These days more women than men enrol in higher education, but it wasn’t always this way.
Women did not begin studying at university in Britain until 1869. In the US, the first college to admit women was Oberlin College, in 1837. The University of Bologna in Italy was reputedly the first in the world to teach women. It began conferring degrees upon women in the 13th century. In the history of women’s education, these are significant milestones.
Yet Jesus beat them all by a thousand years.
Jesus was the first man of influence to empower and elevate women. One of the ways he did that was by accepting them as his disciples. He welcomed them into his circle and he trained them.
This would’ve been unthinkable to the rabbis and sages. Teaching women was a waste of time, they said. “It would be better to burn the words of the law than teach them to women,” said Rabbi Eliezer.
At the time of Jesus, women were regarded as inferior. Thanks to the Greeks, every educated man knew that women were mentally deficient. They could cook and spin wool, but that was the limit of their abilities. Women belonged in the kitchen, they said, and this is why Mary’s departure from that room ought to be hailed as a seminal moment in the history of women’s liberation.
Mary of Bethany crosses an ancient line
Like an ancient Rosa Parks, Mary sat where she was not supposed to sit. She stepped across the threshold, entered the front room where the men sat, and placed herself at the feet of Jesus.
Like a disciple.
Any other rabbi would have blanched and waited for her to leave. Not Jesus. He welcomed Mary with a smile and commended her courageous act. Then he encouraged Martha to follow Mary’s example (Luke 10:38-42).
Something that we may not appreciate is just how many women followed Jesus. Paintings of our Lord teaching typically show him surrounded by men. If women are depicted, they are usually hidden in the background. But when Jesus hung on a cross, the men fled while “many women” remained (Matt. 27:55). Who were these many women? They were his disciples.
After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women… (Luke 8:1-2a)
Wherever Jesus went, men and women followed. This was highly unusual. In those days, women didn’t follow men who weren’t their husbands, but they followed Jesus because he loved them and treated them better than any man ever had.
No gender discrimination in the kingdom
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” (Luke 9:23). When Jesus outlined the qualifications of a disciple, he made no restrictions for gender. Again, this was unusual. Although Socrates and a few others made noises about educating and empowering women, Jesus actually did it. He took them on and he trained them.
On another occasion Jesus asked,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Jesus did not point at Peter and John and call them his mother and sister. Clearly there were women among his disciples.
Tradition teaches that the women in his group were little more than hangers-on. They were there because they had money or because Jesus was too kind to send them away. They weren’t real disciples.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent history visionary men like D.L. Moody and John Wesley sought to educate and empower women, and we are all the richer for it. But Jesus did it first. If women have unprecedented opportunities today, it’s because Jesus resisted the sexist norms of his day and practiced the partnership of the kingdom come.
Some of Jesus’ most famous teachings were uttered exclusively to women. Jesus told Martha he was the resurrection and the life. He revealed the good news of no condemnation to the woman caught in adultery. He discussed the meaning of true worship with the woman at the well, and his first Gentile convert was a Syrophoenician woman. Most famously of all, he revealed his resurrection first to a woman.
It’s as if Jesus saved some of his best stuff for his women disciples.
This was no accident. Jesus was building something the world had never seen – a church where men and women would serve together as equal partners in grace.
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