Today is Ash Wednesday. And while this may sound morbid, it’s the beginning of one of my favorite parts of the liturgical year. Yes, I grew up Presbyterian. We like words like liturgical.
While many see the church’s liturgical calendar as stale, dry, ritual, I see it as life-affirming rhythm. The church’s acknowledgment that life has its ebbs and flows. That to everything there is a season.
Lent is a time to “memento mori,” which is Latin for “remember you will die.” We talk about ashes to ashes and wear ashen crosses on our foreheads. For folks like me, prone to existential crises in the middle of the night, it’s a time to acknowledge one of our deepest, darkest fears: death. To name it, to acknowledge it, and to use it as a springboard for celebrating the God who conquers death and wipes away tears. But before we get to that point of celebration, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death. We have to meditate on our mortality, our brokennes, and even broader, the earth’s mortality and brokenness. We have to find and name the cracks and fissures, so that we can allow those cracks and fissures to be filled with the love of the God of Resurrection and Renewal and Things Made Whole.
This is why we’re supposed to fast and take on new practices in Lent. Not just because we need to get rid of habits and practices that are bad for us, though all the healthy eating people try to do this time of year can never be a bad thing, but because we need to make space for meditation, time with God, time to examine ourselves and our environments. We need to get rid of the things that we use to distract us from our brokenness and mortality. We need to focus on things that do not fade. For this reason, giving something up is not the point of Lent if we’re just giving up something to give it up. The intention is to give up something in order to make space for something else, something that will bring us closer to God, or make us healthier, spiritually or physically.
This year, I am making space to read through the gospels, so that I might come to better know Jesus. I am also making space to take walks with my dogs. I hope to use this time to enjoy God’s creation and spend time with God. I hope this time will be a time of prayer and communion that will bring a bit of peace into my life.
I’d like to close by sharing a piece of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” which is a beautiful meditation for this day (read the whole poem here):
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
Do you observe Lent? How are you observing it this year?
I just got my daily Verse/Voice email from Sojourners and was inspired to share this verse:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break free like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. –Isaiah 58:5-9 (TNIV)”
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!
This is Part 2 of a week-long series about Jesus and gender equality. If you missed Part 1, check it out first.
Before we can understand just how radically inclusive Jesus was for his time, we have to understand just how invisible women were in his culture. Think about one of the most famous stories of Jesus: “Jesus feeds the five thousand.” We all know it—Jesus had been teaching a huge crowd, and dinnertime comes, and Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds the whole bunch with leftovers beside. Except that it wasn’t 5,000 people. It was “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). At the time of Jesus, women literally did not count. Even though it would be a much cooler story to say “Jesus feeds the twelve thousand” or whatever, the writer of Matthew only counts the men.
From my research, I’ve decided we can basically imagine Jesus in Saudi Arabia. Women were veiled and kept segregated from men as much as possible. They were controlled by their fathers until that control was transferred to their husbands. It was very rare for them to control property– basically they’d have to have no brothers in order to inherit from their fathers, and then they’d have to be widowed with no male children in order to control the inheritance themselves. Men and women were not supposed to talk to one another in public. From the Mishnah (the oral law): “Talk not with womankind. The sages going back to Moses said this of a man’s own wife, how much more of his fellow’s wife. Hence the sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” (Gehenna is another word for hell.) It was even debated as to whether or not a man should instruct his daughter in the Law (the Torah), and women were not obligated to follow the laws regarding calendar feasts such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—in other words, women were excluded from the heart of religious life, from the most important observances.
And yet, in this context in which women were marginalized, subordinated, and excluded, Jesus seems to notice and reach out to them everywhere he goes. Often to the consternation of his own disciples, he insists on treating them with dignity and kindness, seeing them as whole persons, first and foremost. My first major point is: Jesus affirmed women as people.
One of the most noteworthy examples of Jesus encountering a woman and affirming her as a person, first and foremost, is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (found in John 4). She’s doubly an outcast, as a Samaritan and a woman, and it is unusual for Jesus to address her, as men were not supposed to speak to women, especially not about theology, and Jews were not supposed to speak to Samaritans. Moreover, he could not drink from the vessel of a non-Jew, as it would have made him ritually unclean, but he asks her for a drink. Despite all these prohibitions Jesus honors her by telling her that he is the Messiah, giving her the good news of the gospel. When Jesus’ disciples return, the text says they were very surprised to find him talking with a woman—it was that shocking and unusual for a man to speak to a woman alone in public. According to the book Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Here, the key to Jesus’ stance is found in his perceiving persons as persons. In the stranger at the well, he saw a person primarily—not primarily a Samaritan, a woman, or a sinner. She was not required to cease to be a woman or a Samaritan, but she was by the very manner of Jesus challenged to become a person first of all.” (117)
Meanwhile, the woman goes back to her village and tells everyone about her encounter with Jesus. John 14:39 says “Many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’” As I’ll mention again later, at this time, women were considered such unreliable witnesses, they were not even permitted to testify in court, and yet Jesus chooses this woman, a sinner at that, to be the one to share the gospel with her entire town. He broke cultural boundaries, to the shock of his own disciples, in order to use a woman as his evangelist, the first evangelist mentioned in John’s gospel.
Another example is when Jesus refused to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Legally, a woman caught in adultery could not be stoned without also stoning the man caught with her—this is the sin those wanting to stone her are committing, the one Jesus is referring to when he says “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. It is possible those wanting to stone her were attempting to hold the woman more accountable for the sin than a man, perpetuating a double standard, so to speak, similar to the way in which our culture punishes and shames “sluts” but does not do the same for men who sleep around. According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “Jesus did not condone adultery. He did not indulge her sin. In directing her to sin no longer, he acknowledged that she had sinned and turned her in a new direction. Her accusers probably could only make her bitter and defiant. The one who did not accuse her provided her with the only real encouragement to own her sin and turn from it. In this story, Jesus rejected the double standard and turned the judgment upon the male accusers. His manner with this sinful woman was such that she found herself challenged to a new self-understanding and a new life.” (113)
Next we’ll look at Mark 14:1-9. An unknown woman comes to Simon the Leper’s house where Jesus is having dinner and begins to anoint his head with very expensive perfume. While all the other men think Jesus should rebuke her, he welcomes her act of devotion, and calls her a hero of the faith: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (v. 9) Why anointing? Anointing was performed for a number of reasons– a host would anoint guests to refresh them, dead bodies were anointed to prepare them for burial, sick people were anointed as a cure, and kings were anointed as a mark of their kingship.
I think this particular anointing (there are at least 3 anointings of Jesus mentioned in the gospels) can be seen in two ways: one, this woman is anointing Jesus because she knows he will soon be killed (at this point his arrest was imminent), but also that she was anointing him because she was acknowledging him as king. In this way, this woman is stepping into the role of the priests and prophets, like Samuel who anointed King David. From The Women Around Jesus: “Thus the unknown woman is at the same time a prophet who anoints the Messiah, consecrates him and equips him for his task. This is a twofold break with tradition: the king is a candidate for death and Israel is under foreign rule, and an anonymous woman takes on the role of the ‘men of Judah’ (II Sam. 2.4). Here is the proclamation of a new age in which old values will be turned upside down.” (98)
In our last look at Jesus affirming the worth of women as whole persons, we’ll examine Luke 13:10-17: Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath, to the Pharisees’ dismay. From Woman in the World of Jesus: “[This story] may well serve to dramatize what Jesus more than any other has done for woman. He saw a woman bent over and unable to stand erect. He freed her from her infirmity, enabling her to stand up right. This story has to do with a physical restoration, but it may well point to something far more significant than the immediate reference. In a real sense, Jesus has enabled woman to stand up with a proper sense of dignity, freedom, and worth. It is striking that Jesus referred to this woman as ‘a daughter of Abraham’ (v. 16). Elsewhere we hear of ‘children of Abraham’, ‘seed of Abraham’, and ‘sons of Abraham’, but here only in the New Testament do we hear of ‘a daughter of Abraham.’ Jesus not only enabled the woman to stand erect, but he spoke of her as though she belonged to the family of Abraham, just as did the ‘sons’ of Abraham.” (106) Even his language with her is unusually inclusive, adding her, as a woman, to a tradition, an understanding of our relationship to God, that had prior to that point been exclusive of women.
This is, obviously, not an exhaustive account of Jesus’ interactions with women. I’m leaving out the woman healed of the hemorrhage, to name a major example, but also many passing interactions in which Jesus took notice of women, reached out to them (often against the disciples’ protests), healed them, and sent them on their way as whole persons worthy of dignity and kindness. In this way, he was a radical for his time, transgressing boundaries that kept women separate and subordinate in order to be inclusive and compassionate.
Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss Jesus’ more intimate relationships with the women who were his close and beloved friends.
*Woman in the World of Jesus, by Evelyn & Frank Stagg.
Long time no blog, I know, but let’s just pretend I haven’t been goofing off with nothing to say and just jump right back in, shall we?
I wrote not too long ago about how we’d finally found a church to call our own here in Little Rock, a strange and awesome group of people called Eikon Church. You know they’re strange and awesome, because they asked a loud, academic, outspoken, feminist like me to teach about Jesus and gender equality at our weekly gathering last night. And I, being a diligent little grad student, set out to research and write the best talk ever. I think I ended up with 13 pages, and I even had MLA citations. I’m a serious dork! And yet they love me anyway!
I have to say, even though I grew up in a tradition (Presbyterian Church USA) in which women are full participants in every aspect of church life, I was still very ignorant of much of the biblical basis for that theology. I thought I’d basically have to throw out aspects of the Bible, particularly Paul, in order to make the case for my belief in gender equality. And, though I’m one of those heathens who believes that the Bible was written in a specific time period to a specific group of people with a specific understanding of the world and can, thus, be outdated or trumped by more modern understandings of the world, it turns out I don’t actually have to ignore parts of the Bible in order to support egalitarianism. In fact, there’s a rich pattern of inclusiveness right there in the Bible, even in Paul.
So, I thought I’d share with you, the Internets, what I learned and shared with my friends at Eikon. Each day this week, I’ll share a part of the story, from the reason this matters to me, to the historic context Jesus lived and taught in, to even the most passing interactions he had with women, in which he always treated women as persons of worth, first and foremost. I’ll share how he had close personal friendships with women, and I’ll talk about the women who were his disciples. I’ll even talk about the women who were leaders in the early church, as acknowledged, named, and lauded by the apostle Paul. I’m really excited by all I’ve learned and so happy to share it!
So, let’s kick it off. To start:
Why is gender equality so important to me as a Christian?
We, as followers of Jesus, are proclaimers of freedom. We are all about forgiveness, and freedom from bondage, and renewal and restoration. And yet, for many women, the message of the gospel comes to them with a message of a new kind of bondage. To many women, the message of faith has also been a message that they are inferior. That they are to keep silent. That they alone are to submit. That they are to obey. That they are to be quiet and gentle and meek.
I can’t tell you how much this has hurt me personally. This may shock some of you, but I have never been quiet or gentle or meek. And I have often wondered if I could love and serve a Jesus, who, I was told, wanted me to basically change who I am in order to be accepted and loved and used in furtherance of the kingdom. I felt this most acutely during the three years we lived in Charleston. We never did find a church to really belong to there, but I did find myself in a Bible Study with a group of women who, like me, were married to medical residents and doctors. I was desperate to fit in with these women, because moving halfway across the country, where I had no friends and knew no one was a very hard and depressing time for me. And yet I always got the feeling that these women didn’t actually like me very much. I felt like they thought I was too loud, too passionate, too independent, too strong. I always felt like I was on my best behavior around them, and this made me feel even worse—if they didn’t like “me on my best behavior,” they would NEVER like the real me, me on a bad day, or me in a vulnerable moment. At one point, I confessed to a fellow member of the group, a woman a few years older than I who already had three kids, that I felt like I didn’t fit in. She invited me over for lunch, and I was so relieved. Finally, someone was going to reach out to me, love, and accept me! And yet when I went over to her house, she basically told me she thought Jesus wanted to give me a lobotomy. That Jesus wanted to make me quiet and gentle and meek, the way she felt a godly woman should be. I quit the group after that. I don’t want to be part of a group that wants me to be someone else because they think Jesus wants me to be someone other than who I am.
And the thing is, I don’t think Jesus wants any of us to be anyone other than who we were created to be. I think Jesus wants each and every one of us to love and serve him and work to make his kingdom a reality here on earth in ways that are appropriate to our personalities, our interests, and our gifts, talents, and skills. And in order to really believe that, I have to believe that women (and people of other races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status) are allowed full participation in every aspect of church life.
So, this is what I’ll be blogging about for the next week. Tomorrow, look for some historical context on the world in which Jesus lived, preached, died, and rose again, as a way to set up just how radically inclusive his interactions with women truly were. I’m excited to be sharing this with you!
I’ve always known that God loves me, but, and this might shock you, it’s a relatively new thing for me to realize that God actually likes me, actually enjoys me, as well. Maybe this is a revelation for you too?
Though I grew up in a wonderful church family, for the past few years, I have struggled to find a community of faith to call my own. In our three years in Charleston, we never really did find a church to belong to. For over a year, we thought we had– we loved the “contemporary” service at an Episcopalian congregation that blended the liturgy I love with the music that touches Jon’s heart. And the people there were friendly enough. But we couldn’t find places to “plug in.” We weren’t interested in leading the youth group, though we’ve both been active in ministry to teens in the past. We were too old for the college kids, but too young for most of the “young marrieds” activities, and we just didn’t fit in with the people who already had kids. We were in church programming limbo. So, after about a year, we realized it was time to try to find a place where we wouldn’t still be treated like “visitors” after a year of attendance. We church hopped ever after.
I also tried to find a community of faith outside the church. I joined a bible study for medical wives, but, as I’ve written, I didn’t exactly fit in there as an outspoken, feminist, liberal, doubter. I always felt like they didn’t really know me, didn’t really like me, and REALLY wouldn’t like me if they knew the real me. Like: if you can’t handle “Sarah on her best behavior,” you’re really not going to do so well with “Sarah in a vulnerable moment.”
And, though I didn’t really realize it until last night, I think that my time in that group (and another community group which Jon and I both belonged to and ultimately left) left me feeling like yes, God loves me, but maybe God, or at the very least God’s people, doesn’t like me very much.
Our new church is small, but I’ll take quality over quantity any day. We meet in a converted house near our neighborhood every Sunday night, and, like the very first Christian churches, share a common meal and enjoy each other’s company. We try to keep to a flattened style of leadership, so we take turns leading in a conversation about Jesus, trying to get to know Him very well so that we can live like He did. And we have a great time.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for me lately isn’t just that we found a group of people who don’t make us feel like heretics, though that’s a big plus. It’s that we really LIKE these people. We want to hang out with them, have cook-outs with them, go on random weekday bike rides with them, share our lives with them. And with that revelation comes the realization that they like us too!
Last night, during our “talk time,” the leader was talking about Matthew 25 and what we do for the “least of these.” We had some conversation about dealing with “the least of these,” and the fact that sometimes, the least of these are downright annoying, ungrateful, and unpleasant. He pointed out that so often, when we deal with “the least of these” we have a super secret agenda, be it that they will leave things that hold them in bondage, or that they will accept Christ, or that they will say “thank you.” He noted that “the least of these” know we have this agenda, and that this hurts them– it hurts people to feel like we’re only tolerating them because we see them as a project. He said that perhaps the “least of these” in these situations are really being the better friend, because they’re putting up with us, despite our not-so-secret agendas. And, even more mind-blowingly, he said that WE are “the least of these” to God. We’re annoying, and unpleasant, and ungrateful, and yet God doesn’t just love us, God LIKES us. God wants to spend time with us, delights in us, and, in the form of Jesus, reclines at the table with us, sharing a meal, drinking some wine, and just enjoying a conversation.
Does that maybe blow your mind a little bit? It does mine! After a few years in which I felt like Christians I knew didn’t really like me, and in which I’d begun to get the idea that maybe God didn’t either, this message is downright liberating. It makes me want to pull a Sally Field and scream “You like me! You really like me!” And it also reminds me that I have a lot of work to do toward becoming more like Jesus. In our society, we seem to think that loving someone doesn’t mean we have to like them. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “I love you, but I just don’t like you very much right now.” I’ve definitely felt that. But “loving” someone without enjoying them is not the way of Jesus. And that’s a lesson I need to learn with humility, thankful for God’s grace, and love, and LIKE.