In the patriarchal society in which Jesus lived, He dealt daily with the prominent male religious leaders, Roman authorities, tax collectors, lawyers, scribes, and others who were the public face of that society. He commended some and rebuked others. But He was also keenly aware of the less noticeable females ever present in the background, going out of His way to acknowledge and include them in His ministry. From the woman with the spirit of infirmity who He controversially healed on a Sabbath, to the devastated widow whose son He raised from death, He refused to dismiss the females in His society as bearing less value than the males.
In this two-part article I want to briefly explore five separate occasions when Jesus publicly commended and honored a woman, most often to the amazement and disapproval of the males who dominated the culture in which they lived.
The Woman Who Loved Much (Luke 7:36-50)
The woman described by Luke in this passage is often confused with Mary Magdalene. However, there is absolutely no scriptural evidence to support this belief, an idea which was introduced and promoted by certain church leaders during the Middle Ages. She has also been confused with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus feet on a separate occasion (see Part Two of this post).
The fact that Luke specifically describes this woman as ‘a sinner’ probably indicates she was well known among the dinner guests for a specific kind of sin, most likely prostitution. The root word used by Luke can mean ‘pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked’. Simon, the host, was especially offended that Jesus was allowing this woman to physically touch Him and even Jesus acknowledged that her sins were ‘many’.
It was not unusual for Jewish women to wear a flask of perfume on a cord around the neck for anointing the hair, but this woman anointed Jesus feet, weeping so profusely that His feet were saturated by her tears. She kissed His feet fervently, again and again, or as Jesus remarked ‘without ceasing’. She used her hair to wipe them, an action only carried out by slaves towards their masters. Even the fact that her hair was flowing loose was culturally unacceptable and considered immodest.
The horror among the men in the room must have been palpable, yet Jesus allowed this ‘sinner’ woman to continue her ministry to Him unhindered. His host’s disapproving attitude towards the uninvited woman, as well as Himself, is easily discerned by Jesus and He rebukes him, adding salt to the wound by publicly praising the woman and declaring her sins forgiven. Then, speaking directly to the woman He commends her faith and blesses her with the words: ‘Go in peace.’
Jesus knew the men in the room would judge Him poorly by His open reception and approval of the woman, whose very touch would have been offensive to many of them, yet He rejected their appraisal of her, instead defending her and publicly honoring her faith. He placed emphasis not on the fact that she had ‘sinned much’, but on the fact she had ‘loved much’.
He cared nothing for society’s approval but cared deeply about the value of each individual regardless of gender, background or the opinions of others. His willingness to both receive and bless this woman regarded by all as a notorious sinner demonstrated a radical departure from the cultural norms and biases that were accepted practice. His less than ‘macho’ attitude towards women was deeply confronting to many observing or following Him.
The Widow At The Treasury (Luke 21:1-4; Mark 12:42-44)
Widows were among the most vulnerable and least valued people group within the society of Jesus’ time. Unless she had relatives who could afford to shelter and support her, extreme poverty was a constant danger for women left without a husband. A woman’s worth and influence was intrinsically tied to her status as wife and, most importantly, mother. There was no way for a woman whose husband had died to earn an income, and if she was beyond child-bearing years re-marriage was usually not an option.
One day, observing activities in the Temple, Jesus saw several wealthy people placing money into the treasury. They would have been easily identifiable by their clothing. A widow, also easily identifiable, approached the treasury and put in two mites. Two mites was an extremely small amount, just one percent of a denarii, which was one day’s wage.
Who would even acknowledge such a person: a woman, a widow of no means, placing such a small amount in the treasury as to be considered useless, when all around were wealthy, influential men making a show of their ability to donate large amounts?
Someone standing with Jesus that day might have expected Him to commend the healthy amounts of money being donated by those who could afford such offerings. Imagine their shock, therefore when Jesus instead expressed His admiration for the poor widow.
‘This poor widow has put in more than all’ He told His disciples. Not more than each, but more than all of the other offerings added together. We can imagine the doubt and confusion in their minds as they considered His words. How could it be that two tiny mites could be more valuable than the sizable amounts donated by the wealthy men of the city?
That which the widow gave to God was all she had, while the wealthy were giving only a portion of what they owned. The rich gave a small part from their wealth; she gave all from her poverty. They gave what they could easily afford; she gave what she could not afford. Who then was the true worshiper?
Jesus was not impressed by large and showy religious offerings. He was, however, impressed by faith. Jesus publicly commended this woman for her demonstrated faith in God’s ongoing provision.
No conversation is recorded between the poverty-stricken widow and Jesus. She may never have heard Jesus honoring her that day in the Temple. She may never have known how He had drawn His disciples’ attention to her as an example of the faith that pleases God more than anything else.
Most, least of all Jesus’ disciples, would not have noticed the poor widow bringing her offering to the treasury that day. She would have been just another nameless face in the crowd. Within her culture, she held little value, therefore nothing she did or gave held value either. But of all who brought their offerings that day, Jesus pointed to her alone as having the deepest faith, honoring her and ensuring His disciples understood the esteem in which He held her.
Given their subordinate status in Jewish society it’s ironic that Jesus so often deliberately pointed out women to His disciples as examples of true worshipers.
In Part Two we will consider three more instances where Jesus publicly honored a woman and discover how one such instance was instrumental in leading to His arrest and execution.
(Part Two of Women Jesus Honored will be posted next week.)