And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)A woman in the city, which was a sinner.—The word is clearly used as pointing to the special sin of unchastity. The woman was known in the city as plying there her sinful and hateful calling. The question who she was must be left unanswered. Two answers have, however, been given. (1) The widespread belief that she was Mary Magdalene—shown in the popular application of the term “Magdalen” to a penitent of this class—has absolutely not a single jot or tittle of evidence in Scripture. Nor can there be said to be anything like even a tradition in its favour. The earliest Fathers of the Church are silent. Origen discusses and rejects it. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine are doubtful. It first gained general acceptance through the authority of Gregory the Great. The choice of this narrative in the Gospel for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene stamped it as with the sanction of the Western Church. The omission of that feast from the calendar of the Prayer Book of 1552 shows that the English Reformers at least hesitated, if they did not decide against it. We may note further (a) that if the popular belief were true we should have expected some hint of it on the occurrence of the name of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:3; (b) that the description given of that Mary, as one out of whom had been cast “seven devils,” though not incompatible with a life of impurity, does not naturally suggest it; (c) that, on the assumption of identity, it is difficult to say when the “devils” had been cast out. Was it before she came with the ointment, or when our Lord spake the words, “Thy sins are forgiven thee?” It is obvious that the conduct of the woman in the Pharisee’s house was very different from the wild frenzy of a demoniac. (2) The belief adopted by some interpreters, and more or less generally received in the Church of Rome, that the woman was none other than Mary the sister of Lazarus, who, on this hypothesis, is identified also with Mary Magdalene, is even more baseless. The inference that when St. John speaks of Mary of Bethany as “that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment,” must refer to the previous anointing which St. Luke narrates, and not to that which St. John himself records (John 12:3), is almost fantastic in its arbitrariness; and it will seem to most minds inconceivable that such a one as the sister of Lazarus, who appears in Luke 10:42 as “having chosen the good part,” could so shortly before have been leading the life of a harlot of the streets. Occurring as the narrative does in St. Luke only, it is probable enough that the “woman which was a sinner” became known to the company of devout women named in Luke 8:1-3, and that the Evangelist derived his knowledge of the facts from them. His reticence—possibly their reticence—as to the name was, under the circumstances, at once natural and considerate.
When she knew that Jesus . . .—The words imply that she had heard of Him—perhaps had listened to Him. She may have heard of His compassion for the widow of Nain in her sorrow. She might have been drawn by the ineffable pity and tenderness of His words and looks. She would show her reverence as she could.
Brought an alabaster box of ointment.—See Note on Matthew 26:7. There is not the same stress laid here, as in the anointing by Mary of Bethany, on the preciousness of the ointment; but we may believe that it was relatively as costly. Passages like Proverbs 7:17, Isaiah 3:24, suggest the thought that then, as perhaps in all ages, the lavish and luxurious use of perfumes characterised the unhappy class to which the woman belonged. The ointment may have been purchased for far other uses than that to which it was now applied.
Which was a sinner - Who was depraved or wicked. This woman, it seems, was known to be a sinner - perhaps an abandoned woman or a prostitute. It is certain that she had much to be forgiven, and she had probably passed her life in crime. There is no evidence that this was the woman commonly called Mary Magdalene.
An alabaster-box ... - See the notes at Mark 14:3.
an alabaster box of ointment—a perfume vessel, in some cases very costly (Joh 12:5). "The ointment has here a peculiar interest, as the offering by a penitent of what had been an accessory in her unhallowed work of sin" [Alford].Matthew 26:6-13 Mark 14:3-9 John 12:1-3, I cannot tell. The histories agree scarcely in any thing, unless in the bringing the alabaster box of ointment, and the anointing our Saviour’s feet, whereas there was nothing in those countries more ordinary. That anointing was done in Bethany, within two miles of Jerusalem, this in Galilee. That in the house of one Simon the leper this in the house of one Simon a Pharisee. That a little, this a great while, before our Saviour’s passion. At that Judas was offended, at this Simon the Pharisee was offended. There Christ vindicates the woman from one head of argument, here from another. Questionless this is another quite different piece of history.
And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner; that is, a remarkable sinner; it is a word generally so used, and, applied to women, signifies a prostitute, or at least one of an ill report as to chastity.
Was, refers here to the time past, though lately past; she had lately been infamous and notorious, but it appeareth by what followeth that she was not so now, otherwise than in the opinion and vogue of the people; according to whose opinion, though uncharitable enough, Quae semel fuit mala, semper praesumitur esse mala in eodem genere mali, A person who hath once been bad is always presumed so to be, through their ignorance of the power of Divine grace in changing the heart, or their malice against and envy towards those whose hearts they see so changed. But whatever this woman had been, it seems God had affected her heart with the word which Christ had preached, and filled it with the pure love of God and Christ, instead of its former fullness of impure love, and made her sins as bitter as they had been formerly pleasant to her.
She hearing Christ was eating meat at the house of Simon the Pharisee, makes no noise, but cometh behind him, bringing an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with her tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Weeping in the sense of her sins, and so plentifully as she washed the feet of Christ with her tears, spoke a broken and a contrite heart. Wiping them with her hair; her hair, with which she had offended through wantonness, plaiting it, and adorning herself by the dress of it to allure her lovers, she now useth to testify her abhorrence of her former courses.
And kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. The kiss is a symbol of love, and not of love only, but of subjection and worship; by this she both showed her love to Christ, and also her subjection to him, she kissed Christ in the psalmist’s sense, Psalm 2:12. It was not a kiss of love only, but of reverence and subjection, like Joseph’s kiss to Jacob, Genesis 50:1, Moses’s kiss to Jethro, Exodus 18:7; nay, of the highest reverence, for such was the kiss of the feet. And to testify her adoration of him: thus the idolaters kissed the calves, Hosea 13:2, and Baal. 1 Kings 19:18. Washing and anointing with oil, was a common compliment they used in those countries for cleansing and cooling the feet. She had been a great sinner, she now shows the profoundest sorrow, greatest love, humility, subjection, &c. But some may say, How could she come behind him, sitting at meat, and do this? While we sit at meat our feet are before us. This confirmeth the notion I mentioned before, in my notes on Matthew 26:20, concerning the Jewish manner of sitting at meat, which was kneeling and resting their bodies upon their legs leaning backwards: admitting that, all that we here read of this woman was very easy; for his legs being thrust out backward, the soles of his feet were turned up, and she might with convenience enough come at them behind him to wash, and to wipe, and to anoint them, which it is hard to conceive how she could do, admitting him to have sat as we do, putting our feet forward under the table. Luke 8:2 under another character; and is a different person, who had not been taken notice of by the evangelist before; nor Mary the sister of Lazarus, who is said to anoint the feet of Christ, and wipe them with her hair, John 12:3. The character given of this woman, does not seem so well to agree with her; at least, the fact here recorded, cannot be the same with that; for this was in Galilee, and that in Bethany; this in the house of Simon the Pharisee, that in the house of Lazarus; this was some time before Christ's death, and after this he went a circuit through every city and village, that was but six days before his death, and after which he never went from those parts; nor is this account the same with the history, recorded in Matthew 26:6 for that fact was done in Bethany also, this in Galilee; that in the house of Simon: the leper, this in the house of Simon the Pharisee; that was but two days before the death of Christ, this a considerable time before; the ointment that woman poured, was poured upon his head, this upon his feet: who this woman was, is not certain, nor in what city she dwelt; it seems to be the same in which the Pharisee's house was; and was no doubt one of the cities of Galilee, as Naim, Capernaum, or some other at no great distance from these:
which was a sinner; a notorious sinner, one that was known by all to have been a person of a wicked, life and conversation; a lewd woman, a vile prostitute, an harlot, commonly reputed so: the Arabic word here used, signifies both a sinner and a whore (k); and so the word, sinners, seems to be used elsewhere by Luke; see Luke 15:1 compared with Matthew 21:31. Some think she was a Gentile, Gentiles being reckoned by the Jews sinners, and the worst of sinners; but this does not appear:
when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house; having observed it herself, that he was invited by him, and went with him, or being informed of it by others,
brought an alabaster box of ointment: ointment was used to be put in vessels made of "alabaster", which kept it pure and incorrupt; and this stone was found about Damascus, (l) so that there might be plenty of it in Judea; at least it might be easily had, and such boxes might be common; and as this woman appears to have been a lewd person, she might have this box of ointment by her to anoint herself with, that she might recommend herself to her gallants. The historian (m) reports, that
"Venus gave to Phaon an alabaster box with ointment, with which Phaon, being anointed, became the most beautiful of men, and the women of Mitylene were taken with the love of him.''
If this box had been provided with such a view; it was now used to another and different purpose.And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)Luke 7:37-38. Ἥτις ἦν ἐν τ. πόλει ἁμαρτ.] According to this arrangement (see the critical remarks): who in the city was a sinner: she was in the city a person practising prostitution. See on ἁμαρτωλός in this sense, Wetstein in loc.; Dorvill, ad Char. p. 220. Comp. on John 8:7. The woman through the influence of Jesus (it is unknown how; perhaps only by hearing His preaching and by observation of His entire ministry) had attained to repentance and faith, and thereby to moral renewal. Now the most fervent love and reverence of gratitude to her deliverer urge her to show Him outward tokens of these sentiments. She does not speak, but her tears, etc., are more eloquent than speech, and they are understood by Jesus. The imperfect ἦν does not stand for the pluperfect (Kuinoel and others), but Luke narrates from the standpoint of the public opinion, according to which the woman still was (Luke 7:39) what she, and that probably not long before, had been. The view, handed down from ancient times in the Latin Church (see Sepp, L. J. II. p. 281 ff.; Schegg in loc.), and still defended by Lange, to whom therefore the πόλις is Magdala, which identifies the woman with Mary Magdalene (for whose festival the narrative before us is the lesson), and further identifies the latter with the sister of Lazarus, is, though adopted even by Hengstenberg, just as groundless (according to Luke 8:2, moreover, morally inadmissible) as the supposition that the πόλις in the passage before us is Jerusalem (Paulus in his Comment. u. Exeg. Handb.; in his Leben Jesu: Bethany). Nain may be meant, Luke 7:11 (Kuinoel). It is safer to leave it indefinite as the city in which dwelt the Pharisee in question.
ὀπίσω παρὰ τ. πόδ. αὐτ.] According to the well-known, custom at meals, Jesus reclined, with naked feet, and these extended behind Him, at table.
ἤρξατο] vividness of description attained by making conspicuous the first thing done.
τῆς κεφαλῆς] superfluous in itself, but contributing to the vivid picture of the proof of affection.
κατεφίλει] as Matthew 26:49. Comp. Polyb. xv. 1. 7 : ἀγεννῶς τοὺς πόδας καταφιλοῖεν τῶν ἐν τῷ συνεδρίῳ. Among the ancients the kissing of the feet was a proof of deep veneration (Kypke, I. p. 242; Dorvill, ad Charit. p. 203), which was manifested especially to Rabbins (Othonius, Lex. p. 233; Wetstein in loc.).
The tears of the woman were those of painful remembrance and of thankful emotion.
 Grotius says pertinently: “Quid mirum, tales ad Christum confugisse, cum et ad Johannis baptismum venerint? Matthew 21:32.” Schleiermacher ought not to have explained it away as the “sinful woman in the general sense.” She had been a πόρνη (Matthew 21:31).
 Heller follows him in Herzog’s Encykl. IX. p. 104.Luke 7:37. γυνὴ, etc., a woman who was in the city, a sinner. This arrangement of the words (ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει, W.H) represents her as a notorious character; how sinning indicated by expressive silence: a harlot. In what city? Various conjectures. Why not Capernaum? She a guest and hearer on occasion of the feast in Levi’s house, and this what came of it! Place the two dinners side by side for an effective contrast.—ἐπιγνοῦσα, having learned, either by accident, or by inquiry, or by both combined.—ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τ. φ.: the Pharisee again, nota bene! A formidable place for one like her to go to, but what will love not dare?
 Westcott and Hort.37. a woman in the city] The harsher reading of A, B, L, is “who was a sinner in the city.” No city is named, but if the Christian church is right in identifying this woman with Mary Magdalene, we may assume that the city implied is Magdala, which appears at that time to have been a flourishing place, though now it is only a mud village—El Mejdel. It cannot of course be regarded as indisputable that this woman was the Magdaleire, but it is, to say the least, possible; and there is no sufficient reason to disturb the current Christian belief which has been consecrated in so many glorious works of art. See further on Luke 8:2.
which was a sinner] It was the Jewish term for a harlot, and such had come even to John’s baptism, Matthew 21:32.
when she knew that Jesus sat at meat] Literally, getting to know. She had not of course received permission to enter, but the prominence of hospitality as the chief of Eastern virtues led to all houses being left open, so that during a meal any one who wished could enter and look on. “To sit down to eat with common people” was one of the six things which no Rabbi or Pupil of the Wise might do; another was “to speak with a woman.” Our Lord freely did both.
an alabaster box] The word alabastron meant originally a vase or phial of alabaster, such as were used for perfumes and unguents (unguenta optime servantur in alabastris, Plin. XIII. 3), but afterwards came to mean any phial used for a similar purpose (just as our box originally meant a receptacle made of box-wood).
of ointment] This was doubtless one of the implements of her guilty condition (Proverbs 7:17, Isaiah 3:24), and her willingness to sacrifice it was a sign of her sincere repentance (comp. Song of Solomon 4:10).Luke 7:37. Γυνὴ, a woman) whose name is unknown. [There is certainly a great correspondence between this history and that which John 12:3, etc.; Matthew 26:6, etc.; and Mark 14:3, etc., record: especially in this respect, that both events happened in the house of a certain Simon. But indeed the anointing described by Luke took place in a city of Galilee, before the transfiguration, nay, even before the second Passover: the other anointing took place at Bethany, six days before the third Passover. The woman in Luke had been heretofore a sinner; Mary had been a different kind of character, John 11:1-2 (comp. Luke 7:5). In fine, Simon the Pharisee doubted whether Jesus was a prophet: whereas Simon the leper had no longer any grounds left for doubting, inasmuch as Lazarus, who had been raised to life, was present.—Harm., p. 302.]—ἀμαρτωλὸς, a sinner) Referring to the chief sin which women can commit, unchastity.—καὶ ἐπιγνοῦσα, and having come to know [having learnt]) Καὶ, and, omitted by many, is here a redundant particle; but yet it adds grace to the sentence, as ו in ויבחר, 1 Chronicles 28:5. The particle may also seem to have been repeated after a parenthesis [καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ (—) καὶ ἐπιγν.], for the purpose of separating the mention of her sins and of her conversion.—ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ, in the house) Love impelled her so, as that she did not expect to find a more convenient place or opportunity for effecting her purpose elsewhere.
 ABPΔ Memph. Syr. support it. Rec. Text and Vulg. omit it.—ED. and TRANSL.Verse 37. - And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house. The text in the older authorities is more forcible: "a woman which was a sinner in that city." Her miserable way of life would thus be well known to Simon and other of the guests. This sad detail would serve to bring out the contrast in more vivid colours. In these Oriental feasts the houses were often left open, and uninvited strangers frequently passed in through the open courtyard into the guest-chamber, and looked on. She had heard Jesus already, perhaps often, and had drunk in his pleading words, begging sinners to turn and to come to him for peace. Perhaps what had decided her to take this step of boldly seeking out the Master were words apparently spoken about this time (in St. Matthew's Gospel they follow directly after the discourse respecting the Baptist just related), "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," etc. (Matthew 11:28-30). It was a bold step for one like her to press uninvited, in broad daylight, into the house of a rigid purist like Simon; but the knowledge that Jesus (though personally, as she thought, she was unknown to him) was there, gave her courage; she felt no one would dare to thrust her out of the presence of the strange loving Master, who so earnestly had bidden the sin-weary come to him, and he would give them rest! Brought an alabaster box of ointment. Pliny mentions alabaster as the best material for pots or vessels intended for these precious ointments. It was softer than marble, and easily scooped into pots or bottles. These costly unguents and cosmetics were much used by the wealthy Roman ladies. The precious ointment poured over the Redeemer's feet had probably been originally procured for a very different purpose. The word μύρον, translated "ointment," was used for any kind of sweet-smelling vegetable essence, especially that of the myrtle.
Of that class which was, etc.
Wyc., a sinneress. Her presence there is explained by the Oriental custom of strangers passing in and cut of a house during a meal to see and converse with the guests. Trench cites a description of a dinner at a consul's house in Damietta. "Many came in and took their places on the side-seats, uninvited and yet unchallenged. They spoke to those at table on business or the news of the day, and our host spoke freely to them" ("Parables"). Bernard beautifully says: "Thanks to thee, most blessed sinner: thou hast shown the world a safe enough place for sinners - the feet of Jesus, which spurn none, reject none, repel none, and receive and admit all. Where alone the Pharisee vents not his haughtiness, there surely the Ethiopian changes his skin, and the leopard his spots" (cit. by Trench, "Parables").
Lit., is reclining at meat: a lively change to the present tense.
See on Matthew 26:7.
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