The birth of Jesus was surrounded by many unique and miraculous events, accompanied by wondrous words from angels and humans, both male and female. Simeon’s statement to Mary at Jesus’ circumcision, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34), is a lens through which we can view Jesus’ encounters with people. Jesus humbled the proud, the rich, and the powerful.
He also raised the weak, the poor, and the powerless. Throughout his ministry, Jesus acted in ways that were shocking to those steeped in their culture of hierarchy. And when his disciples began squabbling over their relative greatness, Jesus taught them to follow his own example:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25–28; also Mark 10:42–45).
In a culture characterized by social status and power, Jesus ushered in a brand new definition of authority, and his acceptance of women was nothing short of radical. Therefore, in our search for insights into being change agents for biblical equality, we cannot begin anywhere but with our Lord and Savior. Interestingly, every woman that Jesus encountered in the Gospels — no matter her ethnicity or socioeconomic class — was raised in her spiritual and physical state as well as in her social status. Paul’s famous words written to the Galatians — that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28) — echo what Jesus demonstrated through his ministry. Let’s examine some of the evidence.
Neither Jew nor Gentile
Though Jesus’ primary mission was to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), his love and redemption were not limited to one ethnic group. On the road from Judea to Galilee, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman from the town of Sychar. She was amazed that a Jewish man would talk with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9); his disciples at that point were amazed that he would talk with a woman at all (John 4:27). Although Jesus pointed out her sins of adultery and promiscuity (John 4:17–18) and the ignorance of her religious beliefs (John 4:22), he accepted her as she was: a woman, a Samaritan, and a sinner. He spoke to her with words of Spirit and truth, and revealed to her — before anyone else in John’s Gospel — that he was the Messiah, the great “I am” (John 4:23–26). In that encounter she was raised from sinner to saint, and her social status skyrocketed as many in her village believed in Jesus through her testimony (John 4:29).
Farther north, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus encountered a Canaanite woman who pleaded for her daughter, who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Addressing him as “Lord, Son of David” (Matt. 15:22), she acknowledged his social status and ethnicity, which were viewed as superior. At first he appears to dismiss her on the grounds of ethnicity (Matt. 15:24), but her persistence and wise interaction lead him to commend her great faith and grant her request (Matt. 15:28). In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus had just rebuked the Jewish leadership for their blindness, for having hearts far from God, for not understanding clean versus unclean (Matt. 15:1–20). But this Gentile woman saw Jesus for who he was and, with a word, Jesus made her and her daughter clean and brought them near.
Neither Slave nor Free
With a touch and a word, Jesus brought back to life the daughter of Jairus, the leader of a synagogue (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–25; Mark 5:22–24, 35–43; Luke 8:41–42, 49–56). But Jesus did not limit his contact to the upper classes of free people. On the way to Jairus’ house, he allowed himself to be touched by a woman who had been unclean for twelve years because of an unceasing flow of blood (Matt. 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:43–48). Though cut off from normal society and public worship for more than a decade, this woman still had faith. The power that went out from Jesus healed her physically and restored her spiritual and social status.
While dining with a Pharisee, Jesus accepted the touch of a sinful woman, who washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36–38). In the Pharisee’s eyes, this shocking display proved that Jesus was not a prophet (Luke 7:39). Jesus contrasted the actions of the Pharisee and the woman to reveal the man’s lack of love and social graces, causing his status to fall (Luke 7:40–47). But the woman, who demonstrated love and faith, was raised spiritually and socially and went away forgiven and restored (“in peace,” Luke 7:48, 50).
In the patriarchal world of ancient Israel, women of the lower classes could not easily be self-sufficient. Widows were a needy group, especially widows with no other family. In Nain, Jesus encountered a widow who had just lost her only son: her only family and only means of support, as far as we know (Luke 7:11–12). Moved with deep compassion, Jesus raised her son from the dead, lifting her spirits and restoring her family (Luke 7:13–15).
Neither Male nor Female
Everything Jesus did with men, according to the Gospels, he did with women as well. While it is true that the twelve apostles were all male (Matt. 10:2–4; Mark 3:14–19; Luke 6:13–16), this group was assembled to constitute the New Israel, reflecting the twelve patriarchs of the historic Israel. Many women were counted among Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 8:1–3). In fact, the first witnesses of the resurrection were women, who were sent by angels and by Jesus as the first messengers of this good news (Matt. 28:5–10; Mark 16:1–7; Luke 24:1–11; John 20:11–18) — though the men did not accept their divine commission at first (Luke 24:11, 22). Unlike the rabbis, Jesus regularly used women as positive examples in his teaching. He described the kingdom as being like yeast a woman mixed into dough (Matt. 13:33). He explained that prostitutes can enter the kingdom as believers ahead of the priests and elders (Matt. 21:31–32). He also pointed out that Elijah was sent to a Gentile widow (Luke 4:24–26). When speaking of his mission to save even one lost sinner, he used the example of a shepherd finding a lost sheep and a woman finding a lost coin (Luke 15:1–10). Further, Jesus used women as negative examples only two times, both in his teachings about watchfulness: the parable of the foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) and the historical example of Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). Finally, Jesus taught both men and women, whether in large public settings (Matt. 14:13–21; 15:29–39) or in a more intimate setting (Luke 10:38–39).
Jesus came not to be served, but to serve (Matt. 20:28). In the Gospels, no men ever offered service to Jesus, but angels (Matt. 4:11) and women did. In fact, Jesus’ major support group was made up of the women who followed him from Galilee and cared for his needs (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:41), from Joanna the aristocrat to Mary Magdalene from the lower classes (Luke 8:1–3). Jesus accepted and even depended upon their service, though the closest he came to rebuking a woman was when he told Martha that it was better to sit at his feet and learn than to fret over the culturally expected service of hospitality (Luke 10:38–45).
How wonderful it would be if the church sat at Jesus’ feet and learned from his example! Perhaps we too would develop the great faith and persistence of a Gentile woman, demonstrate the profound love of a sinful woman, and devote our lives to proclaiming the good news of our risen Lord like the courageous women who witnessed the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Perhaps we would learn to agree with Paul that we must consider others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), submit instead of demand submission (Eph. 5:21), and reject the class system and hierarchy of the fallen world in favor of celebrating our oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:28).