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Which woman? Reimagining the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7:36-50.

Whenever the occasion arises to preach or teach on Luke 7:36-50,1 feel torn. On the one hand, this is one of richest narratives in Luke's gospel, full of vivid imagery, deeply complex social interactions, and a clear proclamation of the gospel. On the other hand, I am all too aware of the ways this text has been interpreted in the past: a shameful, sexually promiscuous woman (we are told) makes a spectacle of herselfat Jesus' feet and then receives Jesus' forgiveness, in this telling, the woman is nothing more than an object of the men's conversation, which happens literally over her head. Too often that is exactly the role she plays in our preaching and teaching of this text. The woman is an object, both sexual and theological. She is too easily disdained and dismissed.

What makes this worse is that we are familiar with the anointing stories in the other three gospels. In Matthew (Matt 26:6-13) and Mark (Mark 14:3-9), an unnamed woman pours a jar of expensive ointment over Jesus' head while he is at table with the disciples just prior to his crucifixion. There is no weeping at his feet, no unbound hair, no hint that she is known to be a sinner. To the reader with eyes to see, this woman is a Samuel-like character, who anoints the Messiah before his coronation on the cross. In fact, when his followers protest her actions, Jesus silences them, saying, "Wherever the good news is told in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." And yet, too often the anointing scene is cut out of the long Passion Sunday readings. Too often we fail to see even this woman as anything but a sinner.

Even the anointing story in John's gospel (John 1 2: 1-8) is tainted by the story in Luke. In John, Jesus is anointed by Mary of Bethany, his dear friend. She anoints his feet, pouring out her love and thanks on the one who has raised her brother from the dead. Yet we rarely read this story, either, without the lens given to us by Luke. We almost cannot see the woman who anoints Jesus in any of the Gospel texts as anything other than a "sinner" in need of forgiveness. We cannot see her as prophet, because we have too often been taught to see her as a prostitute. In her article on this passage, Monika Ottermann asks, "How could he ever do that to her?!" (1) Many have asked the same. Why did Luke choose to transform the anointing woman from the one whose dignified and poignant actions will be told "in remembrance of her" into a sinner groveling at Jesus' feet? Has Luke intentionally damaged the image of the anointing woman, either for his own theological purposes, as Ottermann suggests, or in order to make the story "more palatable to a patriarchal Greco-Roman audience," as Elisabeth Schussler Horenza contends? (2) Or is something else going on here?

This paper will seek to show that Luke's editorial choices in telling the story of the anointing are not intended to sully the image of the anointing woman. In fact, Luke uses the anointing story for the same purpose as the other evangelists: to reveal Jesus as the Messiah. However, since Luke understands Jesus' role as Messiah differently from Matthew, Mark, and John, his account of the event must necessarily be different. Luke's account of the anointing will reveal Jesus as the prophetic Messiah, whose primary purpose is the ministry of release. The anointing woman is not dismissed or degraded at all, but rather is set as an exemplar of a Christian disciple.

Which Story?--Setting the Story Straight

Few other Gospel texts have been as clear a victim of mangled interpretation and tradition as the story of the anointing woman. Since the time of Gregory the Great, Western church tradition has conflated the four anointing stories, typically resulting in a narrative in which Jesus is anointed immediately before his death by Mary Magdalene, who is depicted as a prostitute. A simple reading of the four accounts clearly shows that there is no evidence For such a reading of the anointing, or of Mary Magdalene, for that matter. In fact, a simple reading might leave one asking whether Luke's account of the anointing is related to the other three at all. Is it the case that all four evangelists shared a common source? If so, then why did Luke choose to re-write the material so dramatically? Is Luke, perhaps, describing an entirely different event than the anointing at Bethany?

These source-critical questions have been asked by numerous scholars and there is little consensus on the issue. Yet, whatever the source behind Luke's version of the anointing, he clearly made unique editorial choices. He alone chose to set an anointing earlier in the Gospel, in Galilee rather than Bethany, and to include no anointing scene near Jesus' death. Luke chose to include the detail that the woman was "known in the city to be a sinner." He chose to use this as a story about forgiveness, rather than one in which Jesus is anointed for his death. Yet, while Luke's telling of the anointing seems radically different from that of the others, its purpose is the same: the anointing woman reveals Jesus as the prophetic Messiah.

Which Woman? Understanding the Anointing Woman

Does the anointing woman anoint Jesus as the Messiah? 'There is even some debate as to whether the anointing in Mark and Matthew should be understood as a prophetic anointing of Jesus as the Messiah. The texts lack the Greek verb chrio, used for Messianic anointing. However, both evangelists write that the woman "poured the ointment on his head." This is the same language used in the LXX in 1 Sam 10:1, when Samuel anoints Saul as Israel's king. Thus while the woman's action might not be perfectly linked with messianic anointing, it certainly calls on the image of the anointing of a king.

The situation is quite different in Luke, however. As in the Gospel of John, the woman anoints Jesus' feet rather than his head. This shift removes any sense of a royal anointing from the scene. Anointing of the feet in this way was rare, though not completely unheard of, in the ancient world. However, in John, the anointing scene still carries the function of revealing Jesus as the Messiah. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus for his death, which is his ultimate Messianic function in John. In Luke, however, all vestiges of a Messianic anointing seem to be lost, leaving us again with the question of whether Luke's redactional choices have done an injustice to the anointing woman and to her act of anointing. Yet, Luke also uses the anointing to reveal Jesus as the Messiah. Unlike in the other Gospels, however, Luke's understanding of Jesus' messianic role is found primarily in Jesus' ministry of forgiveness and release.

Forgiveness, or release, is a primary theme in Luke's gospel. In this passage Jesus describes the forgiveness of sins, and one's response to such forgiveness, through a parable that compares the forgiveness of sins to the forgiveness of a monetary debt. This image harkens back to Jesus' speech in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-21), in which he declares "the year of the Lord's favor," the Jubilee described in Leviticus 25. The Jubilee year was intended to be a time in which all debts would be forgiven, people would be returned to their own land, and slaves would be made free. This year of release would restore the community to one of equality, each with their own land, none beholden to another. This, indeed, is the purpose of forgiveness as it plays out in Luke's gospel. People are forgiven (released) by God not only to experience a restored relationship with God, but also so that they will be fully included in the comm unity. As Joel Green writes," ... Luke portrays both forgiveness and healing in social terms 'Release' for Luke signifies wholeness, freedom from diabolic and social chains, acceptance." (3) This type of release is not just a psychological adjustment in which one no longer feels guilt over one's sin; rather, this type of release is something that the individual and the society experience in very real terms.

The woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 experiences just such a release through God's forgiveness. The text does not make it clear whether the woman experienced release from the debt of her sin at the table or through a previous encounter with Jesus in the city. Either way, Jesus declares her forgiven in no uncertain terms, thereby releasing her from the debt of her sin. And this release rejoins her to the community, cleanses her, and makes her whole. Again, Jesus makes this clear with his final pronouncement (used elsewhere only when someone has received physical healing), "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." The woman is sent back out into the community in "peace" or "shalom," meaning "wholeness."

The unanswered question at the end of the text is whether Simon and the others at the dinner party accept the woman as a released and restored member of the community. Barbara Reid understands the central question of the text to be, "Do you see this woman?" (4) The question is whether Simon will persist in seeing the woman only as "a sinner" or if he will now see her as a full member of the community. How Simon sees the woman at the end of the text determines whether or not Simon has been able to perceive Jesus' true identity as the one who has the power to forgive sins and restore people to wholeness. Reid notes that this same question, "Do you see this woman?" can also apply to the reader and interpreter of the text. If our primary identification of the woman is as a "sinner" or "prostitute," this indicates that we have failed to see her as one who had been forgiven and restored to wholeness. We might more aptly identify her as the woman who showed great love (v. 47), the woman who revealed Jesus' authority to forgive sins (v. 49), or the woman of great faith (v. 50). The failure to identify the woman in these ways indicates a failure on the part of the reader to acknowledge the new reality created by Jesus' authority to forgive. Thus Luke has not sullied the woman's image at all. Ultimately he has described her as a whole, fully restored member of the community. The question is whether or not the reader will persist in seeing her only as "a sinner" and thus have missed the point of the narrative and the Gospel as a whole.

Which Messiah? Jesus' Identity in Luke 7

Ultimately this text, like most passages in the Gospels, is not about the woman, but about Jesus. As noted above, this episode reveals Jesus as the one with authority to forgive sins. But this is only part of the picture of Jesus' identity that Luke draws in this section of the Gospel. Throughout chapter seven, Luke seeks to identify Jesus clearly as prophet and Messiah. The narrative of the anointing serves to reveal Jesus' identity and purpose as the prophetic Messiah.

As in much of Luke's gospel, prophetic imagery permeates chapter seven. Specifically, the narrative evokes the prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. (5) The healing of the centurion's slave mirrors the story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:1-19). The raising of the widow's son in Nain resembles the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24). The question from John's disciples (7:18-23) as to whether Jesus is the "one who is to come" could be asking either if he is the Messiah or if he is the return of the prophet Elijah whose appearance will signal Israel's restoration.

At the climax of this section is the narrative of the anointing. As the woman weeps and anoints Jesus' feet, Simon says to himself, "If this man were a prophet he would know who and what sort of woman is touching him, that she is a sinner" (v. 39). The irony of the passage is that Jesus knows exactly what Simon is thinking, showing that Jesus is, indeed, a prophet. What's more, Jesus not only knows who is touching him and that she is a sinner, he alone has the prophetic eyes that allow him to see the woman and know that her identity is no longer as "sinner," but as a fully released and restored member of the community. Thus the passage reveals Jesus' identity as the prophet whose appearance signals and enacts restoration.

Yet, the text also reveals that Jesus is "more than a prophet." While Luke emphasizes Jesus' prophetic role, Jesus' primary identity continues to be Messiah. As Green notes, "Jesus is portrayed as a prophet, but as more than a prophet; he is the long-awaited Davidic Messiah, Son of God, who fulfills in his career the destiny of a regal prophet for whom death, though necessary, is hardly the last word ." (6) Yet, while the other evangelists see Jesus revealed as Messiah most clearly in the crucifixion and resurrection, Luke sees Jesus' Messianic identity revealed most fully in his ministry of release, begun in the ministry in Galilee. It was for this purpose that Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit (4:18-21). Therefore one might argue that while Luke has moved the setting of the anointingscene from its narrative position in the other Gospels, he does not remove it from its narrative purpose. In Mark, Matthew, and John the anointing is set in the midst of Jesus' revelation as Messiah through the cross ("she has anointed me for my burial"); in Luke the anointing is set in Galilee, in the midst of the revelation of Jesus as the prophetic Messiah through the ministry of release.

Which Host?--The Woman as an Exemplar of Discipleship

Yet we are still left with a somewhat troubling picture of the woman in this scene. The woman comes to Jesus while he is reclining at table at a banquet in the house of a Pharisee. The table setting is common to all four anointing scenes. What one notices in Luke's telling, however, is the posture the woman takes. She is at his feet, presumably kneeling and hunched closely enough to his feet that her tears wet them and her hair can reach them. She is rubbing ointment into his feet. She is in a state of absolute humility. The picture of the woman in this position, presumably in a room full of men, causes some feminist interpreters to question whether Luke's treatment of women is as liberating as once believed. Once again, however, things are not entirely as they might appear, for this position of humble service is not intended to be demeaning. In Luke's gospel this is exactly the position of a disciple.

Luke's gospel has a strong focus on serving, diakoneo, and service, diakonia. (7) The verb diakoned primarily carries the sense of serving at the table. This verb is used exclusively of women in the first chapters of Luke. Beginning in Luke 12, however, both diakoned and diakonia are used by Jesus to describe the life of a disciple. In Acts diakonia is the word often used to describe the work of the apostles.

A key passage for understanding the role of serving in the life of a disciple is found in Luke 22:26-27. The setting is the table of the last supper and a dispute has just arisen among the disciples as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus replies,
  The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them: and those in authority
  over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the
  greatest among you must become like the youngest. and the leader like
  one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or
  the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among
  you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27, NRSV)


Jesus upends the role of the servant. The greatest is the one who serves in humility.

While the verb diakoneo is not used in the narrative of the anointing, the connection between table service and the woman's actions is apparent. One might see the woman as a person who has not been liberated from the traditional female role of serving and who is humiliated by her actions at a table full of men. However, the rest of the Gospel points to the fact that her response to God's forgiveness is exactly the response that God asks for from all disciples of both genders. Once again our failure to understand Jesus' words results in our inability to see. Jesus does not call his disciples only to an attitude of service or the ideal of humility; he calls them to service that actually stoops down to help another and humility that is embodied and expressed relationally. The anointing woman is a prime example of both.

Indeed, Jesus points out to Simon and the others around the table that the woman, in her humble service, has, in a sense, become greater than the host of the meal. Jesus says to Simon,
  I entered your home and you did not give me water for my feet; but
  she has watered my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
  You did not give rue a kiss, but she, since she entered, has not
  stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil but she
  anointed my feet with ointment. (Luke 7:44-46, author's translation)


As the host of the meal, Simon has not provided these acts of hospitality, but the woman has done what Simon ought to have done and more. She has offered service and hospitality to Jesus, not out of social obligation wrapped in the careful dance of benefaction, but by pouring out love and service in response to the release she has experienced. Thus the woman, in response to the forgiveness she has received, has become a servant and in serving she has shown herself to be greater than her host.

Conclusion: Who Has 'Done This' To Her?

We began with the question, "How could he ever do this to her?" Did Luke indeed take the story of the woman anointing Jesus, as written in the other Gospels, and change it in ways that served his theological purposes but ultimately demeaned the woman and, thereby, women? This essay has sought to answer that question with an emphatic "no."

Luke knew the story of the anointing from Mark; yet Luke chose to use material from oral traditions and other sources to make redactional decisions that resulted in a remarkably different story. While Luke has moved the setting of the anointing and dramatically changed both the details and the meaning of the text, he has given the anointing story a narrative purpose much like that in the other three Gospels. Specifically, Luke has used the anointing scene as a key piece to reveal Jesus' identity as the prophetic Messiah. Jesus is identified as Messiah through his ministry of release, begun in his ministry in Galilee.

The woman in Luke's anointing is described at the outset as "a sinner." Yet Luke writes the narrative in such a way that the reader discovers that "sinner" is no longer an adequate way to describe her. The woman is to be seen as released from her sins and thereby as a whole and fully restored member of the community. The question the text poses is whether Simon the Pharisee, and the reader, will see the effect of Jesus' ministry of release on the woman. If we as readers fail to see her as anything other than a sinner or a prostitute, that is the result of our failure to see, rather than of Luke's redactional choices.

Finally, the woman is presented as an exemplar of Christian discipleship. In her humble service at Jesus' feet at the table, we are to see not a humiliated woman, but rather, the picture of discipleship. Through her humility and service she becomes the greatest one at the table, apart from Jesus, because she is the one who serves. Once again, our failure to see her humble service as anything but demeaning is the result of our failure to understand Jesus' call to servant discipleship in the Gospel as a whole.

So, who has "done this" to the woman? Not Luke. In these fourteen verses Luke has presented a vision of the Gospel in miniature; he has presented the radical upending of identity and society that is created through Jesus' prophetic ministry of release. Yet the church has persisted in approaching this text with a patriarchal lens that demeans the woman as a "sinner" in a way that excludes her and thereby excludes women in general. This is why we must set the story straight. We must continue to ask the types of questions that have been posed in this essay so that not only the woman in the text, but women and men everywhere can experience Jesus' release and enter into lives of full discipleship.

(1.) Monika Ottermann, "'How could he ever do that to her?!' or, how the woman who anointed Jesus became a victim of Luke's redactional and theological principles." In Reading other-wise (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 103-116.

(2.) Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), xiii.

(3.) Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 79.

(4.) Barbara Reid, "'Do You See This Woman?' A Liberative Look at Luke 7.36-50 and Strategies for Reading Other Lukan Stories Against the Grain," in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 106-120.

(5.) For further treatment of this topic, see D.A.S. Ravens, "The Setting of Luke's Account of the Anointing: Luke 7.2-8.3," New Testament Studies 34, no. 2 (April 1, 1988), 282-292.

(6.) Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 23.

(7.) livid Karlsen Seim has an excellent treatment of diakonth and diakonia in the Gospel of Luke in chapter three of The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts, Brian McNeil, trans. (Nashville: Abingdon Press; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994).

Jennifer A. English

Pastor, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Chicago Student, Th.M. in Biblical Studies, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:English, Jennifer A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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