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The Woman of the Perfume

· ​In the New Testament ·

Traditionally known as the public sinner who repented and was pardoned, the Woman of the Perfume – this is what I like to call her – is one of the many anonymous women who appear in Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50). Some confuse her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, or with Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus drove out seven demons, or even with the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned by her accusers. However, for us she is the Woman of the Perfume, the one who anointed the Teacher’s feet with the scented ointment contained in her alabaster vase.

Giovanni Marotta, “The Sinful Woman” (2011)

The Woman of the Perfume is neither blind, nor leprous, nor a deaf-mute, nor paralysed, nor suffering from a haemorrhage, nor is she possessed by the devil. Her ailment is of quite another kind: the Woman of the Perfume has led a sinful life. And Jesus, the Teacher, the Healer, applies a remedy which is instantly effective. He suddenly pardons all her sins. He does not remind her of them, he does not recount them nor does he classify them. Jesus’ remedy regenerates in the woman’s deadened heart the most delicate of human sentiments: love and gratitude. The Woman of the Perfume is the woman of the great love, the woman of infinite gratitude, the woman who is unable to express in words what in her heart she feels for Jesus. And since she is unable to speak, her heart urges her to make a daring gesture.

The people who intervene in the episode narrated by Luke are Jesus, the sinful woman, Simon the Pharisee and other guests at the table. They are all involved in the same plot, where the logic of the law clashes with the logic of love. Simon the Pharisee and his group represent the law, Jesus incarnates love. In their midst is the sinful woman: Simon accuses her, Jesus forgives her. The woman’s unusual action provokes Simon’s judgement, Simon’s judgement provokes Jesus’ intervention and Jesus’ intervention unleashes the guests’ reaction.

Everything begins with a simple invitation. A Pharisee invites Jesus to eat with him. In itself the fact does not surprise us: sharing a meal was something normal in the Jewish society of that time, just as it is in our own. In inviting Jesus the Pharisee makes a hospitable and generous gesture. He shows an open and cordial attitude to the Teacher. It is his way of approaching Jesus. We cannot know the Pharisee’s hidden motives. However, if he opens the doors of his home to Jesus it is because he wants to know him and to establish some kind of personal relationship with him.

Jesus is glad to accept the invitation: he enters the Pharisee’s house and in accordance with the Greco-Roman custom reclines beside the table with the other dining companions. Jesus makes no comment, he shows neither reserve nor fear. He knows well that sitting at a Pharisee’s table means in a certain way entering his world, a hermetically sealed world where the highest value is zeal for holiness. The narration thus begins in a markedly positive tone. Simon invites Jesus to a banquet and Jesus straightaway accepts his invitation. There is cordiality both on the part of the house owner and on the part of the guest.

Dieric Bouts the Elder, “Christ in the House of Simon” (1440)

There is no doubt that without the unexpected appearance of the Woman of the Perfume in Simon’s house nothing in particular would have happened. She bursts in on the scene surprisingly when she is not in the least expected. No one has invited her. She presents herself at the banquet as an intruder. She does not belong to the group. She is a well-known sinner and, what is more, a woman. However our protagonist does not feel burdened by her marginalized status and she ushers herself into the room where the banquet is taking place. She asks where Jesus is and goes straight to him. She wants to meet him. She breaks all the rigid social rules. She confronts the risk of rejection, misunderstanding, contempt and condemnation. For her, love and gratitude to Jesus are far above social codes. She enters Simon’s house with an alabaster vase full of fragrant ointment and stops behind Jesus, weeping at his feet.

The position of the woman’s body is very eloquent. Jesus is reclined next to the table. The woman is on the floor behind him, touching the Teacher’s feet with her head. Jesus is above, she is below, as low as she could possibly be. And from below, the woman weeps, looks at him and speaks to him. She speaks in silence, without words. She speaks with her body. In Simon’s house everyone is seated. She alone is on the floor. They are all placed opposite each other. Only she is behind. They all look each other in the face. She alone contemplates Jesus’ feet. For the moment she is excluded from the banquet but she will shortly take Simon’s place: from being marginalized she will become the true mistress of the house. For now she remains below and behind. But she will soon occupy the centre of the scene.

Instead of words, the woman has recourse to body language. And with her body, especially with her hands, she passes on her message. The woman says nothing and yet, in her astonishing silence, she carries out an intense activity. She kisses Jesus’ feet, she bathes them with her tears, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with her fragrant ointment. These actions imply a physical contact which Jesus accepts with great naturalness. This woman’s caresses are the bodily expression of a sincere and grateful love. It is a love which needs to come out of itself to enter the otherness of the other. And this process demands time. The woman needs time to show her love. Thus she does not cease to kiss and caress Jesus’ feet. She caresses them slowly, repeatedly and delicately. With her hands she supports something of enormous value to her: Jesus’ feet. This detail of the duration and insistence of the woman’s actions is understood by Jesus who communicates them to Simon: “From the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet” (Lk 7:45).

However, the woman’s indecorous behaviour does not provoke Simon’s indignation. What troubles the Pharisee is the attitude of Jesus who accepts the kisses and fragrant caresses of a woman who is a public sinner. The woman’s action prompts Simon’s immediate and irrevocable judgement, a hidden process, a sentence dictated in the secrecy of his heart: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Lk 7:39). Simon sees only the physical contact between Jesus and the sinful woman and the inevitable contagion. He is unable to look any further. In fact with his judgement Simon challenges Jesus. And Jesus accepts the challenge.

Jesus’ strategy in his discourse is very subtle for it plays on the sensitivity and capacity for involvement of the person he is addressing. As a good teacher, Jesus opts for the means of indirect language. He chooses the method of a parable and it will be the parable itself that demonstrates Simon’s weakness! The story which Jesus begins has nothing to do with the conflict provoked by the woman, seemingly at least.

The parable speaks of the remission of debts, a topic highly popular among the Pharisees; it is the key point of his doctrine. Jesus absolutely does not share Simon’s ideas about what is pure and what is impure. Thus he chooses a subject which unites them, at least in principle. Jesus was able to avoid a head-on clash with the man he was speaking to while at the same time preserving the thread of communication at a highly tense moment.

Jesus ends the dialogue with a sentence that sums up all his teaching. In case Simon had not understood it at all, Jesus adds: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little”. (Lk 7:47). We do not know whether Jesus’ final maxim convinced Simon once and for all or whether it left him even more perplexed. With it Jesus is inviting him to emerge from his closed world, made of separations and prohibitions, so that he may enjoy the logic of love which is ultimately the logic of forgiveness. Jesus does not directly accuse Simon, but indeed includes him in the same category of sinners to which the woman belongs. Simon considers himself pure, perfect and holy; he considers himself a man of irreproachable conduct.

Once again Jesus disconcerts us. His words are disconcerting, as are his actions and his silences. The Woman of the Perfume enters the scene as an outcast, a woman excluded from the social world, from the religious system, from the banquet, from the table and from the dialogue…. She has no name, culture or prestige, no influence or authority nor, in all likelihood, any substantial financial resources. All that the Woman of the Perfume has is courage, the audacity to challenge the most powerful structures of the society of her time. She is alone. She is a sinner and knows it. She enjoys a bad reputation and knows it. She has no group that she can count on to give her support; nor has she any law to protect her. She wages her risky battle with what she has: her humanity and her tenderness. She is a strong woman, capable of profound disinterested love. Anyone who loves takes risks for his or her beloved. And this is what she does. The little she has, she risks for Jesus. She violates the norms and enters a sphere strictly out of bounds to her. She confronts the accusatory gazes of the guests, she tolerates the intransigent judgement of Simon and the humiliation and contempt of all. She does not seek to justify her extremely ambiguous action with words. She has risked everything.

Simon, for his part, prefers calculation and prudent acquiescence: making a good impression on Jesus without troubling his Pharisee friends. The woman shows her love and gratitude to Jesus using body language. It comes more easily to her to express herself in this way than with a prepared speech. She has no need of words. Her gestures of tenderness suffice for her: kissing Jesus’ feet, wetting them with her tears, wiping them with her hair and anointing them with her perfumed ointment. These are freely given gestures, not a matter of necessity, and are unusual if they are seen with the eyes of logic, of the law or of social class. However, tenderness refuses to enter intellectual, ethical and social parameters. Tenderness is not learned from the law but from the heart, it is assessed on the basis not of law but of forgiveness; it is not explained from outside but from within. For this reason Simon lacks tenderness. Like so many others he must learn to look with a new gaze. Otherwise he will never be able to be in tune with the inclusive dynamic of Jesus.

And what does Jesus do? What is his attitude to the woman? Jesus too goes beyond the oppressive and marginalizing structures of his society to confer on the woman all the dignity which Simon, a representative of the Pharisees, has denied her for no reason. Jesus accepts her love and gratitude, receives her caresses, breathes her fragrance, looks at her in the face, speaks to her, praises her action, forgives her sins and restores to her a peaceful heart. The woman enters the Pharisee’s home without either dignity or comfort and leaves it ennobled, recognized and forgiven. Jesus’ inclusive attitude is profoundly human and liberating: on the one hand he violates taboos, pulls down boundaries, dismantles prejudices, relativizes laws, unmasks injustices; on the other he generates closeness, a relationship, dialogue, intimacy and encourages an authentic personal encounter. Meeting Jesus is always a starting point, a window open on the future, an incentive for hope. The Woman of the Perfume is not the only excluded person in our Gospel who receives Jesus’ inclusive embrace. Other excluded men and woman – I am thinking, for example, of the woman with the haemorrhage, of the grateful leper and of the blind man of Jericho – will have the same experience. Jesus takes his leave of them all with the same commendation: “Your faith has saved you”.

Our story began with a Pharisee who invites Jesus to eat at his home and ends with a Pharisee who disappears from the scene in silence. Our story began with a woman who was a public sinner who enters the Pharisee’s house weeping disconsolately and ends with a woman forgiven who leaves the tale, her heart swelling and overflowing with peace.

Such are encounters with Jesus.

Nuria Calduch-Benages




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 8, 2019