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Women in the Gospel

30 November, 1999

James McPolin S.J. pays attention to the important role of women in the gospel accounts of the time of Christ.

For many centuries Bible studies have given special attention to the role of men and stories about men in Scripture. It is only in recent years that we have become more aware of the important role of women in the stories of the Bible. They have a place even in Jesus’ own stories.

Women in the parables
Women are prominent in the parables of Jesus. Sometimes a woman and a man appear in the same parable. At other times a woman features in a parable that is parallel to a parable about a man. For example, Luke 18:1-8 is a parable about a widow and a judge while Luke 18:9-14 tells about the humble and acceptable prayer of a despised tax-gatherer. The twin parables about God’s mercy feature a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep and a woman seeking her lost coin. In these two images both woman and man can portray the mercy of God.

Sometimes in his parables Jesus gives us female images of God: God is like a woman seeking a lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and (in the parable of the ‘Baker-woman God’) the kingdom of God ‘is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened’ (Lk. 13:20-21).

At work in the world
The power of the kingdom, that is, God’s life and love active in our world, is compared to the activity of a woman leavening dough. The kingdom, once it is present in human history, even in a hidden way, cannot but help leaven all of it because of its ingredients. This parable is placed alongside the parable of the mustard seed and both express the same reality.

The planting of the mustard seed is an outside work of a farmer, the baking of bread is an indoor task of the woman in the house. A man is the focus in one, a woman in the other. Jesus, therefore, uses male and female images to describe God. A shepherd searching for his lost sheep and a woman searching for her lost coin mirror the loving mercy of God.

Equally important
Also, by mentioning women in his stories Jesus shows that he is addressing women as well as men, that his message (and also salvation) is equally for them. He shows that the roles of women were equally good and positive images for his own work. He speaks in terms and images that women could easily understand as women.

For example, the Queen of Sheba, who came to visit Solomon and to learn from his wisdom, is praised by Jesus because she recognised the favour of God in Solomon’s wise words and ways. Here a woman, in this case one who was undesirable and foreign in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, is praised by him.

Finally, during Jesus’ way of the Cross a large group of women inhabitants of Jerusalem were weeping and lamenting for him. He speaks to them and identifies with their plight, for they too will face suffering and share in the destiny of Jerusalem (referring to its destruction in 70AD). Even during his way to the Cross, in the midst of his own sufferings, Jesus deliberately identifies with the plight of these women (Luke Ch. 23).

Interactions with women
The Gospels, especially Luke and John, contain many stories which describe Jesus’ interactions with women from all walks of life. Jesus shares his forgiveness with men and women alike. The harshness of other men towards women stands out in sharp contrast to the mercy of Jesus (particularly in Luke 7 and John 7-8). He breaks down the social barriers that existed between men and women in his day.

ln the story of the Samaritan woman he takes the initiative and breaks down the social, political and religious barriers that existed between them (John 4). Later on, at a time of great hostility, he is accused of being a ‘Samaritan’ and of ‘having a demon’, (John 8), as if they were one and the same thing. The disciples are shocked not so much because he speaks to a Samaritan (Samaritans were considered outcasts by the Jews) as by the fact that he speaks to a woman in public – something that was considered very improper in Jewish life.

In spite of all the barriers, Jesus breaks through and initiates a genuine dialogue with great respect. Jesus is not harsh. He discreetly shows his special knowledge of her, that she has had five husbands. This woman shows great openness to Jesus. Besides, she invites others to believe in him.

The story is a good example of the way Jesus treats women: he reveals himself to her in dialogue; he recognises that she is capable of a ‘theological’ conversation. He breaks through the taboos that were imposed on women in his day. He does not reject her. She shows hospitality and respect to Jesus who makes dialogue easier for her. She responds to him with a great openness of faith. Above all, she shows a missionary or apostolic spirit; she brings others to believe in him.

Jesus shows great compassion to a woman who was suffering from a blood complaint and she shows great trust in him (Mark 5). Such a woman would have been considered unclean and had to be separated from the people of Israel (Leviticus 15).

According to the laws of the day, to be touched by her would render Jesus unclean. He allows himself to be touched by her. He praises her faith, her confidence in him. He calls her ‘daughter’ – an affectionate term – to reassure her that she is to be recognised now as part of Israel, in contrast to the marginalisation she had experienced on account of her complaint.

He restores her dignity to her as a woman who belongs to the community of Israel. He frees her from a Jewish prescription of the day that dehumanised her as a woman and excluded her from full participation in the community of Israel.

Jesus shows his willingness to overcome taboos or prescriptions concerning the sabbath for the sake of men and women alike when he heals a crippled woman on the sabbath (Lk. Ch. 13). Again, his compassion for a suffering woman is highlighted. He takes the initiative; no one asks him to heal her; he makes no request for faith. Out of compassion he acts quickly. His instantaneous cure contrasts with her eighteen years of suffering.

He also shows compassion in his strong words as he defends his healing on the sabbath against the religious authorities. He stresses that the welfare of a human being, of a woman, takes precedence over such religious obligations as the observance of the sabbath. Jesus liberates this woman from her long illness and, by restoring her to health, she is now enabled to participate more fully in community.

Dignity restored
He is willing to go to great lengths to help her, even with the threat of total rejection by the religious leaders of his day. He condemns them for supporting inhumane laws about the sabbath and he restores the woman’s dignity as a ‘daughter of Abraham’, that is, a true member of God’s people who should be treated as such, instead of being valued even less than a donkey.

Therefore, women benefit from the compassion of Jesus as much as men. He frees women from some of the taboos or stigmas imposed on them at that time in Jewish society.

He shows special concern for widows who were among the most deprived in that society (Lk. Ch.7). Indeed, some of the most moving Gospel stories are about Jesus’ relationships with women, like that with the Gentile woman who is very persistent with Jesus until she gets her way: ‘Let it be done for you as you wish’ (Mt. Ch. 15).

Followers of Jesus
The Gospels mention women who accompany Jesus on his way to the Cross and also women who ‘followed’ him and ‘served’ him during his ministry in Galilee. The use of the word ‘serve’, along with ‘follow’, indicates that they are disciples of Jesus and that their life as disciples cannot be reduced to the traditional chores of women, such as providing food etc. Yet what exactly their participation in Jesus’ ministry consisted of we do not know.

In John 20:11-18, Mary of Magdala is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection and it is she who first communicates the news of his resurrection to the apostles.

Martha and Mary may have been the most important women in Jesus’ life after his own mother, though we do not know if they travelled with Jesus during his ministry. It is stated they were friends of Jesus: ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister’ (John 11).

Jesus’ attitude towards women stands out in contrast to Jewish practices of his day. For a rabbi to come into a woman’s house and teach her (Mary) specifically is unknown. Both are attentive to Jesus, each in their own way: Martha serves while Mary listens to Jesus’ word (Luke 10).

This article first appeared in

The Messenger, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.