This is Part 2 of a week-long series about Jesus and gender equality. If you missed Part 1, check it out first.
Before we can understand just how radically inclusive Jesus was for his time, we have to understand just how invisible women were in his culture. Think about one of the most famous stories of Jesus: “Jesus feeds the five thousand.” We all know it—Jesus had been teaching a huge crowd, and dinnertime comes, and Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds the whole bunch with leftovers beside. Except that it wasn’t 5,000 people. It was “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). At the time of Jesus, women literally did not count. Even though it would be a much cooler story to say “Jesus feeds the twelve thousand” or whatever, the writer of Matthew only counts the men.
From my research, I’ve decided we can basically imagine Jesus in Saudi Arabia. Women were veiled and kept segregated from men as much as possible. They were controlled by their fathers until that control was transferred to their husbands. It was very rare for them to control property– basically they’d have to have no brothers in order to inherit from their fathers, and then they’d have to be widowed with no male children in order to control the inheritance themselves. Men and women were not supposed to talk to one another in public. From the Mishnah (the oral law): “Talk not with womankind. The sages going back to Moses said this of a man’s own wife, how much more of his fellow’s wife. Hence the sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” (Gehenna is another word for hell.) It was even debated as to whether or not a man should instruct his daughter in the Law (the Torah), and women were not obligated to follow the laws regarding calendar feasts such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—in other words, women were excluded from the heart of religious life, from the most important observances.
And yet, in this context in which women were marginalized, subordinated, and excluded, Jesus seems to notice and reach out to them everywhere he goes. Often to the consternation of his own disciples, he insists on treating them with dignity and kindness, seeing them as whole persons, first and foremost. My first major point is: Jesus affirmed women as people.
One of the most noteworthy examples of Jesus encountering a woman and affirming her as a person, first and foremost, is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (found in John 4). She’s doubly an outcast, as a Samaritan and a woman, and it is unusual for Jesus to address her, as men were not supposed to speak to women, especially not about theology, and Jews were not supposed to speak to Samaritans. Moreover, he could not drink from the vessel of a non-Jew, as it would have made him ritually unclean, but he asks her for a drink. Despite all these prohibitions Jesus honors her by telling her that he is the Messiah, giving her the good news of the gospel. When Jesus’ disciples return, the text says they were very surprised to find him talking with a woman—it was that shocking and unusual for a man to speak to a woman alone in public. According to the book Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Here, the key to Jesus’ stance is found in his perceiving persons as persons. In the stranger at the well, he saw a person primarily—not primarily a Samaritan, a woman, or a sinner. She was not required to cease to be a woman or a Samaritan, but she was by the very manner of Jesus challenged to become a person first of all.” (117)
Meanwhile, the woman goes back to her village and tells everyone about her encounter with Jesus. John 14:39 says “Many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’” As I’ll mention again later, at this time, women were considered such unreliable witnesses, they were not even permitted to testify in court, and yet Jesus chooses this woman, a sinner at that, to be the one to share the gospel with her entire town. He broke cultural boundaries, to the shock of his own disciples, in order to use a woman as his evangelist, the first evangelist mentioned in John’s gospel.
Another example is when Jesus refused to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Legally, a woman caught in adultery could not be stoned without also stoning the man caught with her—this is the sin those wanting to stone her are committing, the one Jesus is referring to when he says “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. It is possible those wanting to stone her were attempting to hold the woman more accountable for the sin than a man, perpetuating a double standard, so to speak, similar to the way in which our culture punishes and shames “sluts” but does not do the same for men who sleep around. According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “Jesus did not condone adultery. He did not indulge her sin. In directing her to sin no longer, he acknowledged that she had sinned and turned her in a new direction. Her accusers probably could only make her bitter and defiant. The one who did not accuse her provided her with the only real encouragement to own her sin and turn from it. In this story, Jesus rejected the double standard and turned the judgment upon the male accusers. His manner with this sinful woman was such that she found herself challenged to a new self-understanding and a new life.” (113)
Next we’ll look at Mark 14:1-9. An unknown woman comes to Simon the Leper’s house where Jesus is having dinner and begins to anoint his head with very expensive perfume. While all the other men think Jesus should rebuke her, he welcomes her act of devotion, and calls her a hero of the faith: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (v. 9) Why anointing? Anointing was performed for a number of reasons– a host would anoint guests to refresh them, dead bodies were anointed to prepare them for burial, sick people were anointed as a cure, and kings were anointed as a mark of their kingship.
I think this particular anointing (there are at least 3 anointings of Jesus mentioned in the gospels) can be seen in two ways: one, this woman is anointing Jesus because she knows he will soon be killed (at this point his arrest was imminent), but also that she was anointing him because she was acknowledging him as king. In this way, this woman is stepping into the role of the priests and prophets, like Samuel who anointed King David. From The Women Around Jesus: “Thus the unknown woman is at the same time a prophet who anoints the Messiah, consecrates him and equips him for his task. This is a twofold break with tradition: the king is a candidate for death and Israel is under foreign rule, and an anonymous woman takes on the role of the ‘men of Judah’ (II Sam. 2.4). Here is the proclamation of a new age in which old values will be turned upside down.” (98)
In our last look at Jesus affirming the worth of women as whole persons, we’ll examine Luke 13:10-17: Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath, to the Pharisees’ dismay. From Woman in the World of Jesus: “[This story] may well serve to dramatize what Jesus more than any other has done for woman. He saw a woman bent over and unable to stand erect. He freed her from her infirmity, enabling her to stand up right. This story has to do with a physical restoration, but it may well point to something far more significant than the immediate reference. In a real sense, Jesus has enabled woman to stand up with a proper sense of dignity, freedom, and worth. It is striking that Jesus referred to this woman as ‘a daughter of Abraham’ (v. 16). Elsewhere we hear of ‘children of Abraham’, ‘seed of Abraham’, and ‘sons of Abraham’, but here only in the New Testament do we hear of ‘a daughter of Abraham.’ Jesus not only enabled the woman to stand erect, but he spoke of her as though she belonged to the family of Abraham, just as did the ‘sons’ of Abraham.” (106) Even his language with her is unusually inclusive, adding her, as a woman, to a tradition, an understanding of our relationship to God, that had prior to that point been exclusive of women.
This is, obviously, not an exhaustive account of Jesus’ interactions with women. I’m leaving out the woman healed of the hemorrhage, to name a major example, but also many passing interactions in which Jesus took notice of women, reached out to them (often against the disciples’ protests), healed them, and sent them on their way as whole persons worthy of dignity and kindness. In this way, he was a radical for his time, transgressing boundaries that kept women separate and subordinate in order to be inclusive and compassionate.
Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss Jesus’ more intimate relationships with the women who were his close and beloved friends.
*Woman in the World of Jesus, by Evelyn & Frank Stagg.