The attitudes towards women which existed at the time of Jesus were the result of a sad decline over some 400 years. As can often happen in a culture – attitudes, opinions and behaviour can change over time and not always for the best. This I believe is currently an issue in our own society in relation to its attitudes towards women – particularly mothers.
The Old Testament scriptures clearly reveal a high view of women. For instance the books of Ruth and Esther are devoted to the lives of woman. And women like Deborah the Prophetess and a number of others are seen in a very positive light. But as we have said between the end of the OT writings and the beginning of the NT [the intertestamental period] – Jewish society and Jewish religion fell in to a sad decline in relation to its attitudes towards women. A religious scholar called Ben Sirach – who lived in Jerusalem about 200 years before the birth of Jesus – said some quite shocking things about women – such as –
“A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness: Woman give rise to shame and reproach.”
Sir 42: 12-14
So it was in to a society with at best, a defective view, at worst a demonic attitude, towards women that Jesus – the God man entered our world.
The fifth woman who enters the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke [we did not discuss her our last related Post] is Mary. Again, significantly, it is a woman – Mary who is the central character at the beginning of the Jesus story – not Joseph as one would have expected – this is totally counter cultural! The first section of Luke’s story is devoted, in a large part, to the interaction between two women – Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, we need to remember was not only female, she was in fact a teenager – somewhere between 14 and 17 years of age. But despite her age Mary is presented as an intelligent woman – one close to the heart of God – who knows him as The Compassionate One. And it is Mary – a teenage girl who becomes the model for all believers in her faith, love and devotion. But there is something more I think we need to consider – Mary was not only a model believer – she was also a model – on the human level – for her son!
Luke records in detail a song sung by Mary. Part of the song reads –
“For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful.”
Luke 1: 49 – 54
Some 30 years later Jesus Son of May and Son of God walked into his home Synagogue in Nazareth where he is asked to read from the scripture – he reads from Isaiah 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.”
Do we see hints of the Song of Mary reflected in the Proclamation of her son Jesus? Of course both are speaking under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit – but the truth is – Jesus – the God man was raised by an extraordinary woman – one who had a profound impact in his life as a human being. Again this is particularly true as regards his attitude towards women. I truly believe – and I know I have said this before – that the highest calling of a woman is to be, as Mary, a mother – because in that calling – in that relationship she has the potential to shape a life – shape a destiny and shape a generation! And this is not restricted to the natural mother only! There is an enigmatic prophetic statement relating to this in prophecy of Isaiah, a little further on from the portion Jesus read in his home Synagogue –
“Woman, be happy, you who have had no children. Cry for joy, you who have never had the pains of having a child, for you will have many children. Yes, you will have more children than the one who has a husband,” says the Lord.”
Isaiah 54:1-3 [New Life Version]
I know women who, for various reasons, cannot have children – but they are mothers none the less and indeed some of them have many children!
So then how does this positive attitude towards women play out in the life and ministry of Jesus? The first thing I think we need to note is that he had women as part of his circle of disciples – something again that was completely counter cultural. On one occasion Jesus was speaking to the crowd when his mother and brothers came along wanting to speak to them. Someone told Jesus –
“Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you.” Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”
Matthew 12: 46 – 50
The inference in the context is quite clear – Jesus had both male and female disciples.
On another occasion we read –
“Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.”
Luke 8: 1 – 3
Once again it is clear Jesus had female disciples – distinct from the 12 who formed Jesus inner core – true – but disciples nonetheless. This must have been truly shocking for many if not most in Jesus culture. Furthermore – this Jesus movement is supported financially primarily by these women disciples.
Finally in this regard we need to take note of Mary – sister of Martha and Lazarus. Luke records the occasion on which Jesus enters the family home –
“Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.”
Luke 10:38 & 39
The term “at his feet” has a double meaning. Luke deliberately used the term – rather than just saying she listened to Jesus. We find it again in In Acts 22:3 when Paul says of himself –
“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.”
Paul is saying clearly the he was a disciple of Gamaliel and, I believe, the term used by Luke indicates Mary was a disciple of Jesus – a student of Jesus. We could explore this further but perhaps another time.
However – when taken together I believe all we have explored in this Post reveal clearly that Jesus placed a very high value on women, their place in society and particularly in his Kingdom ministry. He respected them, welcomed them as his disciples, humbly accepted their generosity and prepared them for a future role in the Church. In all of this he swam against the stream of his culture and religion – perhaps the time has come time for some of us to do the same!