Luke's gospel describes a "modern" woman of that age who became the first truly liberated woman of the New Testament.
27 min

One of the strongest influences in our society today has been the effect of the women's liberation movement. What started as a political liberation effort to gain women the right to vote at the turn of the last century has evolved into a conscious national effort to raise the social, financial, and legal positions of women in this nation and around the world. In its best efforts, this movement has won important battles in securing equal and fair treatment for women who have, in many cases, been marginalized or abused because of their gender. In its more fanatical form, many women's rights activists have created a reverse discrimination by making men the enemy and polarizing the genders instead of bringing them together. The sad result in our society today is that women, who have made great strides in improving their status and independence, have also inherited many of the more negative traits of the men that they desired liberation from 50 years ago. For example:

  • There is a rise of bad habits among women, that used to be found only in men, like alcohol and tobacco use.
  • More women are suffering from traditionally male illnesses like heart disease and ulcers.
  • Competition with men has left many women with the task of having their first child much later in life thus increasing the risk factor and decreasing the size of American families.
  • The success achieved by women in the workplace and other traditional areas of male dominance has had an effect on the home. The rise in the percentage of divorce and juvenile delinquency has followed the rise in the percentage of women who choose careers outside the home. This is not a criticism of working women. Most women who work do so because they have to, however, the statistics show that when they do, the home suffers.

This article is not about working women, it's about liberated women. The thinking in the last few decades has been that if a woman were free to compete, free to be independent, free from the dominance of men, she would be liberated and would experience freedom and positive results. Our society is beginning to sober up to the idea that equal pay does not equal freedom. In the end, the women's movement will realize that they've made the same mistakes that men have made and, hopefully, will begin to search for meaning and direction in different areas of life. When that time comes, I would encourage them to look carefully at the first truly liberated woman and how she came to be that way. Her name is unknown but her act remains forever. I'm talking about the woman who washed Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair.

Two Accounts of Jesus' Anointing by Women

There are several stories where women approach Jesus in order to anoint Him. Each of the gospel writers mention an incident where a woman approached Jesus in this way. In reality there were two different women who did this at different times:

  1. One incident occurred at Simon the Leper's home where Jesus was eating. This was just before the final Passover dinner Jesus was going to have with His Apostles. The Apostles were there, as well as Lazarus and others. Mary and Martha were present serving food. At some point Mary brought out expensive perfumed oil and anointed Jesus' head and feet and then dried His feet with her hair. This caused a dispute among the disciples, especially Judas who thought this was a waste of money. Jesus explained that what was done was done in order to prepare Him for His burial and that Mary's act would become part of the gospel and thus immortal. This incident is described in various detail by three of the gospel writers (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3; John 12:1-8). Each of these tell the same story but give different information about it.
  2. The second incident is described by Luke, and although the action involves a woman anointing Jesus, the location, characters, purpose, and lesson are all different. The account in Luke is the one we will study in order to observe the first woman who found true liberation.

Seven Steps to Liberation

Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner."

And Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he replied, "Say it, Teacher." "A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?" Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him "You have judged correctly." Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." Then He said to her, "Your sins have been forgiven." Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this man who even forgives sins? And He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
- Luke 7:36-50

Here is a woman who possessed the type of character admired in today's society:

  • She was bold and fearless. Walking in uninvited on a group of men.
  • She was a non-conformist. They knew her as being immoral (sexually) meaning that in some way she had broken the rules, pushed the sexual boundaries of her time and society (maybe adultery, sexually active single person, perhaps a lesbian).
  • She was successful. The expensive perfume was not available to the common people, but she had an entire vial of it.

Her boldness, success, and lifestyle may have freed her from the conventional limits of her family and society, but had created another prison from which she desperately needed to escape: the prison of guilt, the burden of shame, the fear of death, and the loneliness caused by being separated from God. Her appearance there that night marked her desire to find true freedom, to be liberated from the sins that were destroying her soul. In the story, Luke describes the seven steps she took to total liberation:

Step #1. Acknowledgment - Luke 7:37-38a

A woman of this nature had no use for Jesus. He was no champion for women's rights. He stood for things she had rejected. In coming to Him, she acknowledged not only her sins but also her need for Him. The fact that she came uninvited, among a group of men who knew her poor reputation was a great risk for her. In doing this she humbled herself and acknowledged not only her sinfulness but more importantly she acknowledged her great need for Jesus. This is usually the first step to freedom, for both men and women!

Step #2. Sincerity - Luke 7:38b (weeping)

Who knows all the reasons for her tears. Was she crying because of what she had done; what she had missed; her shame; her anger at others for making her this way; relief at finding Jesus? All we know is that her feelings about Jesus and what she was doing were sincere. This was no pre-set or automatic response to a specific command. This was a spontaneous act on the part of a contrite sinner before the one who could and would accept and save her. Sincerity doesn't eliminate the need to obey, but obedience without sincerity is not true obedience.

Step #3. Repentance - Luke 7:38c (attention to the feet)

What do you do to make up for being proud, for being sexually impure? Is there anything you can do to take away or make up for these sins? No. Her resolve to remove what is evil, what is dirty in her life is expressed in her devotion to the Lord. She removes the dirt from His feet with the purifying tears of her repentant heart and dries them with the most glorious part of her body: her hair. She shows her love with her kissing of His feet. Repentance is a change of heart not only about our sins but about who Jesus is for us, and by her actions the woman leaves no doubt concerning her new direction in life.

Step #4. Belief - Luke 7:38d (anoint)

The anointing of the feet with costly perfume signifies an honor, an elevation of the person. Custom required a polite washing of the feet for a guest (done by a slave) and perhaps a drop of oil on the head as a sign of welcome to an "honored" guest. Something that the host had neglected to do for Jesus. But to break open an expensive vial of perfume to anoint the feet was an act of high honor, even worship. Her previous acts of washing and wiping showed that she recognized who she was. In kissing, and especially anointing, the feet she demonstrated that she also knew and believed who Jesus was.

Step #5. Forgiveness - Luke 7:48-49

In Mark 2:10 Jesus says to the scribes who doubted His powers to forgive sins:

But in order that you may know that the son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...

Whether it was by circumcision, sacrifice, or later on by the baptism of John or in the end the baptism of Jesus - forgiveness has always been associated with and possible because of Jesus. While He was on earth in human form, He offered forgiveness directly to people who came to Him personally in faith. For example, the paralytic in Mark 2:10, the thief on the cross, and, of course, this woman who washes His feet.

She came believing not only in who He was but also believing in what He could do for her. By their complaints it was obvious that the other guests neither believed in who Jesus was nor did they recognize what He could do for them. He tells a parable about two people forgiven for big and little debts to show that their self-righteousness was their main stumbling block in coming to Him. The woman, however, saw what she was and her need, and came to Him.

Step #6. Assurance - Luke 7:50a

If they had this song written then I'm sure the woman would have left singing, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine..." To have the Lord Himself say directly to you that you are saved must have been a tremendous joy and provided great confidence and assurance as she continued her life. Every time she doubted, every time she fell, these words of Jesus would return to reassure her that her salvation was absolutely sure. We have the same words. We can't hear them with our ears, but can read them in Acts, Mark, etc.

Step #7. Peace - Luke 7:50b

Her life, regardless of how successful, how liberated, how independent had not brought her peace. She found out that nothing in this world, whether it was a change in status or wealth, could produce the peace of mind that she needed. The great advantage that those who try to change things, those who break down barriers find out is that their new worlds are very much like their old worlds: empty and cold. This person walked away as a free woman. Free from fear, free from shame, free from guilt, free from the chains that would keep her in this world - finally liberated to become her true self in the image of God by the power of faith and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

Summary

There is so much emphasis and effort made to gain freedom in this world, and yet whenever nations, groups, even genders reach a new level of freedom they always realize that freedom in this world is only an illusion. Regardless of the seeming freedom represented by wealth, opportunity, power, or position - people only feel free when they are at peace with themselves and this peace only comes when we are at peace with God. This unknown woman was among the first people in Jesus' ministry to truly grasp this and reach out to Jesus in order to find this freedom for herself. She was the first truly liberated woman.