Theological Essay: What pastoral and ethical issues did Jesus face during his life and ministry? How do these relate to modern ethics and ministry?
This essay will examine Jesus’ interactions with women in three stories from Judith Kaye Jones’ book, ‘The Women in the Gospel of John: The Divine Feminine’ as a way to draw out ethical issues and analyse the ethical and pastoral care models Jesus uses in response:
The Story of the Woman at the Well (John 4: 1 – 30)
The Story of the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8: 1 – 11)
The Story of Mary and Martha and the Death of Lazarus (John 11: 17 – 44)
The Story of the Woman at the Well
This story raises ethical issues such as racism, prejudice, loneliness, exclusion and segregation. Jesus responds to the woman with grace and truth and treats her with value and in contrast to the cultural norms. This story highlights topical issues, such as unconscious bias, addressing social exclusion and ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities to help them thrive (which relates to Safeguarding) and also how to show love to people who are lonely and left out, such as single people.
The way Jesus treats the woman raises the question of human identity. One long-standing framework, influenced by Augustine, considers human beings’ will and thought and how that influences decisions, for instance the famous quotation of Descartes, ‘I think therefore I am.’
Another framework is the Post-Modernist construct around individual cultural stories, which mirrors and also contrasts with the idea of ‘Storied-individuals, that connects with the framework of Imago Dei – that we are made in God’s image. Christian Smith addresses this idea in ‘Moral Believing Animals’, ‘The human-being is a moral, believing animal – inescapably so.’ He also describes the Christian narrative as, ‘The origin and purpose of the cosmos, about the nature and destiny of humanity, about fundamental moral order.’
The third framework is Imago Dei. This is what Jesus demonstrates in his treatment of the woman at the well. The first concept of Imago Dei is that we are made in the image of God, as stated by Deborah Krause, quoting Plato: `The relationship between the ultimate cause of matter (God) and creation as the relationship of ‘image’ … for Plato it is clear that the created world bears the image of it’s creator.’’
The second concept addresses the idea that human beings are individually responsible for their actions, including sin, as Charles Sherlock, in ‘The Doctrine of Humanity’ stated: “It involves Christ dealing with sin, so that God and the human race may be reconciled’
Although both Sherlock and Kierkegaard suggest sin is a personal responsibility, there is also an importance of community and relationship as a part of this framework. This informs ethics around subjects such as society, creation-care, integrity and authenticity. David Kelsey, in the book ‘Eccentric Existence’ states: “This overall goal is to show that a ‘social’ that is, relational – understanding of the Imago Dei yields an anthropology that counters the postmodern loss of self.”
A key element of Imago Dei considers that humans are made in the likeness of God, and indeed Jesus: ‘God’s Proper Man,’ as Luther calls Him.
There are some pastoral models modelled by Jesus in this encounter that can be identified and analysed. Here is a definition of Pastoral Care from Wesley Carr:
Those activities of the Church which are directed towards maintaining or restoring health and wholeness of individuals and communities in the context of God’s redemptive purposes for all creation.
George Herbert’s description of the ‘Cure of Souls’ in ‘The Country Parson’ is also similar to Jesus’ approach, showing how Herbert authentically embodied his Christ-like descriptions of pastoral care, such as visiting his flock, helping them with disagreements, discipling them and offering prayer for healing.
Jesus demonstrates the ethical and pastoral framework of Safeguarding in his pastoral care for the woman at the well. He talks to her as an equal; explaining complicated theological questions, offering grace alongside challenge and also the opportunity for freedom, empowerment, discipleship and transformation as a result of the encounter. This is reminiscent of the Development Right of Safeguarding, which asserts that every child and vulnerable person deserves equal opportunities to develop and thrive. The Safeguarding framework was established by Eglantyne Jebb, who founded ‘Save the Children.’
Jesus demonstrates active listening with the Woman at the well. He listens to her without judgement or prejudice, allows her to question and offers answers and leading questions himself, which was more common with men than women at that time. He is not afraid to offer advice, correction and truth in response. An active listening methodology is suggested in the book, ‘The Human Face of the Church’, with three parts: mirroring, validating and empathising, which we see Jesus embody in this passage.
Jesus demonstrates the model of a theological reflection in this story. Theological reflection is a useful tool for pastoral ministry, both for the person being ministered to and the minister, to ensure that reflection and also theological grounding is addressed. Laurie Green describes a model with four stages which I will list below and link to how Jesus follows the stages with the Samaritan woman:
Experience – what is going on: Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at midday at Jacob’s well and asks for a drink. She is surprised he would ask her, based on the traditional treatment of her race by Jewish people.
Explore – what issues are at play here and what are the implications: Jesus can see the woman has experienced racism and exclusion, and it highlights the treatment of Samaritans and also issues around women’s rights.
Reflect – what does the bible have to say: Jesus compares the water from the well to the Holy Spirit and the coming of the Messiah – language the woman would have recognised from the Old Testament prophecies.
Respond – what action will be taken from this reflection: In this case Jesus explains who He is to the woman and as a result she shares her encounter with Jesus and many people are saved.
We notice here that Jesus helps the woman to understand scripture and its implication. Ministers can follow this example in pastoral care, offering to translate and interpret complicated ethical issues.
The Story of the Woman caught in Adultery
This story raises issues such as: justice and injustice, human rights and women’s rights, which relate to issues raised by David Gushee’s chapter on life being sacred, judgement and condemnation versus grace, conflict resolution and following the law versus forgiveness.
The law element is reminiscent of the Deontological ethic framework. The Pharisees are following what is lawfully right or wrong in their condemnation of the woman. Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, lead by love and relationship, rather than the law, demonstrates the Situational Ethic framework.
Jesus demonstrates an aspect of pastoral care by ensuring the woman feels safe, which informs the Safeguarding framework. This framework, informed by the Deontological Ethics, addresses value, dignity, justice, and how to stand up to people wielding power inappropriately with grace and truth. Jesus also literally keeps the woman safe, as he saves her life.
Safeguarding challenges power structures. It is of utmost importance to prioritise the needs and intrinsic value of the person who is being mistreated rather than the institution involved. Jesus tackles the spiritual abuse that is occuring (and potentially sexual abuse if the woman was semi-naked when she was seized) by putting the dignity of the woman before the needs of the Pharisees (who are the institution here and unjustly hold the power).
Jesus also employs Boundaries; he refuses to be manipulated by the Pharisees trying to trick him and thereby protects himself from harm. The model of boundaries is explored by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, which gives a framework for maintaining good well-being and showing how to minister to people in a way that enables them to own their actions.
Jesus models a situational approach to pastoral care in this passage. He takes time to understand the situation and not to be influenced by pressure or opinions. He demonstrates conflict resolution techniques in the actions he takes, as Sara Savage comments: ‘He dared to confront, face anger and forgive. Far from avoiding conflict, he welcomed it, as an opportunity to create an even better relationship.’
The story of Mary and Martha and the death of Lazarus
Jesus’ actions raise ethical and pastoral issues such as: bereavement, listening well, how to be servant-hearted and how to adopt different approaches for different temperaments and personality types, such as Mary and Martha.
Jesus offers comfort to both sisters by differentiating his listening, questioning and answering. This demonstrates the close relationship He shares with the sisters; his knowledge of how to effectively minister to them.
The passage also shows how Jesus ministered to those in Bereavement, in this case, in the event of a death. There are three main Bereavement Care models. The first is ‘Stages’ – ministering by being aware of a grieving cycle with some recognisable stages: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance
The second model is ‘Phases’, recognising that there are a series of phases in mourning: numbness, yearning, disorganisation and despair and reorganised behaviour .
The third model is ‘Tasks’, helping the bereaved to accept the loss first, then process the grief and then adjust to the new reality while keeping the memory of the deceased alive.
The model that is most similar to Jesus’ ministry to Mary and Martha is The ‘Stages’ model. He recognises there is a process and grieving takes time.
Also, He allows the sisters to express their lament, grief and anger before then offering them hope. Hope is a key part of what Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies. We can offer this uniquely in ministry to those in bereavement as Christian ministers, as Daniel Migliore states: ‘Christians hope [is] in the final victory of the creative, self-expending, community-forming love of the triune God’. Jesus himself reminds his followers of the hope beyond this earthly life that awaits those who follow him, in ‘Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.’ (John: 14: 2)
Chapman describes the need for the pastor to echo the bereavement and grief of the bereaved by going downwards with them in their grief, as Jesus did with the sisters and also physically, when He died, defeated death and rose again. He describes this act as, ‘An inward and downward shift by speaking of contemplation, meditation and integrity.’
A Summary of Ethical Frameworks and which one Jesus uses most
There are five main frameworks for ethics that are widely recognised. The first is Deontological Ethics, which addresses the idea of duty and knowing what is right and wrong. Emmanuel Kant was a key figure.
The second framework is Consequential Ethics, which addresses ideas around personal freedom and tolerance and that actions have consequences; Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill put forward these ideas.
The third framework is the ethic of Natural Law, informed by ideas from Aquinas, around the natural order of life and God as the creator.
The fourth and fifth ethical frameworks are Situational Ethics and Virtue Ethics, which Jesus uses in particular in his pastoral care and ministry.
Joseph Fletcher was a key figure in the formation of the Situational Ethics framework. He writes about the idea of ‘Agape Love’ being of key importance, ‘ Giving love, non-reciprocal, neighbour-regarding – “neighbour” meaning everybody,”, even an enemy.’ He suggests we should follow Jesus’ example: to do what shows love; ‘Whatever is loving in any particular situation is good!’ This ethic helps us frame a pastoral or ethical issue and ensure we treat the person or group with love, care and grace.
Jesus‘ interactions with the woman at the well are situational, as they differ from the customs of the law around Samaritans and indeed women. He speaks with her as he would with a man and even accepts a drink from her, when the Jewish community have declared her as unclean because of her race and ostracised her because of her actions.
We also see the application of Situational Ethics in the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus shows love and kindness to this woman, and openly challenges the supposed keepers of the law, the Pharisees. He treats the woman and the Pharisees very differently. He shows grace, forgiveness and truth to the woman, when she was sentenced (unjustly) to death, whereas he condemns the Pharisees. It would not have been expected for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees in the way He did.
Situational Ethics provide of a framework for deciding what is the right thing to do, and this leads to the framework of ‘Virtue Ethics’, which is informed by the writing of Aristotle, ‘[T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.’
The theologian, Alistair MacIntyre, studies Aristotle’s writings in his book, ‘After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory’. He proposes an interesting idea that considers a devil’s-advocate approach to considering ethical responses to a situation. This is a useful tool to weigh an issue, consider the other side, just as Jesus does before he responds to the Pharisees. Jesus carefully navigates doing what is right, good and lawful, but also shows the woman grace and forgiveness.
It has been a fruitful exercise to analyse Jesus’ methods to make women feel safe, heard, empowered and discipled, and to use these as a model for ethical pioneering. Jesus is a far better example when serving women in Pioneer Ministry than being influenced by the myriad of voices in the world with questionable ethics, such as LinkedIn, magazines or self-help books.
1 Judith Kay Jones, The Women in the Gospel of John: The Divine Feminine (Saint Louis, MO, USA: Chalice Press, 2008)
2 Taken from Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method 1637 but referenced from a lecture by Stephen Backhouse 10/10/11
3 Christian Smith, Moral Believing Animals (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2023) pg. 67.
4 Ibid pg. 69.
5 Deborah Krause, Keeping it real: The Image of God in the New Testament Interpretation 59 (4) (Eden Theological Seminary, 2005) pg. 359.
6 Charles Sherlock, The Doctrine of Humanity (IVP Academic, 1996) pg. 35.
7 Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death (London: Penguin, 1989)
8 David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence (Westminster, John Knox Press, 2009) pg. 902.
9 Martin Luther, cited in Vanhoozer Human Being, Individual and Social (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997) pg. 165.
10 Wesley Carr, The New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies (London: SPCK 2002)
11 George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson: With Selected Poems (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2014)
12 A summary of the United Nations Convention on The Rights of a Child<https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/gb/reports/humanitarian/uncrc19-summary2.pdf> [accessed 5th February, 2022]
13 Sara Savage, and Eugene Boyd-Macmillan, The Human Face of Church (Hymns Ancient & Modern) <https://www.perlego.com/book/2057913/the-human-face-of-church-pdf> [accessed 3 February 2022]
14 Laurie Green, 2009. Let’s Do Theology, 2nd edn (Bloomsbury Publishing) <https://www.perlego.com/book/392442/lets-do-theology-pdf> [accessed 2 February 2022]
15 David Gushee, What It Means That Human Life Is Sacred (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2013) Ch 1.
16 Henry Cloud, Dr John Townsend, Boundaries (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan 2017)
17 Savage & Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, pg. 59.
18 Watts, pg. 154.
19 Ibid, pg. 154.
20 J William Worden, Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy (Routledge 1983)
21 Ibid, pg. 154.
22 Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) pg. 338.
23 Justine-Allen Chapman, Resilient Pastors (London, SPCK Publishing, 2012)’ pg. 113.
24 Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (London, SCM Press, 2012 ) pg. 79.
25 Ibid, pg. 61.
26 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (JAK Thomson London Penguin: 1976) Book 1, Chapter 7.
27 Alistair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1985)