Part two, Jesus and women: 'You are set free'

Part two of a two-part series. In part one, through the scripture passage of the bent over woman, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson illuminated the freeing effect of encountering Jesus, the significance of this for women and of feminist theology.

Consider these few highlights of the work of feminist theology that emphasizes a new appreciation of the meaning of Jesus Christ for human beings who are women.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection

Studies of Jesus’ relationships during his public life reveal his lack of fear of women and a strong interest in their flourishing. No word of disparagement or ridicule passed his lips, nor did he see women as a lesser class of human being. Treating them with grace and respect, he healed, exorcized, forgave and restored women to shalom, being particularly attentive to those most in need: the newly dead little girl, the widow whose son had just died, the impoverished widow who gave all she had to the temple, the adulterer about to be stoned. Jesus had particular concern for people on the margins of life, and this concern reached all the way to prostitutes whom he welcomed at his table, even telling the chief priests that such women would enter the kingdom of heaven before they did (Mt 21:31). Personally, women were counted among his friends; the sisters Martha and Mary, for example, hosted him in their home and received his teaching. Trying to sum this up is next to impossible, but Pope John Paul II caught the essence:

When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. ... Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love. ... It is natural to ask ourselves how much of his message has been heard and acted upon. (Letter to Women at the Beijing Conference, July 1995, par. 3)

In addition to his actions, Jesus’ preaching is inclusive of women. He never sets out one way of acting for men and another for women. Note and be startled by the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to all; whatever is right for men to do is right for women to do too. In a radical way the vision of the kingdom of God that pervades his teaching overturns unjust relations: the last shall be first and the first last so that in the end a new kind of community may form.

The parables Jesus told also honor women by pointing to their human reality as worthy symbols for the living God. In the Jewish scriptures, the all-holy God is spoken of with female images in moving and beautiful ways – as a pregnant woman, nursing mother, midwife, care-giver carrying the young, as Lady Wisdom (Sophia) governing the world sweetly and mightily.

Influenced by this his own biblical heritage, Jesus, too, spun out female images in his preaching. The reign of God is like leaven that a woman kneads into dough so that the whole loaf rises: here is the bakerwoman God, working the yeast of the new creation into the world until all is transformed (Mt 13:33).

Even more startling, perhaps, is the parable of the woman searching for her coin. She has lost one of her 10 silver pieces (dowry, insurance for old age?) and turns the house upside down until she finds it. Then she calls friends and neighbors to rejoice with her, because she has found what was lost (Lk 15:8-10). Here we have a marvelous image of God the Redeemer, searching high and low for the sinner.

The parable is one of a pair, the other being the good shepherd who searches for his lost sheep. Both reveal the extravagant love of God for those who get lost. While the Christian imagination has favored the shepherd, the home-maker is there to reflect how women’s everyday life offers up images for God. So do female animals: Jesus once referred to himself in female imagery, wishing he could gather the people of Jerusalem within his arms as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Mt 23:37).

Besides healing women of their infirmities, enjoying their friendship and speaking of God in their image, Jesus went further and invited women into the circle of his close followers. They left their families and homes to join him on the road in Galilee. They absorbed his teaching and joined him at joyful community meals where there was a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. The wealthy among them bankrolled his ministry, providing for the needs of the community out of their own pocket:

Soon afterward he went through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the 12 were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward. And Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their means. (Lk 8:1-3)

The names of these and other women (“many others!” “with him!”) are given several times in the gospels but have become a forgotten part of the story.

Women’s discipleship during the ministry of Jesus did not cease at the end of his life. They accompanied him up to Jerusalem, becoming the moving point of witness to the passion. Each of the four gospels recounts that while the male disciples ran and hid when Jesus was arrested, the women kept vigil with him at the cross. In fact, the only person named by all four gospels as having stood by the cross is Mary Magdalene. Because it was the women who stayed, they knew where the tomb was and were the first to discover it empty when they went to finish anointing his body on the first day of the week. There they encountered Christ risen and were commissioned to “Go and tell” the others. Mary Magdalene, whom the church later called the “apostle to the apostles,’ and the other women did so, though the men did not believe them, thinking they were just being hysterical women. Nevertheless, scripture shows that both in his earthly life and risen life Jesus Christ included women in his community, not as subordinates to men but as sisters to their brothers and, in the case of the resurrection proclamation, even as those first entrusted.

Through the lens of women’s experience, the crucifixion of Jesus mounts a tremendous critique against patriarchy. Here is the very “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14) brought to a tortured death by state power, pouring himself out in self-sacrificing love. This event is the exact opposite of the exercise of male dominating power. In light of the cross, feminist theologians reflect that sociologically it was probably better that the incarnation happened in a male human being. For if a woman had preached compassion and given the gift of herself even unto death, the world would have shrugged: is this not what women are supposed to do anyway? But for a man to live and die like this in a world of male privilege is to challenge the patriarchal ideal of male domination at its root. The cross is the kenosis, the self-emptying, of patriarchy.

In the resurrection, the Spirit of God fills Jesus with new life beyond death. Present in a new way, Christ Jesus becomes the cornerstone of the new community which is his body, the church. On Pentecost women as well as men are in the upper room when tongues of fire signal the outpouring of the Spirit: “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:4). Early Christians adopted the initiation rite of baptism. Unlike the gender-specific Jewish ritual of circumcision, obviously open only to males, baptism is administered by immersion in water and so is given the same way to persons of both genders. Paul’s letter to the Galatians contains an early Christian baptismal hymn that shows what this practice means. As the newly baptized come up out of the water, wearing white robes, they sing, “now there is no Jew or Greek; slave or free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). All divisions based on race or class or even gender are transcended in the oneness of the sanctifying Spirit. The power of the risen Christ becomes effective to the extent that this vision becomes reality in the community.

In the early decades of the church there is strong evidence for a vigorous ministry of women spreading the gospel as colleagues with men. From the Acts of the Apostles and letters of Paul, we get the picture of women as missionaries, preachers, teachers, prophets, apostles, healers, speakers in tongues and leaders of house churches. They are co-workers with Paul and the other men, gifted with all of the charisms which were given for the building up of the church. Scholars are now trying to piece together what forces brought this public ministry of women in the early church to a diminished state. But that Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, Persis and many other women preached the gospel in the early days of the church, there is no doubt (see especially Paul’s letter to the Romans ch. 16).


Theology in women’s hands has discovered Jesus Christ as compassionate friend, liberator from burdens, consoling friend in sorrows and ally of women’s strivings. He brings salvation through his life and Spirit, restoring women to full personal dignity before God. The blessing women find in their relationship with Jesus is not simply private and spiritual, though it is certainly that. But it also affects their life in public and social domains, inspiring the struggle for liberation from structures of domination in every dimension of life. In Christ’s name, society and church are called to conversion of hearts, minds, and structures so that the reign of God may take firmer hold in this world. This is a challenging view. But the liberating words have already been spoken: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”

Stand up straight, praise God, and get on with the work of healing the world.                                                                                           

[Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, is the Distinguished Professor of Theology Fordham University, New York City, N.Y. She will receive the LCWR Outstanding Leadership Award at their annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn. in August.]

Editor’s note: This essay is shared on in two parts. Part one, through the scripture passage of the bent over woman, illuminated the freeing effect of encountering Jesus, the significance of this for women and of feminist theology. The original essay was published in Bosnian as “Isus I Žene: Uspravite Se!” in the special 2012 issue (Isus iz Nazareta: U Perspektivi Medureligijskog Dijaloga) of the Sarajevo-based Franciscan journal Svjetlo Riječi. Johnson was asked to address the topic of women amid essays about the meaning of Jesus Christ in a pluralistic, multi-religious society (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and atheist).