But a careful comparison of the stories reveals a clearer picture – and carries an important lesson. The accounts of Matthew, Mark and John are often thought to reflect an occasion regarding Mary, the sister of Martha (John 11:2), and the account in Luke to reflect another incident regarding a different woman who had lived a sinful life. But all the apparent differences between the stories can be easily reconciled. For example, Mathew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’ head, the other gospels say his feet were anointed. But the woman may well have anointed Christ’s head and feet – recorded differently according to the stress the individual Gospel writers had in mind (i.e., the head for a kingly anointing, or an anointing for burial).
It would be a strange coincidence if two women had both anointed Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfume and wiped his feet with their hair. If they were different women, why did the Gospel writers not differentiate them in some way? On the other hand, that Mary sister of Martha was the one woman who anointed Christ may perhaps be seen earlier in John’s account where he tells us: “(This Mary… was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)” (John 11:2) – saying “the same one who” rather than “one of the women who.” It would also be strange if not one of the four gospel writers recorded both events, if two similar events had occurred. This is especially true considering Jesus’ words in Mark 14:9: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Would Christ have put so much emphasis on this event if it was the second instance of two virtually identical cases? If this had been done by two different women, surely both would be clearly recorded.
That the various accounts regarding the woman who anointed Christ’s feet involve the same event has another aspect to it. Luke’s account says the event occurred in the home of a Pharisee named Simon, the others say it was in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. But Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee were probably one and the same. A leper could never have hosted a dinner nor have partaken in one with other people – Simon the Leper must have been healed and could thus have been the same as Simon the Pharisee. Simon may well have been referred to as “the Pharisee” in Luke because Luke stresses Jesus’ reply to Simon’s pharisaical and self-righteous attitude, while the other Gospels remember him as Simon the Leper.
Why does this matter? If Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee are one and the same, then Jesus’ words to this man take on far greater meaning. Commentaries on Luke: 7:36-50 usually stress the fact that Jesus pointed out to the Pharisee that he had not welcomed Jesus as the woman did, but we should notice the context, and what Jesus actually stresses before he continued to make a comparison between the woman and Simon:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two people 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 forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said” (Luke 7:40-43).
Why did Jesus talk to the Pharisee about gratitude for forgiveness? Notice Christ said two people had been forgiven, one of much, one of less – and made the point that the one forgiven more, loved more. If Simon the Pharisee had been forgiven sins and healed of leprosy by Jesus, this part of the story makes perfect sense. Simon is the one forgiven a smaller amount, Mary the one forgiven a greater amount, but who then loved more.
But Jesus’ comment to the Pharisee cuts to the heart of any self-righteous understanding of forgiveness. In speaking to the Pharisee as Jesus did, he showed the man the hypocrisy of accepting forgiveness and still looking askance at others as sinners. Jesus’ words showed not only that those forgiven more, love more – and may show much more gratitude – but also that those of us forgiven anything are in no position to judge others self-righteously, no matter how much they may have sinned. To look at God’s forgiveness in any other way, Jesus shows us, is to walk in the shoes of someone blind to their own self-righteousness. It is to walk in the shoes of a Pharisee.