In the past century we’ve seen a huge improvement in women’s rights in our society. I would argue we aren’t quite where we should be; however we are not where we once were.
What surprises me is some of the loudest voices against some progress is often Christians. Now I’m not interested in making a political statement…well okay, I am interested in making some kind of political statement. But I’m not interested in delving into specific issues. I know there is plenty of debate over certain issues not aligning with Christianity. However at the heart of the movement I believe is God’s heart. Sure, some of the issues might be off track, but that doesn’t mean we discount the whole thing.
I’ve had a relatively large shift in my theology over the past year or so on this topic. This has largely come from being challenged by the doors that Jesus opened for women. The church subsequently shut the doors a century or so after and has been trying to keep closed ever since. But Jesus was radical in his approach to women, and as I study His approach I find myself shifting my view.
When Jesus entered in the picture in the 1st Century the Jewish culture had an extreme patriarchal society. Women were not afforded the same freedoms and rights as men. Maybe the biggest disadvantage Jewish women had was not being allowed into the inner courts in the temple, which kept them from learning, being taught, and kept them on the edge of society at the time.
Some of teachings of the time even took this a step further. Rabbi Eli’ezer, who lived in the 1st Century, said, Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he taught her foolishness. An other Rabbi taught Let the words of Torah rather be destroyed by fire than imparted to a woman. Of course not all thoughts in Judaism were to this extreme. In fact Judaism placed a higher value on women than many of the other ancient societies. However the average views still placed women in a different category than men where they had substantially less freedom.
That’s the world that Jesus entered into. Throughout his life and his ministry he challenged many of the preconceived notions and opened doors for women. What he did would have shocked those in 1st Century culture, and I think it’s important that we today don’t forget the significance of his actions.
From the Beginning Jesus Brought Change
The first shock comes in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, you know the chapter you skip because it’s boring. Genealogies in the day were common and a big deal. They were seen as your resume of sorts. You used them to show people how good you were, what kind of stock you came from. A common practice was to hide the bad people and highlight the good people. But Jesus did the exact opposite.
Not only did Jesus highlight a murderer, adulterer, liar, doubters, and a guy who keeps telling people his wife is his sister, but all sorts of messed up people. Jesus’ genealogy highlights 5 women: Tamar, Rehab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and of course Mary. It was already shocking that Jesus would have included women. But what was doubly shocking was the women he included. He had 2 non-Jews, a prostitute, and Bathsheba who was David’s mistress. These are not the people that you would include if you were trying to impress people. But that was never Jesus’ goal.
Jesus’ Firsts for Women
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he continually puts women on the same level as men. We might not see the significance today, but what he did was extremely significant.
The first miracle went to a woman. ( John 2:1-11)
First news of incarnation went to a woman. (Luke 1:35)
First Samaritan convert was a woman. (John 4:39-42)
First person clearly told by Jesus that he was the Messiah was a woman. (John 4:26)
The first news of the resurrection when to a woman. (Luke 24:1-12)
Women were commissioned to tell the news of the resurrection to the disciples. (Matthew 28:10)
In a culture that consistently cast women aside Jesus did the opposite. He place women in important roles in his ministry and showed that he equally values women.
Martha and Martha
Maybe the clearest example of Jesus opening doors for women is in Luke 10:38-42, the story of Martha and Mary. If you’ve grown up in church you’ve probably heard this story. Jesus comes over to Martha’s house. Martha slaves away preparing everything while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. Martha gets mad and tells Jesus to make Mary help her. Jesus famously says 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. Thus the moral of the story is don’t be too busy and miss Jesus. But wait… Is that what is really happening?
The Bible is written to a different culture and a different time. Thus when we read it we miss some of the cultural undertones. One of those is the difference between a woman’s and man’s role in this culture. In 1st Century culture a man’s role was to sit at the feet of a teacher and learn while the women prepped the meal and did the house work. Thus Martha is doing her cultural duties and Mary is breaking the rule.
Jesus isn’t critiquing Martha’s business, although you probably could make a case for that. The significance of this moment is that Jesus not only allows Mary to sit at his feet and learn, but he commends her for doing so. This is a huge role reversal and points to Jesus’ intent. Men and Women have equal value in Jesus’ sight.
Jesus reversed many of the thoughts on women of the day and placed women in prominent positions in the telling of his story. Historically the church has tried to cast women aside time and time again. Maybe it’s time to look at what Jesus did for women and follow the pattern he established.
What are your thoughts?