Another theme that subtly threads through the Gospel is the way Jesus treats women. Jesus went out of his way to elevate women.
For example, in John 4, Jesus’ goal was to bring the gospel to the Samaritans. This was a key step in God’s plans for the redemption of the world because the Samaritans were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although few in number and utterly without military or political power, they were children of Abraham, and God wasn’t about to forget them.
So what was Jesus’ plan? The obvious procedure would have been to go into Sychar with his disciples, buy food, drink some water, and do a miracle or speak a prophecy. In fact, in the culture of the day, Jesus would have been wise to speak first with the village elders, who controlled access to the city and who were likely the most respected, most honored men in the city.
But Jesus chose a different path. Rather than entering the city, he stayed behind by the well — but with no bucket. He relied on God to bring him a witness — and God did.
In that day, drawing and carrying water was women’s work. Jesus was very unlikely to encounter any men of the village at a well miles away. He knew he was waiting at a place where only women would come.
And as it turns out, not only did Jesus encounter a woman, he encountered a sinful woman.
Under the Oral Law and under the culture of the day, women were considered unreliable — to emotionally unsettled to serve as witnesses. They could not testify in court. And, of course, a woman so sinful that the other women would not go with her to the well was the least likely witness to choose of all.
Rather than speaking with the educated and powerful, Jesus chooses the very woman who was the least likely to be believed. He chose a woman shunned by the other women in town for her sinfulness. Why?
Later on, we read about the resurrection. The first people to arrive at the empty tomb are Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Despite being perhaps the two men on earth closest to Jesus, he did not appear to them. He certainly could have, but he waited.
Jesus waited until Mary Magdalene arrived and he appeared to her in preference to the men who’d followed him for the last three years.
Jesus had cast 7 demons out of Mary (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2), meaning she was a recovered demoniac — not exactly the most believable witness anyone might have chosen. In fact, her testimony was originally not believed by the disciples (Luke 24:11).
So why would Jesus choose to time his first appearance after his resurrection to a woman whom even the apostles would not believe?
And then consider Jesus’ treatment of his mother, Mary. In John 2, Jesus obeys his mother by turning water into wine, even though it was not yet his time. On the cross, Jesus arranges for her care after his death (John 19:26).
Well, this one’s easy. God has a special place in his heart for widows. The Bible repeatedly tells us that God loves widows and wants them cared for. Jesus was simply being true to his character.
And yet Jesus waited until he was in the agonizing last minutes of execution — speaking through pain and cramps and oxygen deprivation — literally suffocating to death on the cross. Why wait to announce his care for Mary from the cross, when he could have easily arranged to do so the evening before?
The woman taken in adultery presents another example of Jesus’ deliberately unconventional dealings with women. You see, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia,
The crime [of adultery] can be committed only by and with a married woman; for the unlawful intercourse of a married man with an unmarried woman is not technically Adultery in the Jewish law.
(See also this article.)
The woman was married, or the crime would not have been adultery. Because polygamy was still permitted (although unusual due to the prevailing influence of the Roman and Greek monogamous culture), a married man could have a sexual partner other than his wife. (The theory doesn’t really hold up under examination, you know, but that’s the nature of double standards.)
By rescuing this woman from stoning, Jesus not only taught a lesson in grace, he may well have saved her marriage. He certainly protected her children from having to grow up without a mother. (There was no birth control in First Century Judea. Few married women were without children.)
By no means did Jesus condone adultery, but he showed how our attitudes toward immorality must be transformed by the cross. Jesus would soon die for this sinner, among many others. She’d not sinned so as to escape the love of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus redeemed her story from being a story of vengeance and brutality to a story of grace and redemption — not by ignoring her sin but by confronting her sin in light of the cross that would soon come.
Finally, consider Mary and Martha after the resuscitation of Lazarus. Martha invited Jesus to dinner, and Jesus went — even though that would be the first step leading toward his arrest and crucifixion. To accept Martha’s dinner invitation was an act of grace, allowing her to serve him even at the risk of his own life.
We don’t think of allowing others to serve as a service, but it is. When Jesus let Martha serve him — through cooking, hosting, and otherwise fulfilling the role of women in their society — he elevated the traditional role of women in that society. She’d not have to become an apostle or a theologian or martyr to be honored by Jesus. She just needed to serve Jesus in the role society made available to her. Liberation for Martha was not about taking a job but about taking what she had and laying it the feet of Jesus.
Mary, of course, took a more dramatic path. She washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair. She abased herself. She poured out her heart in a way and at a depth few men could match. And Jesus accepted her worship as in Spirit and truth — because it came from faith and trust and gratitude.
Only a woman would do such a thing, and yet Jesus gladly approved of her actions, even though there’s not a jot or tittle of authority for worshiping in this manner and even though she went down a path where men could not follow. This was a uniquely female kind of worship — and Jesus accepted it without reservation.
I can’t help but conclude that Jesus saw the world’s attitudes toward women as sinful, unworthy of the Kingdom, and contrary to God’s plan for men and women. Therefore, at every opportunity, he went far out of his way to elevate women.
He did this even when all logic and reason shouted that it was contrary to his mission. It makes no sense to choose as a witness a woman no one would believe, unless your goal is to raise the credibility of women. It makes no sense to begin your mission early, unless your goal is to demonstrate God’s love for mothers. It makes no sense to accept a dinner invitation that will get you arrested and killed, unless you intend to elevate the role of a single homemaker in the eyes of the church soon to be founded.
I think this was all intentional and carefully planned so that the early church could see that Jesus’ treatment of women was radically different from the world’s. We are expected to read these stories and to reinterpret male-female relationships in light of them, just as the Jerusalem church reinterpreted circumcision in light of God’s actions in saving uncircumcised Gentiles.
These stories point to a better way, a better attitude, and the necessity to change our views of women.