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Gender in the Parables of Jesus

To understand the parables of Jesus and their background, it is important to pay attention to the gender of the characters.

“Queen of Sheba,” National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, photographed by A. Davey and shared using Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Could Jesus’s teaching style tell us something about his views on gender?

Jesus of Nazareth was a storyteller. Some of the stories placed in Jesus’s mouth in later writings are likely his own. These brief, colorful narratives about everyday life, called parables, teach a lesson or convey a truth. People may not think that the parables tell us anything about Jesus’s views on gender, because he never teaches about it directly. However, if we look closely, we see that Jesus had a unique way of telling “twin” stories, using male and female examples.

How are Jesus’s parables paired?

Jesus often taught the same lesson twice, with a masculine and a feminine version. Stories that Christians might find familiar—the mustard seed and the yeast, the ravens and the lilies, the lost sheep and the lost coin, the widow and the lepers, the persistent neighbor and the persistent widow, and more—are all examples of male/female pairs. For instance, have a look at these two sayings (translation mine):

The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and look: something greater than Solomon is here!

(Luke 11:31)


The men of Nineveh will rise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and look: something greater than Jonah is here!

(Luke 11:32)

The two statements closely parallel each other, and they both make the same point—they critique some members of the Jewish in-group for not behaving as well as famous outsiders from Israel’s past. The Ninevites are masculine and the Queen of Sheba is feminine, but the lesson is the same: the admirable behavior of foreigners is being used to shame “this generation.”

Jesus uses another masculine-feminine parallel in Luke 15:4–10. There, a man loses a sheep and a woman loses a coin. In both stories, the characters care much more about their one lost item than about items that were never lost, and they go out of their way to find the lost item again. This same lesson is taught twice, once with a male character and once with a female character.

There are several more of these gendered teaching pairs. In some of them, no people are mentioned at all. Yet even the parables with no human characters are often gendered couplets. One side of the pair might be about a task normally performed by men and the other about a task normally done by women. For instance, the parables of the birds and lilies (Matt 6:26–29) do not mention any humans, but they mention farming (which was men’s work at the time) and spinning (which was women’s work). Likewise, the bread and the fish in Matt 7:9–10 evoke the bread-baking normally done by women at the time and the fishing normally done by men.

What do Jesus’s gender pairs imply?

First, these paired stories imply that there were plenty of women among Jesus’s listeners. As a good teacher, Jesus created scenarios that were relatable to his rural Jewish contemporaries. The fact that he took care to deliberately craft male and female examples confirms that his audiences were made up of both women and men.

Second, by including the same lessons for men and women, rather than different instructions depending on the listener’s gender, Jesus implied that he did not consider gender a relevant criterion for active participation in God’s kingdom. His parables have both men and women being encouraged, punished, rewarded, or admonished in identical ways.

Third, these pairs imply that Jesus saw gender in binary terms, rather than viewing it as a spectrum. This is different from some other ancient Jewish thinkers and from modern biology. So, Jesus does not fit easily into contemporary definitions of “progressive” or “conservative.” Rather, he participates in some ways, and in other ways subverts, the typical views of his day towards gender.

  • Sara Parks is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies (Early Christianity) at Saint Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She is the author of Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q (Lexington; Fortress, 2019) and Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean (Routledge 2022, with Meredith Warren and Shayna Sheinfeld).