The Pharisee and the Prostitute (Luke 7:36-50)

I like to eat. (I know you find that surprising.)

I like to think I am a disciplined person. But the one area I need more discipline in is eating. I love to eat and I love to eat the wrong kinds of food. I’m Southern. I like my food fried and greasy. I even like my vegetables fried.

Isn’t popcorn a vegetable?

I’m concerned about my weight. I get frustrated that I can exercise and not lose any weight. But my love for chess pies outweighs my concern for my health.

I’m not proud of this.

I know I need to do better.

I have made positive strides. I can’t remember the last time I had a McDonald’s hamburger or a Chick-Fila milkshake.

I did have yogurt for breakfast at least once this week. (That has to count for something.)

I’m an emotional eater.

I’m also a social eater. There is something special about dinner with your family, or with close friends. Somehow, sharing a meal brings people closer together. At least most of the time it does, but not always.

The Pharisee and the Prostitute

Today’s text begins, “Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him” (Luke 7:36a). The Pharisee’s name was Simon (v. 40). He could have been one of the Pharisees who heard Jesus’ criticism of them in Luke 7:29-35. Jesus was harsher on the Pharisees then He was any other group of people. But now, at least one of them, asked Jesus into his home to share a meal. By invited Him, the Pharisee was admitting Jesus was a Rabbi of equal standing with himself. Jesus accepted his invitation.

This was more than a simple meal. This meal wasn’t a cookout, it was a banquet. We know this because Jesus “reclined at the table” (Luke 7:36c) and the public gathered around to watch the event and listen to the conversations. Instead of eating inside the house, the banquet would have been held in the man’s courtyard, large enough to hold dozens of people around tables and hundreds more standing around. At formal banquets and dinners people reclined at low tables on couches or mats, resting on their left elbow with their feet extended behind them. Women were never invited to formal dinners and Rabbis did not talk to women, nor eat with women in public. In the crowd surrounding the table were people from all walks of life. But, those on the outside looking in knew not to intrude.

What happens next broke all kinds of social norms. “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town (more than likely she was a prostitute)[1] learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisees house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume,[2] and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:37-38).

I imagine the Pharisee hosting the banquet was appalled and embarrassed by this immoral woman’s intrusion on his dinner. This woman made an effort to get to Jesus. Her intention was to anoint His head, but she could not get close enough. She believed Jesus was the Messiah. I can see her twisting and squeezing and pushing herself to the front of the crowd. Then, the moment she sees Jesus, she is overwhelmed and begins to weep. I assume her weeping was more like sobs and verbal moans. I doubt she was quiet. Her tears, more than just a few drops, soaked Jesus’ feet. Not knowing what else to do, she dried His feet with her hair. A woman in that day only let her hair down in the privacy of her home in the presence of her husband. If this woman’s hair was already down it was another sign of her position in the community as a prostitute. If she let her hair down, it would be seen by others as being as inappropriate as removing her blouse and going topless. Either way, this woman was well known in the community for her “sinful life” (v. 37).

We get a glimpse into Simon Pharisee’s true motive for inviting Jesus to his home when he says to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner (Luke 7:39). The prostitute was convinced Jesus was the Messiah. The Pharisee, Simon, was cynical about Jesus even being a prophet. His intention was not to honor Jesus, but to humiliate Him.

Jesus loves stubborn Simon as much as he loves the sinful woman, and so Jesus does what He does so well. Instead of condemning Simon, He tells Simon a story. Jesus says, “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii (about two years wages),[3] and the other fifty (about two months wages).[4] Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42) The answer is obvious and Simon got it right. The person who had the greater debt forgiven would show the greater amount of love to the person who forgave the debt.

Jesus then says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, (usually a host would honor a respected guest by either giving him water to wash his feet or having a servant wash his feet)[5] but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss (the usual custom was to greet your dinner guest with a kiss on the cheek),[6] but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head (a sign of honor and respect),[7] but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:44-47).

Once again, we see in Luke’s gospel a radical reversal. Simon, a religious leader (a Pharisee) should have recognized who Jesus was and honored him as such, but he doesn’t. This woman, a prostitute, the person you would least expect to recognize Jesus and honor Him does. The point of Jesus’ story was not the amount of sin—the more sin the more forgiveness the more love. Rather, the point of Jesus’ story was the awareness of sin—the greater the awareness the greater the need for forgiveness the greater the gratitude and love for the Forgiver. Simon’s sins were private and he wanted to keep them private. The woman’s sins were public and so she expressed repentance and gratefulness in a very public way. As a result, Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).

The other guests at the dinner, we can assume at least some of them were also Pharisees, critically and piously say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49) And then Jesus drives His main point home. He says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). The woman’s act of contrition and her tears of repentance and her act of worship did not save her. Her works did not forgive her sins. It was her faith in Jesus the Messiah that saved her. As a result of the grace she received through faith in Jesus, she humbled herself and worshiped her Savior. Everyone, from Pharisee to prostitute, is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

What Do You See?

 By way of application, let’s view this story from three different perspectives. We will begin by looking at the story from the perspective of Simon the Pharisee. What did he see? First, he saw the woman as a sinner; nothing more and nothing less. He didn’t see the pain on her face. He didn’t see the loneliness in her eyes. He didn’t see her as a person. He didn’t see her need for forgiveness. Second, he saw Jesus as a prophet. He respected Jesus. He thought Jesus was an important person. He even called Jesus, “Teacher” (v. 40). But he did not recognize Jesus as being the Messiah, the forgiver of sins. Third, he did not see the opportunity to minister to the woman and worship Jesus.

Now let’s look at the story from the perspective of the woman, the prostitute. What did she see? First, she saw her own sinfulness. It has been my experience that you don’t have to convince sinners they are sinners, they know it! Far too often, religious people are not aware of their sins, but sinners are very aware of their sins. Second, she saw Jesus as the One who could forgive her sins. Overcome by her need for forgiveness and His power to forgive, she weeps and wails and repents. Third, she saw an opportunity to worship Jesus. Somewhere between the turnip greens, fried chicken, ice tea, and chess pie, she anointed Jesus’ feet and worshipped Him. And it wasn’t even her party!

What did Jesus see? First, He saw that both Simon and the woman needed grace. Jesus speaks the truth in love to both of them. Second, Jesus saw an opportunity to teach an important lesson. We are all in need of grace. We are all in need of forgiveness. We all need to be made aware of our sins so we will know just how much God loves us. All that it takes to receive forgiveness is faith in Jesus Christ.

There is one last perspective, and that is the perspective of you and me. What is it that Jesus wants us to see? First, He wants us to see our own sins and our own need for forgiveness. Simon gladly confessed the woman’s sins. But nowhere in the story does he confess his own. I cannot repent for someone else’s sins. I can’t forgive anyone else’s sins. All I can do is become aware of my own sins and confess them and place my faith in Jesus and receive His grace and His forgiveness for my sins. Second, Jesus wants us to see the hurting and the marginalized all around us. He wants us to see past people’s sins, and look into their eyes, seeing the image of God in them, and loving them to faith in Jesus. Third, Jesus wants us to see both the prostitute and the Pharisee, and us, as equally sinful and equally in need of forgiveness.


Over the desert fly two types of birds—the vulture and the hummingbird. Both are looking for something. The vulture is looking for dead, rotting animals. The hummingbird is looking for brightly colored flowers with sweet nectar. Both the vulture and the hummingbird find what they are looking for. Both the hummingbird and the vulture see what they want to see.

What do you see?

Maybe a better question is what are you looking for?

Chances are you see what you want to see.

What is God trying to show you?

Has God been trying to make you aware of something?

Is there a sin you need to confess?

Do you need forgiveness?

Do you need to be set free from your guilt?

Are you a like the Pharisee with private sins or are you like the prostitute with public sins?

Either way, it really doesn’t matter. Everyone who has ever had their sins forgiven did so because they placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Is that what you need to do?

Do you need to place your faith in Jesus, and worship Him with your tears?

Are you a Pharisee or a prostitute?


 [1] Parenthesis added for explanation.

[2] The perfume would have been very expensive and the alabaster jar would have been broken to get to the perfume. Once opened, all the perfume had to be used.

[3] Parenthesis added for explanation.

[4] Parenthesis added for explanation.

[5] Parenthesis added for explanation.

[6] Parenthesis added for explanation.

[7] Parenthesis added for explanation.


About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike that order.
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2 Responses to The Pharisee and the Prostitute (Luke 7:36-50)

  1. Floy Underwood says:

    Bro.Kevin, Great message. I really enjoy your postings.

  2. David R Howell says:

    This is a wonderful sermon, and a great lesson. Thank you for sharing this.

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