Jesus and the Female Disciples

Today we continue our look at Luke’s gospel and some of the women he includes in his story about Jesus. Luke has a major focus on the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and this week we look at some of the female disciples and supporters of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke 8:1-3 tells us about “many” single and married women who not only traveled with Jesus, but supported his ministry financially. These women are not the twelve, but they are disciples and benefactors nonetheless. Benefactors (financial supporters) in the ancient world would financially support an effort they supported, but that did not mean they would physically participate in that effort. These women are not simply benefactors, they are disciples traveling with Jesus, involved physically in his ministry, and learning to be just like the Messiah. A disciple would eventually go on to have their own students and teach in a way similar to their own teacher.

The fact that Luke tells us of Jesus and these women as disciples, a very unusual practice in the ancient world, tells us something about Jesus. Their presence in support and practice of Jesus’ ministry shows that Jesus wasn’t constrained by, nor concerned with cultural ideas about the roles of women. Culture considered them property to be kept in the home, but Jesus included them as disciples, ones who could travel along side, support, and assist in his ministry.

This detail sets up the often misunderstood story of Mary and Martha at the end of Luke 10. Many tell this story as a lesson on priorities; Jesus is more important than housework. While this is true, it misses the context of what Luke is telling us about Jesus. Luke always gives a female counterpart to the males in his gospel, showing that following Jesus and serving in the Kingdom is not a job relegated to men. Luke gives us Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, the widow of Zarephath and Naaman (ch. 4), the centurion and the widow (ch. 7), the widow with the coins and the shepherd (ch. 15). Here in chapter 8 and chapter 10 we see the female complement to the male disciples.

Luke tells us that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (10:39). In doing so, Mary is taking up the role of a disciple, something a male would do in that culture. She is breaking a cultural rule (that many other women from ch. 8 did as well). Martha wants Jesus to rebuke Mary, but Jesus affirms that “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:42)

This story goes with the preceding story of the good Samaritan, and is an example of the Greatest Commands lived out. The Samaritan is the hero of the first story, and a female disciple is the hero of the second story. These are two upside down images of obeying the Greatest Commands in a culture that valued neither of these heroes. Luke is clearly portraying Jesus as being against the rules and boundaries of the culture in which they lived. The Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t follow societal norms, it follows Jesus. These stories also call us to radically break with tradition and culture, disregard all else, and follow the example of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, the teachings and actions of Jesus remind us that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where Jews and Samaritans, as well as men and women can serve as equals. (See Gal. 3:28)

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