Jesus started a cultural shift that changed the way women were viewed and treated. Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary. Maybe more than anyone else Jesus fought for women’s rights and pushed back against thoughts and cultural views that cast women aside.
Before we can understand the magnitude of what Jesus said about women we have to understand how women were viewed in the 1st Century.
1st Century Cultural Views Of Women
When Jesus came into the picture in the 1st Century Jewish culture had an extreme patriarchal bend. Simply put, men were superior to women in just about every way. This was not unique to Jewish culture, almost every 1st Century culture placed men above women. The Jews actually had a higher view than many other cultures in the day. But it still was bad.
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 was not just a place of worship, but also a social gathering. This kept women on the edge of society and denied them access to teaching and opportunities to move up in social standing.
Some of the teachings of time even took this a step further. Rabbi Eli’ezer said, Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he taught her foolishness. Another 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. And we should note that these extreme views were not part of God’s plan. Rather they were harmful interpretations that humans instituted. Something we still do today.
We know this wasn’t God’s intent for women because when Jesus entered this world he challenged many of the customs that put women below man. Not only did he challenge the current status quo he also elevated women in his ministry in ways that were unheard of for the day. Jesus placed value and gave a voice to women.
What Did Jesus Say About Women
The first shocked 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, adulator, lier, doubters, and a guy who keeps telling people his wife is his sister and all sorts of messed up people. Jesus’ genealogy highlights 5 women: Tamar, Rehab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and of course Mary.
You simply did not do that in the 1st Century. And if adding a few women wasn’t shocking enough Jesus took it a step further. 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. He didn’t come to impress he came to elevate those that society said had no value.
Jesus also showed equality in his teaching. Whereas many of the teachers of the day excluded women, Jesus used parables and teachings to include and protect women. He never told a negative story and even offered protection for women in his teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). (What The Bible Says About Divorce)
Women Holding Significant Roles In Jesus Ministry
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he continually puts women on the same level as men. Because of the culture that Jesus was in it would have been custom to put a man in these positions or have the news go first towards the men. Again, Jesus wasn’t there to impress, rather give value and worth to those society said didn’t deserve it.
That’s what he did with women. He gave them just as much a role as men.
The first miracle went to a woman. ( John 2:1-11)
The first news of incarnation went to a woman. (Luke 1:35)
The first Samaritan convert was a woman. (John 4:39-42)
The 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 placed women in important roles in his ministry and showed that he equally values women.
Why Were All The Disciples Men?
A common argument I hear against Jesus valuing women is that all the disciples were men. By doing that Jesus was saying men lead and women cannot. Jesus did choose 12 men to be his closest disciples. Although there were 100s, probably 1000s, of other displaces that were men and women. I think this argument places significance on the wrong thing.
The significance is not that Jesus chose men to be his disciples. Rather that he choose 12. The gender wasn’t the issue, but rather that there were twelve representing the tribes of Israel. That’s why the first thing the disciples do in Acts, once Judas is out, is search for the twelfth. There is huge significance in the number, not the gender.
The argument that Jesus chose only men to be his disciples breaks down pretty quickly. If you say women cannot be leaders because Jesus chose twelve men then you also have to say Gentile men cannot be leaders. Because Jesus choose twelve Jewish men. Or you could say Jesus choose twelve circumcised men, so to be a leader you have to be circumcised.
The significance is in the number, not the gender. In other places, Jesus placed women in roles equal with male counterparts. Women were allowed to be taught, to lead, and played prominent roles in his ministry.
Jesus’ Treatment Of Women
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 housework. Thus Martha is doing her cultural duties and Mary is breaking the custom. Mary is assuming the role of a man.
Jesus isn’t critiquing Martha’s business, as most of us were taught. 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.
What Jesus and Women Means for Us
Jesus challenged the prevailing thoughts and practices that cast women as 2nd class citizens. He showed that women were valuable. And he placed them in prominent roles in his ministry. He started a revolution that continues to this day. Women are valuable to Jesus and played a significant role in his ministry.
The church today should follow Jesus’ example, we should continue his work. Women still have value and can still greatly benefit the church. We should be placing them in roles in which their God-given gifts can be fully utilized. I’m not saying this isn’t happening, it is. Many great Christian women are being used by God to do incredible things. However, I think we still have work to do. I think in some ways we still value the role of men over the role of women. We need to look back at Jesus’ treatment of women and follow his example.
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