Having worked among the Lord's people for over four decades, I wonder if anyone came up to Jesus and said something like this:
Jesus, you're making it hard for good and decent religious folks to follow you because you are always pushing the envelope with your social practices. Don't push so hard! You're upsetting the way we've always done things. You don't want your message of salvation to get caught in the middle of some social tug-of-war. Some of these changes, like letting women support you and serve among your disciples, need to be implemented more slowly. If you keep moving so quickly, you're running the risk of losing folks who are uncomfortable with these changes.
Whether it was Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the rich young ruler, or some unknown leader sympathetic to Jesus' ministry, someone must have warned him. The Lord consistently pushed the envelope with his open welcome to all people who followed him, especially women. He called all sorts of undervalued people to come to him and to join him in his ministry. We know that he was repeatedly criticized by those in power — both those in political power and others with strong religious influence. His disciples even warned him about some of his friendship with "the wrong crowd" and association with women:
Just then, his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?" (John 4:25).
As [the sinful woman from the city] stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is — that she is a sinner" (Luke 7:38-39).
[Jesus said,] "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'" (Luke 7:34).
Most who believe in Jesus recognize that he consistently broke the rules of "proper" social engagement. He touched those with leprosy. He came in contact with those who had died or lived among the tombs. Each of these activities made him religiously unclean by the religious standards of his day.
Jesus also associated with the wrong kinds of people — tax collectors, sinners, gluttons, and drunkards. He offered grace to Roman Centurions, along with their servants and children. He spent time with Samaritans and Gentiles. Then, when he chose a group of people to change the world, he selected low-regarded fishermen, a despised tax collector, a religious anti-government zealot, and other physically and socially unimpressive commoners.
However, a place where Jesus pushed the envelope intolerably for many of his critics was in his friendship with and treatment of women. He associated with women rumored to be prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50). He protected a woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11). He cast demons out of Mary Magdalene and other women. Some of these women followed Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
As a respected rabbi, Jesus violated the social rule to not speak publicly with women, even engaging in a deep religious conversation with a racially and socially despised Samaritan woman (John 4:9, 27). He responded with sympathy and grace to a widow who had lost her only son, interrupting the funeral procession to give her back her son (Luke 7:11-17). He affirmed the faith of a woman with a life-crippling flow of blood who violated the laws of religious cleanliness by jostling among the crowd so she could touch him and make him ritually unclean (Mark 5:27). On several occasions, he allowed women of questionable reputations to show him heartfelt appreciation, extravagant love, and tender attention (Luke 7:36-38; John 12:1-3). He even claimed a woman as one of his rabbis in training by affirming her place at his feet as he taught (Luke 10:38-42; Acts 22:3).
Why are these examples of Jesus important?
Why does the Lord challenge traditional purity laws and openly associate with those whom the Pharisees considered undesirable and unclean?
Why make such a big deal about openly sharing friendship and fellowship with the marginalized? Because this was Jesus' mission (Luke 4:16-21, 5:31-32)!
We recognize Jesus' involvement with the marginalized — people who made the rich, powerful, political, and religious, very uncomfortable. Somehow, however, we have largely ignored the Lord's transformational and consistent practice of elevating and valuing women as part of the heart of his ministry. We find ways to ignore his affirmations of their faith and their importance to the work of God. We do this despite the Lord's repeated words and demonstrations about the importance of women in a culture where they were little more than the property of their husbands.
Jesus' actions were not accidental or incidental. They were intentional. They ran against the strong currents of his world and the religious culture of his time. Remember, in Jesus' day, Pharisees daily thanked God that they were not born a woman, a gentile/Samaritan, or slave.[NOTE] To miss, or to downplay, Jesus' blatant protection and affirmation of women, Samaritans, and Gentile seekers, along with their value to his ministry, is to miss something core to the gospel of our Savior.
As in other epoch-making moments in the history of God's people, the movement of God in Jesus' story began with valuing women's voices. Elizabeth and Mary rejoiced with the songs of Scripture and the Holy Spirit's inspiration in Luke's first three chapters. Their voices and faith heralded the dawning of the dawning Messianic Age. When Jesus had been raised from the dead and his resurrection needed to be announced, Mary Magdalene and "the women" who had faithfully followed the Lord were the ones whom God chose to declare Jesus' resurrection to the men.
These precious women are the daughters of faithful women from earlier generations. Sarah, along with her son's and grandson's wives in subsequent generations (Rebekah and Rachel), played crucial roles in God keeping his covenant promises. Moses' mother and sister played key roles in the preservation of Moses' life and shared his leadership. Deborah proclaimed the word of the LORD, judged, disputed, and led God's people during some of their darkest times. Hannah's prayerful faith brought the dawn of God's great servant of transition, Samuel. Rahab and Ruth play crucial roles in winning the Promised Land and providing the royal line of David. Bathsheba, a woman, first exploited by David's lust, then became Israel's first powerful Queen Mother. She ensured that Solomon would be the king of promise. Jehosheba rescued baby Joash, the last rightful heir to David's throne left alive, then helped him become king. Esther was an example of hope and deliverance during the exile.
Jesus' life and teachings demonstrated the value of women in God's plan — their vital roles in his ministry, their influential place in the kingdom of God, and their significance in declaring the truth of his death, burial, and resurrection. The importance Jesus placed on women provided a new era of women's value in the growth of God's Kingdom that began at Pentecost. Their importance, however, was not just to be celebrated in the age of the early church; it was also to be sung throughout the rest of history in Jesus' church.
So, dear brothers and sisters, isn't it time we ask them to serve and share in God's work of grace?
Shouldn't we value our sisters' gifts, voices, and character in our day just as Jesus affirmed them in his?
Yes, there are some challenging passages that need to be put into perspective by what women actually did in the early church. However, we must not allow two sets of verse in our Bibles in very difficult contexts (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15) to lead us to ignore, filter, or override the full testimony of the Holy Scriptures. We certainly must not allow them to ignore or downplay the example and teaching of our Lord! Let's put those two sets of passages into the context of what Jesus said and did instead of using those passages as erasers to remove the voice and example of our Lord.
Jesus' words to Mary still haunt me:
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41-42).
We must not take away the value and work that the Lord has given our godly women!
[NOTE] See Three Blessings for a discussion of these three "blessings" that are a part of Jewish morning prayers going back at least to the time of the Pharisees in Jesus' time. Galatians 3:26-29 is Paul's Christian answer to these devaluations of women, non-Jews, and slaves. Luke appears to do a similar thing in narrative form by making a Samaritan and a woman (Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus) heroes of back-to-back stories in Luke 10:21-42.
The Incredibly Vital Role of Women in the Plan of God
- Of Sacred Value
- Made to Be Complements
- Restoring the Creator's Intent
- Our New Trajectory in Pentecost
- Important Women, Important Roles
- Co-Heirs with Christ
- Too Familiar to Feel the Bite
- Unconventional Grace and the Song of Jesus
- The Women
- The Macedonian Connection
- Treasures Old and New
- The Most Excellent Way
- A Story That Must Be Told!
- Scales from Our Eyes
Special thanks for the use of the Jesus images in Phil's series of articles on women to Free Bible Images and The Lumo Project.
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