Article

How the Gospels show that Jesus values women

Aug 13, 2019

The portrayal of women in the Gospels—particularly in Luke’s Gospel—is stunningly countercultural. Luke constantly pairs men with women, and when he compares the two, it is almost always in the woman’s favor. Before Jesus’s birth, two people are visited by the angel Gabriel and told they are going to become parents. One is Zachariah, who becomes John the Baptist’s father. The other is Jesus’s mother, Mary. Both ask Gabriel how this can be. But while Zachariah is punished with months of dumbness for his unbelief, Mary is only commended. The prominent role of women in Luke continues as Mary and her cousin Elizabeth prophesy over Jesus in the womb, and as a prophet (Simeon) and a prophetess (Anna) prophesy over the infant Jesus. 

The adult Jesus consistently weaves women into his preaching. In his first sermon, he enrages his audience with two Old Testament examples of God’s love reaching beyond the Jews: one is a woman, the other is a man (Luke 4:25–27). In Luke 15, the female-oriented parable of the lost coin is nestled between the male-oriented parables of the lost sheep and the lost (or prodigal) son. In Luke 18, the female-oriented prayer parable of the persistent widow is paired with the male-oriented prayer parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Even as he approaches crucifixion, Jesus stops to address female mourners (Luke 23:27–31). In a male-dominated culture, his attention to women throughout his preaching is remarkable. 

This male-and-female thread works its way through Luke’s healing accounts. First, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit (Luke 4:33– 35). Then he heals Simon’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38–9). In chapter 7, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant and then raises a widow’s son, out of compassion for the grieving mother. In chapter 8, Jesus heals a man with a demon, then a bleeding woman, and then a synagogue ruler’s daughter. Jesus’s last healing in Luke is of a woman with a disabling spirit. She praises God. When the male synagogue ruler objects, Jesus calls him a hypocrite and reminds him of the woman’s status as a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16–17). 

Jesus’s elevation of women as moral examples is yet more striking. In Luke 7, he is dining at Simon the Pharisee’s house, when a “sinful woman” (likely a prostitute) disrupts the party. She weeps on Jesus’s feet, wipes them with her hair, and anoints him with ointment. Simon is appalled: surely if Jesus were a prophet, he would know this woman is utterly unworthy of touching him! But Jesus turns the contrast on its head and holds this woman up as an example to shame Simon. In cultural terms, Simon has every advantage. He is a man; she is a woman. He is religiously admired; she is despised. He’s hosting a dinner party; she is a weeping, prostrate embarrassment. But according to Jesus, she surpasses Simon on every count (Luke 7:36–50). Jesus elevates another low-status woman as a moral example in Luke 21, when he commends the poor widow for her gift of two small copper coins. In Jesus’s eyes, this offering exceeds the much larger gifts the rich are putting in the offering box (Luke 21:1–4). 

Jesus’s valuing of women might seem to be compromised by his choice of twelve male apostles, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel. But Luke emphasizes the women who followed Jesus too: “The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for him out of their means” (Luke 8:1–3 mg.). Like Jesus’s male disciples, these women were in for the long haul (see Luke 23:49, 56). They were there at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and at the end. But can these women legitimately be called disciples? 

Jesus answers that question for us in Luke 10 when we first meet two of Jesus’s female friends: Mary and Martha. Martha is playing a traditionally female role, serving her guests, while her sister Mary is assuming a traditionally male role, sitting at Jesus’s feet with the other disciples. Martha asks Jesus to correct this, to tell Mary to get up and help with the serving. But Jesus affirms Mary: “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). 

Luke’s final comparison surrounds Jesus’s resurrection. In Luke 24, some of his female disciples visit the tomb to anoint his body. There, they encounter angels who announce the resurrection. The women report this to the apostles, who don’t believe them. Peter runs to the tomb to check the facts. But even then, they are not convinced. When two male disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they recount the women’s tale but do not seem to have absorbed it. Jesus rebukes them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). 

Luke is not the only Gospel to elevate women. In a moving account in John, Jesus shocks his disciples by crossing ethnic, religious, gender, and moral boundaries to talk with a sexually compromised Samaritan woman, who becomes an evangelist to her people (John 4:1–30). Later, Jesus saves a woman caught in adultery from being stoned, forcing her male accusers to acknowledge that they are not morally superior to her (John 8:7). Then, in John 11, we see Jesus’s tender interaction with Martha and Mary after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus speaks some of his most famous recorded words to comfort Martha, and then cries with her and her sister before miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead.8 In Matthew 9, Jesus commends the faith of a woman suffering from unrelenting menstrual bleeding who touched him to be healed. In Matthew 19 he protects women from unwarranted divorce, which would in many cases leave them destitute. 

Jesus’s valuing of women is unmistakable. In a culture in which women were devalued and often exploited, it underscores their equal status before God and his desire for personal relationship with them. 

Content taken from Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, will be published by Crossway in April 2019. You can... Read More