Father Callan’s Commentary on Luke 7:36-8:3

Note: This commentary was first published in 1918 and its author, like many before and after him, saw the sinful woman as Mary Magdalen, an interpretation few modern scholars now advance (rightly so in my opinion). Also, after Father Callan’s notes on verse 47 I have added a quotation from Volume 1 of Father Joseph Fitzmeyer’s commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible Series which, I think, gives a better interpretation of the verse.

36. And one of the Pharisees, whose name was “Simon” (verse 40). It is very probable that this Simon is the same as “Simon he Leper” mentioned by Matthew (xxvi. 6), althoughthe present occurrence seems to have taken place at Naim, in Galilee, two years before that mentioned by Matthew, which occurred at Bethany, on the eve of the Passion. If this be true, Simon must meanwhile have moved from Galilee to Judea. Some authorities (Le Camus, Life of Christ, vol. ii. p. 32) think that the reasons given to prove that the present incident took place at Naim or Capharnaum are not good. This verse of St. Luke, it is maintained, is only a fragment, having no connection with what precedes or follows.

37. A woman that was in the city, a sinner; i.e., a woman who was a sinner in the city.

An alabaster box of ointment, which was a small phial containing precious ointment, used to anoint the head and feet of guests. Whether the anointing here recounted is the same as that mentioned by the other three Evangelists ( Matthew xxvi. 7 ; Mark xiv. 3; John xii. 3), and whether, consequently, the woman “who was a sinner,” and Mary, the sister of Lazarus, were one and the same person, has been disputed from the earliest times. Some hold that the anointing mentioned by St.. Luke, since it occurred in Galilee, two years before our Lord’s Passion, is not the same as that recorded by the other Evangelists, which was in Bethany, on the eve of the Passion. Others say that the anointing took place but once, hence St. Luke’s account must be the same as that of the other Evangelists. This, however, seems very improbable. To identify the account of St. Luke with that of the other Evangelists is to overlook those differences of time, place, and persons which make it next to impossible to consider the two anointings as one. There are chiefly the following differences: (a) St. Luke’s account is in Galilee in the second year of the Messianic ministry, whereas the account of the other Evangelists is at Bethany in Judea, only six days before the last Pasch; (b) in St. Luke’s account the woman is supposed to be a stranger; but in the other instance she appears as well known as if in her own home; (c) in the former account our Lord grants a solemn pardon to a repentant sinner, in the latter He praises a friend and announces His own death. At any rate, whether there was one or two anointings, the general teaching of the Latin Church has always been that these services for our Lord were performed by one and the same person, and that consequently, Mary Magdalen, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and the sinner here mentioned were one and the same person.

This is further proved as follows: (a) St. Luke in the present chapter (verses 36-50) narrates the conversion of a sinner who devotes herself entirely to the Saviour ; and in the following chapter (viii) he speaks of certain women who were devoutly ministering to our Lord, and he names in the first place Mary Magdalen”out of whom seven devils were gone forth” (verse 2). Now this seems plainly to identify Mary Magdalen and the sinner, (b) St, John (xi. 2) speaks of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, as the one who had anointed our Lord and wiped His feet with her hair, and since this anointing cannot be understood as referring to any other than that mentioned by St. Luke (vii. 36-50), it follows that Mary the sister of Lazarus and the sinner were the same person, (c) In Mary, the sister of Lazarus, in Mary Magdalen, and in the sinner, we find the same identical characteristics — the same intense love for and fervent desire to be with the Saviour; and hence we must naturally conclude that the three names belong to the selfsame person. Cf. Matt. xxvi. 7 ; Mark xiv, 3 ; Luke vii. 47 ; x. 38-42 ; John xi. 32, 33 ; xii. 2, 3.

It is idle to object here that our Lord could not have admitted one who had been a great sinner to His close friendship ; Christ came to save sinners. Neither is there any difficulty in the fact that Mary of Bethany should have been called the Magdalen, since she might have lived for a time, or had possessions at Magdala.

And standing behind at his feet. The guests at the table were reclining, in accordance with the custom first introduced from the Persians. They rested on their left arm, their unsandalled feet being concealed behind the triclinium.

She began to wash his feet, etc. These services were not unusual, although the anointing of the head was more common than the anointing of the feet. The anointing was the expression of welcome and homage, proceeding from the deepest and truest feelings of the human heart.

If he were a prophet, etc. Simon thought that if our Lord were truly a prophet, He would possess the gifts of a prophet, one of which was to know hidden things. But in thus reasoning, Simon seriously erred: (a) because it was by no means essential to a prophet’s gifts that he should know hidden things, except in so far as it might please God to enlighten him ; (b) because he erroneously thought that to come in external contact with a sinner could defile a soul; (c) because he mistook the purpose of Christ’s mission, which was not to keep aloof from sinners, but to draw near them, in order to save them.

40. And Jesus answering, said, etc. Our Lord now showed the Pharisee that He did possess the gift of knowing hidden things, since He made known the Pharisee’s secret thoughts.

The one owed five hundred pence, the other fifty. The penny, or denarius, was equal to about 17 cents in our money. The different quantities of money are here mentioned to show the difference in indebtedness in which two debtors stood to a common creditor.

43. Thou hast judged rightly, and by so doing the Pharisee condemned his own previous rash and false judgment.

44-46. In these verses our Lord showed the Pharisee that he had denied Him courtesies and acts of respect which were altogether according to custom ; he had not given Him water for His feet (Gen. xviii. 4 ; Judg. Xix. 21); he had not offered Him the kiss of peace ( Gen. xlvi. 29; Exod. xviii. 7) ; neither had he anointed the head of his guest, as was the custom at festivals (Ps. xxii. 5; cxl. 5) ; whereas this woman had lavishly rendered these courtesies, and even more.

47. Many sins are forgiven her, etc. ; i.e., have been forgiven her (Greek text), because she hath loved much. The perfect charity of Mary, founded on faith in the power and goodness of our Lord, which prompted her to come to Him and perform towards Him those several acts of courtesy and love, had already obtained for her the remission of her sins. It was her longing for God, her earnest desire for forgiveness, and her hatred of her sins, which constituted that love which the Saviour here assigns as the cause, or at least the necessary condition, of the pardon which Mary had obtained, before she had begun to anoint our Lord.

It is doing violence to the text and to the ordinary meaning of the Greek connective (ὅτι = hoti), to maintain, as some do, that the love of Mary here spoken of was the consequence, and not the cause or condition, of the forgiveness granted to her by our Lord. Without doubt, Mary’s love, in gratitude for her forgiveness, was far greater than that of the proud Pharisee, who had little sense of his own condition; but in her case, the Saviour speaks only of the love which preceded her pardon; whereas in the case of the Pharisee He alludes exclusively, in the present verse, to the love which follows forgiveness, “but to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less.”

Note: “It has often been thought that the sinful woman comes to Jesus as a penitent, seeking forgivenes of him; her love would then be the condition of her pardon. The clause in v. 47b, hoti egapesen poly, “seeing that she has loved greatly,” is in itself ambiguous; and in this interpretation, the conjunctive hoti would be given a consecutive nuance, implying that the forgiveness shown to her is the result of her love. This interpretation, known since patristic times and used in a number of modern commentaries (Wellhausen, Loisy, Lagrange, Holtzmann, etc.), has to cope with the almost opposite sense of v. 47c, “but he to whom little is forgiven loves little.” However, it has been pointed out time and again that the conjunctive hoti could be understood not as the reason “why the fact is so, but whereby it is known to be so” (ZBG 422)). Consequently, it should rather be understood that the sinful woman comes to Jesus as one already forgiven by God and seeking to pour out signs of love and gratitude (tears, kisses, perfume); in this understanding, the love of v. 47b is the consequence of her forgiveness, and v. 47c integrates the parable with the narrative. It extends the pronouncement of Jesus.” Father Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According To Luke, I-IX, pg 686-687.

Fitzmeyer goes on to note that this understanding of the verse was held by St Ambrose, St Cyprian, and a number of other earlier commentators.

49. Thy sins are forgiven thee; i.e., have been forgiven thee, as just explained (verse 47).

50. Thy faith hath made thee safe, etc. Faith is a necessary condition for charity or love of God, hence it was Mary’s lively faith which was the foundation, or fundamental cause or condition, of the charity she had and of the forgiveness she obtained.

Chapter 8, Ver. 1. Afterwards. The time was perhaps towards the end of the second year of our Lord’s public ministry. He is still in Galilee.

And the twelve; i.e., the Apostles whom He had chosen (vi. 13), and whom He was now instructing in the important work of the ministry.

2. Mary, who is called Magdalen. She was called Magdalen from the city in which she lived, which was Magdala, a town on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee. It is most probable that this Mary was the same as the sinful woman spoken of in the last chapter, who was also the sister of Lazarus. She was perhaps living at Magdala in Galilee, when our Lord began His public ministry, and having been converted by Him, she followed Him from Galilee to Judea, to Bethany, which some say was her native place, and which was the home of Martha and Lazarus.

3. Joanna . . . Susanna . . . and many others, etc. It was customary among the Jews for ministering women thus to follow and assist great teachers. Cf. i Cor. ix. 5.

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One Response to Father Callan’s Commentary on Luke 7:36-8:3

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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