similar to stories reported in Mt 26:6-13, Mk
14:3-9, and Jn 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.
Debt—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
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 suggests
she might be a widow, but Simon's neglect may also be part
of his determination to withhold signs of hospitality and respect
The woman, however, performs for Jesus all the signs of hospitality
that the Pharisee quite intentionally omitted: she provides
water for cleansing (v. 44), tenders a kiss of greeting (v.
45), and provides perfumed oil for anointing (v. 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.
Contemporary Western commitments to equality as a cultural
value often make it difficult to perceive other cultures respectfully
on their own terms. In today's story, what the woman has done
for Jesus is much more important than her alleged reputation
J. Pilch is a biblcal scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1997. pp. 97-99.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/