By Lori Gardner
In Luke, chapter 7, we find a touching account of a woman with no name, a woman who spoke no word, yet proved herself to be a woman of great faith. She is known only as the woman with an alabaster box.
There is some debate about whether this woman could be Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister. However, there are enough differences in the Biblical accounts to lead us to believe that this was a completely different woman.
She is described as a “woman in the city, who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). The word used for “sinner” means her sin was unfading or perpetual. It sounds as if she was committing the same kind of sin on a continual basis. Some believe she could have been an unbelieving heathen, or a harlot from the streets of the city, or possibly both. The Bible doesn’t say. What it does say is that she knew where to find Jesus.
The Lord had been invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. It seems strange that a Pharisee would specifically invite Jesus into his home. It could have been out of simple curiosity or that he wanted to find something in Jesus that would discredit Him. Whatever the reason, Jesus “went into the Pharisee’s house and sat down to eat” (Luke 7:36) and this is where the sinful woman met with Him.
Though the Pharisees were well known for shunning anyone they deemed to be sinful, they did have a custom that, whenever they held a large banquet, the poor and uninvited were allowed in. The poor of the city would often talk with the invited guests and share local news while waiting for leftover food. This is probably how the woman came to be in Simon’s house that particular day.
This was not a random meeting. The woman knew Jesus would be there and she came prepared (Luke 7:37). She brought with her an alabaster box or jar of ointment, the type of container typically used for costly perfumed oils. It was sealed in order to protect the contents. The only way to open the seal was to break the container. This would have been a special possession, one that would not normally be carried around. This shows that she put a lot of thought into this meeting before it happened.
She did not boldly push in to speak with Jesus when she found Him at the table. In fact, she did just the opposite. She “stood at his feet behind him, weeping …” (Luke 7:38). The word that is used for “weeping” in this verse means to sob or wail aloud. She didn’t softly let her tears fall. She was overcome with her emotion. What a picture of true submission. Did she cry so forcibly because she needed help? Was she tired of living a wasted, sinful life? Was it because she realized she was in the presence of holiness and He was her only hope? She was probably feeling all of these things. She teaches us a valuable lesson. We all need to come to the point in our lives when we realize that we are nothing without Christ.
This woman acted out of sincere faith and love. She washed the Savior’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:38). It was the custom in those days to wash the feet of your guests as they entered your home, usually a job saved for the lowliest member of the household. As her tears poured down upon Jesus feet, she bent down to kiss them and anointed them with oil. Often, honored guests would have a small drop of oil placed upon their heads, but this woman did so much more. She anointed Jesus’ feet as an act of worship, demonstrating her faith in Who He was and showing herself to be His true servant.
Through this entire scene neither one of them spoke a word. We can only imagine what a Pharisee would have done when faced with this situation. He probably would have brushed off the woman’s tears in disgust and quickly sent her away. Because she was a sinner, he wouldn’t have wanted to be defiled by her. The Lord, on the other hand, allowed the woman to take her time as she worshipped Him.
It was such an intimate act, yet it was also a public act. When Simon, the Pharisee, saw it, “he spoke 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” (Luke 7:39). He didn’t voice his opinion aloud; these were just his thoughts. But, Jesus answered those thoughts with a short parable. “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors: the one owed five hundred denari and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most?” (Luke 7:41-42). Simon rightly answered the question, “The one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”
Jesus then pointed out the difference between the “righteous” Pharisee and the “sinful” woman. Simon didn’t offer the simplest act of hospitality to Jesus as a guest in his home. He didn’t wash Jesus’ feet, greet Him with a kiss, or anoint Him with oil. Yet, the woman with a bad reputation went above and beyond what was expected. She turned common courtesy into a loving act of worship.
Jesus went on to say, “Wherefore … her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47). The Pharisee didn’t see his need for a Savior. Having his sins forgiven was meaningless to him; to the woman it was priceless. “And He said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). It wasn’t her actions that earned this forgiveness. It was the faith behind what she did.
This is more than a sweet story of love, devotion, and forgiveness. The words Jesus spoke that night had great meaning for the Jews as well. Luke 7:49 says, “And they that sat at meat with Him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” The Jews rightfully believed that only God can forgive sins. So, either Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah or He was a blasphemous deceiver. They had to make up their minds. There would be no salvation for Israel and no peace with God for that nation until they put their faith in Jesus as both Lord and Christ. The woman without a name had made up her mind. She demonstrated her love out of a sincere faith without ever speaking a word. Jesus told her, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).