When Rachel Held Evans last put out a call for bloggers to discuss the nature of men and women in the church, I responded with a discussion about the radical femininity of Christ, which was mainly a few observations about the actions of Jesus and the testimony of the early church from a historical perspective.
This week, Evans has proposed a “synchroblog” on the same issue, calling it “Mutuality Week.” Which seems like as good a time as any to look some more at exactly how the gospels record Jesus treating women. Because lost in the big debates over what Paul thought about women is what should be a more important question: What did Jesus think about women?
Let’s start with some parameters: Jesus’ relationship with his family, as recorded in Mark and adapted by Matthew and Luke, seems strained, so I’m not considering his comments to and about his mother and sisters. Likewise, we must recognize that Jesus was a first-century Jew, which means he lived in a patriarchal culture in which the transgression of certain norms would have been unthinkable. Jesus, as we will see, overturned quite a few religious and cultural assumptions, but I believe some boundaries simply could not have been crossed without leading him to irrelevance rather than the cross. Jesus meets us where we are; he met his culture where it was. We must recognize this, rather than continue bemoaning – or celebrating – his failure to name a woman to his inner circle or more explicitly proclaim the equality of women in all phases of life.
Yet even considering these cultural restrictions, Jesus stood out as a radically feminist rabbi.
In a culture where women were second-class citizens, no better than slaves and considered unworthy of notice by the powerful elites, Jesus over and over noticed them, spoke to them, affirmed them, cared for them and, yes, empowered them. Fitting enough, it all started when he healed a woman – Peter’s mother-in-law, the subject of the earliest recorded healing miracle of Jesus by a canonical witness (Mark 1:30-31).
Throughout Jesus’ ministry as told in Mark, adapted in Matthew and Luke and retold in John we can get a sense of his own attitudes toward women – an attitude that should inform every other biblical reading concerning the female sex if we are to read the Bible Christologically.
There are five passages in which Jesus interacts significantly with a woman in the course of his ministry (not including his relationship with his friends Mary and Martha, which we’ll get to later:
• The bleeding woman – We know the story from Mark 5 well, and perhaps we know that Jesus should have, according to the Law, considered the woman unclean based on her bleeding. Instead, he healed her at a mere touch, sought her out from the crowd, then reaffirmed his healing by speaking the words to her. All of these would have been shocking to the guardians of the cultural norms that surrounded him – including his own disciples.
• The Samaritan woman – In John 4, Jesus is in Samaria at a well when he asks for a drink from a local woman. The story is familiar; less so is the fact that the disciples “were shocked that he was talking with a woman (4:27),” an explicit reference to how radically egalitarian Jesus was in his day-to-day ministry.
• The Syrophoenician woman – In Mark 7:24, Jesus is confronted by a woman – worse for her, an immigrant – whose daughter is demon possessed. Rather than dismiss her as both foreign and female, Jesus engages her, debates her, and she wins the argument! What is the relevance of this story? Perhaps we can find it in the conversation he had just concluded with the Pharisees, where he criticizes them for “doing away with God’s word in favor of the rules handed down to you, which you pass on to others” and moves on to overturn the traditional belief that unclean things could contaminate a person. “It’s what comes out of a person that contaminates someone in God’s sight,” he says before being confronted by a foreign-born woman who would surely have been considered unworthy in the eyes of those who held fast to the rabbinical traditions and levitical laws. Their perceptions of her did not affect her value – only what was inside of her could do that.
• The woman caught in adultery – This passage, placed in John 7-8 though not part of the earliest manuscripts we have of the gospel, still fits well within the larger story of Jesus. We all know this story quite well, and again it features Jesus defending a woman for whom society has little use – one caught in the act of sin, publicly shamed and deserving, according to the law, of death.
• The woman/prostitute/Mary of Bethany – This single tradition, retold and adjusted as it made its way through the four gospels (Mark 14, Matt 26, Luke 7, John 12), nevertheless features a woman anointing Jesus with oil, whether his head or his feet, whether in Bethany or not, whether it was his friend Mary, a different Mary or an unnamed prostitute. In any event, the woman is criticized by the disciples and/or pharisees for wasting the oil, but Jesus defends and praises her for seeing what the disciples implicitly have missed: his upcoming death and burial.
In fact, despite the harsh criticism he often has for the men of his inner circle, in no setting does Jesus ever criticize a woman – certainly not for speaking or exercising authority or not knowing her place, even though he would have been justified in doing so when James and John’s mother sought to gain advantage for her sons in Matt 20:20-22. He addresses every woman who speaks to him, never denies any of their requests, and frequently praises them. He praises the widow for her sacrifice of two mites (Mark 12:41-44), the immigrant for her wits, the bleeding woman for her faith, the woman in Bethany for her wisdom and courage.
The closest he comes to criticism is when Martha becomes too consumed with fulfilling the role society has placed upon her – trying to prepare the upcoming meal when Jesus comes to visit – thus neglecting “the better part.” That’s right: Jesus subtly argues Martha’s proper place is outside the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). By contrast, Mary and Martha are blunt in questioning their Lord after Lazarus’ death – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32) – and their own emotion moves Jesus to weep (11:33-35) despite his knowledge of the miracle he is about to perform. Not once does he admonish them for speaking out of turn or even for a lack of faith, as he frequently admonished his disciples. Rather, these women move him in a way no one else does.
In two cases, Jesus simply responds to the obvious needs of a woman without waiting for them to ask him – healing the Nain widow’s son and healing a disabled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus also explicitly compares himself to a woman at least once, in his parable of the yeast (Matt 13:31): “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.” Understanding that this is a reference to the ever-expanding kingdom of God in this world, who else can the woman in the parable be but Jesus, whose kingdom has come, is coming and is yet to come?
Much more can be said about Jesus’ remarkable treatment of women – indeed, much has been said about it (you can find plenty of sources in this lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject). But it should be clear that Jesus saw women in a way his culture did not – he gave them far more respect and treated them as equals with, arguably treated them better than, the men we often consider to be his best friends.
The women repaid Jesus with their loyalty. Mary Magdelene “and many others” provided for Jesus and his disciples “out of their resources,” making them an indispensable part of Jesus’ ministry. No, he didn’t name any women to his inner circle, but women held the power of the purse, so to speak, sustaining his ministry with financial support and hospitality (Luke 8:1-3).
After the men had abandoned Jesus and Simon had denied him, the women stayed to watch his death and burial. They were the only ones to return to prepare his corpse (Mark 16:1), and, as Dianna Anderson notes, they were tasked – despite the alleged unreliability of female witnesses in that culture – with bearing the first word of the most important event in the history of the world (Matt 28:7). Finally, they were the first to see the resurrected Lord (Matt 28:9).
Just as women play an integral role in spreading the gospel at the end of the Jesus story, the first person described in Luke as telling others about the newborn Messiah is a woman, Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:38). Jesus’ life story is bracketed by women who rejected the cultural norms of their day to tell others that the world was changing – indeed, had already changed. They would not be silenced by age, discrimination or likely persecution. In a world dominated by men, God gave the scoop of his son’s incarnation and resurrection to women.
How truly unfortunate that we have allowed the culturally conditioned words of Paul to specific churches dealing with specific problems to overshadow the tremendous feminism of Jesus himself. Not once did he tell a woman to be quiet. Not once did he demand anything less from his female followers than he did from the men. Not once did he allow cultural stereotypes to color the inherent worth he found in the women around him.
To the extent that we must choose between Jesus and Paul on the question of women in the church (and I am convinced we are badly misusing Paul if we find the two in conflict), then shouldn’t we always and ever choose Jesus?
Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible quotes Donald Bloesch as saying:
The biblical text is entirely truthful when it is seen in relation to its divine center, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. When separated from this center, the text is not perceived in its proper context. … The truth of the Bible is relevant to us only when we strive to see the text in relation to the New Testament Gospel.
What is the New Testament Gospel? Jesus is!
As Smith himself says:
Christ is not simply a figure who once lived in Palestine and has left us alone on earth with nothing but a written historical record of the past, which we are to believe. Jesus Christ is the risen Lord who is present in and to his church through his Spirit, the sacraments, right preaching and the written word of scripture.
The same Jesus who lived in Palestine and treated women in such a radically equal fashion is still alive and relevant today. Why would we think he now approves of the way his followers belittle, silence and require submission from women when he so obviously opposed those efforts from the religious and cultural elites of first-century Palestine?