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Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel

Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke's Gospel

I’ve been reading through the gospels lately. In Matthew’s gospel I was reminded of Jesus’ extraordinary counter-cultural teachings, I saw that we are all welcome to work in his vineyard, and I learned that Jesus had many female followers.

Male-Female Pairs of People in Luke

While reading Luke’s gospel I was struck by how the author often presents his material using gender-symmetrical pairs of people.[1] For instance, in Luke’s infancy narrative we have the male and female protagonists of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and Simeon and Anna.[2] Later, Luke pairs the Twelve with the women disciples who travelled with them (Luke 8:1-3).[3]

Male-Female Pairs of Parables in Luke

Luke also presents a few of Jesus’ parables in gender-symmetrical pairs. In these parables, Jesus intentionally addresses the women in his audience, as well as the men, and he incorporates activities from everyday life into his stories that both sexes could identify with. Yet, in each of the paired parables, Jesus gives essentially the same message.

These gender-paired parables include:

  • The parable of the mustard seed (the seed was planted by a man) and the parable of the yeast (the yeast was used by a woman) in Luke 13:18-19, 20-21.
  • The parable of the lost sheep (the sheep was searched for by a male shepherd) and the parable of the lost coin (the coin was searched for by a woman) in Luke 15: 3-7, 8-10.
  • The parable of the persistent (male) friend and the parable of the persistent (female) widow (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8)[4]

Male-Female Pairs to make Points in Luke

Gendered pairs are found in other sayings of Jesus recorded in Luke. For instance, Jesus mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper in order to make a point (Luke 4:25-27). In Luke 17:34-35 Jesus mentions two men on a couch (or bed) and two women grinding at a mill to make another point (cf Matt. 24:40-41). In Luke 11:29-32 Jesus uses the examples of Jonah and the Queen of Sheba as signs. 

Jesus’ Male-Female Audience in Luke

Jesus’ intentional inclusiveness in his teaching is further highlighted by the use of “complementary discourse”.

Jesus addressed mixed groups using “complementary discourse”: a term used to refer to the repeating of statements twice (changing the gender each time) in order to make application to each sex. Although such was completely out of step with the grammatical norms of His culture, Jesus frequently spoke using the following pairs: “men and women,” “husbands and wives,” “fathers and mothers,” “fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law,” “sons and daughters,” and “sons-in-law and daughters-in-law.” In Luke 12:53 Jesus refers to “father against son … and mother against daughter.” To the crowds He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters— yes, even life itself— such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).[5]

Male-Female Pairs in the other Gospels

The other gospel writers also use gendered pairs, but to a lesser degree. For example, the work of men and women are mentioned side by side in Matthew 6:26 & 28, 24:40-41, and Mark 2:21. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, recorded in John chapter 3, is followed by Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman, recorded in John chapter 4.

Luke’s Reason for Male-Female Pairs

Luke “gender-paired” people, parables, and points in order to highlight an important principle concerning gender. Ben Witherington observes that in Luke’s gospel, men and women are shown as being equal recipients of God’s grace and equal participants in the community of Jesus’ followers.[6] Luke’s agenda was to show that Jesus not only valued, respected, and elevated women, but that women are equal with men.

Witherington suggests, “When Luke wrote his gospel, it is likely that the very reason he felt a need to stress male-female parallelism and Jesus’ positive statements about women was that his own audience had strong reservations about some of Jesus’ views on the subject.”[6] Sadly, it seems that some Christians – despite  Jesus’ teaching and Luke’s writing – still have strong reservations concerning the equality of women with men in the community of Jesus’ followers.


[1] Luke continued to pair men and women in his account of the Acts of the Apostles.

[2] Mary must have been the original source for much of the Luke’s material in his infancy narrative. The prominence of Mary and Elizabeth and their speeches in Luke’s opening chapter has led Richard Bauckham to label Luke 1:5-80 “a gynocentric text”. Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002) 47.

[3] Kathleen Corley notes, “As in Mark, women as well as men make up the number of those Galileans who witness Jesus’ entire ministry (Luke 23:59: Acts 10:37-39) and travel with him as he preaches and teaches from town to town.” Private Women, Public Meals: Social Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993) 110. Jesus had many female followers.

[4] The parable of the persistent widow is not located alongside the parable of the persistent friend, so some pair the persistent widow with the penitent tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. The parables of the new fabric patches and the new wineskins (Luke 5:36, 37-38) which I haven’t listed above, were spoken to the (male) Pharisees and the teachers of the law; but the parables could be a considered a gendered pair as sewing was traditionally regarded as women’s work, and the making and handling of wine was regarded as men’s work. Derek and Diane Tidball, The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, (2012) 175.

[5] Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) (Kindle Locations 1257-1263). In a footnote of this book there is this statement: In “Appendix IX. Jesus’ Rhetoric in the Cultural Milieu,” of Gynecomorphisms in the New Testament [Gill’s Honors Thesis, Assemblies of God Graduate School, 1979] Gill lists 45 examples of Jesus’ use of complementary or coupled discourse instead of collective masculine address in the Gospels.

[6] Ben Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in his Earthly Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 52.

Posted April 8th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Christian Living, Equality and Gender Issues, , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

12 comments on “Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Yes, and equality includes functional equality.

  2. Marg says:

    Thanks for making that clear, Don. 🙂

  3. Bev Murrill says:

    Great points, Marg. I have noticed this before and I appreciate the clarity of your presentation.

  4. Don Johnson says:

    Per Ken Bailey, I read the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons as a triple parable. In the lost sons, the (masculine) father is mapped to God, in the lost coin, the (feminine) woman is mapped to God, and in the lost sheep, shepherd is a gender neutral term and does not imply gender, as both men and women were shepherds in Scripture.

    P.S. Since shepherd is (also) one of the terms used to describe a church leader, this is (yet another) indication that both men and women can be church leaders.

  5. […] Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel, by Marg Mowczko (New Life) […]

  6. John says:

    That’s the truth. The Word shows how men and women are equal, especially in doing something for the Lord.

    From when Jesus told the men to leave Mary Magdalene alone when they yelled at her for wanting to join the men to sit by Jesus…all the way to Apostle Paul showing equality for men and women when he thanked the women who laboured and preached the Gospel, when he gives thanks to his female companion who laid her life down for Paul in defending the Gospel, when he gives thanks to Priscilla’s church with her husband, and when he says that the husband and wife are to love and submit to each other. Many men in ancient times in the Bible made slaves out of women, they figured males were superior…but God broke that barrier by using women and not just men. That shows how both genders are to work together in doing 1 job…which is of the Lord.

  7. I noticed this as well. Paul wrote, there is no male, no female, we are all equal under Christ Jesus. I’m paraphrasing. Good job.

  8. […] several passages in Luke including the use of “gender pairs“ […]

  9. […] Male-Female Gender Pairs in Luke’s Gospel […]

  10. […] Jesus used parables that contained masculine and feminine imagery to engage the men and the women in his audiences. Women were not excluded from his ministry or message, or distanced from him personally. We need to be careful that we are not inadvertently marginalising half our audience when the solution may be as easy as including words such as “she”, “her”, and “daughters”, as well as using carefully chosen images that feature women. […]

  11. […] of teaching Sunday school to children with various curricula, I never saw it used. Much of Luke is written in male-female pairs – and the story of the mustard seed (planted by a man) is better known than the story of the […]

  12. […] I first learned about this interesting literary structure in the article Gendered Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel by Marg Mowczko, who suggests that Luke “gender-paired” people, parables, and points in order to highlight an important principle concerning gender. […]

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