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The women of the parables

· ​In the New Testament ·

An overview of women in Jesus’ parables shows us two different types of female characters: women who are explicitly present in the story and those whose presence is implied, with a quick look at a third type: those who should be there but are strangely absent. First of all, we must remember that most inflected languages, ancient Greek among them, use masculine plural nouns and adjectives not only for a group of men but also for a mixed group of men and women. Thus it is difficult to know whether in many passages an all-male or mixed group is intended. An example of this is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). Because the speakers are male, we assume all the workers are. But harvesting grapes and olives was a family effort. It could well have been a mixed group of family units, consisting of men, women, and children that were hired for the grape harvest.

Domenico Feti “Parable of the Lost Drachma” (1618-1622)

Another example is the story of the guests invited to the banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). First-century rural Galilee was not such a male-dominated culture that women did not also attend meals on important occasions. How we imagine the guests, both invited and uninvited, depends on our own presuppositions.

By their very nature, parables take the ordinary stuff of life but turn it slightly so that it reverberates in a different dimension with new meaning. Women, like men, are usually doing in parables what they do all the time: in this case, preparing food, attending a wedding, giving birth, and keeping the household finances. Before bread can be made, the harvested grain has to be ground into flour by hand with mortar and pestle, definitely women’s work. So two women are grinding grain together, making the flour for their daily bread. But as eschatological illustration, only one remains after the other has been snatched away in an apocalyptic moment (Matt 24, 41//Luke 17, 35). Did the one left behind know what happened? Did she mourn the loss of her companion or rejoice in her new identity?

A woman bakes bread by putting leaven in a lump of moistened flour, something that women in Mediterranean societies did daily. But instead of just mixing it in, she hides it in a very large amount of flour—three measures, equivalent to about 25 kilos. The oddity of the small amount of leaven hidden in a very large lump of dough becomes the mysterious hidden work of the Kingdom (Matt 13:33//Luke 13:21). Is the woman baker even perhaps an image of God who infuses the ordinary with new life?

Now for the party-goers. A shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost sheep and rejoices with his men-friends and neighbors that the lost has been found (Luke 15:3-6). Likewise, a woman who has lost a coin sweeps and searches until she finds it, and then has a party with her women friends and neighbors because the lost coin has been found (15:8-10); finally, the father rejoices when his lost son has returned and throws a party to celebrate, to the chagrin of the older son (15:11-32). While Matthew only gives us the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep (Matt 18:12-13), Luke creates gender balance by adding this story of the woman with her lost coin. The parable of the woman with the lost coin is the central element of the trilogy about lost and found.

In Luke’s plan the gender balance is important between the male shepherd and the female householder. We must remember, however, that not only men were shepherds. The parable of the shepherd is interpreted so heavily out of Jesus’ self-identification as shepherd in John 10 that it is difficult for us to remember that women, even young girls, were also shepherds, such as Rachel (Gen 29:5-9) or the daughters of Jethro (Exod 2:16). While this shepherd is intentionally male, other texts tell us that shepherds came in both genders.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses the story of a woman who will not give up to illustrate the need for persistence in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). A widow seeks justice against someone who has exploited her, and she will not let the judge rest until he gives her what she demands. “Justice,” though, is perhaps the wrong translation for ekdikeō. It is more like vengeance that she wants against her opponent: she wants to be proved right and get the compensation she deserves. It is an odd story that does not lend itself to allegory, even though the introduction (v. 1) suggests that the widow is a model of prayer and someone who beseeches the powerful authority figure, therefore God. But not this judge! He neither fears God nor respects human authority—hardly a paragon of honor. In spite of numerous biblical injunctions to treat widows justly (for example, Exod 22:22-24 and Deut 10:18), he wants to ignore her, hoping she will give up and go away. The judge is in fact living unjustly himself by not rendering just judgment. But everyone has his or her limits, and this widow knows how to push him beyond his. Though he has no moral values, he will do what she wants just to get rid of her. He does not fear God or respect people, but he does fear the damage that this pushy widow could do to him. Most translations suggest in v. 5 that she will wear him out, or wear him down. The word used there, hypopiazein, can mean to torment, but it has stronger connotations of actual physical assault, of striking in the face. Perhaps he fears that if she becomes sufficiently frustrated to attack him, to slap him in public, he will be shamed and look ludicrous fighting off a mere woman. Quite an unusual story to exemplify prayer!

The parable of the young women guests attending a wedding is obscure with regard to how it reflects actual practices of wedding ritual, but one thing is clear: five of the young women have not prepared as they should have. Like those in every culture who fail to look ahead, they are left behind and lose out for lack of preparedness. Their unpreparedness carries a dimension of eschatological perspective—be ready when the bridegroom comes! But parables can be approached from many sides, and it is also worth asking about the wider context, and whether the other five who did bring enough oil could not have shared some with them and still gotten where they wanted to go. They are not generous, fearful that they will run out of oil and so caring only about themselves. Instead of one group pitted against the other, a spirit of cooperation would perhaps have enabled all of them to enter the celebration together. Is this a parable about eschatological preparation or about lack of generosity, or both? (Matt 25:1-13)

The Gospel of John has no extended story parables, but it is rich in images and metaphors: water, bread of life, good shepherd and door of the sheep, vine and branches. One brief allusion draws on women’s fundamental experience of giving birth. The woman who is about to give birth is sorrowful, knowing that there is much pain ahead. But once the pain is past, her sorrow turns to joy because a new life has entered the world (John 16:21). The ordinary, daily, and yet life-threatening event of the birth of a child becomes, as it so often is in the human imagination, the dawn of new life and new perspectives, a starting over.

So far we have grinders of grain and bakers of bread, keepers of coins, unmarried girls at a wedding, a pushy widow, and a woman about to give birth. As we move into consideration of the women characters who are not direct actors in the parables, we encounter the ugly face of slavery as it was practiced in the Roman world. The parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt 18:23-35) is a tragic one. Because of a mounting and unpayable debt, a slave who had been entrusted with a king’s wealth and mishandled it finds himself facing the sale not only of himself but of his wife and children and all his possessions to satisfy the debt (v 25). His whole family faces uprooting and uncertainty about their destiny. Here the unnamed slave woman is the innocent victim of her husband’s mistakes. She would have rejoiced with him over the king’s mercy and pleaded with him to do the same to his debtor. She is left in hopelessness with her children as the story ends with her husband imprisoned and tortured instead.

The story put to Jesus by the Sadducees to test his interpretation of the so-called Levirate law (Matt 22:23-28; Mark 12:18-23; Luke 20:27-33; Deut 25:5-6) tells of one woman who was the wife of seven brothers who were successive husbands to her. In the case of the second through seventh, the marriage followed the intention to produce offspring to carry on the line of the first husband. Here is a woman caught between family obligation and a confusing array of men to whom she is expected to relate. Would anyone have asked her what she wanted in the matter? In the legislation of Deuteronomy, it is the woman who takes the initiative toward the successive marriage if the brother is unwilling (Deut 25:7-10). The parable is of course a trick brought by the opponents of Jesus, the Sadducees who denied belief in resurrection after death, to see if they can reduce him to silence. Instead, Jesus turns the whole encounter into a teaching on the transcendence of resurrected life beyond human institutions, and the woman is no longer faced with such a dilemma.

There are also strange absences of women in some of the familiar parables. In Luke 11:5-8, a householder has a neighbor friend with sudden late visitors and insufficient provisions, so he goes next door to see if he can borrow some bread. The one who is asked at first refuses because the door is locked, and he and his children are in bed. Nevertheless, because of the persistence of the neighbor at the door, he will get up and, like the unjust judge, give his neighbor what he wants just to get rid of him. But where is his wife, who would be the one to decide about giving away food in the house? Would she be just as resistant to helping a neighbor in need? Is that the reason she is not mentioned in the story?

Another strange missing woman is in the parable of the lost son, or the two sons, or the merciful father (Luke 15:11-32), the third story of Luke’s trilogy on lost and found. The story itself seems to be Luke’s expansion of the simpler Matthean parable of a father and his two sons who respond in different ways, one by saying “yes” and not doing what he is asked, the other by saying “no” but doing it anyway (Matt 21:28). Upon reading the story, one wonders what role the mother might have played in allowing the young man to go off stupidly on his own, and to cajole the older son into being less resistant to having once again to share his parents’ affection. In Rembrandt’s famous painting of the younger son kneeling at his father’s feet, asking to be taken back, there is a shadowy unidentifiable figure in the background whom some have interpreted as the missing mother.

We could continue to ask about missing women: were they among the guests and even the passersby invited to the great supper (Matt 22:1-10), or the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (Luke 14:16-24)? Surely they are among the crowd from all nations who are to be judged on the last day by how they treated others: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned—and women are surely among the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and prisoners, those who were recipients of their mercy.

Sometimes it is only our own imagination that excludes women from a fuller presence in the parables of Jesus.

Carolyn Osiek

The author

Carolyn Osiek holds a doctorate in New Testament and Christian Origins from Harvard University. For 32 years she was professor of New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago and at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, where she is emerita Charles Fischer Catholic Professor. She is the author of numerous books and articles. Today she is Provincial Archivist for the Society of the Sacred Heart, United States-Canada Province.

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