December 18, 2017

Women in Luke’s Gospel

Layton Talbert

In recent years Biblical scholarship has seen a revival of interest in the role of women in the Bible. Unfortunately, this interest is too often motivated by or mixed with a modern feminist mentality that seeks to liberate women from an imagined patriarchal suppression of their historical significance and contributions. The result is frequently an exaggeration, misapplication, or forced extension of what may otherwise be a legitimate observation. This tendency, in turn, creates a conservative knee-jerk reaction against the whole notion of women’s role in Scripture. Any such reaction inevitably leaves us the poorer when we surrender a legitimate concept simply because of its abuse by others.

Women in Luke’s Gospel

Clearly uninfluenced by the modern women’s movement, the 19th-century commentator Alfred Plummer called Luke’s Gospel the “Gospel of Womanhood.” In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), there are only two stories involving women that Luke does not record—the incident with the Syrophonecian woman and Mary’s anointing of Jesus. Luke shares a few other such accounts with one or more of the other synoptic Gospels. However, Luke also records a surprising number of significant passages involving women which are unique to his Gospel either in their entirety or in their extended focus on women.

For example, Luke’s nativity account (chapters 1 and 2) is unique in its detailed attention to the words, emotions, and actions of Elizabeth and Mary. Consider, for example, Elizabeth’s conception of John, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and her conception of Messiah, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and her Magnificat, Elizabeth’s unusual role in naming John, Mary’s response to the shepherds’ message, and Simeon’s words addressed specifically to Mary. Much of Luke’s detail can be attributed to the likelihood that interviews with Mary and perhaps Elizabeth provided Luke with firsthand source material. However he came by it, the fact remains that the Holy Spirit directed the inclusion of this material in Luke’s Gospel account for a reason. These passages are rich with insightful details that can minister truth, encouragement, and inspiration to all readers and to women in particular; they beg only for personal investigation and meditation.

Luke contains many other passages, unique to his Gospel, which focus attention on women. Anna the prophetess (2:36–38); the widow of Nain whose son Jesus resurrected (7:11–15); the repentant sinner woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (7:36–50); the women who traveled with, ministered to, and provided for Jesus out of their own substance during His ministry (8:1–3); Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary (10:38–42); the woman who spoke to Jesus while He was teaching (11:27–28); the crippled woman whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath (13:10–17); Jesus’ words to the women following Him to Golgotha (23:27–28). All these accounts and the intriguing insights they contain are recorded in Luke alone. Luke is the only Gospel to use a woman to illustrate the concern and joy of God (the parable of the lost coin), the danger of worldliness of heart (“Remember Lot’s wife!”), or the reward of prayerful persistence (the parable of the unjust judge). Other examples of Luke’s unparalleled emphasis on women await the inquisitive Bible reader.

For instance, the account of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (7:36–50) has profound implications for the depth of our love and the expression of our devotion to Christ. Utterly undeterred by the daunting glares of the superior and self-righteous Pharisees, this repentant woman of the street entered a house and interrupted a meal to express to Jesus her devotion and indebtedness for His unconditional compassion on her. Unable to contain her emotion, she wept on Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears and wiping them with her own hair!

Can you imagine any more graphic portrayal of abject, self-forgetful, unrestrained love for Jesus Christ? Anointing Jesus’ feet with a precious gift that underscored the depth of her gratitude, this woman embodies what it means to love Jesus Christ with absolute abandon. And the Lord used her spirit and her actions to teach the incredulous onlooking theologians around the table that those who love most are those who are most conscious of the debt from which Jesus has released them and of the bondage from which they have been liberated. Those who love Christ deeply are those who have deeply thought on Christ’s love for them. Those who love little, those who know nothing of the soul-experience of this woman, those to whom it is but a strange form of religious excess, only display the penury of their own souls; their awareness of what Jesus has done for them is shallow indeed. One of the most profound truths of the Christian experience was taught by a woman—and only Luke records it.

Plummer makes the interesting observation that there is no occasion in Luke nor in any other Gospel of “a woman being hostile to Christ.” It is also significant that, with the single exception of the apostle John, we have no clear record of where the rest of the disciples were during Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet all three synoptic Gospels call specific attention to the women who were present at the crucifixion as “eyewitnesses to the events that compose the heart of the gospel message.” We know where the women were; where were the men?

Women in the Book of Acts

Luke’s peculiar emphasis on women is not confined to his Gospel. The Book of Acts, also composed by Luke, contains several classes of references to women which are fascinating in themselves and fit Luke’s previous pattern of focusing on the actions, attitudes, responses, and roles of women. The phrase “both men and women” occurs frequently in Acts to underscore the fact that women as well as men prayed (1:14), believed (5:14), were baptized (8:12), were imprisoned (8:3, 22:4), and were persecuted (9:2). There are also numerous references to specific women and their actions: Mary the mother of Jesus, Sapphira the schemer, Dorcas the generous, Rhoda the excitable, Lydia the first European convert, an exploited and demon-possessed slave-girl, a converted Athenian named Damaris, Priscilla the wife of Aquila, and Philip’s four prophetess-daughters. In addition, there are several more general references to women, including neglected widows, the widow friends of Dorcas, and the women who met for prayer with Lydia at Philippi. There are also some intriguing references to certain unnamed but “prominent women” (13:50; 17:4, 12).

Conclusion

Hopefully this brief survey has been enough to whet your appetite. Luke demonstrates a unique attention and insight regarding female perspectives, experiences, responses, characteristics, involvement, and even role models. A personal study of women in the writings of Luke yields much food for thought, truth for application, and virtue to emulate. Begin your own systematic, prayerful exploration through this material and discover how God wants to minister to you from these special portions of His Word.

Of course, there is much more material for and about women throughout Scripture other than in the writings of Luke. Nevertheless, an emphasis such as Luke’s should give women of all ages and conditions an added incentive to study out the women whose stories and experiences God has clearly included as a special ministry to His daughters.


Dr. Layton Talbert is a Frontline Contributing Editor and teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC.

(Originally published in FrontLine • MarchApril 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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