“Thank You” or “Please Forgive Me”? Pondering the Prostitute’s Purpose

May 8, 2012

Was she there to beg his forgiveness or to worship him for a cleansing already received? 

This was the question that sparked all the Bible study I’ve invested in the subject of Jesus and women over the years. (God may have possibly had something to do with this, as well.) The question was prompted by an ambiguous Bible translation, which resulted in a significant misinterpretation. 

One day back in the mid-1990s, I was preparing to teach a children’s Sunday school lesson on the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. I was taken aback by a statement in the teacher’s manual that Jesus forgave this woman because she had demonstrated a sufficient amount of sorrow for her sin. 

In other words, they thought Jesus was saying, “Give her some space, Simon. This woman is working hard at proving to me that she is sorry for her pitiful life. If she grovels long enough and with enough conviction, I’ll forgive her.” 

The teacher’s manual promoted a conclusion similar to the one blogger, Simon Yap, confessed to*: 

1. Jesus forgave the prostitute because she anointed His feet with her perfume.
2. The prostitute anointed Jesus’ feet because she wanted to be forgiven.
3. After she anointed Jesus’ feet Jesus forgave her.
4. She was forgiven because she loved Jesus much.

Was that right? Did she come to Jesus really sorry or really grateful? 

I know where this interpretation came from. If you read only verse 47 in the original New International Version (published in 1984), you find Jesus telling Simon the Pharisee this:

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much…” [italics added for emphasis]

The New American Standard Version, also still commonly in use back in the 90s, reads similarly: 

“For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much…” 

This statement certainly leans toward supporting the Sunday school book’s interpretation.

However, it ignores the parable Jesus had just told the Pharisee:

“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 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?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)

Clearly, Jesus’ point was that the love follows the forgiveness; it doesn’t earn the forgiveness. 

Understanding this statement correctly is no trivial matter. We have so much trouble feeling unworthy of Christ’s love—especially when sexual sin is involved—that it’s vital to get this theology straight. We are loved. First. We are forgiven. Already. That’s the grace part. We then respond with gratitude, sorrow—yes—for our sin against such a good God, also repentance, obedience, worship, and praise. 

There’s no groveling and groaning and begging and penance-paying to prove that we regret our sin enough to warrant reprieve. No amount of weeping or self-inflicted punishment or frenzied good deeds would have earned God’s forgiveness for that prostitute, nor will it get me anywhere toward forgiveness of my own sin. Praise God for that! 

The woman who came to Jesus during that dinner party was there to thank Jesus for what had already happened. She was there to worship him and show her love for a gentle Savior who loves every one of his daughters, no matter what they have done or what has been done to them. 

Thankfully, the confusion about Jesus’ meaning is cleared up by the 2011 update of the New International Version, probably because the translators took into account the context of the parable in their translation:

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

The New Living Translation concurs: 

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love… 

Not all Bible translations follow this rendering even now, but read in the context of the parable, it certainly seems more consistent. The thing to remember is that reading a reliable Bible translation—even multiple translations—is really important to understanding the intended meaning of a passage. It’s also so much easier now with digital Bibles like www.biblegateway.com. Yet, paying attention to the full context of a statement is absolutely essential and can often help with your interpretation of an ambiguous or confusing statement. 

I’m really glad some Bible translators have better clarified the meaning of verse 47. Although I’m not happy that people have sometimes misunderstood the point of this passage, there is a silver lining for me personally that they did. Without coming across this misconception I may never have started digging deeper into this story and then into all of Christ’s other encounters with women. What a beautiful blessing I would have missed. 

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9 

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

Titus 3:4-7 

*See “My apologies to a former prostitute! Luke 7:46-47” at His Grace Is Enough blog.

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