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.

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