THE WOMAN AND THE PHARISEEWhy did Jesus accept the woman who anointed His feet but not the Pharisee? What did she offer to Jesus that was so precious, and what can we learn from her actions? Have you offered your most precious thing to the Lord?This Bible study compares the characters of the sinful woman and the Pharisee, as recorded in Luke 7:36-50. The difference is one gained the acceptance of Christ, but the other did not. From this incident, we can learn the importance of recognizing our sins, the need to seek God’s acceptance, and the heart to offer our most precious thing to Jesus.
In the incident recorded in Luke 7:36-50, a woman of questionable background comes to the house of a Pharisee, where Jesus has been invited to eat, and anoints His feet with fragrant oil. Contrary to what people expect, the ill-reputed woman gains Jesus’ approval, but the esteemed Pharisee receives a reprimand from Jesus and a lecture on love and forgiveness.
What can we learn from this woman who, of all people, found the acceptance of God?
RECOGNIZE OUR OWN SINS
The Woman Recognized Her Sin
In this passage, this woman is referred to as a “sinner” twice, and Jesus Himself states that she has many sins. When the Bible refers to a woman as a sinner, she is probably a prostitute or an adulteress. The Pharisees shunned women like her, because they did not associate with sinners. In fact, the word Pharisee means “separated one.” The scribes and Pharisees even criticized Jesus for eating with sinners (Mk 2:16-17).
We can infer from these facts that this woman came to the Pharisee’s house as an unwanted guest. Why did this woman brave the Pharisee’s scorn and come to his home uninvited? Because she had something of utmost importance to do—to seek Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness.
She was a sinner. She knew it, and so did everyone else. She probably heard about the “Son of Man” who had “power on earth to forgive sins,” who befriended tax collectors, touched lepers, and healed the sick. Perhaps she thought there would be some way to erase her tainted past and for her to live a new life.
So she came to Jesus, weeping at His feet for her sins, wiping His feet with her hair, and anointing His feet with oil.
The Pharisee Did Not
When the Pharisee saw this, he thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know what kind of woman was touching him.” It’s interesting how the Pharisee immediately focused on this woman’s sin, rather than the beautiful act that she was performing on Jesus. All he could think was, “This woman is a sinner. She shouldn’t be touching Jesus.”
But was the Pharisee so blameless himself? Despite their respected positions in society, Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are all full of dead men’s bones and uncleanness” (Mt 23:27).
On the outside, they unfailingly observed all the Mosaic laws, but on the inside, they were full of hypocrisy, pride, and evil. Jesus revealed their pretense for what it was—they were not holy at all, but in fact evil, because their hearts were not right with God.
In God’s eyes, the Pharisees were also sinners. The only difference between the woman and the Pharisee was that the woman’s sin was visible, while the Pharisee’s sin was not. But the woman differed from the Pharisee in that she recognized her sin and her need for forgiveness, while the Pharisee was blind to his own sin and could only focus on the sin of others.
Examine Ourselves and Follow Jesus
This is something that we can all learn from this woman: to recognize our sin and our need for forgiveness. Most of the time, though, we are more like the Pharisee—blind to our faults but having perfect vision with regard to the faults of others.
As husbands or wives, we lament about how our spouse does not understand us and communicate with us. As workers, we notice the colleague who arrives to work late and sneaks out early. As church members, we notice the brother who skips Sabbath or the sister who tiptoes in late. In our hearts, we might even secretly think, “Thank God I’m not like that.”
If we find ourselves with this kind of attitude, we should realize that we’re treading on dangerous ground. The natural result of not recognizing our sin is that we begin to think that we’re better than we really are, and we start to despise others.
So what must we do to become more like this woman and less like the Pharisee?
The first thing we must do is to examine ourselves constantly. Most of us are pretty careful about our appearance; we notice if we get a spot on our face, a mole on our arm, or a gray hair. We want to get rid of anything that looks unsightly or ugly.
If only we were as careful about our character as we are with our physical appearance! If we put in the same amount of effort in self-examination as we do on our physical appearance, we would be able to catch our “character defects” early on and do something about them.
The second thing we must do is to focus on ourselves and on improving our relationship with God, rather than focusing on others. We all tend to get sidetracked by the people around us; even the apostle Peter had the same problem.
During their last conversation together, Jesus told Peter how he would die for the Lord and commanded him, “Follow Me.” Then Peter, seeing “the disciple whom Jesus loved” following them, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (Jn 21:20-22).
We also tend to ask the same questions: “Lord, what about this brother that’s not following your commands?” “What about that sister who is living a sinful life?” But Jesus tells us, “What is that to you? You follow Me.” We don’t have to worry about what the people around us are doing (or not doing). Our first and foremost responsibility is to follow Jesus.
SEEK GOD’S ACCEPTANCE
During Jesus’ ministry, many people sought Jesus to grant them a “boon”—food, healing, exorcism, etc. But this woman was one of the few who asked Him for forgiveness. She was willing to enter a Pharisee’s house uninvited and face his disapproval (and probably the other guests’ as well)—all to gain Jesus’ acceptance.
In contrast, the Pharisees’ goal was to seek praise from man. Jesus said, “But all their works they do to be seen by men…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation” (Mt 23:4-7, 14).
To a certain degree, we all struggle between striving to gain the acceptance of God and striving to gain the acceptance of man. We might say, “Who cares what people think?” but in our heart, we do care. Nobody wants to be shunned or looked at strangely; everyone wants to be accepted and valued.
Much of society is driven by “what people think.” But as children of God, we should constantly seek the acceptance and approval of God in everything that we do. We need to stop looking at others and start looking at God instead.
The Pharisees fell into the dangerous trap of false humility and used this to gain the praise of man. This is something that we need to be careful of. Some of us may have received certain responsibilities in church, whether we are religious education teachers, sermon deliverers, or holy work coordinators.
Sometimes we will garner the praise of others through our work. The dangerous thing is when we start to do the work not for God’s acceptance or His glory but for the praise of man. This is something that only we know deep in our hearts—no one else except God knows the real motivation behind why we do certain things.
We need to ask God continually to renew our hearts so that we are truly serving Him for His glory and His acceptance. This is not something we can change from the outside; it’s something that we need to change from the inside, from our hearts. And this isn’t something that we have the power to do ourselves; we need to ask God to change our hearts.
That is why King David constantly prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). We need to ask God to create the desire within us to live for His approval.
OFFER OUR MOST PRECIOUS THING TO JESUS
This woman brought with her “an alabaster flask of fragrant oil” to anoint Jesus. Most likely, the oil was spikenard, a type of very costly perfume. Spikenard was usually imported from India in alabaster boxes (Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 1009). A flask of spikenard could cost up to a year’s worth of wages (Jn 12:5).
In those days, when special guests arrived, their host would sometimes anoint their head with oil. What was remarkable about this woman’s action was that she used this precious oil not on Jesus’ head, but on His feet. Not only did she humble herself by washing Jesus’ feet, she used her most prized possessions—her hair and her precious oil—to wipe and anoint His feet, the most humble part of His body.
In contrast, the Pharisee did not even offer Jesus the most basic hospitality (Lk 7:44-46): no water for His feet, no kiss, and no oil for His head. By that time, opposition from the scribes and Pharisees had grown, and the Pharisee’s “motive may have been to entrap Jesus rather than to learn from Him” (NIV Study Bible, p. 1550).
What about us? Jesus gave us His most precious thing—His life in atonement for our sin. Have we in turn given Him the most precious thing in our lives, or have we left Him by the wayside, not extending to Him even a welcome into our lives?
We all need to ask ourselves, what is the most precious thing in our lives? Money, material possessions, time, plans for the future, our desires?
It’s not necessarily that these things are bad in themselves, but when they begin to take the place of God in our hearts and in our lives, they hinder our walk with God. God knows that there is room enough in our heart for only one “most precious thing.” If it’s not Jesus, then it’s something else.
That’s why Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and mammon (money). In the same vein, we cannot serve both God and something else—our plans, our desires, our relationships, or our possessions.
Jesus tells us the secret of life, the true meaning of life: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s sake will save it” (Mk 8:35). In essence, we need to give up our lives to Jesus and to live for Him. This is the secret to gaining eternal life. If we live our lives for Jesus now, we will receive eternal life in return.
That’s one good investment.
Jesus describes an interesting phenomenon at the end of this incident, “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). This woman loved much, and because of this God forgave her many sins.
But those whose sins have been forgiven little, in turn, love little. Those who realize the greatness of their sins are more capable of loving Jesus in return. But those who do not feel like they have many sins to forgive find it hard to love Jesus (and the people around them).
It’s easy to become self-righteous and look down on others who are struggling with sin when we believe that we observe His commandments. But it’s important that we have not only the outward actions but also the inner heart of love.
In order to achieve this, we can learn from this woman’s virtues. Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Lk 7:50).
Today, we, too, will be saved if we also recognize our sin, seek God’s approval, and offer to Him our best. May our Lord Jesus fill us with His Holy Spirit so that we can finish this heavenly race victoriously. May all the praise and glory be unto Jesus’ name.