How Jesus Treated Women

In Articles, Culture, Life Skills by J.R. Hudberg

Jesus was plenty controversial. We could spend this entire article talking about the ways He was controversial. He got hackles up through what He said (reinterpreting Jewish Law for example—see the Sermon on the Mount Matt. 5 – 7) and what He did (“working” on the Sabbath, over turning money tables in the temple . . .). Sometimes, these two things lined up. Jesus would make a pronouncement about the intention of the Sabbath and what it meant to actually keep it, and then He would do something to demonstrate what He had said (see the story of the man with the withered hand for example – Matt. 12:1-13). 

It’s easy to see where He upset the proverbial apple cart with his words, the reactions of the others in the stories tip us off to that—like when the crowd picks up rocks to stone Him (John 8:29, 10:31). But it’s not always easy to see when His actions were dismantling centuries of carefully constructed rules. Sometimes we read the outrage or confusion of the crowds and religious leaders, but sometimes we don’t. Some things that Jesus did are simply and quietly recorded with no controversy or explanation, but these things were shocking all the same. 

Jesus never really prescribed any cultural change (or anything remotely like a culture war). He simply acted and taught following the true intent of how the Father wanted His creation to live. If culture change happened to align with Jesus’s words and deeds, it was because enough people transformed their personal outlook and behavior to model who Jesus was and what He did. In fact, there are plenty of areas that we probably wish Jesus would have simply expressed a concrete way of seeing and doing things. What we get instead is Jesus showing us how to do things. 

Perhaps the most quietly controversial cultural challenge Jesus issued was how He viewed and valued women. 

Jesus and Women’s Faith

In Jesus’s day, it was not uncommon for men to begin their day with a prayer thanking God that they had not been made a dog or a woman. Culturally, women had a distinct place and role. Gender roles were strictly defined and even more strictly adhered to.  

Jesus, however, upended how women were viewed and valued without ever uttering a word of teaching on the subject. He went out of his way (literally) to meet with women. Jesus diverted His path to share the good news of the coming kingdom of God with a woman from Samaria (see John 3 – that story challenges both gender and racial ideas). He highlighted the faith of women who went to extraordinary lengths to get to him (see Mark 5:21-34 and Luke 7:36-50), and treated them as examples to follow. 

But it was his close relationship with Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus is perhaps the single most culturally challenging thing that Jesus did to redefine the view of women.  

Jesus’s Friendship with Women

You probably know the story and heard many sermons on Mary and Martha choosing different activities when Jesus and the disciples were staying at their home (read the whole account here – Luke 10:38-42). You’ve probably heard a variety of applications about balance of work and life—Jesus didn’t tell Martha that she had chosen the poorly by working to be a good hostess; both having their place; or about the necessity of spending time with Jesus. You may have even heard someone mention that normally women didn’t sit at the feet of a rabbi and learn with his male disciples.  

But that last bit is the truly incredible part of this story. It wasn’t just different that Mary was sitting there among the disciples. It was unheard of, inappropriate, and offensive, culturally speaking. In patriarchal ancient Israel, the teachers and the learners were men, and only men. Yet here sat Mary, among Jesus’s hand-picked disciples learning just the same as them.  

We don’t have any record that Mary asked to be there. The story line treats it simply that she chose a seat among the disciples and listened to Jesus. That’s the first indication that there is something significant about Mary sitting there—the text treats it as insignificant. Reading between the lines, we can speculate that Mary was comfortable sitting with the disciples and neither they nor Jesus made her feel unwelcome. Mary knew from her relationship with Jesus leading up to this point that she could find her own place among the disciples. 

And when the frustrated Martha asked Jesus to send Mary away to help her with the hospitality duties, Jesus denied her request. Mary had chosen the better and it would not be taken away from her. We cannot and should not over-spiritualize this exchange. Jesus was certainly saying that time spent with him, learning from him is important. That is one lesson, and it applies to everyone. But it is not the only thing that we should read in this account. 

Jesus’s Quiet Culture Challenge

The depth of affirmation for Mary sitting with and among Jesus’s disciples is a significant statement from Jesus on the value and place of women. Jesus tells Martha, His disciples, and everyone who will one day read that account that Mary belongs there. Without teaching a word, Jesus subverts the traditional roles and even view of women. Do not underestimate the significance of this moment. Centuries of ingrained and accepted roles were quietly set aside in Jesus’s refusal to ask Mary to step away and help her sister. Jesus smashed cultural walls and built new platforms from the rubble, on which He set Mary and all women. 

As we think about how Jesus viewed and treated women, we must ask where this challenges us. We may not live in a cultural with as strictly defined roles. It’s doubtful that any of the disciples thought there was anything wrong with their view of women. We cannot see until we begin to look from a different perspective. We don’t grow until we ask difficult questions and wrestle with the reality of the answers. One of the more dangerous places to be in our theology and practice is to be satisfied that we are (finally) in the right place and stop asking questions. 

Jesus broke with His culture to show how much He valued women. Is it any wonder that women were the ones at the cross and who first went to the tomb? Women were the ones who stayed close to Jesus when His disciples fled.

Where must we follow Jesus’s lead? 



J.R. Hudberg
J.R. Hudberg is a writer and executive editor for Our Daily Bread Ministries in Grand Rapids, MI, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. He has written Encounters with Jesus and Journey through Amos.
J.R. Hudberg
J.R. Hudberg is a writer and executive editor for Our Daily Bread Ministries in Grand Rapids, MI, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. He has written Encounters with Jesus and Journey through Amos.