Jesus and Women
The biblical defense of hierarchy in male-female relationships is built on a select number of Pauline passages, while the gospels and the book of Acts are often ignored. The hermeneutical principle that undergirds this position is that the gospels are to be read “through” Paul. Yet proponents of this position have been quick to accuse feminists of having a “canon within the canon” because of the significance they assign to Galatians 3:28: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free.” It is past time that this beam in the critic’s eye was exposed.
One of the ironies of this preoccupation with a handful of Pauline passages is that the gospels are filled with stories of Jesus’ encounters with women. For example, to read Luke’s gospel, it becomes evident why the New Testament scholar Alfred Plummer, as far back as 1896, called it “The Gospel of Womanhood.” Nearly one-third of the material unique to Luke deals directly with women. And one discovers on examining the literary structure of this gospel how its author frequently parallels material about men with material about women. The birth narratives feature Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon. The first recorded healing of a man (Luke 4:31-37) is followed by the healing of a woman (4:38-39). The parables in Luke reflect this same parallelism: Jesus describes the nature of the kingdom by drawing upon the work of a man who plants mustard seeds and a woman who makes bread; persistence in prayer is illustrated by the friend who wakes his neighbor at night and the woman who succeeds in obtaining a hearing with the judge; the nature of God who seeks the lost is described metaphorically in the parable of a shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep and of the woman who searches for the one lost coin.
The frequency of this literary device of parallelism reflects an apparent theological conviction of the evangelist that the person of Jesus and his ministry touched and empowered women as fully as men.
Another irony inherent in the biblical defense of hierarchy is that, in his own times and circumstances, Paul was the great apostle of liberty. He was vehemently opposed to “keeping peace” within the churches at the expense of genuine equality and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul argued that the division of Jews and Gentiles into the circumcised and uncircumcised, the clean and unclean, had been superseded by a new oneness in Christ.
He was uncompromising in his opposition to hierarchies and barriers between Jew and Gentile within the body of Christ. He was far more accommodating when confronting the institutional realities of sexism. However, his Lord was not. Jesus refused to accede to the social norms that kept women in subordinate roles. Indeed, if one seeks evidence from Jesus’ own ministry to support Paul’s threefold claim in Galatians 3:28, there is far more that speaks directly to a new relationship between women and men than between Jew and Gentile.
Reaching Out to the Marginalized Paul provoked controversy by his uncompromising acceptance of Gentile converts whom certain Jewish Christians considered “unclean.” Analogously, Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by wholeheartedly affirming the gifts and persons of women, even women thought to be “unclean.” Jesus shows little regard for the Levitical codes that forbid a person to touch or be touched by “unclean” women (Leviticus 15:25-31). Jesus drinks from the vessel of a Samaritan woman (John 4:1ff); he commends the faith of a hemorrhaging woman who reaches out to touch him (Luke 8:40-47); he refuses to rebuke the woman who bursts into Simon the Pharisee’s house and lavishes kisses on Jesus, much to Simon’s chagrin (Luke 7:36-50); and he declares that prostitutes understand more about the nature of the kingdom than men learned in the Law (Matthew 21:31-32). In these instances and many more, we hear the antecedent to what was declared to Peter sometime later: “What God has made clean, you have no right to call unclean” (Acts 10:15).
As Jesus teaches and the crowds press in on him, one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, implores Jesus with these words, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and alive.” Jesus honors the request and starts toward Jairus’ home.
Unnoticed in the crowd that follows him is a woman who has been ill for 12 years. She bears not only the pain of constant hemorrhaging, but also the disgrace of knowing herself to be named unclean by the Law. After 12 long years she had every reason to consider hope gone. No doctor could help her. She only grew worse under their care, and her savings were used up in the search for medical relief.
This woman hid in the crowd that followed Jesus. She had seen Jairus (before whom the powerful bowed) fall at his feet and beg for assistance. There was no one like Jairus to plead her case, and how could she dare ask? She was no Jairus; she was not even the daughter of a Jairus. She was just a poor anonymous woman carrying her pain deep within. Thus her suffering had no voice.
As Jesus drew near she touched him ever so slightly, a simple gesture of reaching and receiving. Immediately she knew the flow of blood had ceased.
“Who touched me?”
“Oh come on, Jesus! Are you joking?” asked his disciples. “Look at all these people. Any one of them could have bumped into you.”
Jesus searched the faces of the people. “No, someone touched me. I felt the power go out from me. Who was it?”
The woman came forward, falling down as Jairus had, and she told him everything. She hadn’t meant to interrupt his journey. There was no hint of dismay in her testimony: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” Daughter--such an intimate and affectionate term. In that one word her rightful place in the community was re-established. She had been a woman cut off, untouchable, outcast. Jairus had a daughter precious to him. Jesus proclaimed this woman precious. She was somebody, and he commended her courageous faith.
Reaching, touching, receiving a new name, departing with quiet dignity--these brushstrokes paint the portrait of a man whose ministry it was to give voice to suffering and of a woman who dared to believe, against all odds, that she was created to be whole.
Jesus not only violated the distinctions of clean and unclean, he also challenged the commonly held view that bearing children, particularly sons, was the fulfillment of a woman’s life. The absence of children was considered a great misfortune for a woman, at times even interpreted as divine punishment. A fruitful womb was a sign of blessedness; a barren womb the sign of curse.
As Jesus was teaching one day, a woman cried out from the crowd: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” (Luke 11:27-28). Presumably she intended to compliment Jesus with this exclamation. Jesus does not refuse the compliment, but his response indicates that he sees her statement as inadequate. He uses the occasion of this compliment to challenge the woman to a deeper faith: “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” Jesus says, in effect, it is not a woman’s womb (not even Mary’s), which is her source of true blessedness, but her response to the Word of God. New creation by the Word, not procreation by the womb, is the fulfillment of female personhood.
Disciples and Theologians It may be difficult for us today to grasp how radical it was that Jesus called women to follow him as disciples. Women of his day were not considered candidates for discipleship by rabbis. Nevertheless, we have clear evidence that women were among those who followed Jesus through cities and villages bringing the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 8:1-3). Luke provides us the names of some of these women: Joanna, Susanna, and Mary of Magdala. The seclusion of home and the roles of daughter, wife, and mother were confronted by the uncompromising call of Jesus. Just as Peter left his nets, women such as Joanna left their assigned roles and took up the transient lifestyle of their teacher.
One of the events that illustrates how Jesus received women into the inner circle of discipleship occurred in the Bethany home of Martha and Mary. While Martha was busy serving the guests, Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” The expression “sitting at the feet” of another describes the attentive listening and learning of a disciple with her or his teacher. Paul speaks of himself as one who “sat at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3).
Martha, irritated that her sister was not helping to serve, asks Jesus to scold Mary for failing in her expected role. Jesus refuses to confirm Martha’s judgment. He insists that Mary has a right to the place she has chosen. Her desire to be his disciple shall not be taken from her (Luke 10:38-42).
Luke records that Jesus called 70 of his disciples to go forth in pairs proclaiming that the kingdom of God had drawn near. There is every reason to believe, in light of what has been noted about the women who followed Jesus that women were among those first commissioned ministers of the gospel. If this is true, then Jesus’ words stand as strong warning to those who would deny women the full range of ministry: “The person who hears you hears me, and the person who rejects you rejects me, and the person who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
For Jesus, theological training was not the prerequisite for fathoming the mysteries of God. In fact, Jesus believed such learning could sometimes blind a person to the presence of the holy near at hand. Thus, the people with whom Jesus chose to talk theologically often surprised others, even his own disciples.
Nicodemus was a man of great learning. He had come to Jesus, hoping to engage this teacher who spoke with such insight and authority, but Jesus responded in parables that only mystified the old man. Wise, learned Nicodemus shook his head, confounded: “Be born again? How can it be?” The truth remained concealed from his eyes, and Nicodemus left still wrapped in the darkness in which he came.
Back to back with this story from the gospel of John is the story of another dialogue--this time with a Samaritan woman. She happened upon Jesus as he rested at the well. He was a stranger to her, and she knew better than to initiate a conversation with a Jewish man. It was he who reached out to her and escalated their chance meeting into theological discourse. So they spoke about Jacob’s well, about her life, about worship, and about the One who was to come. He told her, in language uncharacteristically forthright, who she was talking with, and she left, running in the light, nearly bursting to proclaim what she had come to see:
Without knocking, she threw open the door, and instantly she read the dismay on their faces--Surely she was not invited this party!
“Excuse me ... I didn’t mean to interrupt your celebration...but I have to tell you.” Her heart was pounding, and she couldn’t get her breath. Her friend rose from the table and tried to calm her, “Sit down and rest. I’ll get you some water.”
"No!” She said abruptly, “No ... thank you. I must tell you. That’s how it happened--with him--with a drink of water!”
The curiosity of the guests was souring into irritation. “How what happened? Tell us, woman, or let us drink!” She took a deep breath.
“I had gone to the well as usual. Leaning against it was a man, a Jew. I had never seen him before. I thought he was sleeping, and I paid him no mind. As I was filling the water jar he reached out and asked me for a drink!”
“Are you sure he was a Jew?” someone asked.
“Yes, that’s what startled me, of course, that he would speak to me at all and then want to drink from my jar. I know what Jews say about Samaritan women--that we are unclean from the cradle on. My jar is also unclean to him. Could he have been that thirsty? I asked him how a Jew could drink from the jar of a Samaritan woman. He said some strange things about being able to give me water, living water he called it, that would do away with my thirst forever.”
(Later, she would hear stories about this man circulating through town--how he turned water into wine at a party like this one; how he stood in the midst of Jerusalem and shouted: “If anyone thirst let them come to me and drink.” When she heard his parable of the Samaritan man rescuing the Jewish victim, she smiled, wondering if he remembered her, a Samaritan woman, meeting him, a tired, thirsty stranger. And when she heard that they asked him, “Lord, when did we see you thirsty?” she felt remorse that she had been so skeptical of this man who gladly would have drunk from her jar. But that was later--when her faith and the community of Samaritan followers had grown. Back at the well his words “living water” seemed so mysterious.)
“I thought he was making fun of me, so I decided to challenge him,” the woman continued. “I told him, ‘Sure, I’d love to have a constant supply of water right at hand so that I wouldn’t have to make this trip to the well every day!’”
With this she paused. The room was quiet. They were listening. She had never spoken like this before. No one had ever cared to listen to her before. She knew well enough her reputation among these people. She had heard the whispers and the laughter as she walked past. “Maybe I should just skip the next part,” she thought, “It might just discredit him and the story.” But she knew it was not him that she needed to protect. Even knowing what he did about her, he had shown no fear of talking with her in public. And as for self-protection, what did it matter now? Everything was now in the light. The years of desperate attempts at secrecy had been shattered in his presence. She needn’t fear any longer.
“Come on, woman! What did he say when you took him up on his offer of this ‘living water’?” The guests were laughing, enjoying her nerve in challenging a Jew, for the antagonism between Jew and Samaritan was as old as the mountain on which Samaritans worshiped. She blushed, but continued.
“He said, ‘Go call your husband and come here!’ ” Laughter of another sort traveled among the guests.
“I know why you laugh. I told him I had no husband, and he commended me for speaking the truth. Then he told me everything I ever did. How could he have known? I’ve never seen him before. He knew I had been married five times.” The woman’s audience was quiet now.
“Well, you can imagine that I felt uneasy that this stranger knew me so well. I figured he must be a prophet. I’d never talked with a prophet. I never thought a prophet would want to talk with me, so I asked him something that has always bothered me--why it is that Samaritans worship on the mountain and Jews in Jerusalem. He said that it only matters how one worships, not where. And he said that the time was coming soon when neither the mountain nor Jerusalem would matter anyway. I thought maybe he meant the Messiah was coming soon, and I wanted him to know that Samaritans believe the Messiah is coming. I told him that I believed that time was coming.
“And then he said it.” Her voice regained urgency. “He said it to me, a Samaritan woman. It surprised me, and it didn’t surprise me; I can’t explain it. It happened so naturally, as though I was expecting it, and yet it was the last thing I expected. He told me that the One who was coming was there ... standing right there talking to me!”
The guests could contain their questions no longer: “He said that? Are you sure? What else did he say?”
“Well, you see, right then we were interrupted. Some men--I think they were friends of his--came to the well. They broke into our conversation, almost like they were jealous that he was talking with me. That’s when I left and ran here. I knew I had to tell someone about him--what he told me, how he made me feel. Come! All of you. Right now! And see for yourselves. He may still be there. Come and see this man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”
Witnesses to His Life, Death, and Resurrection In Luke’s gospel, it is women who first give voice to the meaning of the promised Messiah. Advent is a time of pregnancy, and as Elizabeth and Mary meet they greet one another as recipients of the Word of God. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit as she exclaims to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth recognizes the work of God’s Spirit in Mary’s pregnancy. She also hails Mary’s faith by further exclaiming: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” As Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness, so Mary’s belief is here counted as righteousness and is called blessed. Indeed, it is Mary’s belief that is contrasted, in this first chapter of Luke, with Zechariah’s disbelief.
This occasion of two women meeting could be called the “advent” of the church, for there are two gathered in Christ’s name to praise God. Likewise, the words that Mary utters in the Magnificat could be called the first sermon that witnesses to the meaning of the One who is to come.
Throughout the gospels, women are recipients of, and witnesses to, Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. There is no aspect of his ministry that is kept from women. Therefore, the traditions of the early church were handed on by women as well as men who witnessed his words and deeds. The confession of Jesus as Christ is found on the lips of a woman as well as a man. In the synoptic gospels, this confession is attributed to Peter (Matthew 16:16, Mark 8:29-30, Luke 9:20). It is striking to note that in John’s gospel, this confession is spoken by only one person, Martha, as she proclaims: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 11:27).
As the early church proclaimed its Easter faith, the events surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and disappearance from the grave were subject to much scrutiny. Opponents of the early church such as Celsius attacked the credibility of the resurrection by pointing out that a woman was one of the witnesses to its occurrence: “Everyone saw his suffering, but only a disciple and a half-crazed woman saw him risen.”
In the courts of that time, women were not allowed to testify even on their own behalf. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus expresses the prevailing view: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex.” Nevertheless, the early church’s claim to resurrection had to include the testimony of women because it was only women disciples who were present at all the events surrounding his death. Women such as Mary and Joanna witnessed his crucifixion and death (Luke 23:49). These same women saw the tomb and how his body was laid (Luke 23:55). On the third day, when they returned to the grave, they found the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and two figures in dazzling apparel (Luke 24:2-4).
These women were instructed at the empty tomb to remember Jesus’ teaching about how he must be crucified, die, and rise. Apparently they do remember and perceive the theological significance of the empty tomb. However, when they tell their male comrades what they have seen and heard, the men dismiss the testimony as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, Mary’s belief is contrasted with Zechariah’s unbelief; Zechariah is struck dumb. Again, in the last chapter, disbelieving men are silent while believing women proclaim the Easter faith--that he is risen indeed. From first to last, God’s intention is perceived and interpreted by women.
Melanie Morrison, director of The Leaven Center, was a United Church of Christ minister when this article appeared.