Book 3, Chapter 21.The Woman Which Was a Sinner.


The precise date and place of the next recorded event in this Galilean journey of the Christ are left undetermined. It can scarcely have occurred in the quiet little town of Nain, indeed, is scarcely congruous with the scene which had been there enacted. And yet it must have followed almost immediately upon it. We infer this, not only from the silence of Matthew, which in this instance might have been due, not to the temporary detention of that Evangelist in Capernaum, while the others had followed Christ to Nain, but to what may be called the sparingness of detail in the Gospel-narratives, each Evangelist relating mostly only one in a group of kindred events. But other indications determine our inference. The embassy of the Baptist’s disciples (which will be described in another connection) undoubtedly followed on the raising of the young man of Nain. This embassy would scarcely have come to Jesus in Nain. It probably reached Him on His farther Missionary journey, to which there seems some reference in the passage in the First Gospel which succeeds the account of that embassy. The actual words there recorded can, indeed, scarcely have been spoken at that time. They belong to a later period on that Mission-journey, and mark more fully developed opposition and rejection of the Christ than in those early days. Chronologically, they are in their proper place in Luke’s Gospel, where they follow in connection with that Mission of the Seventy, which, in part at least, was prompted by the growing enmity to the Person of Jesus. On the other hand, this Mission of the Seventy, is, not recorded by Matthew. Accordingly, he inserts those prophetic denunciations which, according to the plan of his Gospel, could not have been emitted, at the beginning of this Missionary journey, because it marks the beginning of that systematic opposition, the full development of which, as already stated, prompted the Mission of the Seventy.

Yet, even so, the impression left upon us by Mat_11:20-30 (which follows on the account of the Baptist’s embassy) is, that Jesus was on a journey, and it may well be that those precious words of encouragement and invitation, spoken to the burdened and wearily labouring, formed part, perhaps the substance, of His preaching on that journey. Truly these were ‘good tidings,’ and not only to those borne down by weight of conscious sinfulness or deep sorrow, who wearily toiled towards the light of far-off peace, or those dreamt-of heights where some comprehensive view might be gained of life with its labours and pangs. ‘Good news,’ also, to them who would fain have ‘learned’ according to their capacity, but whose teachers had weighted ‘the yoke of the Kingdom’ to a heavy burden, and made the Will of God to them labour, weary and unaccomplishable. But, whether or not spoken at that special time, we cannot fail to recognise their special suitableness to the ‘forgiven sinner’ in the Pharisee’s house, and their inward, even if not outward, connection with her history.

Another point requires notice. It is how, in the unfolding of His Mission to Man, the Christ progressively placed Himself in antagonism to the Jewish religious thought of His time, from out of which He had historically sprung. In this part of His earthly course the antagonism appeared, indeed, so to speak, in a positive rather than negative form, that is, rather in what He affirmed than in what He combated, because the opposition to Him was not yet fully developed; whereas in the second part of His course it was, for a similar reason, rather negative than positive. From the first this antagonism was there in what He taught and did; and it appeared with increasing distinctness in proportion as He taught. We find it in the whole spirit and bearing of what he did and said – in the house at Capernaum, in the Synagogues, with the Gentile Centurion, at the gate of Nain, and especially here, in the history of the much forgiven woman who had much sinned. A Jewish Rabbi could not have so acted and spoken; he would not even have understood Jesus; nay, a Rabbi, however gentle and pitiful, would in word and deed have taken precisely the opposite direction from that of the Christ.

As Gregory expresses it, this is perhaps a history more fit to be wept over than commented upon. For comments seem so often to interpose between the simple force of a narrative and our hearts, and few events in the Gospel-history have been so blunted and turned aside as this history, through verbal controversies and dogmatic wrangling.

The first impression on our minds is, that the history itself is but a fragment. We must try to learn from its structure, where and how it was broken off. We understand the infinite delicacy that left her unnamed, the record of whose ‘much forgiveness’ and great love had to be joined to that of her much sin. And we mark, in contrast, the coarse clumsiness which, without any reason for the assertion, to meet the cravings of morbid curiosity, or for saint-worship, has associated her history with the name of Mary Magdalene. Another, and perhaps even more painful, mistake is the attempt of certain critics to identify this history with the much later anointing of Christ at Bethany, and to determine which of the two is the simpler, and which the more ornate – which the truer of the accounts, and whence, or why, each of the Evangelists has framed his distinctive narrative. Yet the two narratives have really nothing in common, save that in each case there was a ‘Simon’ – perhaps the commonest of Jewish names; a woman who anointed – and that Christ, and those who were present, spoke and acted in accordance with other passages in the Gospel-history: that is, true to their respective histories. But, such twofold anointing – the first, at the beginning of His works of mercy, of the Feet by a forgiven, loving sinner on whom the Sun had just risen; the second, of His Head, by a loving disciple, when the full-orbed Sun was setting in blood, at the close of His Ministry – is, as in the twofold purgation of the Temple at the beginning and close of His Work, only like the completing of the circle of His Life.

The invitation of Simon the Pharisee to his table does not necessarily indicate, that he had been impressed by the teaching of Jesus, any more than the supposed application to his case of what is called the ‘parable’ of the much and the little forgiven debtor implies, that he had received from the Saviour spiritual benefit, great or small. If Jesus had taught in the ‘city,’ and, as always, irresistibly drawn to Him the multitude, it would be only in accordance with the manners of the time if the leading Pharisee invited the distinguished ‘Teacher’ to his table. As such he undoubtedly treated Him. The question in Simon’s mind was, whether He was more than ‘Teacher’ – even ‘Prophet;’ and that such question rose within him indicates, not only that Christ openly claimed a position different from that of Rabbi, and that His followers regarded Him at least as a prophet, but also, within the breast of Simon, a struggle in which strong Jewish prejudice was bearing down the mighty impression of Christ’s Presence.

They were all sitting, or rather ‘lying’ – the Mishnah sometimes also calls it ‘sitting down and leaning’ – around the table, the body resting on the coach, the feet turned away from the table in the direction of the wall, while the left elbow rested on the table. And now, from the open courtyard, up the verandah-step, perhaps through, an antechamber, and by the open door, passed the figure of a woman into the festive reception-room and dining-hall – the teraqlin (triclinium) of the Rabbis. How did she obtain access? Had she mingled with the servants, or was access free to all – or had she, perhaps, known the house and its owner?’ It little matters – as little as whether she ‘had been,’ or ‘was’ up to that day, ‘a sinner,’ in the terrible acceptation of the term. But we must bear in mind the greatness of Jewish prejudice against any conversation with woman, however lofty her character, fully to realise the absolute incongruity on the part of such a woman in seeking access to the Rabbi, Whom so many regarded as the God-sent Prophet.

But this, also, is evidential, that here we are far beyond the Jewish standpoint. To this woman it was not incongruous, because to her Jesus had, indeed, been the Prophet sent from God. We have said before that this story is a fragment; and here, also, as in the invitation of Simon to Jesus, we have evidence of it. She had, no doubt, heard His words that day. What He had said would be, in substance, if not in words: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…. Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart…. Ye shall find rest unto your souls….’ This was to her the Prophet sent from God with the good news that opened even to her the Kingdom of Heaven, and laid its yoke upon her, not bearing her down to very hell, but easy of wear and light of burden. She knew that it was all as He said, in regard to the heavy load of her past; and, as she listened to those Words, and looked on that Presence, she learned to believe that it was all as He had promised to the heavy burdened. And she had watched, and followed Him afar off to the Pharisee’s house. Or, perhaps, if it be thought that she had not that day heard for herself, still, the sound of that message must have reached her, and wakened the echoes of her heart. And still it was: Come to Me; learn of Me; I will give rest. What mattered all else to her in the hunger of her soul, which had just tasted of that Heavenly Bread?

The shadow of her form must have fallen on all who sat at meat. But none spake; nor did she heed any but One. Like heaven’s own music, as Angels’ songs that guide the wanderer home, it still sounded in her ears. There are times when we forget all else in one absorbing thought; when men’s opinions – nay, our own feelings of shame – are effaced by that one Presence; when the ‘Come to Me; learn of Me; I will give you rest,’ are the all in all to us. Then it is, that the fountains of the Great Deep within are broken open by the wonder-working rod, with which God’s Messenger to us – the better Moses – has struck our hearts. She had come that day to ‘learn’ and to ‘find rest.’ What mattered it to her who was there, or what they thought? There was only One Whose Presence she dared not encounter – not from fear of Him, but from knowledge of herself. It was He to Whom she had come. And so she ‘stood behind at His Feet.’ She had brought with her an alabastron (phial, or flask, commonly of alabaster) of perfume. It is a coarse suggestion, that this had originally been bought for a far different purpose. We know that perfumes were much sought after, and very largely in use. Some, such as true balsam, were worth double their weight in silver; others, like the spikenard (whether as juice or unguent, along with other ingredients), though not equally costly, were also ‘precious.’ We have evidence that perfumed oils – notably oil of roses, and of the iris plant, but chiefly the mixture known in antiquity as foliatum, were largely manufactured and used in Palestine. A flask with this perfume was worn by women round the neck, and hung down below the breast (the ṣeloḥiṯ shel palyeton). So common was its use as to be allowed even on the Sabbath. This ‘flask’ (possibly the ḥumarta de p̱ilon of Gitt. 69b) – not always of glass, but of silver or gold, probably often also of alabaster – containing ‘palyeton’ (evidently, the foliatum of Pliny) was used both to sweeten the breath and perfume the person. Hence it seems at least not unlikely, that the alabastron which she brought, who loved so much, was none other than the ‘flask of foliatum,’ so common among Jewish woman.

As she stood behind Him at His Feet, reverently bending, a shower of tears, like sudden, quick summer-rain, that refreshes air and earth, ‘bedewed’ His Feet. As if surprised, or else afraid to awaken His attention, or defile Him by her tears, she quickly wiped them away with the long tresses of her hair that had fallen down and touched Him, as she bent over His Feet. Nay, not to wash them in such impure waters had she come, but to show such loving gratefulness and reverence as in her poverty she could, and in her humility she might offer. And, now that her faith had grown bold in His Presence, she is continuing to kiss those Feet which had brought to her the ‘good tidings of peace,’ and to anoint them out of the alabastron round her neck. And still she spake not, nor yet He. For, as on her part silence seemed most fitting utterance, so on His, that He suffered it in silence was best and most fitting answer to her.

Another there was whose thoughts, far other than hers or the Christ’s, were also unuttered. A more painful contrast than that of ‘the Pharisee’ in this scene, can scarcely be imagined. We do not insist that the designation ‘this Man,’ given to Christ in his unspoken thoughts, or the manner in which afterwards he replied to the Saviour’s question by a supercilious ‘I suppose,’ or ‘presume,’ necessarily imply contempt. But they certainly indicate the mood of his spirit. One thing, at least, seems now clear to this Pharisee: If ‘this Man,’ this strange, wandering, popular idol, with His strange, novel ways and words, Whom in politeness he must call ‘Teacher,’ Rabbi, were, a Prophet, He would have known who the woman was, and, it He had known who she was, then would He never have allowed such approach. So do we, also, often argue as to what He would do, if He knew. But He does know; and it is just because He knoweth that He doeth what, from our lower standpoint, we cannot understand. Had He been a Rabbi, He would certainly, and had he been merely a Prophet, He would probably, have repelled such approach. The former, if not from self-righteousness, yet from ignorance of sin and forgiveness; the latter, because such homage was more than man’s due. But, He was more than a prophet – the Saviour of sinners; and so she might quietly weep over His Feet, and then quickly wipe away the ‘dew’ of the ‘better morning,’ and then continue to kiss His Feet and to anoint them.

And yet Prophet He also was, and in far fuller sense than Simon could have imagined. For, He had read Simon’s unspoken thoughts. Presently He would show it to him; yet not, as we might, by open reproof, that would have put him to shame before his guests, but with infinite delicacy towards His host, and still in manner that he could not mistake. What follows is not, as generally supposed, a parable but an illustration. Accordingly, it must in no way be pressed. With this explanation vanish all the supposed difficulties about the Pharisees being ‘little forgiven,’ and hence ‘loving little.’ To convince Simon of the error of his conclusion, that, if the life of that woman had been known, the prophet must have forbidden her touch of love, Jesus entered into the Pharisee’s own modes of reasoning. Of two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, who would best love the creditor who had freely forgiven them? Though to both the debt might have been equally impossible of discharge, and both might love equally, yet a Rabbi would, according to his Jewish notions, say, that he would love most to whom most had been forgiven. If this was the undoubted outcome of Jewish theology – the so much for so much – let it be applied to the present case. If there were much benefit, there would be much love; if little benefit, little love. And conversely: in such case much love would argue much benefit; little love, small benefit. Let him then apply the reasoning by marking this woman, and contrasting her conduct with his own. To wash the feet of a guest, to give him the kiss of welcome, and especially to anoint him, were not, indeed, necessary attentions at a feast. All the more did they indicate special care, affection, and respect. None of these tokens of deep regard had marked the merely polite reception of Him by the Pharisee. But, in a twofold climax of which the intensity can only be indicated, the Saviour now proceeds to show, how different it had been with her, to whom, for the first time, He now turned! On Simon’s own reasoning, then, he must have received but little, she much benefit. Or, to apply the former illustration, and now to reality: ‘Forgiven have been her sins, the many’ – not in ignorance, but with knowledge of their being ‘many.’ This, by Simon’s former admission, would explain and account for her much love, as the effect of much forgiveness. On the other hand – though in delicacy the Lord does not actually express it – this other inference would also hold true, that Simon’s little love showed that ‘little is being forgiven.’

What has been explained will dispose of another controversy which, with little judgment and less taste, has been connected with this marvellous history. It must not be made a question as between Romanist and Protestant, nor as between rival dogmatists, whether love had any meritorious part in her forgiveness, or whether, as afterwards stated, her ‘faith’ had ‘saved’ her. Undoubtedly, her faith had saved her. What she had heard from His lips, what she knew of Him, she had believed. She had believed in ‘the good tidings of peace’ which He had brought, in the love of God, and His Fatherhood of pity to the most sunken and needy; in Christ, as the Messenger of Reconciliation and Peace with God; in the Kingdom of Heaven which He had so suddenly and unexpectedly opened to her, from out of whose unfolded golden gates Heaven’s light had fallen upon her, Heaven’s voices had come to her. She had believed it all: the Father, the Son – Revealer, the Holy Ghost – Revealing. And it had saved her. When she came to that feast, and stood behind with humbled, loving gratefulness and reverence of heart-service, she was already saved. She needed not to be forgiven: she had been forgiven. And it was because she was forgiven that she bedewed His Feet with the summer-shower of her heart, and, quickly wiping away the flood with her tresses, continued kissing and anointing them. All this was the impulse of her heart, who, having come in heart, still came to Him, and learned of Him, and found rest to her soul. In that early springtide of her new-born life, it seemed that, as on Aaron’s rod, leaf, bud, and flower were all together in tangled confusion of rich forthbursting. She had not yet reached order and clearness; perhaps, in the fulness of her feelings, knew not how great were her blessings, and felt not yet that conscious rest which grows out of faith in the forgiveness which it obtains.

And this was now the final gift of Jesus to her. As formerly for the first time He had turned, so now for the first time He spoke to her – and once more with tenderest delicacy. ‘Thy sins have been forgiven’ – not, are forgiven, and not now – ‘the many.’ Nor does He now heed the murmuring thoughts of those around, who cannot understand Who this is that forgiveth sins also. But to her, and truly, though not literally, to them also, and to us, He said in explanation and application of it all: ‘Thy faith has saved thee: go into peace.’ Our logical dogmatics would have had it: ‘go in peace;’ more truly He, ‘into peace.’ And so she, the first who had come to Him for spiritual healing, the first of an unnumbered host, went out into the better light, into peace of heart, peace of faith, peace of rest, and into the eternal peace of the Kingdom of Heaven, and of the Heaven of the kingdom hereafter and for ever.