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Jesus Among Women: The Perfect Example

Woman at the Well

In my June column, I contended that the Bible generally, but the Old Testament (OT) in particular, depicts women unfavorably, laying the foundation for a continuation of similar attitudes towards women in the contemporary church. I surmised further that some church leaders uncritically use these portrayals as building blocks to deny women full partnership in gospel ministry. In that essay, I suggested that Eve, the original mother, was blamed for humanity’s fall by disobeying God’s edict. She is considered in certain circles to have failed the “curiosity test” at the tree of life. But did she? Where would we moderns be without the exercise of intuition, creativity and curiosity, the impulse to investigate, to go beyond the superficial? This, it could be argued, flows from her refusal to accept the boundaries set for her.

In this sequel article, in hopes of learning some lessons for our time, I will contrast the tarnished OT female portrait with stories in the gospels about Jesus’ encounters and interactions with women. Unless one searches the gospels with dedication on this topic, the large number of encounters he had with women could escape notice. The women Jesus interacted with were quite diverse: poor and rich, obscure and well known, Jews and Gentiles, natives and foreigners, young, old and in-between. What united them was gender and a culture that set strict limits on their aspirations.

While we learn several different lessons from Jesus’ associations with women, three stand out: respect/empathy, non-discrimination and affirmation in ministry. There are some, particularly within the male headship crowd, who argue that unfortunate biblical depictions of women are neither good nor bad because they reflect cultural norms of the time. Additionally, they stress, to object to how women were treated in scripture is to use “western views on women [as] standard and enlightened.” In other words, culture determines what is acceptable in how women are treated. But since Jesus lived within the Jewish community of his time, and was exposed to and affected by the prevailing cultural milieu, how he treated women should be instructive to Christians everywhere. The following are a few examples of Jesus’ many illuminating interactions with women.

John’s author did not give her a name, but her redemption story (John 8:3-11) is one of the most endearing in the New Testament (NT). Hardly any background is provided except that she was “caught in the very act.” The religious leaders paraded her roughly before Jesus, a toy to shove around with callous indifference, as they salivated in anticipation of their coup.

The orchestration had little to do with her but everything to do with Jesus. The terrified woman was only a prop, their perfect trap. This time they had him in a bind, they thought. With cruel certainty they pulled out their trump card: the law. The law in its many manifestations often substitutes for cultural immutability. And when the traditionalists had it on their side, offenders stood no chance. So they delighted in needling Jesus: “Moses in the law [Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24] commanded us, that such should be stoned.” This disingenuous misquotation should not be lost on us, for the law mandates the killing of both perpetrators. Obviously her crime was not committed by only one person, especially if caught “in the very act.”

But Jesus would not indulge their charade and when asked “what do you think?” – he ignored them. But they would not be ignored.  Burning with righteous indignation, they persisted. So he “stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” In the end, with all her accusers having fled, she braced for the just reprimand, but only heard from the master’s lips: “Neither do I condemn you.”

That, at its core, is the basic difference between Jesus and the cultural leaders of his time. And sadly, too often ours. The leaders come with stones, pitchforks and binders full of accusations to exact “just” punishment for her and our transgressions, while Jesus welcomes us and offers redemption. And with this reprieve Jesus rejects the double standard that is often entrenched in mistreatment of women.

In another encounter with yet another unnamed woman, Jesus “exposes” a woman who had secretly touched his clothes. She had been plagued for 12 years by what the KJV generically describes as an “issue of blood.” Her case could be a hemorrhagic condition suffered exclusively by women during menstruation. Current diagnostic categories for this malady include menorrhea, menorrhagia and endometriosis.

Mark, whose original account Matthew and Luke relied on, is more detailed and provides a window to the woman’s thinking. She is deliberate about her intensions. After 12 years of physical and emotional suffering, which had brought her to near financial ruin, she was worse off at that moment than when her troubles started. So, hearing that Jesus was in town, she joined the jostling throng around him. She would approach from behind, reasoning, “if I may but touch his clothes, I may be healed.” But when she did, Jesus removed her anonymity and celebrated her faith in the open against critics who rolled their eyes at Jesus’ absurd inquiry of who in the crowd had touched him. Then Jesus honored her and called her “daughter.”

Why Jesus “outed” her might be connected to her reluctance to face him publicly about her condition. The Levitical holiness code (Lev 15:19-25) categorizes any physical contact with a person “with the issue of blood” as defilement. This awareness could have been part of the ailing woman’s calculation to be discreet. Since her condition had gone on for 12 years and she had made the rounds desperately searching for a cure, others would know of her state. This situation might explain her unwillingness to seek a public healing from Jesus. She couldn’t knowingly “contaminate” the teacher. But Jesus, knowing all this, still thrust the issue into the open. Instead of him or the woman being compromised, Jesus put the very code on trial. His telegraphed message to the objecting traditionalists went through her: “Go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.” She left his presence, and for the first time in many years felt “whole”.

Discrimination, “the prejudicial treatment of different categories of people”, especially on grounds of race, gender or foreignness, has been a bane to humans for as long as we have lived in community, and was practiced widely in Jesus’ time. How Jesus dealt with discrimination is still the “best practice guideline” in neutralizing this acid from society. It is enlightening that women were his object lessons to effecting change.

Another example – a Samaritan woman, a known “sinner” and five-time divorcee. That should mark her as damaged goods! Yet Jesus engaged her freely in historical and theological discourse. The teacher’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is one of the most captivating in scripture. In this story, probably the lengthiest interaction between Jesus and an individual in the NT, Jesus purposely and with nonchalance, broke or ignored entrenched cultural norms. And seemed to relish it.

The Jewish/Samaritan mutual hostility was a well-oiled hatred-machine transmitted generationally by parents who taught their children to despise the “other”. The two cultural despisers, as is often the case – Cain/Abel, Ishmael/Isaac, Jacob/Esau – had much in common. Here they shared the same ancestry and heritage. The Samaritans, descendants of inter-marriage between the Assyrian conquerors of the Northern Kingdom and their captives, had earned the enmity of their Southern “brethren”, who considered them impure, sellouts, foreigners, or worse. The Samaritans considered Jacob their “father” and anticipated the Messiah, but saw the Jews as sycophantic zealots who wielded their religion as a branding iron of division. Thus the two fraternal “neighbors” bickered endlessly.

But at this well Jesus would freely reveal his Messiahship to a “foreigner” – and a woman, no less. She in turn would leave her water jar behind for a mission to evangelize her townsfolk. Her message: “Come. See.” Armed with the power of Jesus’ personal teaching, this repeat sinner, this Samaritan, this woman, becomes the first unaffiliated solo-evangelist of the Christ – long before Peter, James or Paul understood who Jesus was or what he was about.

The result? “[T]he Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (John 4:39, NIV) But they went to check him out themselves and would later tell her: “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (4:42)

To understand how socially disruptive this encounter was, we watch the disciples’ reaction on their return, seeing Jesus in that setting. The KJV captures their mood: they “marveled that he talked with the woman,” while the NIV uses “surprised”. Between “marveled” and “surprised” we could sneak in a contemporary word – “chutzpah”, defining it as the “audacity to do the right thing by women though tradition and male cultural hegemony bellows”.

Did Jesus have a position on women’s ministry? Before we tackle this question let’s briefly address the fact of an all-male apostleship. Often, when arguments for and against women’s role in ministry are exhausted, the con-position advocates point to the apostles’ gender. “If Jesus wanted women in ministry wouldn’t he have included at least one with the twelve apostles?” This is not a thought-through question and ordinarily shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it gets asked enough that it should be engaged.

I don’t mean to imply, by questioning the “thought-throughness” of this question, that it is stupid. But merely scratching at the surface implications of such a question quickly renders it impotent. It is irrefutable that all four (Matthew 10: 1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16 and Acts 1:13) lists of apostles in the NT are male. The names vary among the four, suggesting there could have been more than 12, but Mark, the primary source, could have used 12 for its symbolism. It is also uncontested that these men were all Jews and mostly from the working class. No one maintains that only male working-class Palestinian Jews qualify for ministry. Jesus esteemed Gentiles and Samaritans in particular, but none of the 12 was a Gentile or a Samaritan. The argument could have merit if we favor apostolic succession as the only criterion for gospel ministry. Then we might justifiably sideline women, since none are included in any listings of the 12. But how many of our high priests at the General Conference, president included, or the thousands of non-Jewish global Adventist pastors, could trace their “DNA” directly to these apostles? 

The better argument should center around Jesus’ disciples, a more eclectic group that included women – Mary Magdalene, Martha, Joanna and Salome – who bankrolled Jesus’ itinerant ministry. What does Jesus’ interactions with these and other women during his lifetime teach us about his views on women’s ministry? Matthew (12:46-50) supplies one of the earliest clues. Jesus was teaching at the market square when he was informed that his family was nearby and had requested an audience. He responded: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (emphasis added)

The key is in his gesture: he stretched out his hands to his “disciples” and identified them as mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers. It is highly unlikely that Jesus would point to a gathering of only Jewish male disciples and call some mothers and sisters. By the master’s own reckoning then, his disciples included women who, like the Samaritan at the well, would go on to preach the good news about Jesus before the great commission was even articulated. And some of these women were privileged to witness his first appearance after the resurrection and then went forth to proclaim the Easter message: “He’s alive.”

But this involvement by women in Jewish rabbinical affairs was a novelty. Patriarchal Judaism had strict gender roles regarding scriptural pursuits. Jewish women were expressly forbidden from touching the Torah or studying from it. The Torah and everything about it was restricted to a man’s world. The kitchen, however, belonged to women. The crossing of these role boundaries is the subtext of Martha’s angst against her sister Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said.” (Luke 10:39, NIV)

This is a radical portrait. Of Mary, away from the kitchen, contentedly studying at the feet of the Rabbi, upending long established order; and sister Martha, appealing to tradition to pry her sister away from the master’s feet to the familiar confines of the kitchen. Martha’s frustrated cry: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” was a ruse that Jesus saw through: You are “troubled about many things, but one thing is needful and Mary hath taken that good part, which should not be taken away from her.” (10:41b-42, KJV).

And that “good part” – sitting at Jesus feet and learning from him – comes with consequences. Those who feel called by the Lord to ministry, like Mary at the resurrection, answer the call and go about the Lord’s business. The call by today’s detractors for women to return to the kitchen – should not impress.

If we profess to be Christians, then by definition we are his followers. And if followers we should strive to live by his teachings and precepts. Though we are a long way from the dusty roads of Jesus’ Palestine, we cannot and should not move away from his ministerial example. Jesus in his earthly ministry interacted extensively with women. Through those encounters he modeled ultimate respect, non-discrimination and promoted full empowerment for our mothers, sisters, nieces, wives, daughters. Why should his followers do less?


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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