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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Luke 7

Verse 1


(1) In the audience of the people.—Better, in the hearing, or, in the ears, the older sense of “audience” having become obsolete.

He entered into Capernaum.—The sequence of events is the same as that in Matthew 8:5-13; and, as far as it goes, this is an element of evidence against the conclusion that the Sermon on the Mountain and that on the Plain were altogether independent. Looking, however, at the manifest dislocation of facts in one or both of the Gospels, St. Matthew placing between the Sermon on the Mount and the healing of the centurion’s servant, the healing of the leper, which St. Luke gives in Luke 5:12-16, the agreement in this instance can hardly be looked at as more than accidental.

Verse 2

(2) A certain centurion’s servant.—See Notes on Matthew 8:5-13.

Was dear unto him.—Literally, was precious, the dearness of value, but not necessarily of affection. St. Luke is here, contrary to what we might have expected, less precise than St. Matthew, who states that the slave was “sick of the palsy.” Had the physician been unable to satisfy himself from what he heard as to the nature of the disease? The details that follow show that he had made inquiries, and was able to supply some details which St. Matthew had not given.

Verse 3

(3) He sent unto him the elders of the Jews.—The noun has no article. Better, He sent unto Him elders; not as the English suggests, the whole body of elders belonging to the synagogue or town. This is peculiar to St. Luke, and is obviously important as bearing on the position and character of the centurion. He was, like Cornelius, at least half a proselyte.

Verse 4

(4) They besought him instantly.—Better, earnestly, or urgently, the adverb “instantly” having practically lost the meaning which our translators attached to it.

Verse 5

(5) He hath built us a synagogue.—Literally, the synagogue, a well-known and conspicuous building, probably the only one in Capernaum, and so identical with that of which the ruins have been lately discovered by the Palestine Exploration Society. (See Note on Matthew 4:13.)

Verse 6

(6) Then Jesus went with them.—Literally, And Jesus was going with them.

The centurion sent friends to him.—The precision of St. Luke’s account leads us to receive it as a more accurate record of what St. Matthew reports in outline. It is, we may add, more true to nature. The centurion was not likely to leave the slave who was so precious to him when he seemed as in the very agonies of death.

Trouble not thyself.—The word is the same as in Mark 5:35, where see Note.

Verse 7

(7) Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy.—The humility of the centurion appears in a yet stronger light than in St. Matthew’s report. Far from expecting the Prophet to come under his roof, he had not dared even to approach Him.

Verse 9

(9) I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.—It is, perhaps, characteristic of both the Evangelists that St. Luke omits the warning words which St. Matthew records as to the “many that shall come from the east and the west,” and the exclusion of the children of the kingdom.

Verse 10

(10) Found the servant whole.—Note St. Luke’s characteristic use, as in Luke 5:31, of a technical term for “healthy” or “convalescent.”

Verse 11

(11) He went into a city called Nain.—The narrative that follows is peculiar to St. Luke. The name of the city has survived, with hardly any alteration, in the modern Nein. It lies on the north-western edge of the “Little Hermon” (the Jebel-ed-Dâhy) as the ground falls into the plain of Esdraelon. It is approached by a steep ascent, and on either side of the road the rock is full of sepulchral caves. It was on the way to one of these that the funeral procession was met by our Lord. We may reasonably infer that the miracle that followed was one which, from its circumstances, had specially fixed itself in the memories of the “devout women” of Luke 8:1, and that it was from them that St. Luke obtained his knowledge of it. (See Introduction.)

Verse 12

(12) The only son of his mother, and she was a widow.—The two facts are obviously stated as enhancing the bitterness of the mother’s sorrow. The one prop of her life, the hope of her widowhood, had been taken from her. The burial, as was the invariable practice in the East, took place outside the city.

Verse 13

(13) And when the Lord saw her.—The words are noticeable as being one of the comparatively few instances in which the term “the Lord” is used absolutely instead of Jesus. As far as it goes it confirms the view suggested in the previous Note, that the narrative came from those who had a profound reverence for the Master they had followed, and at a time when they had learnt thus to speak of Him. (Comp. the language of Mary Magdalene in John 20:2; John 20:13.) It may be noted further that this use of “the Lord” occurs more frequently in St. Luke and St. John than in the other Gospels. Comp. Luke 7:31; Luke 10:1; Luke 11:39; Luke 12:42; Luke 17:5-6; Luke 19:8; Luke 22:61; John 4:1; John 6:23; John 20:18; John 20:20; John 20:25; John 21:7; John 21:12. The last three or four references show that the disciples habitually used the same mode of speech, but it would not follow that in their lips it necessarily meant more at first than our “Sir,” or “Master.” After the Resurrection, doubtless, it rose to its higher meaning, as in the exclamations of St. Thomas (John 20:28; comp. John 20:25), and of St. John (John 21:7).

He had compassion.—Note, in this instance, as in so many others (e.g., Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41), how our Lord’s works of wonder spring not from a distinct purpose to offer credentials of His mission, but from the outflow of His infinite sympathy with human suffering.

Verse 14

(14) He came and touched the bier.—The noun so translated is used by classical authors in various senses. Here the facts make it clear that it was after the Jewish manner of burial. It was not a closed-up coffin, like the mummy-cases of Egypt, but an open bier on which the corpse lay wrapped up in its winding-sheet and swathing bands, as in the description of the entombment of Lazarus (John 11:44) and of our Lord (John 20:6-7), with the sudarium, the napkin or handkerchief, laid lightly over the face. The immediate effect of the touch was that they who bore the bier “stood still.” They must have marvelled, that One who was known as a Teacher should touch that which most Rabbis would have avoided as bringing pollution, and their halting in their solemn march implied, perhaps, both awe, and faith that the touch could not be unmeaning.

Verse 15

(15) He delivered him to his mother.—Literally, He gave him. The mother was, probably, following at some little distance with the other mourners. As she came up she received her son as given to her once again, “God-given,” in a higher sense then when she had rejoiced that a man-child was born into the world.

Verse 16

(16) A great prophet.—This, we must remember, was the first instance of our Lord’s power as put forth to raise the dead, that of Jairus’s daughter following in Luke 8:40-56. In the history of the Old Testament there were examples of such wonders having been wrought by Elijah (1 Kings 17:22) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:34), and the people drew the natural inference that here there was at least a prophet of the same order.

That God hath visited his people.—The same word as in Luke 1:68; Luke 1:78, where see Notes.

Verse 17

(17) This rumour of him went forth throughout all Judæa.—Nain itself was in Galilee, and St. Luke apparently names Judæa, as wishing to show how far the fame of the miracle had spread.

Verses 18-23

(18-23) And the disciples of John shewed him.—See Notes on Matthew 11:2-6. The fact, mentioned by St. Luke only, that the “disciples of John” reported these things, suggests some interesting coincidences: (1) It implies that they had been present at our Lord’s miracles, and had heard His teaching, and we have seen them as present in Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18. (2) It shows that though John was in prison, his disciples were allowed free access to him. (3) The fulness of St. Luke’s narrative in Luke 7:21 suggests the thought that St. Luke may have heard what he records from one of those disciples, possibly from Manaen (see Introduction, and Note on Luke 6:1) the foster-brother of the Tetrarch.

Verse 19

(19) Two of his disciples.—According to some MSS. of St. Matthew, which give simply, sent through His disciples, St. Luke’s account is the only one that gives the number of the disciples sent.

Sent them to Jesus.—Some of the best MSS. give, “to the Lord.” (See Note on Luke 7:13.)

Verse 20

(20) He that should come.—Literally, as in St. Matthew, He that cometh, or, the coming One.

Verse 21

(21) And in that same hour he cured . . . The statement of the facts is peculiar to St. Luke, and obviously adds much force to our Lord’s answer. He pointed to what was passing before the eyes of the questioners.

Plagues.—See Note on Mark 3:10.

Verse 22

(22) Go your way.—The exact agreement of the answer as reported in the two Gospels is significant as to the impression which they made at the time on those who heard them.

Verses 24-35

(24-35) And when the messengers of John were departed.—See Notes on Matthew 11:7-19. The two narratives agree very closely. The few variations will be noticed as they occur.

Verse 25

(25) They which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately.—The words are more vivid than those in St. Matthew (“they that wear soft clothing”), and bring out the idea of ostentatious display and extravagant excess of luxury, as well as effeminate self-indulgence. Such forms of selfishness were common among the house of Herod and their followers. So Josephus describes the “royal apparel” of Agrippa (Acts 12:21) as glittering with gold and silver tissues. The words must have gone home to some of the Herodians, and we may trace a touch of brutal vindictiveness in the “gorgeous” or “bright robe,” in which they arrayed the Prophet of Nazareth when they had Him in their power. (See Notes on Luke 23:11; Matthew 11:8.)

Verse 28

(28) There is not a greater prophet.—St. Matthew’s report is somewhat more emphatic, “there has not been raised up.”

Verse 29

(29) And all the people that heard him . . .—Here the reports begin to vary, St. Luke omitting what we find in St. Matthew as to “the kingdom of heaven suffering violence;” and St. Luke interposing a statement, probably intended for his Gentile readers, as to the effect produced by the preaching of the Baptist on the two classes who stood at opposite extremes of the social and religious life of Judæa.

Justified God.—Better, perhaps, acknowledged God as righteous. The word is commonly applied in this sense to man rather than to God; but it appears so used in the quotation in Romans 3:4 from the LXX. version of Psalms 51:4. Here it has a special significance in connection with the statement that follows in Luke 7:35, that “wisdom is justified of all her children.”

Verse 30

(30) Rejected the counsel of God against themselves.—The English is unhappily ambiguous, admitting the construction that the counsel which the Pharisees rejected had been “against” them. Better, as in Galatians 2:21, frustrated for themselves the counsel of God.

Being not baptized . . .—We read in Matthew 3:7 that Pharisees and Sadducees came at first to the baptism of John, but they were repelled by the sternness of his reproof, and could not bring themselves either to confess their sins or to bring forth fruits meet for repentance.

Verses 31-35

(31-35) Whereunto then shall I liken . . .—See Notes on Matthew 11:16-19. Some of the better MSS. omit the introductory words, “and the Lord said.”

Verse 33

(33) For John the Baptist came . . .—The substantives “bread” and “wine” are not found in St. Matthew’s report.

Verse 36

(36) One of the Pharisees . . .—We may reasonably infer that this was one of the better class of Pharisees who had a certain measure of respect for our Lord’s teaching, and was half-inclined (comp. Luke 7:39) to acknowledge Him as a prophet. Of such St. John tells us (John 12:42) there were many among the chief rulers. We find another example of the same kind in Luke 11:37. Looking to the connection in which the narrative stands, it seems probable that the man was moved by the words that had just been spoken to show that he, at least, was among “the children of wisdom,” and did not take up the reproach—“a gluttonous man and a winebibber.” There is something very suggestive in our Lord’s accepting the invitation. He did not seek such feasts, but neither would He refuse them, for there too there might be an opening for doing His Father’s work.

And sat down to meat.—Literally, He lay down This was the usual position in the East (see Note on Matthew 26:20), and in this case we have to remember it in order to understand the narrative. We learn from Luke 7:49 that there were other guests present. The Pharisee had probably invited his “friends and rich neighbours,” and thought that he conferred an honour on the Prophet of Nazareth by asking Him to meet them.

Verse 37

(37) A woman in the city, which was a sinner.—The word is clearly used as pointing to the special sin of unchastity. The woman was known in the city as plying there her sinful and hateful calling. The question who she was must be left unanswered. Two answers have, however, been given. (1) The widespread belief that she was Mary Magdalene—shown in the popular application of the term “Magdalen” to a penitent of this class—has absolutely not a single jot or tittle of evidence in Scripture. Nor can there be said to be anything like even a tradition in its favour. The earliest Fathers of the Church are silent. Origen discusses and rejects it. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine are doubtful. It first gained general acceptance through the authority of Gregory the Great. The choice of this narrative in the Gospel for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene stamped it as with the sanction of the Western Church. The omission of that feast from the calendar of the Prayer Book of 1552 shows that the English Reformers at least hesitated, if they did not decide against it. We may note further (a) that if the popular belief were true we should have expected some hint of it on the occurrence of the name of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:3; (b) that the description given of that Mary, as one out of whom had been cast “seven devils,” though not incompatible with a life of impurity, does not naturally suggest it; (c) that, on the assumption of identity, it is difficult to say when the “devils” had been cast out. Was it before she came with the ointment, or when our Lord spake the words, “Thy sins are forgiven thee?” It is obvious that the conduct of the woman in the Pharisee’s house was very different from the wild frenzy of a demoniac. (2) The belief adopted by some interpreters, and more or less generally received in the Church of Rome, that the woman was none other than Mary the sister of Lazarus, who, on this hypothesis, is identified also with Mary Magdalene, is even more baseless. The inference that when St. John speaks of Mary of Bethany as “that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment,” must refer to the previous anointing which St. Luke narrates, and not to that which St. John himself records (John 12:3), is almost fantastic in its arbitrariness; and it will seem to most minds inconceivable that such a one as the sister of Lazarus, who appears in Luke 10:42 as “having chosen the good part,” could so shortly before have been leading the life of a harlot of the streets. Occurring as the narrative does in St. Luke only, it is probable enough that the “woman which was a sinner” became known to the company of devout women named in Luke 8:1-3, and that the Evangelist derived his knowledge of the facts from them. His reticence—possibly their reticence—as to the name was, under the circumstances, at once natural and considerate.

When she knew that Jesus . . .—The words imply that she had heard of Him—perhaps had listened to Him. She may have heard of His compassion for the widow of Nain in her sorrow. She might have been drawn by the ineffable pity and tenderness of His words and looks. She would show her reverence as she could.

Brought an alabaster box of ointment.—See Note on Matthew 26:7. There is not the same stress laid here, as in the anointing by Mary of Bethany, on the preciousness of the ointment; but we may believe that it was relatively as costly. Passages like Proverbs 7:17, Isaiah 3:24, suggest the thought that then, as perhaps in all ages, the lavish and luxurious use of perfumes characterised the unhappy class to which the woman belonged. The ointment may have been purchased for far other uses than that to which it was now applied.

Verse 38

(38) And stood at his feet behind him.—The common usage of the East left the court-yard of the house open while such a feast as that described was going on, and there was nothing to hinder one who had not been invited from coming even into the guest-chamber. It is possible, indeed, that the feast may have been intentionally open to all comers. Our Lord’s position has to be remembered as we read the narrative.

To wash his feet with tears.—Many different emotions may have mingled in the woman’s soul. Shame, penitence, gratitude, joy, love, all find the same natural relief. The word for “wash” should be noted as implying a “shower” of tears. It may be noted that while the tenses for this and the “wiping” imply a momentary act, those that follow for the kissing and anointing involve the idea of continuance. The act, the sobs, the fragrance of the ointment, of course attracted notice.

Verse 39

(39) This man, if he were a prophet.—The words show that the Pharisee had had a half-feeling of respect for our Lord as a teacher, that he at least knew that He was looked upon by the people as a prophet. There is traceable in what he says a tone of satisfaction at having detected what seemed to him inconsistent with the conception of a prophet’s character. It is noticeable that he, like the woman of Samaria (John 4:19), sees that character manifested, not merely in prediction, but in the power to read the secrets of men’s lives and hearts. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.) He knew what the woman was, and the so-called prophet did not.

Verse 40

(40) And Jesus answering said . . .—The answer was, as the context shows, to the unspoken thoughts of the Pharisee.

Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.—The name of the Pharisee is thus given to us, but it was too common to suggest any identification. It is a somewhat singular coincidence that the two anointings should have happened (comp. Matthew 26:6) each of them in the house of a Simon, but it cannot be looked on as more than accidental.

Master, say on.—The term used is ‘one which implied recognition of our Lord’s character as a teacher or Rabbi.

Verses 41-42

(41, 42) There was a certain creditor . . .—The parable has some points of resemblance to that of the Two Debtors in Matthew 18:23. Here, however, the debts, though different, are not separated by so wide an interval as are the ten thousand talents and the hundred pence. The debts are both within the range of common human experience. The “pence “are, of course, the Roman denarii, worth about sevenpence-halfpenny each. The application of the parable treats the woman as a greater debtor than the Pharisee. She had committed greater sins. Each was equally powerless to pay the debt—i.e., to make atonement for his or her sins. Whatever hope either had lay in the fact that pardon was offered to both as a matter of free gift and bounty.

Frankly.—Better, freely-i.e., gratuitously, as an act of bounty. So Shakespeare—

“I do beseech your grace. . . .
. . . . now to forgive me frankly.”

Henry VIII., Act ii., Scene 1.

Verse 43

(43) I suppose that he. . . .—The same word occurs in the same sense as Acts 2:15. As used here, it seems to carry with it a tone partly of indifference, partly of uneasiness and perplexity as to what the drift of the parable might be.

Verse 44

(44) Thou gavest me no water for my feet.—There had, then, been no real respect or reverence in the Pharisee’s invitation. It was hardly more than an act of ostentatious patronage. It was honour enough for the carpenter’s son to be admitted into the house. The acts of courtesy which were due to well-nigh every guest (comp. Notes on Matthew 3:11; John 13:5; 1 Timothy 5:10), and which a Rabbi might expect as a thing of course, were, in his judgment, superfluous. Possibly the fact which afterwards drew down the censure of the Pharisees (Mark 7:8) had already become known, and may have influenced Simon. If the new Teacher cared so little about ablutions, why take the trouble to provide them for Him?

Verse 45

(45) Thou gavest me no kiss.—This also, as we see in the case of Judas (see Note on Matthew 26:49), was a customary mark of respect to one who claimed the character of a Rabbi. So the disciples of Ephesus kissed St. Paul on parting (Acts 20:37). So the “holy kiss,” the “kiss of peace,” became part of the ritual of most of the ancient Liturgies (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20).

Verse 46

(46) My head with oil thou didst not anoint.—This also, though not so common as the kiss and the washing of the feet, was yet a mark of courtesy due to an honoured guest. For one who had journeyed to a feast under the burning sun of Syria, it brought with it a sense of comfort and refreshment which made it a, fit type of spiritual realities. For the usage, see Psalms 23:5; Psalms 45:7; Ecclesiastes 9:8. Partly because the use of oil or chrism became more directly symbolic in the ritual of the Christian Church—as in baptism, confirmation, extreme unction, the coronation of kings—partly because in other climates its necessity was not felt, the practice, as belonging to common life, has dropped into disuse. Note the contrast between the olive “oil,” which was commonly used, and the more costly “ointment.”

Verse 47

(47) Her sins, which are many, are forgiven.—Grammatically, the words admit of two interpretations, equally tenable. (1) Love may be represented as the ground of forgiveness, existing prior to it, and accepted as that which made forgiveness possible; or (2) it may be thought of as the natural consequence of the sense of being forgiven, and its manifestations as being therefore an evidence of a real and completed forgiveness. The whole drift of the previous parable is in favour of the latter explanation. The antecedent conditions of forgiveness, repentance, and faith—faith in Christ where He has been manifested to the soul as such; faith in Him as the Light that lighteth every man where He has not so been manifested—must be pre-supposed in her case as in others. And the faith was pre-eminently one that “worked by love,” from the first moment of its nascent life. In such cases we may, if need be, distinguish for the sake of accuracy of thought, and say that it is faith and not love that justifies, but it is an evil thing to distinguish in order to divide.

Note in detail (1) that the tense used is the perfect, “Her sins . . . have been forgiven her;” (2) that the many sins of her past life are not, as we should say. ignored, but are admitted, as far as the judgment of the Pharisee was concerned, and pressed home upon her own conscience; (3) the thought subtly implied in the concluding words, not that the sins of the Pharisee were few, but that he thought them few, and that therefore the scantiness of his love was a witness that he had but an equally scant consciousness of forgiveness.

Verse 48

(48) Thy sins are forgiven.—Better, as before, Thy sins have been forgiven. The words throw light upon the meaning and force of all like formulæ of absolution. It is, perhaps, matter for regret that any other formula, such as the Absolvo te, which dates, be it remembered, from the thirteenth century, has ever been substituted for them. They did not for the first time convey forgiveness. That had been, as the context indicates, sealed and assured before by an unspoken absolution. But they came as words of power from the great Absolver, to banish every lingering doubt or fear, to confirm every faint and trembling hope that had been kindled in the heart of the penitent. He knew the secrets of her soul, and could therefore affirm in the fulness of His knowledge that she fulfilled the conditions of forgiveness. Others, it is clear, can only so affirm in proportion as their insight approximates to His.

Verse 49

(49) Who is this that forgiveth sins also?—Better, Who is this that even forgiveth sins? The thought that underlay the question, though apparently the questioners were different, was the same as that which had found utterance when like words were spoken in the synagogue at Capernaum. (See Luke 5:21; Mark 2:6; and Notes on Matthew 9:3.)

Verse 50

(50) Thy faith hath saved thee.—From the merely controversial point of view these words have a value in ascribing the justification or salvation of the woman to faith, and not to love. Those who go deeper than controversy will find in them the further lesson that love pre-supposes faith. We cannot love any one—not even God—unless we first trust Him as being worthy of our love. She trusted that the Prophet of Nazareth would not scorn or reject her, and therefore she loved Him, and showed her love in acts, and, in loving Him, she loved, consciously or unconsciously, the Father that had sent Him.

Go in peace.—The Greek form is somewhat more expressive than the English. Our idiom hardly allows us to say “Go into peace” and yet that is the exact meaning of the original “Peace” is as a new home to which the penitent is bidden to turn as to a place of refuge.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 7". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.