Jesus’ life begins in a woman. Probably a teenager at the time of Jesus’ birth, a poor Jewish woman whose people were subjugated to foreign rule for five hundred years, Mary has arguably become the most venerated woman of all history. She is far from alone in the scriptural references of women who were important in Jesus’ life and ministry and the respect and value that Jesus’ gave to women is breathtaking, especially in light of the cultural context in which he lived.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he doesn’t ignore the pleas of women to be healed or for healing of their loved ones. In fact, he goes outside the rules of religion to heal them. A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years which would have caused her to be basically cut off from society as unclean and who couldn’t have any physical contact with her husband if she was married, reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ clothes, which was forbidden by the law, however Jesus heals her and commends her faith. (Luke 8:43-48.) He heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10) and receives a stern scolding from the leader of the synagogue because of it.
Jesus shocks the women of his time by his conversations with them, including the woman at the well, who asks him out of surprise why he is even talking with her, clarifying her status as both a Samaritan and a woman. After he prophesies about her life and they a have a discussion regarding worship and living water, he declares to her that he is the Messiah (John 4:26). She goes and tells the people in her city telling them about Christ and effectively becoming one of the very first evangelists. John 4:39 NIV states “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did’”. Incidentally, people often mistakenly state that Jesus told her to “go and sin no more”. He didn’t, rather she immediately began evangelizing, without any exhortations to change her life. His statement “go, and sin no more” was actually to the woman who was caught in adultery and who was about to be stoned. Jesus effectively prevents the stoning by his famous words “the one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her!” John 8:1-11
These accounts illustrate his respectful and merciful relationships with women with whom he encountered in his ministry, however the most meaningful and freeing passages to me tell about his relationship with the women closest to him.
Jesus was thirty when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), right around my age. With so many people following him, surrounding him and pressing against him, at times it must have been a relief to get away to see his friend in Bethany, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. I wonder how much their dinner parties looked like ours, passing around bread and wine, talking late into the night. It is here, in a quite home of three siblings that Jesus radically changes the role of women. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him talk, as a student or disciple would. When her sister Martha complains that she is not helping in the traditional role of homemaker and cooking and serving the food, Jesus tells her that only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen the better way (Luke 10:38-42). At this dinner among friends, Jesus establishes that a woman’s primary role in life should be as a disciple of him, not a homemaker, a wife, or a mother.
Later, Jesus’ relationship with these three siblings is described further in John 11:1-45. It is the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but it also so clearly shows the Jesus’ friendship with them and love for them. John 11:5 NIV states “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” When he sees Mary weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled and wept with her. Soon after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha again is serving at a dinner held in Jesus’ honor and Mary took a pint of expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. When Mary is criticized for not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor, Jesus again defends her and said “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” John 12:1-7. These passages show that Jesus had a very close relationship with Mary and Martha, even though they were women.
When Jesus was taken to be flogged and crucified, all four gospels refer to the women that followed at a distance, even though most of his disciples had fled. These women went back to his tomb after his death and the Sabbath to properly prepare his body on Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene was among them and when she saw the empty tomb, she ran and told Peter and John. She then came back to the tomb and was crying. She encountered Jesus who she doesn’t recognize until he calls her by her name “Mary”. He commands her to go to the disciples and tell them the good news, effectively commissioning her to go preach to his disciples (John 20:1-18).
Jesus broke down the cultural and religious laws regarding women 2000 years ago. He had mercy on women who were sinners. He healed those who were sick. He encouraged them to become his disciples and to follow him. He revealed himself as the Messiah to a woman who then evangelized to her people. He forged close friendships with women. He appeared first to a woman after his resurrection and commissioned her to preach the news of his resurrection to his male disciples. If we are to be truly emulate Jesus himself, we would treat women with respect, friendship, dignity and love and give them authority to preach, teach, and evangelize.