Jesus & Women

22 Mar

Hello Friends!

Today I’m writing on an aspect of biblical womanhood which is often overlooked- Jesus’ own interactions with women.  If you’re reading my blog you probably agree with my starting premise:  Jesus, as incarnate God, is the best gauge of what God actually thinks about womenfolk.  Because the Bible was written by men who were raised in a patriarchal culture (and therefore probably didn’t give much thought to including a “woman’s perspective” on Jesus’ ministry), we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.  For this blog, I am referencing a recorded lecture in which Dr. Ben Witherington III taught on the subject.  He also has some published works on women of the Bible.  I haven’t read them, but can attest to his excellence in the field of biblical scholarship.

Background

It can be helpful to understand the world in which Jesus lived.  In the first century, Israel was not autonomous.  It was part of the Roman Empire and was engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain their cultural and religious identity amidst the pluralism of Rome.  Some women in the Roman Empire enjoyed considerable freedoms, such as owning their own businesses, having individual bank accounts, initiating divorce and even being elected to lower-level government leadership.  In addition to the civic role of women, pagan religions provided opportunities for women to serve as priestesses (especially of female gods).  Israel, on the other hand, had none of this.  There, a woman could neither inherit property nor sue for divorce.  Even widows were not entitled to inherit their husband’s property, which meant their survival depended on a hasty remarriage or the financial support of other male relatives.  Women were extremely limited in regard to economic opportunity and were almost entirely dependent on men for their subsistence.  Women were equally limited when it came to the practice of Judaism.  Because women were considered “unclean” during a menstrual period, they could not lead, nor be counted as part of a quorum for a synagogue to form.  There were female prophets (such as Anna), but they were few and far between.  On top of this, it was men- and not women- who received the mark of the covenant (circumcision).

The family was the center of Jewish life and community.  Jewish girls were married between the ages of eleven and thirteen (put’s the role of Mother Mary into perspective a little!), but these marriages were not for love.  They were a financial transaction.  IN the Greco-Roman world, women were considered “movable property” along with slaves and minors.  A woman had two obligations:  1) Get married and 2) have children.  Marriage was the only honorable profession available to Jewish women.  This is the world Jesus came into.

ImageMotherhood

Before we go any further with the ways Jesus challenged the culture of first century Israel, I’d like to say a word Jesus’ first human relationship- his mother.  The incarnation did not begin on a starry night in Bethlehem.  God became Emmanuel (God With Us) the moment Mary’s womb was filled.  God chose to spend his first nine months swimming inside a woman’s body.  And his first years were spent drinking from her breast and depending on her willingness to care for a helpless child.  Jesus forever sanctified the role of mother.  Those people who wish to diminish the holy task of motherhood obviously don’t know Jesus well.

Jesus Challenges Culture

Mark 3:31-35

 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

In this passage, Jesus’ biological family has come to take him home, but Jesus says something pretty radical.  He makes the claim that the family of faith now supersedes the biological family.  The central family unit is no longer determined by heredity, but by faith.  The family of faith holds the trump card.  This is Jesus’ way of saying the physical family will not hold the same prominent position that it held in Judaism.  He intended to create a new, universal family- which you can bet rattled the sensibilities of patriarchal Israel.

Mark 7:17-23

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile,  since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The connection from this passage to the issue of women may not be readily apparent, but it’s actually very important.  In these few verses, Jesus has declared Levitical law to be unnecessary.  He is doing away with the concept of things and people being “clean” and “unclean.”  Being unclean for one week of every month is what barred women from religious service, but that barrier no longer stood.  Even the sign of the covenant, male circumcision, was soon to be replaced by baptism, which is administered to both sexes.

Luke 8:1-3

 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him,  as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

In this passage, we see Jesus deconstructing social norms within his own following.  He’s challenging the accepted view of womanhood in multiple ways.  1) Women were not entitled to learn Torah, and here they are serving as disciples. 2) Women were leaving the responsibilities of their homes in order to follow this rabbi around. 3) They were providing financially for Jesus and the male disciples, which means they had somehow accumulated finances.  As Ben Witherington says, they were not the “hospitality brigade.” These women were traveling with and providing for Jesus’ ministry.  We also see Jesus consorting with women of various status.  Mary had been possessed by demons, and Joanna was married to Herod’s steward.  You may recall that Herod hated Jesus.

Luke 10:38-42            Image                     

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha has taken up the traditional role as hostess.  She then confronts Jesus, suggesting that Mary should be in the kitchen too.  Jesus responds in an unexpected way.  He defends Mary’s right so sit at his feet- the traditional role of a disciple- and he even says she has chosen the better part.  In Greek, Jesus says she’s chosen the better “dish”- a play on words.  Jesus is teaching, with his actions, that the priority for men and for women is to be a disciple of Jesus.  He offers women a religious education and inclusion they would not receive anywhere else. 

Matthew 19:3-12

 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”  He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’  and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”  He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”  But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Two things are going on here.  First, Jesus is extending the protection for women who are married.  In ancient Israel, only men could initiate divorce, and this could be done for a variety of reasons.  Some rabbis were conservative and believed divorce was only for infidelity (though one should keep in mind a woman could be executed for the same crime), but there were other rabbis who said a woman could be divorced for burning the toast.  Since women were economically dependent on their husbands (and a divorced woman was “damaged goods) divorce often resulted in the ruin of Jewish women.  By restricting divorce Jesus was actually extending protection for women.

The second- and perhaps more significant- change in this passage deals with the second half of the text.  Jesus declares singleness to be a viable option.  Jews took the command to “be fruitful and multiply” very seriously.  In their mind, every able-bodied person should be married and procreating.  Jesus, however, makes singleness for the Kingdom a legitimate option for men and for women.  This means that women can pursue religious service instead of having a family.  That’s big.  Motherhood is not only contribution women make in the Kingdom Jesus has inaugurated.

ImageThe Passion and Resurrection Narratives

According to Mark 14, it was only the female disciples who remained with Jesus until his death (John says one male disciple was there).  The men all fled, which means the women were the only faithful disciples at the close of Jesus life.  It was the women who tended to his burial needs and it was the women who first encountered the risen Christ.  Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist.  The text says, “and she went proclaiming.”  Tell me, how is that not a call for women to preach?

Jesus and His Twelve Male Disciples

I’ll go ahead and address this, because it comes up so often.  Many people respond to the above information by noting that Jesus’ twelve disciples were all men.  That’s only natural.  Jesus chose them as emissaries to the traditional culture ancient Israel/Palestine.  They are sent out to seek the lost sheep of Israel, which means they couldn’t be so radical no one would listen to them.  Trust me; women would not have been able to evangelize as easily as the men could in that culture.  In addition to that, they are meant to mirror the twelve patriarchs of Israel.

I’m not trying to insinuate that Jesus puts down male leadership.  Rather, I’m trying to show all the ways Jesus actively trained up women in addition to men for ministry.

 

2 Responses to “Jesus & Women”

  1. Jess August 15, 2019 at 5:49 am #

    Powerful

  2. Jess August 15, 2019 at 5:49 am #

    Powerful

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