From the Category, “The Eastern Eye”
[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.
In understanding the Scriptures it is important for us to understand the culture, but it doesn’t mean that we should necessarily follow that culture. Rather, it is in the understanding of the Eastern culture that we gain light and understanding about many things in the Bible.]
There is a record in the Gospel of Luke that tells of a woman washing the feet of Jesus with her tears. Without understanding the customs of Bible times, one might think she was crying pretty hard. While she was indeed weeping, those were not the tears she used to wash his feet.
The woman in the record was seeking forgiveness and she received it. She brought to Jesus an alabaster box of ointment which she used to anoint his feet. She did this after washing his feet with her tears and drying his feet with her hair.
In that culture you did not go to see a spiritual man empty handed. In the Old Testament you read of instructions to a woman going to see the prophet in which she was supposed to “take ten loaves, and cracknels, and a cruse of honey.” In another record the instructions to a man were, “Take a present in your hand, and go, meet the man of God…”
The alabaster box of ointment was a costly item, but it didn’t compare to the worth of her tears. And even though she was weeping while carrying out this act of love, how long would it take for her to cry enough tears to wash his feet? The tears she washed his feet were the tears from her tear bottle.
While not common today, keeping tears in a bottle, or a container, has a long history, including during the U.S. Civil War. In Psalm 56, David mentions the tear bottle.
The custom in Bible times was to collect tears of devotion in a container called a tear bottle. It has great significance, so much so that when a person was buried, the tear bottle was buried with him. They believed that any tears shed for a spiritual cause would be rewarded by God.
Thus, their tear bottle was very precious to them. If one’s house is on fire, the tear bottles are saved first! It was a great sacrifice for this woman to wash Jesus’ feet with the tears from her tear bottle.
And then she dried his feet with her hair. In our Western culture, that may sound a bit odd, but in the Bible culture, a woman’s hair is her glory. She was indicating to everyone there that her own glory was good enough only to wash Jesus’ feet.
In other words, she displayed great humility. And then, before she anointed his feet, she kissed them. According to the teachings of Bishop KC Pillai, in the Eastern culture you are allowed to kiss each other on the forehead, the crown of the head, and the cheek. However, a kiss on the feet implies confession of sin, even among men when one has wronged another. Any other kiss would be a display of respect or affection.
This woman came to Jesus with great reverence and humility, seeking forgiveness, and she received forgiveness. Meanwhile, Simon, whose house this event took place in, had derogatory thoughts towards Jesus because he didn’t recognize this woman as a sinner. Simon was a Pharisee and his religious arrogance is greatly contrasted by Jesus’ love and forgiveness for this woman.
Jesus reproved Simon for three things Simon did not do, which were very common for a host to do for a guest. Simon failed to wash Jesus’ feet when he arrived, he did not greet him with a kiss of respect, and he did not anoint Jesus’ head with oil. In our culture it is common to greet a guest coming into our home for dinner and offering them a drink of water.
After reproving Simon, Jesus said that because of her love, this woman’s sins were forgiven. He told her that her faith (or believing) had saved her and to go in peace.
This woman knew that she was a sinner and she went to Jesus with humility and love, believing who he was, so that she could receive forgiveness. All Simon could see was that she was a sinner and Jesus couldn’t be a prophet because he didn’t even know she was a sinner. Jesus, in contrast to egotistical religious thinking, saw her heart, and did what he always did, the Father’s will, and forgave her.
Today, far too many focus on other people’s sins; they preach on sin, they talk about how bad sin is and how horrible sinners are. It’s all too easy for someone hearing those kinds of messages to become sin conscious and feel unworthy.
But our loving Father is a God of forgiveness. His Son, Jesus Christ paid the price for all sins, and as a result of that full payment, forgiveness is available to you and me. Perhaps instead of a message of how bad sin is, we should share a message of how great forgiveness is!
And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.
There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?
Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
I Kings 14:3
And take with thee ten loaves, and cracknels, and a cruse of honey, and go to him: he shall tell thee what shall become of the child.
II Kings 8:8
And the king said unto Hazael, Take a present in thine hand, and go, meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease?
Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
I Corinthians 11:15
But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
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There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by Bishop K. C. Pillai. I have had the pleasure of listening to many recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)