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The Prostitute and the Pharisee

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 11:20–30; Luke 7:36–50

To ignore one’s sin is to ignore the most basic problem in life. To ignore Jesus Christ is to ignore the only means of forgiveness of sin. Spiritual peace and rest come only through faith in Him.


As we continue making our way through the four Gospels on our Wisdom Journey, the next event that takes place chronologically is a warning to unbelieving cities that had witnessed the power of Jesus. Here in Matthew 11:20 we are told, “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.”

Jesus then says in verses 21-23 that the cities of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom will be judged less severely than the cities where Jesus personally performed His miracles.

This is a shocking announcement because everybody knows Sidon was the home of Jezebel, that wicked queen. They know that Baal and Ashtoreth had been worshiped in the city of Tyre, along with Molech, whose idols were crafted with open bellies in which hot fires were stoked and into which people placed their babies as sacrifices.[1]

Everybody knows that the city of Sodom was synonymous with God’s judgment against homosexuality. But Jesus says that the people of Sidon and Tyre and Sodom are going to receive less punishment in that final day of judgment.

The Lord even says, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (verse 23).

Capernaum had been home base for Jesus; He had taught in the synagogue there and healed the sick. Capernaum should have a head start in the coming kingdom of God. Not quite, Jesus says, because they rejected their Messiah.

After this indictment, Jesus breaks into prayer:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (verses 25-27).

Then Jesus makes this invitation to his audience in verses 28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In those days, whenever oxen were ready to begin plowing, the farmer would bring out the village carpenter and take measurements of their shoulders, as if he were fitting them for tailor-made suits. Then he would carve a yoke that fit perfectly so that it would not chafe the oxen’s shoulders.

When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” He means, “I have tailor-made a yoke for you. Take it upon you, and learn from Me.” The word for “learn” is the verb form of the word translated “disciple.” Basically, He is saying, “Become my disciple.” What is the curriculum? Jesus says, “For I am gentle and lowly in heart.” 

This is the only time in the New Testament that Jesus refers to His heart. The Lord’s curriculum for His disciples is all about His heart. And what happens when we study Him? He says, “You will find rest for your souls.” Then in verse 30, He says, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” In other words, His yoke is perfectly tailored; it is well fitting—for you.

The Pharisees had loaded down the people with all their regulations. Jesus offered rest from self-effort for those who would trust their hearts to His.

Now as we study Jesus’ life chronologically through the Gospels, Luke 7 brings us to the next event, when a Pharisee invites Jesus over for a meal. While they are eating, something unusual happens, as we are told in verse 37:

A woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment.

A woman of the city was first-century terminology for a prostitute.[2]

She just walks into this dining room where dinner is already underway. I imagine everybody stops eating and turns to stare.

Verse 38 continues:  

Standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.

Now in our culture today, this show of affection might appear to be too intimate or indiscreet. But not in Jesus’ day.

A Greek manuscript was discovered that had been written around the time of Jesus. It describes a woman who went to the temple of her goddess Aphrodite. There she let down her hair in veneration to the goddess as she knelt at the feet of her idol and wept and repeatedly kissed the feet of the statute.[3]

That is the idea here. The woman is kneeling in worship, kissing—not the feet of a man—but the feet of her Messiah and Lord. This little container, which women often carried on a necklace, would have contained costly perfume, or ointment.

Simon the Pharisee is watching this take place, and he speaks to himself in verse 39:

“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.”

He is thinking, Jesus is no prophet; otherwise, He would know what kind of sinner this woman is and would not be letting her touch Him. Wait till I tell the other Pharisees.

What Simon doesn’t know is that Jesus can read his mind. So, Jesus presents Simon a brief parable here in verses 41-42:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answers, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt” (verse 43). Jesus says that he is correct. The greater the debt, the greater the appreciation for the lender’s kindness.

Then turning toward the woman, Jesus asks Simon in verse 44, “Do you see this woman?” Of course he sees this woman. Nobody eating dinner had stopped watching what she was doing!

What Jesus means here is, “Do you see how she recognizes her sinfulness? Do you see how thankful she is for God’s forgiveness. She loves me so much because she has been forgiven so much.”

Now maybe you read this passage and think that you would love the Lord more if you had this kind of testimony—if you had been a prostitute or a murderer. The point Jesus is making is not so much about the amount of sin but the awareness of sin.[4]

When you think little of your sin, it is no big deal that Jesus died for you. But when you realize the depths of your depravity and the sinfulness of your heart—no matter what your testimony is—the more you come to love and appreciate the Lord.[5]

This woman is openly professing her love for Christ, and He now says to her in verse 48, “Your sins are forgiven.” He is affirming her faith in Him, which brought her into this dining room.

The reaction of the Pharisees is predictable. We read in verse 49, “Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” Jesus just ignores them and says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (verse 50).

Friend, it does not matter what you have done, and it does not matter who you are; come to Jesus, and place your faith in Him. He will slip that tailor-made yoke on you as His disciple, and you will find peace and forgiveness and rest for your soul.

[1] John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Luke (Kregel, 2005), 156.

[2] G. Campbell Morgan, The Great Physician (Revell, 1938), 139.

[3] David E. Garland, Luke, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2011), 326.

[4] Warren Wiersbe, Be Compassionate (Victor Books, 1988), 80.

[5] Christa Threlfall, “Which One Will Love Him More?” Bible Study Magazine, September/October 2021, 5.

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