Women as Model Disciples in the Gospel of Mark
The following is a paper that I wrote for seminary titled "Women as Model Disciples in the Gospel of Mark." All of the Scripture references below come from the NKJV Bible.
In the Gospel of Mark, women occupy a central portion in the mission and message of Jesus as examples of model disciples. Sometimes these examples are general, but sometimes they are specific. Generally, women are subjects of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and discipleship. They follow Him as part of the general multitudes and receive his teaching. Specifically, they have faith in His ability to perform miracles. They exhibit sacrifice in being willing to give up all of their possessions for others. They see the events of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, they are the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus. Despite the various functions that women play in the Gospel of Mark, they frequently serve as models of discipleship in contrast to unbelieving men and women. Therefore, Mark uses the examples of women as model disciples to tie together the various parts of his Gospel into a unifying theme.
Women as Part of the General Call to Discipleship
Women as General Followers of Jesus
Mark’s gospel contains a call to discipleship which includes not only men, but also women. Mark records, “Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins”, (Mk. 1:5). The simple fact that “all of the land of Judea” and “those from Jerusalem” went out for baptism indicates that there most likely were women receiving the baptism of John, who was a forerunner of the Messiah. Second, in the same chapter, when Jesus begins His ministry, He preaches in Galilee, “Repent, and believe in the gospel”, (Mk. 1:15; cf. Mk. 6:12). Due to this universal proclamation for Galileans, women definitely are to receive the gospel. Third, also in chapter 1, Mark records the popularity of Jesus when Simon states, “Everyone is looking for You”, (Mk. 1:37). Fourth, the crowd of people who give Jesus the triumphal entry into Jerusalem cry, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”, (Mk. 11:9). Again, they emphasize the universal appeal of coming to Jesus. In this same passage, these people “spread their clothes on the road” indicating their submission and service to the Messiah (Mk. 11:8). Therefore, women are an integral part of the call of Jesus to discipleship.
Mark continues his theme of women as disciples of Jesus. In Mark 14:24, Jesus states, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.” Finally, perhaps the climatic verse for this general call to discipleship is Jesus’ later statements in Mark 8:34-38, where He speaks to “the people” and “His disciples” about the cost of following Him. He states, “Whosoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it”, (Mk. 8:34-35). This crowd definitely consisted of women who are clearly a part of Jesus’ call to discipleship.
Women as Part of the Multitudes
As disciples of Jesus, women were often among the multitudes that followed Jesus and received his teaching. First, Mark records, “Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them”, (Mk. 2:13; cf. Mk. 5:21, 31; 7:33; 10:1; etc.). Second, He later notes the large numbers of people who came to Jesus, “Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread” (Mk. 3:20). Third, when Jesus gives his parable of the Sower (4:3-9), the multitudes are present to hear his message (Mk. 4:1-2). In this same pericope, Jesus states, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”, (Mk. 4:9; cf. Mk. 4:23). Jesus indicates that whoever has ears should listen to his message, whether it is men or women. Fourth, many of the people from the city in the country of the Gadarenes came out to see Jesus after hearing of his ability to cast out demons (Mk. 5:14-15). Mark later records that “all marveled”, (Mk. 5:20). Sixth, Mark later records the heart that Jesus has for the people that followed Him. Jesus states, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar”, (Mk. 8:2-3). As a result of this compassion, Jesus feeds these five thousand people! Therefore, this miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand illustrates the compassion and care that Jesus had for the multitudes, which generically contained women.
Women and Examples of Healing as Models of Discipleship
As a result of women being a part of the multitudes that followed Jesus and heard his teaching on discipleship, they saw miracles. These miracles occur in a number of instances. First, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick and Jesus responded and healed her. Mark records Jesus' response to hearing the news of her sickness, “So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her”, (Mk. 1:31). However, this healing illustrates a discipleship theme. After Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, “she served them”, (Mk. 1:31). Mark illustrates that out of gratefulness for being healed, she does what the greatest in the kingdom do: they serve! (cf. Mark 10:43-45) Second, Mark records about a woman who had an issue of blood and she spent all she had on physicians, only to get worse (Mk. 5:25-26). However, “When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd, and touched His garment”, (Mk. 5:27). She believed that Jesus could heal her if she only touched Him! In typical Markan fashion, Mark records, “Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction”, (Mk. 5:29). Jesus immediately knew that something had happened, and He questioned who touched Him. In fear, the lady comes forward and “told Him the whole truth”, (Mk. 5:33). In response to her confession, Jesus states, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction”, (Mk. 5:34). This detailed passage illustrates a couple of important facts about this woman. First, she had faith that Jesus could heal her, even if she only touched Him. Second, she told Him the truth, even if it would mean getting into trouble. Therefore, this passage again illustrates the importance of women as model disciples by virtues of faith and truth.
Mark does not stop recording healings with the instance of the lady with the issue of blood, there are also other examples of women receiving healing in the Gospel of Mark. In the same chapter, someone from the ruler of the synagogue's house approached Jesus about the death of the ruler’s daughter. As He comes to the house, Jesus notices that people are crying. He responds, “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping”, (Mk. 5:39). The group of mourners ridicules Jesus. Jesus puts the people out of the room and states, “Little girl, I say unto you, arise”, (Mk. 5:41). The girl gets up and the people “were overcome with great amazement”, (Mk. 5:42). This healing again demonstrates the power of God to work on any individual, including women.
Mark continues his theme of healing with the example of a Gentile Greek woman. This woman had a young daughter who had an unclean spirit. Mark records, “She came and fell at His feet” in submission (Mk. 7:25). However, “She kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter”, (Mk. 7:26). Jesus responds that He must first give what belongs to the Jews before the Gentiles. The woman responds that even dogs get crumbs from their master’s table. Jesus rewards her persistence by stating, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter”, (Mk. 7:29). Again, this passage illustrates some important virtues about discipleship. First, the woman submitted humbly to Jesus’ authority by falling to his feet. Second, she persistently seeks Jesus for healing in faith. Thus, again this Gentile woman is a model example of discipleship.
Women and Examples of Sacrifice as Models of Discipleship
Though there are examples of women acting as model disciples in receiving healing from Jesus, Mark records examples of women as model disciples through natural means, such as through examples of sacrifice. First, Jesus mentions the sacrifice of a widow woman. He and His disciples are watching people put money in the treasury. Jesus noticed “many who were rich put in much”, (Mk. 12:41). However, Mark vividly records, “Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans [one Roman coin]”, (Mk. 12:42). As a result of this example, Jesus called his disciples together and states, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood”, (Mk. 12:43-44). Therefore, the widow, by giving all that she had, demonstrates the epitome of the true disciple of Jesus – one who forsakes all to follow Christ – who gives not the leftovers, but the best and all one has.
Another example of sacrifice in Mark’s gospel is the woman with the alabaster box of ointment (Mk. 14:3-9). Jesus sits in the house of Simon the leper. She “broke the flask and poured it on His head”, (Mk. 14:3). As a result of this woman’s act, some present thought that it was a waste since one could have sold the bottle and given the profits to the poor. They criticize the woman for her act. Jesus responds by stating that this woman has done what she could by anointing Jesus’ body for His burial. He states with strong words for the significance of this act of service to the Messiah, “Assuredly, I say unto you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her”, (Mk. 14:9).
Negative Examples of Women and Discipleship
Though there are a number of positive examples of women in the Gospel of Mark, there are also negative ones. For example, in Nazareth, Jesus was not able to do much healing due to the unbelief of the people (Mk. 6:1-6). Nazareth definitely had women, so women were among the unbelievers in the city. Second, when Jesus goes to heal the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter, there are a number of people in the house mourning the death of the daughter. Jesus tells them, “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping”, (Mk. 5:39). As a result, the people “ridiculed Him”, (Mk. 5:40). Since women were among the group of mourners, they ridiculed the Son of God. Finally, the negative example of women reaches a climax with Herodias, the wife of Herod. She convinces her daughter to ask for “the head of John the Baptist!”, (Mk. 6:24). As a result, Herod has John killed. Therefore, there are not simply positive references to women in the gospel of Mark, there are also negative ones. Women sin like men do. Therefore, these three examples of women as unbelievers illustrate the importance of faith and submission to God as ideal virtues of discipleship.
Women as Special Models of Discipleship
Women also carry a special function as disciples in the Gospel of Mark. First, Jesus states, “For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother”, (Mk. 3:35). The implication is that women can have a relationship with Jesus. Second, Jesus further states the importance of women by noting that little children are to receive respect. He states, “Whoever received one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me”, (Mk. 9:37; cf. 9:42; 10:14). The aforementioned verse indicates that children include girls who are little women. Therefore, little women should receive respect just like little men. Third, Jesus states, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward”, (Mk. 9:41). This special aspect of servanthood seems to best apply to women since they often perform more service than men do, like giving a cup of cold water. Fourth, the special nature of women reaches a climax perhaps when Jesus states, “Assuredly, I say unto you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time . . . and in the age to come, eternal life”, (Mk. 10:29-30). The fact that those who forsake “brothers or sisters or father or mother” indicates the special nature of women alongside men in the family structure. However, Mark relates this theme of the importance of women to his discipleship theme where all people, including women, are still subservient to Jesus, who is number one.
Mark continues his theme on the special nature of women as disciples. Jesus states, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant”, (Mk.10:43). Women are often servants in the family and in society. Therefore, women will be great in the kingdom of God as being real disciples of Jesus. Further, the special nature of women in Mark is especially evident in Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and religious leaders of his day. He specifically condemns the scribes “who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers”, (Mk.12:40a). His command implies that widows are vulnerable and special before God. To take advantage of them is one of the most barbaric things an individual can do. For this reason, Jesus states regarding the scribes, “These will receive greater condemnation”, (Mk.12:40b). Finally, in the Olivet Discourse Jesus makes provision for those who are pregnant and nursing during the tribulation, “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!”, (Mk.13:17). Since His Olivet Discourse was chiefly addressed to the disciples (cf. Mk.12:43; 13:1, 14), the implication is that there will be women followers of Jesus. Therefore, the special nature of women again illustrates the important aspect of women as models for discipleship.
Women as Special Witnesses of the Easter Events
The special nature of women as model disciples is perhaps best demonstrated by their presence as key witnesses to the most important events in the history of the universe. First, beginning at the crucifixion events, women are among those who stand far away watching Jesus. Mark states, “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome . . . and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem”, (Mk.15:40-41). The disciples fled earlier (Mk.14:50), but the women stay and keep an eye on Jesus and witness the events. Second, women observe where Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus (Mk.15:47). Mark states, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid”, (Mk.15:47).
The Empty Tomb
Mark does not simply leave the key witness of women at the passion events, but they continue to Easter morning, where they are the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Mark records, “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him”, (Mk.16:1). Their reason for coming was to serve Jesus. As a result of their service, they receive the reward of being the first people to witness the most triumphal event in history – the resurrection. The angel speaks to them first and states, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen!”, (Mk.16:6). However, the angel tells them to “Go tell His disciples – and Peter – that He is going before you into Galilee”, (Mk.16:7). Even though the disciples spent more time with Jesus, the angel tells the women to tell the disciples about the resurrection!
Mark’s emphasis on the importance of women continues to the resurrection appearances where Jesus appears first to women. Mark states, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons”, (Mk.16:9). She faithfully tells the disciples like the angel told her at the empty tomb. However, the depressed disciples “when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe”, (Mk.16:11). Mark does not let up on the failure of the disciples and the triumph of the women. He records, “After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country”, (Mk.16:12). Again, these faithful women “went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either”, (Mk.16:13). Therefore, the disciples reject the women’s testimony twice!
Rebuke of Unbelieving Males
Jesus finally appears to these unbelieving disciples. The first thing he tells them is not, “Boys, well it looks like it is time to take over the world!” Instead, “He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen”, (Mk.16:14). The first thing they hear from their master is not, “I am sorry that I have been gone so long. Let’s have a cup of Palestinian sweet tea.” Rather, he rebukes them for not believing the testimony of women! In the first century Palestine culture, the testimony of women did not hold up as well as a man’s in a court of law. When Jesus upbraids the disciples for their unbelief, it flies in the face of the cultural milieu. Therefore, the ending part of the gospel could hardly be more fitting than to praise the virtue of women as model disciples and condemn the unbelief of the male apostles.
Despite the contentions of some that the gospels are chauvinistic documents, the Gospel of Mark definitely illustrates the value of women as models for discipleship. These women frequently serve as triumphant examples of faith and sacrifice in contrast to unbelieving men. Whether being at the early part of his ministry, as one face among the crowds of people, or among the latter part of Jesus’ ministry, as the first witness to the resurrected Messiah, women serve an important function in Mark – a function that definitely should have greater impact on Christian’s views of women throughout the world.
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