The Woman which was a Sinner

by Glenn Conjurske

“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, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”

She “was a sinner.” Not an ordinary sinner. All women are sinners, but here was a woman who was distinguished and notorious as a sinner. She had a common reputation as a sinner. Her name was a byword. She was no stranger to this Pharisee, into whose house she came unbidden, and he said within himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner”—-a woman whose touch the Pharisee would have avoided at all cost. Not, surely, of every sinner would he thus think. Here was a flagrant sinner, a woman about the town, whose wanton affairs were matters of public knowledge and common report. This is acknowledged by nearly all to be the import of the word “sinner.” Some would soften it, and suppose the term merely to designate a Gentile, as these were commonly so called by the self-righteous Jews, but we cannot allow this. It is not the Pharisee only who calls her a sinner, but Luke also, and that by the Spirit of God. She is the only individual in all the Bible who is thus singled out and labelled “a sinner.” She was a sinner of the deepest dye, and “a woman which was a sinner,” a wanton and promiscuous woman, fallen beneath the level of her sinful sisters, having abandoned the goodness and virtue which are natural to women even in their sinful state. This was her life, and this her reputation.

But if every man knew her to be a sinner, she doubtless knew it also, and felt it too. How often had she envied the respectable ladies, who were loved and cared for by one man, while she was used and abandoned by many. She was not happy—-could not be in such a life. But her passions were too strong, her habits too settled, her associations too entangling, her will too weak. We suppose she had often longed for a better life—-
longed, and resolved also—-perhaps as often as she was abandoned by one of her lovers, but still she remained where she was. I preached the gospel once to such a woman as this, and the immediate effect of it was that she broke off the “relationship” in which she was then involved. Alas, ere the week was out she was approached by another, and she knew not how to refuse. He was a policeman. Perhaps here would be love and honor both. But no, whatever he was, she “was a sinner,” and he knew it. Men who sought love and honor did not seek it from such as she was. He was but one more chapter in a long history of sin.

Such, no doubt, was this woman, and as sin followed sin, hope would depart, and resolutions diminish and dwindle and die. Here is the plight of many a woman who is a sinner, living in pleasure, but “dead while she liveth,” dead to God and hope, dead to reputation and respectability, shunned by the good and used by the evil, tossed as a fallen leaf on the billows, driven by passions too strong for her, and scarcely daring to think what the end will be.

A hard case, you think? Nay, not nearly so hard as that of the Pharisees. Such a woman cannot help but feel herself unclean, cannot help but remember the days of her innocence, cannot help but long for better things. What stands in her way is the apparent hopelessness of her condition. She cannot break the cords in which she has entwined herself. The good cannot love her, will not accept her. Hope is the great need of her heart, and it is the first glory of the gospel to give hope to such souls as hers. She learns of Jesus. She hears, perhaps as a reproach from his enemies, that “this man receiveth sinners.” Many men she had known who would receive her—-base men with base designs—-but here was a man of God who received sinners. She sought him out. She heard his preaching. She listened to the words of grace which fell from his lips. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” She heard, and hope sprang up in her soul, and with hope resolve. She would turn away her lovers. She would resist their charms. She would cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye.

And oh! she would love the blessed messenger of God whose words of grace had thus inspired her with hope and strength. She has attended upon his preaching, and drunk in the soul-refreshing waters of life. Her heart follows his steps, and “she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house.” “The Pharisee’s house”! What place on earth so forbidding to such a one as she! But her heart is full. She has formed a purpose. She has somewhat to say to him—-somewhat to do to him. She must see him.

Her every action now bespeaks repentance. She comes here for one purpose, to bestow her love upon a man, but oh! how changed from her former ways. Now she seeks no secret place for clandestine loves, but will bestow her affections freely before the eyes of the world. There was nothing impure here, nothing which shame taught her to hide. Where formerly she had bestowed her favors on men of Belial, now she comes to bless a man of God. Where she had faced many men with amorous looks and intents, she stands behind this man, whom she certainly knew to be a man of God, and the messenger of God to her soul. Those eyelids which she had used to take the hearts of men are now cast down in shame. Those eyes which had so often been full of illicit love are now suffused with tears. That hair upon which she had bestowed so much time and pains, which was her glory and her vanity, which had taken the hearts and received the caresses of so many worthless men, that hair shall now be made a common towel, to wipe the dust from the feet of the man of God, and the highest ornament of womanhood be made a servant of the lowest servants of the servant of God. Those lips which had long been “smoother than oil” for wanton ends are now abased to the feet of her benefactor. Above all, that alabaster box of ointment, which she had doubtless procured at great expense—-for those were not the days in which she might find shelves lined with bottles of it in any dime store—-ointment too precious to be kept in a common vessel, ointment which she had prized for no noble purpose, for she had doubtless used it to enhance her charms for her lovers—-— How often has she daubed it on as the final touch, when hair and dress and nails and lips and eyes have all been meticulously prepared, all to make herself pleasing to men as sinful as she was. And how often has her soul been intoxicated with the thrill of being desired and acceptable with men. This has been her passion. But the arrows of conviction have stuck fast in her sinful soul. She is ashamed of all her wanton ways, and seeks now to be accepted with God. And behold what carefulness this has wrought in her, yea, what clearing of herself. She will not be told that her perfume is innocent enough, that she might use it to better purpose than she has done. No, as she has been a thorough sinner, so she will be a thorough penitent—-a “legalist,” according to modern notions—-and the ointment must go. How full a fragrance is of unhallowed memories!—-how full, therefore, of renewed temptations—-and she will be done with it, once for all. Whatever her own specific thoughts may have been, it is certain that it was no small matter for such a woman, whose whole existence has been wrapped up in making herself pleasing to men, to give up her ointment, and this is the irrefragable proof of the reality and depth of her repentance. Her thoughts certainly may have been, “What fruit had I in those things whereof now I am ashamed?” Not only did she have no fruit unto God and heaven, but no happiness for this life either—-for pleasure is not happiness, and the constant pursuit of pleasure is the surest proof of the absence of happiness.

She comes, therefore, to the house of this Pharisee with the alabaster box in her hand. And in this we see that her coming was of purpose. It was no sudden impulse which took her through the door of Simon. We suppose that the shower of her tears, the profusion of kisses with which she covered the feet of the Lord, her wiping of those feet with the hairs of her head, were all spontaneous, but the box of ointment in her hand was there of purpose and premeditation. This it was that brought her to the Pharisee’s house. Men who are much occupied with supposed Jewish customs commonly pay too little attention to the text of Scripture—-too often make the text no more than a vehicle for the display of their ancient customs, real or imagined—-and Alfred Edersheim thinks the alabaster box was one ordinarily worn about her person. But no: the text says she brought it—-brought it of purpose, for we are not said to bring our ordinary apparel or habiliments. She had determined to part with this pleasing auxiliary to her sin, and she had determined how she would dispose of it. What she had formerly devoted to the pleasures of sin would now be consecrated to the Saviour of sinners.

We cannot but remark the boldness with which she entered unbidden the house of a Pharisee. This would require some audacity in any case, but most of all in hers. She must have known that she would be despised and scorned by a Pharisee if she met him on the street: how much more if she entered his own house uninvited. Only one thing could move her to such a deed. The Lord was there, and his power to draw her was greater than the Pharisee’s to repel. How she knew of the Lord’s presence in a private house we need not inquire. He was a public man, whose movements were watched by friend and foe alike, and while it was possible to know where he was, she made it her business to do so. She knew where he was, and his presence drew her there, perhaps as the best place in which to carry out her purpose for her ointment, away from the jostling crowd with which he was usually beset. She did not trouble herself about her reception in so uncongenial a place. The Lord was there, the man that received sinners. He would receive her, and answer for her, too. It was not devotedness to him only which took her to the Pharisee’s house, but a high degree of faith in him also.

She enters with a heart welling up with the deepest of feeling, and, oblivious to the presence of all but one, proceeds to lavish out the affections of her heart upon him. Yet though she was oblivious to their presence, surely they were not so to hers. Every eye was fixed upon her. It may be that the boldness of her entrance failed to excite their curiosity. Perhaps she had slipped in with the invited guests, for the Lord says, “This woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.” But once inside, her actions were such as must have riveted the attention of all. If she came in with the guests, it was not to take her place at the table, for there was no place prepared for her. When the guests take their places at the table, she remains on her feet, standing behind the Lord. Not long, however, but the next posture she assumes is more remarkable still. She stoops to the floor to wash his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair. The obvious depth of her feeling and the thoroughly unexampled character of her proceedings must certainly have drawn all eyes to herself.

We gaze with the rest, and observe in the first place that all her actions were peculiarly feminine. We can scarcely conceive of a man doing as she did. If a man’s heart was fashioned for strength, a woman’s was framed for affection, and in all her actions we see such a free flowing of affection as men are rarely capable of. “She loved much,” and not the fervency of that love only, but the manner also in which she poured it forth, were all feminine. It was a woman’s love, yet the Lord does not reject it on that account. It was not tainted or impure because it came from the heart of a woman, nor because it was bestowed upon a man, nor because it flowed forth in a woman’s way. We quite endorse a prudent caution of closeness between the sexes, but this is another thing from that prudish distance which regards any familiarity at all between them as improper. All that the Lord received from her was directly against “the greatness of Jewish prejudice against any conversation with woman, however lofty her character,” but he received it all nevertheless.

But there is something more. There is something in the manner of this woman which marks her as “a woman which was a sinner.” She lacks the modesty and shamefacedness of a bashful maiden. She seems too free with her kisses, for she êáôåößëåé his feet—-kissed them intensely, passionately, repeatedly. However the term is to be understood, “The êáôá is intensive,” as Bloomfield affirms, and she “ceased not” this intensive kissing from the time that he came in. Mary of Bethany—-moved, perhaps, by the report of what this woman had done—-anointed the Lord’s feet with her ointment, and wiped them with the hair of her head also, but with her there was none of this intensive kissing. This, it would seem, marks a woman who has too little of the reserve which naturally belongs to her sex. Hers is not the way of “a garden inclosed, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” The gates of her soul have long been open, and the charms of her femininity bestowed upon every man who would have them. For all that she repents and weeps, but her soul will not be altered in a day. Her penitence appears in that she will now bestow on the feet of this man, behind him, what she has given to the embraces of many others. Still, it would seem she gives more freely than is meet. There remains a trace of her wantonness even in her penitence. She must learn again the modesty which she has long since abandoned. But again, the holy Lord does not reject her love on that account—-no, nor censure her, either. He accepts her as she is, weeping out her repentance, determined indeed against her sin, but not yet altogether free from its manners. We have read of a man accustomed to swearing, who was converted with an oath. It had long been his way to swear when he meant to express himself with decision and forcefulness, and when with the mouth confession was made unto salvation, his determined commitment to Christ came forth after his usual manner. And so it was with this “woman which was a sinner.” She would no doubt learn better than this—-no doubt regain that feminine reserve and modesty which once she knew, but which she had long forgotten. We dare say the man who was converted swearing would one day look back on this with embarrassment, and so, we suppose, did this woman. Meanwhile, we are much more disposed to admire them both, than to censure either. Here was whole-souled reality, flowing forth freely—-spontaneously and instinctively—-though in a manner which lacked something in propriety.

And here it is that we see the true application of that matchless but often abused hymn, “Just As I Am.” Not “just as I am,” settled and comfortable in my sins, but “just as I am,” determined indeed against my sins, but yet marred and scarred by them, my sinful passions too strong, and my desires for holiness but weak, with a soul, and it may be a countenance, hardened by long continuance in evil, with a mind darkened and dull, scarcely knowing what I ought to do, or how to go about it, lacking all the refinements which a life of purity and godliness would have wrought in me, speaking still in the accents of the world, nor knowing how to do otherwise—-”just as I am,” I come.

None who thus come to Christ, in sworn and eternal renunciation of their sins, will ever be turned away, no matter how much of the trappings of their sins yet cleave to them. Not one crumb from the Father’s table could the prodigal ever taste, not one word of affection could he hear from his Father’s lips, so long as he remained among the swine and the harlots in the far country. He must come home, leaving the far country and all its ways forever behind him. If he had approached his Father’s house leading a harlot on his arm, the door would surely have been barred against him. But when he had left all, and returned in good earnest, he was received just as he was, still in his rags, and it may be with the smell of the hog pen still upon him, and the accent of the far country yet in his speech. How many come to Christ who are opinionated, talkative, self-important, and unwittingly conformed to the world in numerous ways. If they are Christ’s indeed, they have crucified the flesh. They have repented of sin as such, and so of course renounced and forsaken all known sin, but this has not brought them to perfection. They are but new-born babes, and babes in Christ, Paul affirms, are carnal. They could hardly be otherwise. The deeper and more humbling their convictions of sin have been, the better the start they have in the heavenly race, but they all stand in need of being gradually transformed, by the renewing of their minds. There is nothing deep or mysterious here. This is truth of the most elementary sort, known of all men before it was obscured by the present flood of antinomianism.

The Pharisee looks on with something akin to disdain—-and not so much for the woman as for the Lord. “Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” But like ten thousand others who know nothing and think they know all, the Pharisee assumes too much. He assumes that the Lord knew nothing of the character of this woman, and assumes too that if he had known it, he would have repelled her touch. Thus the holy Pharisee shows himself to know less of the Lord than did the unclean sinner. He supposed a holy man must repel the touch of such a sinner. She knew that “This man receiveth sinners,” or she had certainly never come to him. And having come, she has received as it were the first installment of her reception, for he received all her outpouring of love without shrinking from it, and without a word or a look of reproof. By this she cannot but be greatly encouraged, but he will give her yet more.

“And Jesus answering”—-answering the unspoken thoughts of the Pharisee’s heart, as only a prophet could do—-”said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.” And first, by a parable, after the manner of Nathan’s speech to David, setting forth the principles involved, divorced from the persons, he gains the judgement of Simon on the side of the truth. That being done, “he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.”

This is all she needs. For this she came. This is the acceptance of her actions and her person.

And here the account ends. We know no more. Least of all do we know the woman’s name. “Tradition” (of a late date) makes her out to be Mary Magdalene, but this is monkish fiction. The Lord knows her name, and he has concealed it, that we might all see the workings of the “sinful, now contrite heart” of “a woman which was a sinner,” without adding anything to her shame. For such sins as hers cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience, but all his dealings with the penitent are tenderness.

Glenn Conjurske