process of grounding my feminism in queer, womanist, and particularly border-crossing theories. Though I must be careful to avoid appropriating and assimilating such theories since I am white, middle-class, and USAmerican, I feel that feminism is not prophetic without roots in queer, womanist, and border-crossing theories. If we are to understand the prophetic nature of the disruption that is the woman with her alabaster jar anointing Jesus.
So let us return to the story.
The disruption this woman brings is not merely through her uninvited presence. Her presence alone is a transgression; however, presence can easily be blotted out of the minds of those seeking to preserve that safe, closed world they have created for themselves. This woman is disturbing. She not only crosses the border into a world where she did not have a place, but she does so with such emotion. She weeps with her hair unbound, disheveled, disturbing with her presence, appearance, and actions.
How does this initial picture of her bathing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying his feet with her hair strike us? I think today for many of us this is a very erotic image. This returns us to the way tradition has forced onto this woman the identity of prostitute, so her actions are always suspect as being somehow sexual. For many societies, women's hair is seen as sexually connotative, causing men to become lustful animals if it was revealed. Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul commands women to cover their hair when prophesying, calling prophesying without a veil disgraceful.8 His anger to the Corinthian community does not seem to fit with his assertion in Galatians 3:28 when he claims that male and female do not exist within the one-ness of Christ. So here we see how in early Christian communities there was a struggle over what women's place as prophets was--- a debate that continues today, particularly around ordination as not all mainstream denominations even ordain women yet.9 Claiming this Luke passage as sexual is a way that the early church could discredit the unsettling behavior of this woman, hair unbound, touching Jesus Christ.10
Yet did early Christian communities see this woman with unbound hair to be as erotic as we might today? Certainly, as can be seen in Paul's desire to curb women's power for fear that others will reject Christianity based on the power women had within the community. However, some have pointed out that in Greco-Roman culture, unbound hair on women is often a symbol of grief as well as gratitude and supplication in worship to the gods.11 Scholars believe Luke was written to a community familiar with Hellenistic customs and living with a tension between traditional Jews and the budding Christian movement,12 indicating that the readers would be familiar with Greco-Roman customs concerning women's hair. For instance, seminary professor Charles Cosgrove points out that Sabine women of ancient Italy, made famous in numerous works of art in the Renaissance and who were abducted to be forced into marriage with Roman men, begged for peace by entering the battlefield with disheveled hair.13 In ancient Greco-Roman texts we see numerous examples of women unbinding their hair to symbolize their grief and plead for peace from the gods.
Could the woman in Luke 7:36-50 be read as grieving? As a transgressor, border-crosser, disruptor, this woman most certainly would lament. However, her grief perhaps does not fit against Jesus' parable to Simon and Jesus' own description of her.
Here, Jesus answers Simon's internal monologue of disgust over the idea of Jesus allowing a sinful woman to touch him with a story. This story places God as the creditor and Simon and the woman as the debtors, as the sinners. Then, Jesus interprets the woman's actions for Simon:
Here, the woman could not be grieving over forgiveness, could she?
But that depends on what forgiveness means. According to scholar Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "the Greek word for forgiveness [used here in Luke], aphesis, is the same root used for 'release' in Jesus' inaugural proclamation."16 The inaugural proclamation is a reference to the story in Luke where Jesus returns to Nazareth and reads from the scroll:
So then when Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the story of the woman, he is saying that she has shown great love because she has been released. For me, release signifies liberation. Sin, then, can be read as oppression.18 God as Liberator has released this woman and Simon from oppression. Though we do not know the woman's background, we can presume that as a woman she suffers at the intersection of the Roman imperial oppression as well as sexism, whereas Simon may only be oppressed by Rome. Still, liberation is a beautiful thing, yes? Why the grief?
I see this woman's tears, her unbound hair as an expression of gratitude for liberation, the focus on Jesus' body is also grief. As I mentioned before, she is creating sacred space in her transgression into Simon's home; she is a priestess rather than a scapegoat because she is released, according to Jesus. The great love she is showing is gratitude, but is gratitude tinged with grief. She is lamenting Jesus' death. I will begin to look at this more as we explore the parallel versions in the other three gospels, but the act of anointing in itself is incredibly prophetic in the scriptures. The word Messiah, or Christ in the Greek, means anointed one. The only human to anoint Jesus in Luke's gospel is a woman, this woman in Luke 7:36-50.19 Though Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism when the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove,20 this act by a human cannot be overlooked as it has been:
She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe is feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.21
This great love she has shown in gratitude to the Liberator is also grief that his work as the anointed Liberator will result in his death. Jesus' work is also a crossing of borders, a disruption, and that disruption is not a purely joyful act for it does not always end well.
Looking at Luke 7:36-50 alongside the Parallel Stories in the Other Gospels:
Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12-1-8
When we focus on the anointing in Luke 7:36-50, as interpreters we must remember how we are influenced by the other gospel stories of the women anointing Jesus. In all four gospels, there is a story in which a woman anoints Jesus. The authors of Luke and John describe a woman anointing Jesus' feet, whereas the authors of Matthew and Mark describe a woman anointing Jesus' head. Only in the gospel of John is the anointing one named: she is Mary of Bethany, grateful for Jesus' restoration of her brother but seeing that Jesus' work would lead to his death. The others are unnamed, and they come to the house of Simon the Leper rather than Simon the Pharisee. And Simon is not the one who questions the actions of the woman; rather it is the disciples in Matthew and Mark, and Judas in John, who question her. Jesus, in these three stories, focuses not on the woman's love, but on the anointing itself as a prophetic anointing for burial.
I am turning us to these stories not to turn to the gospels to add up all the parts of the stories into one big mess, as is done at Christmas when we add the magi from Matthew to the shepherds from Luke with the prologue from John and call it one story. However, looking at the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke in particular help us to see what is important to the author, presuming that Luke and Matthew both used Mark as well as their own independent sources L and M respectively. Luke's account of this story is completely different from both of these because the issue here is not the cost of the ointment as it is in the other gospels when the disciples say:
Luke mentions nothing about money. Instead, Luke portrays Simon as disgusted that Jesus allows a sinful woman to touch him, to disturb their meal, to trespass into their lives. The story in Luke is one that is about disruption in ways that the other gospel stories are not.
Recognizing the Tensions between Resistance and Entanglement23
However, bringing up the ways other gospel writers depict this story of a woman anointing Jesus brings to light other interpretations that we must acknowledge. We are dangerously deluding ourselves if we think that our reading of the text is the only reading or even the best reading. We must make ourselves aware of the diversity of interpretations in order to best understand the consequences of our text. Textual meaning is unstable,24 so here, we will look at some of the ways in which Luke 7:36-50 can be read not as a disruption in which the woman doing the disruption is a prophet-priestess, but instead read in a much more passive way.
Scholars like Jane Schaberg suggest that the gospel of Luke is not as liberatory of a gospel as one might think. She claims that the woman's anointing in the story cannot be related to Jesus' death as I have related them. The authors of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are explicit that this story of a woman anointing Jesus is a story of anticipation of Jesus' death, whereas Luke places the story much earlier in his gospel and changes the focus of the story entirely. Thus, the story can be read such that the woman's prophetic power in the Luke story is taken from her rather than evident in her border-crossing.25 In this reading, the woman has very little agency. She acts, but her action is to praise Jesus for forgiving her. Surely this gratitude is positive, but when the woman is presented only as praising, she loses so much power in the situation. Jesus is the one who acts here.
Similarly, reading sin as oppression and forgiveness as release is not the only way to read this story. Many of us are much more familiar with the idea of sin as disobedience, and see this story as a much more individual story, focusing on forgiveness of sin as a forgiveness of personal disobedience that does not take into account the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor. So again, reading Luke 7:36-50 as a more individualistic story ties into reading it as not prophetic: here, the woman is helpless to do anything but praise God, for it is God--- and Jesus, which also alarms those at the table with him26--- who forgives. All we as individual sinners can do is praise God when we too are forgiven.
Recognizing these different readings of the same text helps us better situate ourselves in our own interpretations. We must recognize the validity of other readings in other contexts to better understand what our interpretations are not saying. Scholar Stephen Moore in his study of Revelation reminds us that, while it is ethically important to read texts as liberatory, these texts have been used throughout the ages to support imperial hetero-patriarchy with good reason.27 Interpretations of Luke 7:36-50 as silencing and denying women's agency as priestesses are as rooted in the text as our own interpretations. We must inoculate ourselves from the idolatry of thinking there can only be one interpretation so we can hold ourselves accountable to our readings.28 What are the ethical consequences of our interpretations? What does it mean for our community to read the woman anointing Jesus as grateful rather than disruptive?
However, the fact that there is not one interpretation, not one fixed meaning, reminds us Luke 7:36-50 and the bible itself is a hybrid text, a crossroads text.29 I read this story of the woman anointing Jesus with ointment and her tears as a crossroads text in the way she is disruptive, but even when we read this story differently, it remains a crossroads text because that is what scripture is. Retired bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of Harvard Krister Stendahl exclaims, "What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled."30 As we move into the impact of our interpretation of this story of disruption in our own community, let us remember that ultimately in interpreting we need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled.
Disruption in Our Community
Luke 7: 36-50, this story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus, is about disruption. She disrupts Simon's guests' meal, kneeling at Jesus' feet, her unbound hair unsettling in such a setting. And instead of rebuking her, Jesus turns to Simon and the other uncomfortable guests, asking if they see this woman.
Here, we are told that this woman represents for us as Christians "proper" Christian behavior, though Simon and those at the table with Jesus are greatly disturbed by the extravagance of her actions towards a man who does not seem to care that she is a sinner. Instead of reprimanding her, instead of trying to dilute the emotion in her actions to make those at the table more comfortable, he tells them that her faith has saved her.32
What would it look for our community to have such faith? How do we translate the woman's behavior to our own contexts? With the words of this story within us, "how then shall we live?"33 To answer this question, we must return to her role as a priestess in her creation of sacred space by her very crossing of borders. She made people uncomfortable with her extravagance: shouldn't we? So, we are called to be that woman, looking for Jesus within our own community.
There are those within our communities who are in need of that prophetic love, who need to be anointed with gratitude even as we grieve for the situation in which they are. Think of those whose feet have been bloodied from walking for miles through the desert in search of food and work only to find abuse at the hands of employers and neighbors in this new land. So we are grateful for the thankless work these folk do for us, but it should be a gratitude tinged with lament because we know that theirs are feet like Jesus'. It is this lament that should be driving us into houses like Simon's, disrupting the conversation to make people uncomfortable. Those are the feet that we should wash with our tears and dry with our hair, anointing them in the knowledge that these are feet like Jesus', feet whose journey for dignity may lead to the death of detention centers and denial of human rights.
Here, we see that not only is the woman in this story the trespasser, but so his Jesus. Jesus has forgiven the woman, has released her, and so Jesus presents their story, the story of him and the woman, to those at the table with him as a radical alternative to how as Christians we are to live, a new way to strive for a better world.35 Because, that is what this story in Luke 7:36-50 is about: how to live the struggle for a better world. Yet, we are at the crossroads in this text: Jesus is telling us that we ought to be the woman here when we too often are Simon and the uncomfortable people at the table with him, more concerned with the fact that our dinner has been disturbed than Jesus' message of release for the captives. Instead, let us turn to that question that comes up for us when we read the last verse of this story:
What would it look for our community to have such faith?
1Because this sermon is for a final, and I made some formatting decisions based on this. The lengthy footnotes are to show how I am incorporating my academic work into this sermon. The formatting choice of headings is a way in which to create space for modifications if I were to use this sermon. Indenting and italicizing the biblical passages, though not proper citation format, is intended to better highlight these passages as they are the foundation for the sermon. In addition, this sermon is more intellectual than those I have preached before in part because I have not preached since attending seminary but also because the churches at which I have preached are not intellectual churches. Whether or not the church is intellectual, though, I see sermons as an important place in which to educate and encourage the congregants' exploration of texts and theologies.
2Luke 7:37, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).
3Here, I am using language and theory from Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, second edition (San Francisco: Aunt Luce Books, 1999), specifically page 102. This theory and that of Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-viewed, ed. Ingrid Kitzberger (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 267-291, which is based on Anzaldúa's theory ground my work in this sermon.
4In this section, I rely primarily on Dale Martin, "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency." Sex and the Single Savior, (Louisville/London: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 1-16.
5While many biblical scholars comment on the fact that there is no textual basis by which to name this woman as a prostitute, I draw specifically here on the work of Barbara E. Reid, "'Do You See this Woman?': A Liberative Look at Luke 7.36-50 and Strategies for Reading Other Lukan Stories against the Grain," A Feminist Companion to Luke, edited by Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickinstaff (New York: Sheffield Press, 2002), 106-120.
6While understanding this traditional way to discredit women, I still believe that we can reclaim the label prostitute in reference to these church leaders to challenge the ways in which women's greatest sin is constructed as sexual. I have not fully explored this idea, but I thought it important to mention here as a possible place from which to introduce queer theory.
7Luke 7:38, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
8First Corinthians 11:5-6, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
9I refer here to the work on 1 Corinthians and the the Acts of Thecla in exploring the ways in which women were resistant to Paul and others' misogynist understandings of women's roles within the church: Antoinette Wire, "Women Prophets in the Corinthian Church," In Conflict and Community in the Corinthian Church, Ed. J. Shannon Clarkson (New York: United Methodist Church Women's Division, 2000), 35-52; and Beate Wehn, "'Blessed Are the Bodies of the Virgins': Reflections on the Image of Paul in the Acts of Thecla," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (2001), 149-164.
10Again, this is a place in which there is room to explore the sexuality in Luke 7:36-50 with a grounding in queer theory. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to explore the queerness of this passage in this particular sermon.
11I turn here to the work of Charles H. Cosgrove, "A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the 'Sinful Woman' in Luke 7:36-50," Journal of Biblical Literature 124/4 (2005): 675-692. While Cosgrove is a professor at an evangelical seminary, I still found his work on the meaning of hair in the Greco-Roman world to be very interesting. This is a place, however, where more interpretation could have been done in light of the meaning of hair within ethnic communities today.
12Ronald J. Allen, "The Story of Jesus according to 'Luke': The Gospel of Luke," Chalice Introduction to the New Testament, ed. Dennis E. Smith (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2004), 179-180.
13Charles H. Cosgrove, "A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the 'Sinful Woman' in Luke 7:36-50," 684.
14Luke 7:41-42, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
15Luke 7:47, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
16Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "The Gospel of Luke," In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 168.
17Luke 4:18-21, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
18Liberation theologian James H. Cone writes that salvation is liberation in God of the Oppressed (Harper San Francisco 1975). Andrew Sung Park, also a liberation theologian, writes that we must complicate our understanding of sin because sin as the great equalizer does not convey the reality of the oppressed's experience as the sinned against in The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993). Here I attempt to bring both theologians into my understanding of who this woman in Luke 7:36-50 was/is.
19Jane Schaberg, "Luke," Women's Bible Commentary, expanded edition with Apocrypha, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 374.
20Luke 3:22, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
21Luke 7:38, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
22Matthew 26:8-9, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. This verse is almost identical to Mark 14:4-5 and John 12:5.
23This heading comes from Stephen Moore's work on Empire, "The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah: Representing Empire in Revelation," Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006) 123. His postcolonial reading of the text reminds us of the ways in which liberation hermeneutics can neglect the struggle within a text, that struggle within ourselves, in which we navigate resistance and assimilation.
24Dale Martin, "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency," 4.
25Jane Schaberg, "Luke," 375.
26Luke 7:49, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
27Stephen Moore, "The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah: Representing Empire in Revelation," 122.
28Dale Martin writes that interpretation does not mean that "anything goes" but rather that "...we may read texts to derive legitimate meanings" in "Introduction: The Myth of Textual Agency," 2.
29Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," 275.
30Krister Stendahl, "Why I Love the Bible: Beyond Distinctions of Intellect and Spirit," Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35.1 (2007).
31Luke 7:44-47, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
32Luke 7:50, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
33At the end of Clarice J. Martin, "The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: 'Free Slaves' and 'Subordinate Women,'" Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress), 231, we are presented with this question concerning our interpretation of the Haustafeln in the light of USAmerican history of racism and sexism. It is a question we should ask ourselves each time we read a text.
34Matthew 25:40, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
35Leticia A. Sáenz-Guardiola, "Border-Crossing and Its Redemptive Power in John 7:53-8:11: A Cultural Reading of Jesus and the Accused," 290.
36Luke 7:50, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.