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Sep7WedThroughout his ministry, Jesus promoted the dignity and equality of women. He affirmed, honoured and encouraged them in their faith, gave them dignity, equality and value, and talked about them to men as positive examples of faith. September 7, 2011 by Major Danielle Strickland
Jesus vigorously promoted the dignity and equality of women in the midst of a male-dominated society. This is an amazing thing. Considering most, if not all of the rabbis, plus the Pharisees, the Romans, the laws and the customs, were united in their horrible treatment of women, Jesus really stands out. In every interaction Jesus had with women he showed respect toward them and treated them as equals. His attitude was an incredible contrast to the cultural norms of his day.
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This must have been deliberate, a choice that Jesus made. Because he knew that it was important. Jesus continually broke with the traditions, religious law and attitudes of the time regarding women. He affirmed, honoured and encouraged them in their faith, gave them dignity, equality and value, and talked about them to men as positive examples of faith.
Jesus showed compassion for women's needs, even risking the hostility of the religious leaders on numerous occasions to receive ministry from women and to minister to them himself. Every time he spoke with a prostitute, every time he touched a dead person and every time he received things from “dirty” people—which included women—he offended the religious teachers. So when the woman broke perfume over his feet and washed them with her hair, or the woman with the issue of blood touched his robe, or he took the hand of the dead daughter of Jairus, or Mary sat at his feet listening to his teaching, whenever those occasions happened, they defied all the normal rules of that society.
The Gospels not only reveal Jesus' unique attitude toward women and distinctive relationship with women, but also show the emerging pattern of God's release of women into liberty and ministry. Jesus encouraged women to be disciples, allowing them to travel with him as companions. He revealed truths about himself to women, often before he revealed these same truths to men.
Commentator Dee Alei says that “Jesus' words and actions leave no doubt as to his position regarding women. He laid a sure foundation during the three years of his ministry on the earth for their release as valued witnesses, teachers and leaders in the emerging Christian Church.”
Jesus and Women Disciples
A number of women, married and unmarried, were regular followers of Jesus. In Luke 8:1-3, several are mentioned by name in the same sentence as the Twelve disciples: “He made his way through towns and villages preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women … Mary … Joanna … Susanna; and many others … who provided for them out of their resources” (NJB). Mark 15:40-41 refers to three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who had followed Jesus in Galilee and ministered to him, caring for his needs. The Greek word translated in Luke as “provided for” and in Mark as “ministered to” is diekonoun, the same basic word as “deacon.” In the Early Church, deacons carried out the same sort of tasks as these women undertook in ministering to Jesus.
In a culture where men were encouraged to thank God that they had not been born a woman, the fact that Jesus welcomed women into his inner circle is revolutionary. He didn't hold women at arm's length. He allowed them to get close to him.
“The significance of this phenomenon of women following Jesus about, learning from and ministering to him, can be properly appreciated when it is recalled that not only were women not to read or study the Scriptures, but in the more observant (traditional) settings they were not even to leave their households, whether as a daughter, a sole wife, or a member of a harem,” writes theologian Leonard Swidler.
Jesus and Women Thinkers
Jesus clearly did not think of women's roles in culturally restricted terms. He directly rejected the stereotype that a woman's place is in the home.
During his visit to the house of Martha and Mary (see Luke 10:38-42), Martha took the typical woman's role: “Martha was distracted with much serving” (ESV). Mary, however, took the supposedly male role; she “sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching” (ESV). Martha apparently thought that Mary was out of place in choosing to do this, for she complained to Jesus.
Jesus' response was a refusal to force all women into the stereotype. He treated Mary first as a person, who was allowed to set her own priorities, and in this instance had “chosen the better thing.” She had used her own autonomy, her intellect and spirit, to make a rational choice to distance herself from the frantic domestic activity that was going on. And Jesus applauded her decision: “It will never be taken from her” (NCV).
Theologian N.T. Wright makes this point about the story of Martha and Mary: “Devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus' feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women.”.
Mary is “sitting at his feet,” a New Testament phrase that doesn't mean what it would mean today—the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. Rather, to sit at the teacher's feet is a way of saying that you are being a student, picking up the teacher's wisdom and learning from him. And in that very practical first-century world you wouldn't do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself.
Jesus and Women Evangelists
The first evangelist recorded in the New Testament was a woman with whom Jesus struck up a theological discussion. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4:1-42) involved not only a woman but a Samaritan woman. We all know how the Jews felt about the Samaritans—verse 9 spells it out: “Jews didn't associate with Samaritans.” Not only that, this woman was a Samaritan woman who had had multiple husbands and was in an acute moral dilemma, evidence of her own victim status in a world where men held all the rights and women lived at their disposal. Rather than majoring on the sin of living together, Jesus understood that the situation the woman was in was less about sin and more about being sinned against. This is a phrase that Catherine Booth used to describe prostituted women, in her work among them. She understood the Church's view of the life of a prostitute as one of sin. But, after having heard story after story of injustice, she clarified that the women she had met who had found themselves as prostitutes were much more sinned against than sinning. We see this attitude in Jesus a lot. He looked beyond the obvious religious sentiment to find the root causes of injustice and situations that tell us much more about the sickness of sin. Gender injustice is a deeply rooted sin sickness.
Jesus invites the Samaritan woman into a conversation about worship and admits to her that he is the Messiah. This confession of Jesus' true calling (see John 4:26) is not found anywhere else in his public ministry. He gives this startling good news to a Samaritan woman in moral (or at least religious) trouble. Wow! Even the disciples were uneasy when they returned and saw Jesus in this apparently compromised situation. Actually, they were just “surprised to find him talking with a woman” (John 4:27).
The woman immediately responds to what Jesus has said to her by telling others about it. This is the classic definition of an evangelist: someone who shares the good news. The Samaritan woman brings the whole town to Jesus through the witness of her encounter with him. Scripture tells us that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony” (John 4:39). The conversion of these people by and through a woman evangelist is hard to believe given the cultural norms at the time. Technically, Jesus shouldn't have even spoken with her—that's how culturally oppressive her situation was. Clearly, this good news of a new Kingdom was going to uproot the existing powers. Now, this gospel story—the one that empowers women and liberates them with the good news to use their gifts to change the world—this gospel has power!
Throughout the New Testament, women were often the first to hear good news, and were intimately concerned with bringing about its fulfilment. Think about the song that Mary sung when she knew that she would conceive and that God's Kingdom would come through her (see Luke 1:46-55). The revolutionary nature of her song still rings across the globe today. It calls believers to recognize the very nature and plan of God to uproot the systems of injustice and oppression, and to release, equip and empower the “weak” to overthrow the “strong.” That's a beautiful vision.
This is an excerpt from Major Danielle Strickland's new book, The Liberating Truth: How Jesus Empowers Women. Together with her husband, Major Stephen Court, Danielle is the corps officer of Edmonton's Crossroads Community Church.
The Liberating Truth
Despite decades of legislation, women are still straitjacketed into subservient roles. The Church needs to stand against such practices. In The Liberating Truth, Major Danielle Strickland argues that the Church should seize the lead in offering women everywhere new opportunities to develop their talents. Using her gift as an evangelist along with the guiding of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, Major Strickland makes her case that the more women are empowered to be true equals to men, the closer we come to the Kingdom of God.