By Danielle Mooney
Danielle has lived in Boston since graduating from Wellesley College. She loves her husband, her dog, and soft serve ice cream cones.
Within the Gospels, we find stories about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that the authors compiled and composed for their particular early Christian communities. The Gospels function as communal faith-statements and each scene and saying they recount are part of the author’s broader theological message about who Jesus was and how we follow him.
As has been true throughout world history, during Christ’s life and the development of Christianity after his death, attitudes about and the treatment of women were overwhelmingly negative. This negativity is absent from the Gospels and that absence underscores the religious importance Jesus attached to equality for women and all other subjugated persons—to the constitutive role of justice in the Gospel.
To understand how truly radical, empowering, and inclusive Jesus’ ministry was, we need to have some understanding of the extent to which women were legally disenfranchised and positioned as socially and religiously inferior to men.
Rabbinic tradition of the time, and for many many years later, dictated that women were not allowed to study the Torah. This was so much looked down on that first century rabbi Eliezer is recorded as saying “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.” Women were discouraged from offering prayers, even in private. The daily prayers of Jewish men included the thanksgiving “praised be God that he has not created me a woman.” Women could not be counted toward the number of people required to form a congregation for communal worship (and unfortunately, this is true in our own church today). Men were advised to “speak not much with a woman,” including their wives, and speaking to a woman in public was undignified, even disreputable, for a rabbi. Women could not bear witness in a court of law. Men could choose to divorce a wife simply by giving her a writ, but women could not divorce their husbands. Common rabbinic sayings included “At the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad,” and “When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes.” Clearly, the condition of women was bleak.
And then came Jesus.
His mother Mary faced shame, humiliation, and possible death when she accepted God’s call to carry His son. She was unwed and would have known the severity of the censure she could face, while, at the same time, the angel Gabriel did not make her path plain with assurances and detailed instructions on how one should go about raising the redeemer of all humankind. And yet, with staggering courage and faith, she accepted. This courage and faith to accomplish God-given tasks sets the pattern for Jesus’ own life and death. And the immense love he had for her, as heartbreakingly portrayed in John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion when Jesus entrusts her care to his best-loved apostle, echoes throughout Jesus’ relationships with all women.
And the relationships and interactions Jesus had with women were not distant or imperious. They were intimate, respectful, and deeply affirming of women’s full humanity.
When the woman with the issue of blood surreptitiously approaches Jesus in a crowd, shyly, desperately seeking to touch the hem of his garment so that she can be healed of a disorder that for 12 years has marked her and anyone or anything she touched as unclean, Jesus does not recoil or scold. Realizing what has happened he asks, “Who touched my garments?” And though his disciples are surprised he would ask such a question while walking through a pressing crowd, the woman fearfully confesses what she has done. There is no need for Jesus to draw attention to the woman, but he clearly wishes to set an example in rejecting ritual uncleanliness and the public disregard of women. So tenderly, he calls her daughter, touches her in return, praises her faith, and frees her without disgust.
The scribes and Pharisees attempt to use the woman caught in adultery as a trap for Jesus. We can see her vividly, I think, shamed and humiliated, exposed and betrayed, as she waits before the men who accuse and who will judge her. But, Jesus refuses to play their game. He shields the woman with his grace, forgives and restores her. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.” What healing words–“Neither do I condemn you”—as he commends her to a new life.
In Samaria, Jesus engages in a serious theological discussion with a woman he meets at a well. And not only a woman, though this is cause enough for his disciples to marvel, but a Samaritan woman with five former husbands who now lives with man she has not married. Yet Jesus drinks from her bucket and talks with her about God’s kingdom. He reveals his divine calling and she responds by taking his word to her people. Because of her work as an evangelist, many in her town come to acclaim Jesus as “the Savior of the world,” even as his own disciples were yet unmindful that his message was for all.
While teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus notices a woman who is so crippled that she is bent over and unable to straighten up at all. He heals her and she immediately stands straight and praises God. The leader of the synagogue begins to chastise the woman for being healed on the Sabbath, but Jesus rebukes those who would use the Law to deny relief to this woman. Extraordinarily, he calls the woman a “daughter of Abraham,” an entirely unexpected turn of phrase, though “son of Abraham” was commonly used. With these three words, Jesus includes this woman and all women among the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant and provides a place alongside the sons, especially alongside those fulminating with their sense of exclusive ownership over God’s gifts.
On his path to Jerusalem and his final confrontation with Temple and Roman Imperial authorities, Jesus gives three prophetic warnings of his death and resurrection to the men and women who follow him. And yet, even the twelve apostles fail to see, bickering amongst themselves along the way about who is the greatest among them and how to ensure seats of glory at Jesus’ side. There was one among Jesus’ followers, however, who heard and understood. At the home of Simon in Bethany, this unnamed woman took an alabaster jar of wildly expensive ointment, broke it, and poured it over Jesus’ head. Aghast, some apostles begin to rebuke her behavior. However, Jesus quiets them, saying, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” She is the first believer and the model leader, exemplifying the lessons Christ has been trying to teach his apostles about leadership in the kingdom. She is the first Christian, her faith preceding the discovery of an empty tomb.
And, even though a woman lacked the legal standing to act as a witness in court, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrected Christ and the first commissioned by him to preach the resurrection.
Dorothy Day, a Catholic social justice advocate and journalist, writes:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were the first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there has never been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; … who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be more feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity.”
So it was throughout Jesus’ revolutionary ministry: women with men, Gentile with Jew, the clean with the unclean.
I think we need to ask ourselves: Are we living up to the example Christ has set, both as individuals and as a community?
- Women compose 70% of the world’s poorest people and own only 1% of the titled land.
- 200 million girls are missing in the world today because of gendercide.
- 80% of all human trafficking victims are girls.
- There are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school.
- Women aged fifteen through forty-five are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.
- 1 in 5 women are rape survivors.
- One third of women have been victims of intimate partner violence.
- In the US, motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age.
The answer, clearly, is no. In so many ways we are falling short of Jesus’ passionate vision of God’s kingdom on earth, of equality and justice for women, yes, and also for people of color, of all nationalities, for the poor, and for the disabled.
Mother’s Day particularly reminds me of our shortcomings. We are quick to use our loftiest language to praise motherhood. We set it on a pedestal as institution apart from fatherhood, apart from discipleship, apart, even, from the full, diverse humanity of woman’s identity. And so the superior language rings hollow to me and seems sadly disconnected from both the reality of the relational work that is mothering and the reality of life as a woman.
Because, of course, womanhood is not motherhood.
As Jesus finished teaching in a synagogue one day, a woman called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But, he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Instead of accepting this reduction of women into wombs and breasts, Jesus called for more: for discipleship and for God’s word in action. As Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’ feet to hear him teach she was signaling her desire to be a teacher—a rabbi—like him, and Jesus praised her.
Emmeline B. Wells, third president of the Relief Society, wrote, “It is the opinion of many who are wise and learned that woman’s mission upon the earth is maternity; … [that this] fills the measure of her creation; … That motherhood brings into a woman’s life a richness, zest and tone that nothing else ever can I gladly grant you, but that her usefulness ends there or that she has no other individual interests to serve I cannot so readily concede.”
When we collapse women’s identities into mothering, it contributes to cultures of gendered violence and oppression. So let’s leave behind, as matter-of-factly as did Jesus, deliberations about what women-should and what women-should-not. In a world that is aching with pain and violence, when there is so much work to be done in the kingdom, such concern for roles and lines seems like a terrific adventure in missing the point. Or, as Sarah Bessey writes, “These are small, small arguments about a small, small god. Our big and good God is at work in the world, and we have been invited to participate fully—however God has gifted and equipped and called each of us.”
The work is waiting. God is just and the world belongs to God. Our practice of religion and our worship cannot be separated from justice because union with a God of justice empowers the worshipper to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, to refuse to accept the divisions of the normalcy of civilization. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God urges us, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, … then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”
In other words, do no think that divine worship excuses you from divine justice. The temple is not enough. Piety is not enough. Here and elsewhere, God tells us that our worship will be rejected for our lack of justice.
We remember the scribe who asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Upon hearing Jesus reply that there are no commandments greater than to first love God and, second, to love one another, the scribe readily agreed. Then, captivatingly implying both immediacy and distance, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far, but not in it. To be in it requires more than knowing the heart of the Gospel. We must live it. Building and inhabiting the kingdom is a collaborative work between God and us. And God has already begun. God is waiting for us. God is waiting for us to follow Jesus on the way, to give up our anxious, scrabbling selves and to be reborn in Him.
God is waiting for us.