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Jesus and His Women Lead the Way


We are fortunate to have a bonus Sabbath School commentary this week, from Alden Thompson at Walla Walla University.

When I first began working on this lesson, I decided to focus of Galatians 3:28, Paul’s glittering ideal for those of us who follow Jesus: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).

By the time I was through, my own thinking had been revolutionized – a strong word,  deliberately chosen. Undergirding my general plan was the goal of addressing those negative impulses that get in the way of a “winning” attitude. And it seems to me that our most stubborn prejudices seem to be rooted in the impulses which Paul mentions in this passage. Especially crucial in our day are those attitudes that come under the heading of racism or sexism. And I think it is important that we not just identify negative attitudes, but actively seek to change them. That will be my intention here.

I begin by asking how Jesus related to the three Galatian pairs: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. In each pair, one is dominant: Jew over  Greek, free over slave, and male over female. Is that the way it should be?

Some will argue that the passage does not address our standing in society at all. They would say, for example, that masters remain masters and slaves remain slaves while still belonging to the one body of Christ. But I want to argue that in Christ, the subjugations in society can, in fact, be changed. Leveled. God’s ideal can become real in the flesh. In other words, inequalities disappear and we become, in fact, one in Christ Jesus.

The first domination, male/female, actually goes back to the Garden of Eden. And at first glance, it might seem that Jesus supported male domination. After all, what was the dominant gender among the 12 disciples? Male! And not just dominant, it was a slam dunk – not one woman in the entire group!

But before we jump too quickly to a conclusion, let’s ponder how any change takes place among human beings. And if we see God as the great mastermind in bringing about change, we need to ask, “How will he do that?” Our perspective will depend on whether we are inclined toward free-will theology or Calvinistic theology. Scripture provides good support for both approaches, though in actual practice each of us will be more one than the other. I have often said that Calvinist parents give birth to free-will children, and free-will parents give birth to Calvinist children. But if we want a big-tent church, we must make sure both sides of the great divide feel safe in the church. We will always have our “Yes, but. . .” conversations. But if we can admit that both positions are found in Scripture, we will begin to see both perspectives all around us in Christian circles.

I once held a week-end seminar for a (free will) Methodist Church in Florida and asked the some 45 Methodists in attendance how many of them had family or friends who had at one time been in the Methodist/Arminian/free-will tradition, but who had shifted to the Evangelical/Reformed tradition. Virtually every person there raised a hand. I was astounded.

And I once attended a session at a scholarly convention that was discussing the FreeWill/Reformed tension. Those teaching at free-will schools grumbled about the drift toward reformed theology, while those at Reformed schools grumbled about a free-will drift. 

The same point is made in a delightful little book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, entitled Reading the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1981, 1993, 2003). Noting how most of us tend to read the Bible from the perspective of our prior theological commitments, the authors listed a number biblical passages from both sides, then commented: “Our experience as teachers is that students from these traditions seldom ask what these texts mean; they want to know ‘how to get around’ these texts!” (p. 74). 

Though I want to speak carefully so that my Calvinist friends do not take offense at what I am saying, I have to admit that I am a strong free-will advocate. I believe that God has to win people to him, not simply announce their salvation or doom as a pre-determined fact. And if that is the case, God will reach people where they are, gently nudging them toward his ideal. But he must be gentle, otherwise they will head the other way. You don’t entice a kitty into your lap by pulling its tail!

Ellen White made the point in the context of tenacious health practices. In 1872 she wrote:

We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate.  We must meet the people where they are.  Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform.  It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony.  If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and  allow them to advance [21] step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform.  But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps.  In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it.  And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people. (Testimonies 3:20-21 [1872])

In our discussion of Galatians 3:28, we must first recognize that at Jesus’ birth, sin had embedded the deadly curse of subjugation in all three areas: men over women, free over slaves, Jews over Greeks. In fact, to this day among orthodox Jews, a daily prayer expects each male to thank God for not creating him as a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!

Jesus never addresses the issue of slavery, but his relations with women and Gentiles laid a foundation for equality that would win freedom for slaves too, even if it took nearly 2,000 years to get the job done. So let’s look at some Gospel passages that reveal Jesus’ attitudes and practices relative to women and Gentiles.

The dialogue with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is a good place to start. As he was heading for Galilee, Jesus decided to go through Samaria. That’s significant, because Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans. Here are key lines from John 4: “So he came to a Samaritan city . . . near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ . . . .  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4:5-9, 27, NRSV).

At the Samaritans invitation, Jesus ended up staying in their city two whole days!

What a teachable moment for Jesus’ disciples. A Samaritan and a woman! Jesus was softening them up, pointing to a vision of equality. In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, male or female.  All are one.

Luke gives us three more “Samaritan” passages. In Luke 9, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem but  were refused entry at a Samaritan village because Jesus’ face “was set toward Jerusalem.”  With a flash of anger, James and John asked if they could call down fire from heaven to consume them. Jesus simply rebuked them.

The story of the Good Samaritan follows in the very next chapter:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him (Luke 10:30-34, NRSV).

Luke tells us that when the Samaritan left the next day he gave the innkeeper two silver coins, enough to cover the cost of four weeks care. But that wasn’t all – he gave the innkeeper a blank check: “When I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Finally, Luke 17 tells how Jesus healed 10 lepers and sent them on their way to see the priests to confirm their healing. But Luke’s comment is revealing: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’” (Luke 17:15-18, NRSV).

Luke gives us the pictures of a generous Samaritan on the Jericho road, and a grateful Samaritan leper;  John adds the story of the eager and evangelistic Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  Jesus was up to something!

But one more Gospel story focuses on issues of race and gender. A blend of Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30, yields this story:  Jesus went to Tyre for rest and renewal, but didn’t tell anyone. Somehow, a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter discovered him – but she but had to overcome no less than five hurdles before she received her heart’s desire. Overcoming secrecy was the first; second, Jesus wouldn’t say a word to her. A third hurdle was overcoming the disciples’ hostility. “Send her away,” they urged Jesus. A fourth hurdle was Jesus’ seemingly cool attitude: “I am only sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” he said.  The final hurdle was Jesus’ off-putting statement about not giving the children’s food to the dogs. “But even the dogs get the crumbs from the master’s table,” this foreign woman pled.

With that, Jesus threw open the windows of heaven:  “O woman, great is your faith,” he said.  And her daughter was healed.

What a teaching moment for Jesus as he nudged his male disciples toward a more receptive attitude toward foreigners and women!

Two more passages further illumine Jesus’ impulse to include women in his work.   Luke 8:1-3 and Mark 15:40-41 give us a glimpse of what Jesus did for women and what they did for him. Luke’s passage follows the story of Jesus’ healing of the woman at Simon’s house; Mark describes the scene at the foot of the cross:

“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.” Luke names four of the women then adds: “and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3, NRSV).

“There were also women looking on from a distance; These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:10-41, NRSV).

In short, Jesus ministered to the women and they ministered to him and his disciples.

Finally, women loom large at the resurrection. They were first at the tomb and Jesus first appeared to a woman, Mary Magdalene. She was the one who went and told the male disciples.

Moving beyond the Gospels, we note how the apostles grappled with the Jew/Gentile issue after the resurrection, the only one of the three subjugations that the New Testament addresses head-on, and that was with blood, sweat, and tears. Acts 10 tells how shocked the disciples were when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles. At the urging of the Spirit, Peter had embarked on a brand new and terrifying venture for him: visiting in the home of a Gentile believer, Cornelius. Peter took six Jewish witnesses with him and Acts 10:44, 45 declares that these “ were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

But from the perspective of the Gospels, it was Jesus and his Galilean women who laid that foundation for God’s great ideal: Oneness in Christ Jesus.  If we look to Jesus, we, too, can  realize that ideal in our experience, in our families, and in our churches. The equalities that will be realized in the new earth can begin now.


Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Tuấn Kiệt Jr. from Pexels


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