The Woman Who Anointed Jesus

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the Bible


In Luke7:36-50, Luke mentions the account of a woman who washed Jesus feet while he was a dinner guest at the home of Simon the Pharisee. What more do we know about this woman? What is the context of the scene? What kind of oil might she have had in her box? What did she do after this?
Kathy C.


What we know for sure about this woman is only what is written in these verses. She came to a dinner party and washed Jesus' feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and poured ointment all over them. There is much that can be read "between the lines." For example, this story immediately follows a comment about wisdom and an accusation that Jesus eats with publicans and sinners.

The first interesting point is that there is no outrage over the woman's arrival. One scholar suggests that poor people were allowed to come to large banquets for the leftovers. Her presence, then, was not the problem. The problem is that she touched a guest. She is identified as a sinner -- one who broke the law of Moses. There were many options for sinning, though prostitution is most commonly assumed (and it is only an assumption). Whatever her sin, she was well known for it, and she exhibited great courage in even daring to enter a Pharisee's house. But high, upstanding, moral citizens, like Pharisees, didn't associate with sinners. It was unclean. This was Simon's problem with Jesus. Jesus didn't obey these rules, and that made Simon not want to associate with Jesus (which is why he didn't kiss him when Jesus arrived, etc.). Not only was it unacceptable for the unclean woman to be so close, it was even more deplorable for her to make physical contact.

The fact that the woman's hair was loose is generally seen as a sign of her stature in the community. "Nice" women wore their hair bound up; but even this is not a "for sure" thing. She brought an "alabaster box of ointment." Most likely this was really an alabaster jar of oil. Such a jar would have been a vase of white, fine-grained gypsum. The jar would have had a long neck, which would have to be broken to get at its contents. That meant the oil had to be used all at once. The oil is not identified, although the fact that it was kept in such a lovely jar might attest to its value.

Since this was a banquet or a fancy meal, all the guests would have left their sandals at the door and would be reclining on couches arranged in a circle around the food. This would have given the woman easy access to Jesus' feet, which she kept washing, drying, kissing, and anointing. All the verbs are in the present tense, indicating continuous action. After Jesus rebuked Simon with the parable of the debtors, he said to him, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven." His words could mean that because of what she had been doing to his feet, now her sins were forgiven. Or they could mean that it was obvious that her sins had been forgiven because of what she had been doing to his feet. In either case, when he repeats to her that her sins are forgiven, it's like saying, "Indeed, your sins have been forgiven." Then he tells her to go in peace. We assume that she does, and technically, that's the last we know of her.

Many have assumed that this was Mary Magdalene, in part, because she is mentioned at the beginning of chapter 8 as being one of the women who were following along with Jesus. It says "seven devils" went out of her. Since we've just read about a sinning woman, it's easy to see the connection. But demon possession was not necessarily considered sinful. Furthermore, we have no evidence of the "sinning" woman becoming one of Jesus' followers. It is also tempting to see this incident as a variation on the anointing stories in the other gospels (see Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). Unfortunately, all of the others occur just before Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. In contrast, Luke describes a totally different setting and has a different point to make. (Luke does not have another anointing before Jesus' death.) The purpose of this account is once again to demonstrate Jesus' authority to forgive sins and to demonstrate that God is no respecter of persons. Divine forgiveness is readily available to any repentant heart.

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