What Would Jesus Do with Women?

It is a sign of my ignorance that I found myself surprised at the furor over Vice President Pence’s adherence to what has become known as “the Billy Graham rule,” in which a male public figure chooses to opt out of any one-on-one private meeting with a woman besides his own wife.  Of course, I understand the sentiment behind the rule, which is to avoid either the possibility or accusation of impropriety.  But after digesting the coverage, I also see how such a practice could be seen as both diminishing women as solely objects of temptation as well as excluding them from access that is afforded to their male peers. 

As to whether it is a good practice or not, and whether or not rendering that judgment is left to a person’s comfort level or has consequences beyond each individual situation, I will leave that for other commentators.  It does make me think, though, that if we were to ask what may seem an obvious question, “what would Jesus do,” we may arrive at a very non-obvious answer.

Religious respectability, sexual temptation, and rumors existed back in Jesus’ day, of course.  And, even if His true identity remained elusive to the vast majority of those who interacted with Him, surely it can be said that during his brief ministry on earth Jesus was very much a public figure. 

Many of his modern-day followers may blanch at this, but there was a lot of whispering and murmuring about Jesus’ conduct with women.  Society back then was even more sexually segregated, with contact between men and women strictly regulated by contemporary mores.  And yet, in spite of this, or perhaps more correctly because of this, Jesus was mindful to have (and the gospel authors were careful to record) many interactions with women, some of which were outright scandalous.

I am sure there are other examples, but two come to my mind right now.  One is His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Her reputation precedes her enough in the town that she knows that it is easier for her to go for water at an off-peak time to avoid interactions (and judgmental stares) from others.  And yet Jesus not only orchestrates an encounter with her but engages with her, asking her for water, offering Himself to her as Living Water, and drawing out her past and present sexual discretions.  Can you imagine a popular pastor intentionally not only going to a place where women of ill repute frequent but having a cozy conversation with one of them? 

The other is even more shocking, which is when a sinful woman made her way into the home of a respected religious leader’s house when Jesus was there, and not only so but fell at His feet out of shame and then washed those feet with her tears and her long flowing hair.  The juxtaposition of the two characters in this real-life parable could not be more stark: the respected religious male host acting according to societal norms, versus the disreputable and scandalous female intruder throwing all caution to the wind and engaging in an intimate and borderline erotic act with Jesus.  Again, imagine this scene played out in modern days, and try not to blush.  And yet it is the female guest and not the male host who Jesus affirms at the end. 

I do not begrudge Billy Graham for his rule, or Mike Pence and others for following it.  But if we were to hold ourselves and our male public figures to the standard of “what would Jesus do,” you might be surprised and shocked.  For the One we purport to worship and follow had interactions with women that caused much whispering and pointing.  Those interactions were ultimately transformative for those women, and continue to be instructive for us.  So what shall we do?

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