The actual story itself is very short, and more of a description of a situation than an a narrative. More interesting—and more troubling—is the (supposedly) true context for the story, and what interpreters read into what's not said.
The Text - Luke 7:36-50
Introduction - 1st century dinner parties
Feature - Internal dialogue
A Simple Jewish Take - It's a trap!
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them.
Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then 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 bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
This parable is odd to me for a number of reasons. While I’m often wary of Luke’s glosses, in this case, I think it's important to look at them.
So, a Pharisee named Simon (or, more likely, Shimon, since Pharisees were resistant to Romanization or Hellenization and probably wouldn’t have used Hellenized versions of their names) invites Jesus to dinner.
Now’s a good time to read my article on the Pharisees if you haven’t already (the summary is that Jesus most likely was a Pharisee; or at least, his contemporaries would have understood him to be one; also, arguing wasn’t a sign of hostility for them, but how they learned and taught).
Jesus having dinner with a(nother) Pharisee was Jesus having dinner with a colleague. I’ve seen this cited as an example of how gracious Jesus was being, to dine with a Pharisee, which is fascinating, since I’d say Shimon here is being pretty gracious by having a guy over who spends most of dinner sniping at him.
A Curious Bit of Dialogue
We can barely get into surveying interpretations of this parable before the expected chorus of anti-Jewish readings comes thundering in, but before we start looking at that, I want to draw attention to something: Note the actual quote about Shimon’s thoughts in v. 39:
39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.
That he said to himself is a trope that indicates internal dialogue, or what a character is thinking (it would be he said in his heart in Hebrew). If this were part of the parable—that is, the part of the story that the narrative acknowledges is fiction—it wouldn’t be a problem.
However, this section is in the framing context, which is supposed to be relating the actual nonfictional details of an actual dinner with actual people that actually took place.
Immediately, I’ve got a problem. Generally, biographies don’t tell you what anyone but the main character (to whom the narrative is sympathetic, or based on that person’s own testimony) is thinking. This description portrays what someone who’s supposed to be an actual historical person—but can’t speak for himself—is thinking. That's a problem, especially given that it's villainizing the same character. You can legitimately describe what supporting characters in what's supposed to be a historical narrative did, but there's no way of knowing what they thought unless they wrote it down or told someone.
There are a bunch of descriptions in Christian commentary of Simon’s behavior and speech as rude or self-righteous or hypocritical, but his only recorded behavior and speech are to:
Invite Jesus to dinner
Invite Jesus to speak when Jesus says he has something to say
Answer Jesus’s either-or question with one of the two options Jesus presents
None of which is particularly rude or self-righteous or hypocritical. The only thing on Simon’s part that can reasonably be interpreted as rude or self-righteous or hypocritical is his thoughts, which are something the author can’t actually know and has to assume.
Even More Contemporary Christian Commentary
Jewish Views of Debt
Jewish law spends a lot of time trying to work out the ethics of finance, both in the Torah and in the Mishnah and Talmud (post-Second Temple works). It's far too much to cover here (the Jewish Virtual Library has a good overview), but in brief, Jewish law commands Jews to lend money, without interest, to other Jews in need.
This practice continues today in the form of Hebrew Free Loan Societies, most of which also provide small, interest-free loans to non-Jews.
But of course Christian commentators have a lot to say about him. Spicq (Agape in the New Testament), for example, is pretty sure Simon somehow coerced Jesus into having dinner with him, apparently with ulterior motives. François Bovon sees hidden contempt on Simon’s part. Craig Blomberg has to get in there too, and he’s certain that Simon’s dinner invitation is a sham. He acknowledges—in a footnote—that it was customary to invite visiting preachers to Shabbat dinner after they’d taught in the synagogue (he’s got a source for that, and in fact, that’s still a Jewish practice). But the main body of the text asserts that the reason Simon invited Jesus over for dinner was as a trap.
Bailey's "Harsh Insult"
Kenneth E. Bailey (Through Peasant Eyes, 1980) is sure it’s a test of some sort and views Simon’s behavior as—well, honestly, I have to show you this because I’m not sure I can adequately describe it.
With this deeply moving, profoundly meaningful gesture of gratitude in her mind, she witnesses the harsh insult that Jesus receives when he enters the house of Simon, as Simon deliberately omits the kiss of greeting and the foot-washing.
…did he? I mean, Simon is hosting what sounds like a decent-sized dinner party, if random women can wander in off the street and not get noticed until they start weeping and washing feet and pouring oil on a guest’s head. We don’t know if it was deliberate, and, frankly, we don’t know whether not doing it was considered a “harsh insult.” After all, if the host of a dinner party I’m going to doesn’t offer to take my coat, I don’t assume it’s a harsh insult. I assume they were distracted.
The insult to Jesus has to be intentional
Repeating something doesn’t make it true, although it has been shown to make people more likely to believe it.
and electrifies the assembled guests.
Where in the parable does it say this? Because last I checked we started in medias res after everyone was seated and eating.
War has been declared
Calm down, my dude.
and everyone waits to see Jesus’ response.
I am unable to find the part where everyone’s waiting on Jesus’s response as soon as he gets in the door because, again, when the story begins, everyone’s already seated.
And yes, I'm admittedly being petty by responding to this phrase-by-phrase like this, but interpretations like this, that fill in the white space in biblical narratives (which are generally very scant on details) are a choice. You're imagining what's in those gaps because you don't know. There's nothing wrong with that act of imagining—midrash, telling stories to fill in the gaps or explain strange details, is a proud Jewish tradition—but there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do it, and I find intensifying New Testament polemic against Jews, rather than questioning it, to be highly irresponsible given that such intensification has resulted in violent consequences for most of the past two millennia.
He is expected to offer a few tight-lipped remarks about not being welcome and withdraw.
Rather, he absorbs the insult and the hostility behind it and does not withdraw. In a foreshadowing of things to come, “He opened not his mouth.”
Ah yes, not getting foot-washing water is absolutely the same as being crucified.
In case you’ve forgotten, the sole description the actual text gives of events before the woman starts washing his feet is this:
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
Bailey goes on:
As we observed, to omit even the footwashing was to imply “that the visitor was one of very inferior rank” (Tristram, 38).
…was it? I haven’t had time to hunt down the Tristram reference but even money is on no sources being cited for that claim about first-century Jewish culture.
Moreover, other than offering him water to wash his feet, the things Jesus is upset about Simon not doing aren’t things that were normal parts of hospitality duties. Kissing was practiced between relatives or close friends—there’s no indication that Simon and Jesus are either. As far as the anointing, kings get anointed, but even if he had potentially legitimate claims to the throne, he wasn’t on it yet, and either way, that would have been the role of a priest, not a Pharisee. Priests also get anointed, but Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, so he’s not a priest (being a kohen, a priest, is hereditary, through the patrilineal line, and reserved for members of the tribe of Levi). As far as the foot-washing, a holdover from nomadic times, the Pharisees were far more concerned with handwashing before meals, a custom with which the NT has Jesus doing away.
As far as I can tell, Bailey is furious that Simon didn't treat Jesus as a king or divine being, which ignores the fact that he had no reason to do either: Jesus is described, at this point in the narrative, as avoiding confirming either identity.
Snodgrass's Purity Obsession
Klyne Snodgrass (Stories with Intent, 2008) makes some assumptions about women not being allowed to eat with men at banquets. (There is no evidence of separate women’s quarters in most homes excavated in the area, and their presence is attested at, for example, Pesach meals.)
That the people reclined at the meal indicates that it was a relatively formal occasion. Women did not usually eat with men at banquets, but the woman’s presence is not completely out of the ordinary, especially in narratives about Jesus.
No sources are cited, of course. (There’s a footnote that ends up being about women being present at other meals in the NT—it doesn’t cite any sources for the assertion that they wouldn’t normally have been. The whole “especially in narratives about Jesus” suggests that Jesus’s treatment of women was more accepting than the social norms of his time, but there’s no evidence of that.)
Then we’ve got some general statements, presented as fact, about the Pharisaic concern for not catching impurity—which always, in Christian minds, seems to involve excluding people whose behavior the Pharisees presumably disapproved of:
Pharisees had a concern for purity at meals that we can hardly appreciate.
Ritual impurity—the type that’s catching—isn’t about morality, and morality impurity isn’t contagious. If you haven’t already read my article on ritual purity, you should do so. Ritual purity concerns around meals were largely about washing your hands.
Which, despite early Christian contempt for the practice, is actually a very good idea. Please wash your hands before you eat, especially during cold and flu season.
This rhetoric is yet another case of trying to make first-century Jews out to be incomprehensibly alien. Honestly, if you've ever felt that it's important to wear the right clothes for an occasion, you can understand the Pharisaic attitude toward purity.
With such purity concerns Simon, the host, was convinced that Jesus’ tolerance of contact with this known sinner proved that he could be neither righteous nor a prophet. Two passages from Sirach help to understand the Pharisee’s conclusion: 12:14, “So no one pities a person who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in the other’s sins”; and 13:17, “What does a wolf have in common with a lamb? No more has a sinner with the devout.”
Okay, first, what Sirach is saying isn’t about purity; it’s the same as our saying, “If you lie down with dogs, expect to get up with fleas”: an assertion that people involved in bad behavior often peer pressure others into participating or at least tacitly condoning their activities. Peer pressure is a thing, I’m sorry to report, and while it’s certainly a logical argument that you can’t help people be better if you don’t have contact with them, none of this is about ritual purity.
Moreover, while I am not trying to justify prejudice against sex workers here, many sex workers in first-century Judea had Roman clients (as did women in all Roman provinces). Given that the Pharisees were, at minimum, sympathetic to attempts to fight back against the occupation if not actively involved in them, it's far from certain that Simon's suspicion of a sex worker who shows up at his dinner party is simply snobbery about her sex life. (Assuming that she is a sex worker, which is also far from certain.)
Second, Snodgrass appears to be basing his entire conception of purity on Sirach:
One of the most certain facts about Jesus is that he associated with the wrong people, people others thought caused defilement, but Jesus did not fear becoming unclean by contact with the unholy. He thought holiness was stronger and more contagious than defilement and he accepted the woman’s actions as righteous and loving.
If you would like a sense of how canonical Mr. Ben Sira’s work is to Jewish thought, I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia entry on its canonical status, which gives a thorough overview. (Spoilers: it’s considered canonical to Christians, not to Jews.)
Holiness and impurity aren’t opposites in Judaism (they’re on separate spectrums), and the sort of impurity/”defilement” that is considered contagious is mostly that which could reasonably be associated with health concerns (touching dead things, having rashes). The whole of the ritual purity system can’t be explained away as health concerns, of course, but not touching people who’ve come in contact with stuff that a reasonable society could observe sometimes makes you sick until they’ve washed is not, as it turns out, bizarre or automatically fanatical.
Next up, despite the parable involving both debts being forgiven, Mr. Snodgrass (instead of Jesus) decides that Simon’s probably not forgiven.
Once again problems are caused by those who want parables to be perfect reflections of theology. Simon has shown no evidence of love. Has he been forgiven at all? Or to stay with the thought of the proverb, is the one who loves not at all forgiven not at all? The narrative is left open, and surely Jesus’ words were a challenge to Simon to reconsider both his own stance—maybe he is not so small a debtor—and his attitudes toward both the woman and Jesus. He cannot be righteous if he does not show the compassion of God.
Dude, he forgot to offer some wash-water. Chill out.
Snodgrass’s evidence of Simon’s lack of love is, to be clear, what Luke, a guy who really didn’t like Pharisees, imagined the Pharisee was thinking. (It's also astonishing to me how Christians can insist that Jesus is the only one who gets to decide who goes to heaven, who's forgiven, and so on and then jump right in there and usurp what they claim is his job.)
Snodgrass also includes some advice for how to preach the parable, which of course involves making Simon the negative example.
The parable does not portray the whole chain of events, but a glance at human society shows that arrogance leads to disdain, which leads to strife, which often leads to violence.
So now we’ve gone from Simon forgetting the wash-water all the way to violence. And what’s causing Simon’s bad attitude? Purity concerns—that is, Judaism.
Snodgrass is certainly correct in that Christian arrogance has led to disdain for Jews—his own interpretation of the parable is a textbook example of how that happens—which has indeed led to violence. Too bad he lacks the self-awareness to see that it’s him, not Simon, who’s falling into the trap he describes.
(I’m spending so much time on Snodgrass because this tripe won Christianity Today’s award for best biblical studies book and sports a host of glowing reviews.)
As I’ve said in other posts, when exploring Christian assertions about Jewish customs, get used to reading the phrase no sources are cited.
Women and Sin
Christian interpreters throughout the ages have seemed to take as a given that the woman was a sex worker—apparently, in the Christian imagination, sex is the only sin that matters when you’re a woman. (Note that even Wikipedia states as fact that the woman's mere presence "defiles the Pharisee's ritual purity" as if it were fact.) Catholic tradition identifies her with Mary Magdalene: another woman about whom the text gives no actual indication that she was a sex worker.
One might note that Jewish women owned and ran businesses at the time, and the Torah describes far more business sins than sexual ones.
Sometimes Christian commentators cite bits of Talmud to justify the assumption that a woman with her hair uncovered (as if her use of her hair to dry Jesus’s feet indicates that she came in with her hair uncovered) must be a prostitute. This is problematic for a whole host of reasons, not least that the customs for when and whether different classes of women veiled may have changed over the centuries. There is no legislation in the Torah requiring women to veil, and in Genesis, Judah mistakes a veiled Tamar for a sex worker, implying that being unveiled was not what identified a woman as a sex worker. In the rabbinic period, after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was customary for married women to cover their hair—so much so that rabbinic exegesis reversed Tamar's veiling—but it's unclear what the practice for women was during the Second Temple period. It's not even clear what the Roman practices were, and we have a much greater library of material about first-century Roman practices than first-century Jewish ones. If the woman at Simon's dinner party did come in with her hair unveiled, it could just as easily indicate that she was unmarried as that she was a sex worker.
In short, it's unclear why the parable identifies the woman as a sinner, it's unclear why Simon considers her a sinner, it's unclear whether or not she was wearing a veil when she came in, it's unclear what she does for a living, and it's unclear whether her behavior at the dinner violates any social norms or whether it is simply that her reputation makes her presence there surprising to the guests.
Context or Pretext?
The most obvious reading of the context, I think, from a Jewish perspective, is that Jesus taught in Simon’s synagogue and Simon invited him to dinner as was both courteous and customary, and side-eyed the woman who came in and cried on his feet.
As I've said throughout these articles, however, I believe it's important to look at the parables first and foremost as stories, without treating them as dependent on the context or glosses.
I also don't trust that the contexts actually reflect the circumstances in which Jesus actually told the parables (again, assuming he existed). The Q-source hypothesis, which is accepted by most modern biblical scholars, holds that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark, but also had a source for the material they didn't get from Mark. The Q source, as reconstructed, is primarily a list of Jesus's sayings and stories.
The gospels were written considerably after Jesus, and everyone who knew him, had passed away.
If what remained from his lifetime was a collection of sayings (and, most likely, oral tradition), that means that the gospel authors had to attempt to figure out under what circumstances Jesus said them. In other words, Jesus might have told this brief parable about two debtors in different circumstances entirely, so we should read and interpret the story first on its own merits rather than letting the context dictate our reading.
Lending to the Enemy
There's a Talmudic parable cited by a number of Christian commenters as being comparable to this one:
Rabbi Abbahu said to them: I will relate a parable to you. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a person who lends money to two people, one of whom is his beloved, and the other one is his enemy. In the case of his beloved, he collects the debt from him little by little, whereas in the case of his enemy he collects the debt from him all at once.
It's certainly an interesting comparison, but I'm not sure it's a terribly illuminating one. Jesus's parable compares the attitudes of two different borrowers to the lender; the Talmud examines the attitude of the lender to different borrowers.
The Moral of the Story
It seems to be taken as a given—Simon gives his answer to Jesus’s question as if it was obvious—that someone who owed more money is going to be more loving—not just grateful, but loving—toward a moneylender who forgives their debt than someone who owed less.
My knee-jerk reaction as a 21st-century millennial with student loans is Who the hell loves moneylenders?, but I recognize that this is presentism.
The idea that we should love God because God is willing to forgive us, that the love results from forgiveness, rather than that the forgiveness results from love, is a pretty utilitarian approach to relationships. I don’t want my relationships to be about how many times a loved one will forgive me—I want a relationship, not a Giving Tree. It's even stranger that it's supposedly the magnitude of forgiveness—resulting from the magnitude of sin—that determines love for the Eternal.
As a Jew, I find it odd to set up however much you sin, and then however much you get forgiven, as all happening before your love for the Eternal even enters the picture. It makes love the end of the equation on the human side rather than the beginning.
In Judaism, we’re not following commandments to get saved from something, or to earn God’s love. We’ve already got that. We’re in covenant. We’re in a relationship. We try to fulfill those commandments (from a spiritual rather than just a cultural perspective) because:
We want to make God happy.
We believe that those practices are good for us, that they were given to us by someone who cares for us.
The concept of “debt” or “forgiveness” doesn’t really enter into it.
So I think to hear this parable as radical or challenging, you first have to understand that Simon’s having little to forgive isn’t something that Jewish listeners would see as having “little debt,” but as a sign of greater love for God.
To say that screwing up more ends up being associated with greater love skews really close to the sort of abuse theology that makes me deeply uncomfortable The idea that you love anyone—God included—based on how little they hold you accountable seems like a pretty broken model of relationships to me. Forgiveness can be a sign of love but it’s not a reason for love, especially if the alternative is punishment of some sort. “I love this person because they didn’t punish me” really seems like an abusive relationship to me.
Honestly, I wish I had more expansive insight into this one, but I find the entire thing—context and parable itself—pretty disturbing.
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
James Carroll, "Who Was Mary Magdalene?" Smithsonian Magazine
Aliza Mazor, "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty", My Jewish Learning
The paintings on this page include a number of different renderings of the dinner party at Simon's house.
Pierre Subleyras, Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee, c. 1737. I especially love the serving boy in the center looking directly at the viewer and all the various women side-eyeing the woman attending to Jesus. The original is at the Louvre; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Bernardo Strozzi, Banquet at the House of Simon, c. 1630. I love the standoff between a dog and a cat on the leftmost edge, as well as Jesus's "it's fine, bro," and Simon's "I've asked you to stop bringing your groupies here, Josh" expressions. The original is at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Paolo Veronese, The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, 1570. Another scuffle between a dog and a cat! This one is given pride of place in the very center of the painting. The presence of dogs in all these paintings is understandable, since Jesus mentions dogs eating scraps under the table (Mt. 15:26), but I am delighted by the cats. (Learn more about cats in Baroque paintings here and here.) The original is at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Luca Signorelli, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, c. 1490. No dogs or cats in this one, alas, and Jesus is looking extremely pouty about the lady's ministrations. The original is at the National Gallery of Ireland; see it in HD on Wikipedia.
Artus Wolffort, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, early 1600s. This lady is having a day; look at her face. There's so much personality here, from a Jesus who looks like he's been caught in sort of a defensive shrug, Simon's "I'm not angry, Josh, just disappointed" face, the guy next to him adjusting his glasses to peer clinically at the scene, and especially(!) the monk-like man behind Simon looking at the viewer like he's looking at the camera on The Office. The original was auctioned at Sotheby's; see it in HD on Wikipedia.
Maria Felice Tibaldi, Dinner at the House of the Pharisee, c. 1740. If this looks familiar, it's because it's a miniature based on the Subleyras painting above. Tibaldi married Subleyras, and her miniature version of her husband's painting may be the first work of art purchased from a living artist to be displayed in a museum. There's a little more info about her here. The original is at the Capitoline Museums; see it in HD at the Google Cultural Institute.
This subject was extremely popular for Renaissance and Baroque painters, and I highly recommend image searching on "painting house of simon" for many more great facial details, dog and cat portraits, and ladies in a state of deshabille.