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Male-Female Pairs of People in Luke

I’ve been reading through the Gospels lately. While reading Luke’s Gospel, I was struck by how the author often presents his stories 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] In Luke 7, the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant, who was dying, is followed by Jesus raising the widow of Nain’s deceased son (Luke 7:1-17).[3] Also in Luke 7, the extravagant actions of a sinful woman are contrasted with the stingy hospitality of Simon, a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). In the next chapter, Luke pairs the Twelve with the women disciples who travelled with them (Luke 8:1-3).[4]

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).[5]

Male-Female Pairs to make Points

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 in Luke 4:25-27. In Luke 17:34-35, Jesus mentions two men on a couch 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.”

Gill and Cavaness explain.

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).[6]

Luke’s Reason for Male-Female Pairs

Luke “gender-paired” people, parables, and points in order to highlight an important principle concerning gender.[7] 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.[8] 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.”[9] Sadly, it seems that some Christians, despite Jesus’ teaching and Luke’s writing, still have strong reservations concerning the equality and mutuality of women and men in the community of Jesus’ followers.


[1] Luke continued to pair men and women in his account of the Acts of the Apostles. For example, in the last half of Acts 9, Luke records that, through Peter’s ministry, Aeneas was healed and Tabitha was raised. In Acts 21:9, he mentions Philip’s four daughters who prophesied, and then, in the next verse, he mentions Agabus, a male prophet (Acts 21:10; cf. Acts 2:17-18).

[2] Mary must have been the original source for much of 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.” Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), 47.

[3] The story of the widow of Nain only occurs in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 7:11-17).

[4] 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.” Kathleen Corley, Private Women, Public Meals: Social Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 110.

[5] 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 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. See Derek and Diane Tidball, The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 175.

[6] Deborah M. Gill and Barbara Cavaness, God’s Women—Then and Now (Springfield, MO: Grace & Truth, 2004, 2009) (Kindle Locations 1257-1263).
In Appendix IX of her honour’s thesis, Deborah Gill lists forty-five examples of Jesus’ use of complementary, or coupled, discourse in the Gospels, instead of collective masculine address. Deborah M. Gill, Gynecomorphisms in the New Testament (Thesis, Assemblies of God Graduate School, 1979)

[7] The other Gospel writers also use gendered pairs, but to a lesser degree. For example, the work of men and of 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.

[8] Ben Witherington III, 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.

[9] Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 52. (Google Books)

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Explore more

Jesus had Many Female Followers – Many!
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
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All my articles about women in the Gospels are here.
All my articles about women in Acts are here.

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

9 thoughts on “Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel

  1. Yes, and equality includes functional equality.

  2. Thanks for making that clear, Don. 🙂

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

  4. 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. 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.

  6. I read the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons as a triple parable related to the Trinity.
    In the lost son the father is God the Father, in the lost sheep the shepherd is Jesus the Good Shepherd and in the lost coin the woman is the Holy Spirit.

    1. Thanks for that, Martin. Yes, the three parables are closely connected.

  7. […] The Two on the Road to Emmaus: Some speculate that Mary and her husband Clopas were the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–33, esp. Luke 24:18). But for three reasons, I have doubts.
    First, Luke often highlighted male-female pairs in his Gospel, but he gives no indication whatsoever that the travelling partner of Cleopas was female. Perhaps they were brothers. […]

  8. […] [9] The four women are mentioned in Acts 21:9 immediately before Agabus, a male prophet (Acts 21:10-11). This juxtaposition of female and male prophets is one of several instances where Luke pairs men and women to show the inclusivity of the gospel and its mission. Luke’s gender pairs are discussed here. […]

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