The Attitude of Jesus Toward Women and the Family

Author: Rudolf Schnackenburg

The Attitude of Jesus toward Women and the Family

by Rudolf Schnackenburg

The foundation of holy and happy marriage and family life is reverence for the dignity of women. What was Jesus' attitude to women? He did not undertake to make changes in their legal status, which in the Old Testament and Judaism was far from being one of equality of rights, but his actual behaviour bears witness to high esteem, serious evaluation of their religious aspirations, and delicate tact, rarely encountered in later Judaism. There is also his love, as their saviour,. for sinners and prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50; John 7:53- 8,11; Matt. 21:31f.), which was totally incomprehensible from the point of view of the Pharisees. But when it seemed necessary to him for his work as Messias, Jesus even overstepped the bounds of Jewish custom and outlook in his dealings with women. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well, though to do so was considered unseemly for a man and especially for a rabbi (John 4:27). He allowed himself to be touched by the woman with an issue of blood, though that made him ritually unclean (Mark 5:27-34 par.). For the sake of a poor, bent woman "whom Satan hath bound these eighteen years" he broke the Sabbath in order to free this "daughter of Abraham" (a title of honour not often recorded) from the evil besetting her (Luke 13:10-17). He performed a strikingly large number of miracles of healing for women (in addition to the above, Simon Peter's mother-in-law, Mark 1:29-31 par.; Jairus' daughter, Mark 5:21 to 43 par.; the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman, Mark 7:24-30 par.; Mary of Magdala, Luke 8:2). The sorrow of the widow of Naim moved him to sympathy (Luke 7:13); he did not refuse the request of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:28 f.). He praised and called attention to the great spirit of sacrifice of the widow who threw her mite into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44 par.). He defended the act that Mary of Bethania performed for love, anointing his head and his feet (Mark 14:3-8 par.; John 12: 1-8). He allowed women among his following and accepted the help they gave (Luke 8:2f.), visited the family at Bethania, and wished both sisters to listen to what he had to say (Luke 10:38). On the way of the Cross he instructed the grieving women (Luke 23:27-31). Even his conversation with the Samaritan woman shows him primarily (at least in the mind of the evangelist), not as a master of spiritual direction but as a preacher of revelation. St John's account is directly concerned not with the woman's moral conversion but rather with her faith and Jesus gladly allows this woman to help him to make the fields ripe for harvest in Samaria also (vv. 28 ff.). The conversation with Martha (John 11:20-27) is another act of lofty self-revelation on the part of the Johannine Christ The same evangelist tells of the appearance of the Risen Lord to Mary Magdalene, who becomes his messenger, the first to bring to his brethren the news of the ascent to the Father (20: 11-18). The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Jesus did not differentiate in his preaching between men and women; women were to hear the word of God, experience messianic salvation and participate in the future kingdom of God in complete equality with men. Then, after the general resurrection, sexual differences will become meaningless, for marriage and giving in marriage will come to an end (Mark 12:25 par.). The religious equality of rights recognized by Jesus for women and given expression by him in practice, this equality of dignity in the sight of God, was bound in the long run to exert a deeper influence and be more conducive to the raising of the dignity of women than any particular social reforms could have done.

Above all, by his attitude, Jesus saved women from being thought of as merely sexual beings, honouring them as human beings, persons, children of God.

Of great significance for the status of women and for marriage and family life was Jesus' decree that according to the will of God originally marriage was indissoluble, and was now obligatorily so again. Already in the Sermon on the Mount there are sharp words against adultery (even that simply committed in the heart by desire), and also against all divorce. But he also took up a definite position on this question in a discussion recorded by Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Jesus brought two earlier scriptural passages (Gen. 1:27; 2:24) into the field against the Mosaic dispensation allowing a bill of divorce to be made out and the woman sent away (Deut. 24: 1). From them he argued that the primordial will of God at the beginning of creation intended the indissolubility of marriage. Moses' "commandment" was given only because of the "hardness of heart" of the Jews, and now the order established at the creation is once again to prevail, so Jesus announces in God's name, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

By the reference back to the texts in Genesis, woman is assigned equality of dignity with man. "Male and female he created them"; "And they shall be two in one flesh." The husband leaves the community of his family in which he has lived hitherto ("leaves father and mother") and forms with his wife a new community. The two become so completely one that they can never again be separated; such is the conclusion Jesus draws from the Scriptural text, the proof follows precisely from this oneness of husband and wife.

(Herder and Herder, 1965), pp. 132-136.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.