Recently, in this column, I’ve been writing about women—how women are treated in our culture, women in leadership positions in the Church, and women who have impacted my own life and ministry. As I have been thinking about the place and role of women in our culture and in our churches, I thought it would be interesting to look at Jesus’ attitude towards women. I am indebted to New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, who has contributed immeasurably to my understanding of Jesus’ attitude towards women. The conclusions I have come to are nothing less than staggering.
To begin, let’s look at the place of women in the Jewish society of Jesus’ day. Walter Wink reminds us that, in Jesus’ day, a woman had virtually no legal rights; she was regarded not as a person, but as a possession. Before marriage, a woman’s father could do with her as he pleased and, after marriage, a woman was under the control of her husband. Jewish women could not testify in court because they were considered untrustworthy and had no legal standing. A Jewish man could divorce his wife for virtually any and all reasons and, following a divorce, children remained with their father. If a husband died, his property automatically reverted, not to his wife, but to his sons. Indeed, Jewish custom dictated that if the lives of a husband and wife were in danger simultaneously, the husband’s life must be saved first. First century Jewish women had no role in public life and, generally speaking, it was preferred if women didn’t leave their homes at all. Women of Jesus’ day had very little access to education. Indeed, Wink tells us that one rabbi even wrote, “If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.” I could go on but the preceding is enough to give you a sense of Jewish attitudes towards women in Jesus’ day.
Now, let’s move on to look at how Jesus treated women. As I said earlier, the conclusions I have come to are nothing less than staggering. Indeed, Wink maintains that “Jesus’ treatment of women was without parallel in the society of His day and, indeed, in the three thousand year period preceding Jesus’ birth.” Wink points out just a few examples:
Respectable Jewish women were not to speak to men in public; Jesus conversed freely with women. A woman was to touch no man but her husband; Jesus was touched by women and freely touched them. The Gospel of John shows Jesus not only speaking to a Samaritan woman but even taking a drink from her unclean hand. Or, to take another example, when a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years touched him in a crowd, rendering Him unclean, Jesus commended her action and included her in the Kingdom of God, calling her "Daughter." Or do you remember when a prostitute burst into an all-male banquet and began to kiss Jesus' feet, washing them with tears and wiping them with her hair? Do you remember Jesus' reaction? Despite the stern censure of the other men, Jesus accepted her act and its meaning, and took her side, even though she had technically rendered Him unclean and had scandalized the other guests.
Wink points to other examples of Jesus’ unprecedented treatment of women. Jesus allowed women to travel with Him, to support His ministry, and to learn from Him. Jesus’ female followers (imagine that!) included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of one of Herod’s stewards, Susanna, and several others. Wink points out a stunning example of Jesus’ treatment of women taken from Luke 13. In this chapter, Jesus is attacked by the religious leaders of His day for healing a woman on the Sabbath (which went against Jewish law). In response, Jesus said, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham . . . be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her.” Wink tells us that this phrase, “daughter of Abraham,” is an expression found nowhere else in all the annals of ancient, Jewish literature. Now, the phrase, “son of Abraham,” is commonly used but no one else but Jesus ever used the phrase, “daughter of Abraham.” In our day, it’s easy to overlook the significance of this phrase but its meaning would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience. As Wink writes:
Women were saved through their men; they had no standing before God apart from their husbands or fathers. For Jesus to call her a "daughter of Abraham" was to make her a full-fledged member of the covenant and of equal standing before God with men. It was to give her the right to stand before God on her own without the intercession of any man. It was to declare that she was a person, made in the image of God, capable of being in relationship to God. It was, in effect, an assault on the whole Jewish religious system of male elitism.
I hope this brief article has given you at least a small sense of Jesus’ radical treatment of the women of His day. The question for us today is this: In our treatment of women, do we embody the radical empowerment Jesus demonstrated or do we simply reflect the values and customs of our culture? As individuals and as churches, let us seek to live out the values of Christ in all our relationships, particularly in our relationships with women.