This coming Sunday, we hear a story in which Jesus is in the home of two women: Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). It’s a passage that is much beloved for the radical portrayal it offers: Jesus willing to teach a woman, Jesus willing to break the mould of traditional patriarchal expectations. This story gives is opportunity to consider the strong emphasis on women that is found in the story of Jesus told within the orderly account that we attribute to Luke.
Feminist scholars have noted the prominence accorded to women as followers of Jesus throughout this orderly account, and the particular emphasis on women that surfaces at specific moments in the narrative. The presence of women amongst the movement initiated by Jesus, and their taking on of leadership roles within that movement, is no surprise, given that it is only in the second of the two volumes attributed to Luke that we find such a clear declaration about this matter.
Every Pentecost, when we read and hear the story of that day, we are told that Peter, in beginning his speech, cites in detail a prophetic word uttered centuries earlier by Joel. Speaking in the name of God, the prophet declares, “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).
This prophecy is significant, both in what follows in the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in terms of the place that women occupy in the Gospel of Luke. Women have significant roles, both in the stories told in the ensuing chapters about the movement initiated by Jesus, and also in what has come before, the account of the words and activities of Jesus himself.
First, it is often noted by interpreters that the author of the orderly account that we know as the Gospel according to Luke has a particular penchant to pair a female character with a male character at various moments in the story. It’s one way of “ordering” the material at the disposal of the author. A key instance of this is in the expanded Lukan version of the visit that Jesus makes to his hometown, and the address that he makes in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–30).
Jesus refers to two prophets in his sermon, Elijah and Elisha. Although both prophets are male, they are sent to individuals of different genders. Elijah is sent to a faithful woman, who perhaps typically remains unnamed; Elisha is sent to faithful man, identified as Naaman (4:25–27). Each of these figures receives the prophet and their message; Jesus does not elaborate on the point, but it must have been self-evident to his Jewish audience from their knowledge of the scriptural stories (1 Kings 17:8–24; 2 Kings 5:1–14). The male and the female who responded with faith and obedience signify the equal ability of both genders to respond in faith, and to follow Jesus.
Other dual-gender pairs can be seen in the account of Jesus healing the servant of a male centurion in Capernaum, followed by his raising the son of a widow in Nain (7:1–10, 11–17). Soon after these paired stories, there is one scene which juxtaposes the extravagant actions of a sinful woman with the more constrained hospitality of Simon, a Pharisee (7:36–50). Whilst the man is questioned about his lack of understanding (surprising, it would seem, for a man of learning), the woman is affirmed for her faith expressed in tangible actions.
Similar pairings appear in the parables of Jesus as Luke reports them. The parable of the mustard seed (presumably planted by a man in his field) is followed by the parable of the yeast (used by a woman in her household duties) (13:18–19, 20–21). The parable of the lost sheep, searched for by a male shepherd, is followed by the parable of the lost coin, searched for by a woman (15:3–7, 8–10).
This orderly account contains two strongly-apocalyptic discourses (17:20–37; 21:5–36). It’s another sign of how the author orders his materials, dividing the apocalyptic material available to him into two discrete speeches. In the first of these speeches, Jesus refers to two men on a couch and two women grinding at a mill to make a point about the judgement that is coming (17:34–35). And although they are not adjacent to one another, the parable of the persistent (male) friend (11:5–8) bears similarities to the parable of the persistent (female) widow (18:1–8); these stories resonate with one another so that the one informs the other.
Although this is not unique to Luke’s account, the Lukan Jesus also use pairs in his discourses, referring to “men and women” (12:45), as well as “father and mother, son and daughter” (12:53). Jesus also says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple” (14:26).
Ben Witherington suggests that such pairs demonstrates that men and women are “equal recipients of God’s grace and equal participants in the community of Jesus’ followers” (Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life; Cambridge University Press, 1984, 52; quoted by Marg Mowczko in https://margmowczko.com/gendered-pairs-and-parallelism-in-lukes-gospel/)
Each evangelist tells of women, as well as men, who hear the message of Jesus and respond in obedience, with faith. In Luke’s Gospel, the motif of faithful men and faithful women is heightened. Luke’s distinctive beginning to the story of Jesus introduces us to two faithful pairs: Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5–25, 57–80), and Simeon and Anna (2:25–38), as well as to Mary, “the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
The end of the Gospel has a similar tendency. The Markan portrayal of the last hours of Jesus is stark: the male disciples desert him (Mark 14:43–46, 50, 51–52) and Peter betrays him (Mark 14:66–72) whilst the women watch from afar (Mark 15:40–41). In Luke’s version, Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is interpreted as having been forced by Satan (Luke 22:31); the Markan comment that the men deserted him is omitted; and those who watched from afar include both genders: “all his acquaintances, including the women” (Luke 23:49). Luke does not indicate complete abandonment by the male followers of Jesus, but still maintains the priority of the female followers.
After this, Luke resumes the Markan account, in which the strategic role of the first witnesses to the empty tomb is delivered to women (Luke 23:55–56; 24:1, 10; compare Mark 15:47; 16:1).
In his account of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, Luke intensifies the theme of the faithfulness of women which was available to him in his sources. To the Markan account in which Jesus blesses an ill woman for her faith (Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48), Luke adds a similar commendation of another woman (7:50).
Only in Luke does Jesus receive a blessing from a woman in the crowd (11:27–28). Only in Luke do we learn of the woman who was healed by Jesus after suffering from “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years”, who was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10–17).
Only Luke specifically notes that in the early period of Jesus’ public activity, women travelled around with the group of male disciples of Jesus (8:1–3). That might be assumed from the comment made, after the death of Jesus, at Mark 15:41, but Luke places this fact in the spotlight much earlier in his Gospel narrative.
And only Luke tells the story which we hear this coming Sunday; the story of Mary and Martha, sisters who gave Jesus hospitality, and of Jesus’ commendation of Mary for her desire to learn from Jesus (10:38–42). It is a striking account of an important claim: that women, equally with men, are able to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him.