I am unabashedly obsessed with the Olympics. Winter or Summer, it doesn’t matter. I love watching people achieve their dreams, compete for their countries, and doing their parents, always featured in NBC’s heart-wrenching human interest stories, proud. The summer after the girls were born, pinned to a couch under sleeping or eating babies, I watched a lot of the London Summer Games. This year, my only couch time is after those babies are in bed, but I’ve been watching quite a bit of the evening coverage as well. (If you’re also into watching the Olympics, follow me on twitter and join in on the live tweet action after 7 pm– just make sure to use a hashtag so your friends who are less obsessed can filter your Olympic tweets from their streams.)
One thing that stands out about the Olympics are the ads. Pretty much every spot you see that isn’t for a car or truck features an Olympian of some kind. Proctor and Gamble have been running a series of ads called “Because of Mom” in which athletes thank their mothers for helping them achieve their Olympic dreams. I have no real beef with people celebrating their mothers or motherhood. Motherhood is great! It’s just that…you bet your sweet bippy that if my girls ever make it to the Olympics (I’m thinking 2 man bobsled, maybe?), they’ll have their dad to thank as much as their mom. Because they are blessed to have an amazing dad, and I am blessed to have an amazing coparent. My husband and I are both blessed with amazing and involved dads, too.
I mean, it’s really no wonder I grew up to marry a man who turns out to be an amazing dad, because involved parenting is just what I expected based on what I grew up with. My dad, a doctor, but also a scientist, came into my science classes with a little red wagon full of props and gave talks worthy of Bill Nye. He worked odd shifts, so he drove a lot of carpools. He created elaborate treasure hunts for us with riddle clues. He got me into nerdy stuff like Star Trek and the Civilization computer games. He got me through high school math and science, both of which were hard for me, with intense, one-on-one homework help, complete with antics like “the ribosome dance,” which I will never forget, ever.
I’m willing to bet at least a few Olympians had dads like my dad and my husband. Unfortunately, P&G isn’t talking about them. I say unfortunately, because just as I mentioned in my “inspiration” post, kids need to see normal, everyday people as role models– how can people who may not have amazing dads in their life grow up to be or expect to co-parent with amazing dads if we don’t see dads being normal and amazing in our lives?
I do want to shout out a company getting it right. I loved this Frosted Flakes ad featuring one of our women ski jumpers (first year in the Olympics for their sport after decades of fighting for equality!), Sarah Hendrickson and her dad: Sarah clearly has a dad like mine. They even have the same taste in names for their daughters!
Meanwhile, if you go looking for a P&G ad featuring a dad, you’ll find this, from Tide:
DADMOM? REALLY? A dad who stays home with the kids and takes care of the house isn’t Mr. Mom. He’s not a dadmom. He’s just a dad. He’s parenting. He’s caretaking. He’s not stepping outside his gender or being anything less than a man– a man who has and cares for a family. It’s like when I hear people say a dad is babysitting his own children. Nope. That’s parenting, folks. People of all gender identities and expressions can do it.
P&G claims to be a “proud sponsor of moms.” Well, sponsors usually pay people, rather than expecting to be paid, P&G. And I’m not buying the gendered view of parenthood that you’re selling.
I also have similar issues with their vision of disability:
While on the one hand, I love that they’re running ads featuring athletes with disabilities that showcase them as athletes, using the same visual style and soundtrack as the able-bodied athletes, they lost me at the final tagline. I’m not one of the world’s toughest moms just because my daughter has a disability. As I said on twitter when I first saw the ad, I think most people are as tough as their circumstances require them to be. We all rise to the occasion. If you “don’t know how I do it,” it’s just because it hasn’t been required of you (yet). Just as it doesn’t take a special person to love someone with special needs (because they are no more inherently easy or difficult to love than any other person), it doesn’t take a tough parent to parent a child with a disability. Because you just parent them, because they’re your child.
If someday Claire is a Paralympian, she’ll be thanking both of her parents. And she certainly won’t be calling us any tougher than anyone else.
The whole country seems to be unsettled now that the trial is over and George Zimmerman has received zero punishment for the undisputed fact that he provoked a fight with and then shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. All I keep thinking is imagining myself in his parents’ shoes, my baby killed and getting no justice. But the truth is, despite all the folks saying “We are Trayvon,” I’m not, and my babies *aren’t either. We are *unlikely to be perceived as threats based on our race. We *are unlikely to be held to a higher standard of suspicion. We *likely won’t be required to moderate our clothes or behavior or whereabouts in order to make others feel safe and thus ensure our own safety.
And Questlove has written a great piece about what it feels like to be like Trayvon, to be black and male in this country, to constantly be worrying about how others perceptions of his danger level affect his own safety. And I think we should all read it, and I think we should all think hard about the way racism and segregation affect our own day to day lives, and the fact that a lot of us live in neighborhoods where seeing a black man walk down our street would be so unusual as to be perceived as a threat. My friend Kyran, for example, has been asking some great questions about the intersection of economic and racial injustice in our communities.
But at the same time, the central story Questlove tells, about how hurt he felt by a woman who lived in his building clearly perceiving him as a threat when she was alone with him on an elevator, well, I am that woman, and I can’t say I blame her. If Questlove wants us to all walk in his size 14 shoes, then he needs to know a thing or two about that woman’s high heels, about what it means to be a woman in rape culture.
We are told over and over again that rape is something that happens to girls who aren’t vigilant enough. Who walk down the wrong streets at the wrong time in the wrong company. Who have too much to drink. Who wear the wrong clothes. Who send out mixed signals. You are constantly on your guard or you “get raped,” a phrase that has always bothered me because it’s like “got milk?” As if I went and picked it up at the store or had some say in the matter.
I’m not often alone in public these days, but I chronicled lots of harassment and intimidation from the days when I used to be, which you can find under my Bus Stories tab. It was daily, and the general message I got was: to be female, alone, in public is to be at risk.
When I am alone in an isolated place, my keys are between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon, and I have my phone out and ready to dial 911 if I need to. I would certainly be wary to be on an elevator with a strange man of any race, because an elevator is an isolated place. And this vigilance is exhausting and numbing, and there were days I have come home and literally cried because one more man yelled something ugly and intimidating at me as he drove past.
To be a woman in public is ALSO to be told you “aren’t shit,” as Questlove says he’s learned. It’s to be told you are an object for the taking, a message made clear not just by words shouted out of moving cars like “HEY SUGARTITS,” but also in the looks, and in the ways people talk about those unvigilant girls who get themselves raped.
I think, somewhere, there’s a place where Questlove and that woman in the elevator have something in common: patriarchy tells them both they ain’t shit. They both have varying levels of privilege, him as a man, and her as a white woman. It’s only in taking down the patriarchy that they can both feel safe in public.
*Words changed slightly from original post in response to comments and in an effort to make clear that I am attempting to recognize the privilege afforded to women perceived as white in this country. I don’t want to leap to the assumption that we are never seen as threatening by others, simply recognizing the fact that we usually aren’t.
**Traffic and comments keep rolling in on this post, and while I’m really happy with the attention it’s received, I’m also busy chasing 16 month old twins, and don’t have time to reply to every comment. I would also urge you to check out this beautifully-written, painful post that’s another take on the woman in the elevator. The comments and responses to this post have been thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d say a great step toward dismantling the system I believe hurts both the “woman in the elevator” and Questlove is to think about our fears, confront and examine them. I believe there are reasonable steps toward self-preservation, but there are also walls and barriers that separate us from one another. I need to focus more on reaching out.
One girl for sure, and the doctor says she’s 80% sure the other twin is a girl too!!
Baby A, so-called because she’s the closest to an exit, gave us a great view and no doubt about the fact that she’s a girl. Baby B was turned to the side and there was a lot of umbilical cord in the way, so we can’t be positive until the next appointment on my birthday, December 16. This means Tinycat just might be our only baby boy, though my stepmom, who is known to have some fairly accurate dreams, swears we can’t be sure about Baby B, who is definitely a boy in her dreams. We’ll see!
We’re excited, and I can’t wait to finally narrow down our list of names!
I spend a lot of time hanging out in my university library between classes. Usually I’m busy looking over materials for class, or checking in with my internet world, but sometimes I let my eyes wander over the shelves wherever I’ve settled, just to see what catches my eye. Recently, a tall book caught my eye, its title visible over the tops of all the other books: Women are Here to Stay. “Of course we are!” I said to myself, “Where else could we go? Who could manage without us?” I pulled the book off the shelf and read the subtitle: “The Durable Sex in its Infinite Variety Through Half a Century of American Life.”
Intrigued by this strange title, I opened the book, and realized it was a book of pictures. Often, hilarious pictures.
But it turns out, published in the 1940s, this book had a feminist mission. One which is sadly still necessary today. Check out the introduction and see if you can relate:
The American woman today must be an expert housekeeper…She must be a wise, conscientious, and loving mother, always there when her children need her, but standing aside when her presence might threaten the full development of their individuality. She must be a delightful, helpful, thrifty wife, ready to administer comfort or to share in gay adventure. She must be a useful member of the community, informed on broad political trends as well as possible danger spots in the local school boards. She is also a citizen of the world and should be able to name the current President of France, have constructive ideas on what to do with the atom bomb, and say what’s wrong with our foreign policy.
That isn’t all. She is expected to read, look at, listen to the important new books, pictures, music, for women are the traditional guardians of culture. If she’s young, she should be cultivating some interest against the time when the children don’t need her. If she’s old, she should be happily occupied in some moderately useful, unspectacular fashion, keeping herself decently to herself, and not interfering with her juniors and betters.
And at all times, and at all ages, she should be, if not actually beautiful, as good-looking as perfect grooming, a disciplined figure, and good clothes can make her. (This part is very easy. The advertisements tell you how.)
It would not be surprising if women gave up entirely, crushed by the barrage of abuse and advice, and paralyzed by the impossible goals set for them. They don’t though. They keep on living–longer than men, as a matter of fact. It is indeed a durable sex.
Now, in nearly all books about women, the authors assume that women think and act first of all as women, not as individuals, and this assumption leads into the habit of thinking that they’re all pretty much alike. It is my intention to demonstrate that there are a great many different kinds of women (just as there are a great many different kinds of men) and that it is impossible to generalize about them– tempting though this may be, and very good fun as a pastime. (1)
On the one hand, this is laughable– of COURSE women are all special snowflakes, individuals, whose allegiance is first to ourselves and then to our sex. But is this not still our struggle? To be our individual selves, despite the monolithic mold that seems determined to bend us into some sort of ideal woman?
Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series. If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.
As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters. I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life. But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!
Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death. From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.
But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest. My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again. Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?
After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)
Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria. This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.
Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.
And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia. Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99). Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia. He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)
Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks. A church meets in “their” house. Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry. In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)
This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was acommon name for Roman women at the time of Paul. Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia. My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia. Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)
Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.
I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!
Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today. I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church. I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna. I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche. And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach. I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.
*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen. He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads. As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.
**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.
Today is day 4 of my series on Jesus and Gender. Make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed those posts! We’ve discussed how Jesus treated women with radical dignity and kindness, we’ve talked about his close female friends, and today we’re going to look at the women who were his disciples.
Although we are most familiar with The Twelve Disciples, all of whom are men, Jesus had more than just 12 disciples, and these disciples included women. (Also, from Woman in the World of Jesus: “The logic from which the male composition of the Twelve would exclude women from high office or role in the church would likewise exclude the writers and most of the readers of this book, for there were no non-Jews among the Twelve. Unless one would argue that “apostolic succession” is for Jews only, it cannot be for men only.” (125))
Jesus had a large group of followers who went with him all over Israel, learning from him and following in his ways. According to Luke 8:1-3: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
While women at this time were permitted to travel in the company of men, they were required to spend the night only with their relatives—here it is obvious that as they travel from city to city, the women are traveling along with the men, breaking social custom in a very progressive and scandalous way. Secondly, these women had resources under their own control at a time in which women were generally not permitted to inherit property or control money. So not only did Jesus have women among his disciples, but they were transgressing social norms and acting as the bankers of the whole operation!
And these women weren’t just hangers on; they were actually ministering with Jesus! According to Frank and Evelyn Stagg in Woman in the World of Jesus: “It is significant that women did have an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke’s word for their ‘ministering’ is widely used in the New Testament, including by Paul in reference to his own ministry. Its noun cognate, diakonos may be rendered ‘minister,’ ‘servant,’ or ‘deacon.’” (123)
One of these women was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere in scripture is she identified as a prostitute or even a great sinner. Mark says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her—today we might say that he healed her mental illness. From Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus: “We may imagine that this cure took a similar course to other healings: Jesus touched her, perhaps embraced her, made her get up, like Peter’s feverish mother-in-law or the person possessed by demons. He spoke to her and she had a tangible feeling of nearness and contact. As he spoke, the spell left her. She again became herself, free to feel and decide, free once again to experience the world around her, free to enjoy herself and to learn to live again. But she did not return to her old ways. She left her rich hometown of Magdala, even though she would always bear its name. For her, being healed of her illness became salvation.” (68)
Another woman mentioned among these disciples is worth considering: Joanna, wife of Chuza, who was an officer in King Herod’s court. She is described here having been healed by Jesus, after which she began traveling with and supporting Jesus financially, and she is later present at his crucifixion, and, in at least one gospel, at his resurrection. Jesus was seen as a political enemy of the political establishment, a revolutionary threatening to overthrow the government, and here, the wife of a government official is hanging around with and supporting this revolutionary and traitor of the state, helping to support him financially. It’s possible that Joanna’s husband had died and left her widowed and in control of his estate, but it’s also possible that she had left him, with or without his blessing, to follow Jesus.
These women disciples were with Jesus to the end, present at the crucifixion, in some cases acting with more bravery and loyalty than The Twelve, who fled and feared for their own lives. From Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” –In Mark’s account, the oldest of the four gospels, the disciples are not present at the crucifixion—they run away after Jesus’ arrest and are not said to have returned. Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the disciples have run away and only the women are present at Jesus’ death. From Luke 23:49: “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” John 19:25-27: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time, this disciple took her into his home.” Even as he suffers pain and death, Jesus is surrounded by the women who followed him, and he is exhibiting concern for their welfare.
And these women weren’t just there at Jesus’ death, but played a very special role in the events of the Resurrection. In Matthew,after his resurrection, Jesus chooses to appear first to two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (possibly Mary of Bethany)” Jesus trusts them to go and tell the men that he is risen, even though at this time, women were considered so unreliable that they couldn’t even testify in court. Still Jesus trusts them with this important news. In Mark’s account and in Luke’s account (which also names Joanna), the disciples do not even believe Mary Magdalene/the women. In John, Jesus only appears to Mary Magdalene, and she calls him “Rabboni” which suggests her status as one of his students. According to The Women Around Jesus: “Mary Magdalene may be regarded as the first apostle. She was the first to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.” She was considered an apostle, someone commissioned by Jesus with a special mission or message, up to the Middle Ages.
So, not only was Jesus radically inclusive of women in even his most passing encounters, not only did he have close personal friendships with women, but he had women among his disciples and even accorded them the honor of being the first people in the Bible to preach what we know as the gospel, the good news of his resurrection. Tomorrow we’ll look at the women who were apostles, deacons, and prophets–leaders in the early church.
The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel
Woman in the World of Jesus by Frank and Evelyn Stagg.
Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.
Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet. I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:
The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)
I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha. I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK. Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.
The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.
One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha. Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.
From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:
In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself. She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith. Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She carries on a vigorous debate. She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in. She struggles with God as Job did. She charges Jesus with failure. She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)
Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:
Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16. Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature. This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter. For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle. The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)
I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly. Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.
However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene. I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!
I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist. Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality. She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table. She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance. The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere. This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself. All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend. And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them. That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair. Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today. She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality. It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)
Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die. To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.
Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!