Jesus and Women
Jesus elevated the status and role of women. This sermons examines the little episode of Jesus, and the sisters, Mary and Martha to find Jesus’ liberating message. It places the text in the context of the Greco-Roman world to reveal the radical nature of Jesus’ good news.
A Case of sibling rivalry
In our text today we find a case of sibling rivalry: Martha and Mary, a pair of sisters who were friends of Jesus. They meet in Martha’s house. We assume that Martha is the older of the two. Martha works in the kitchen to mind the cooking. She is doing the expected women’s work. Martha is trying her best to pull together a big feast. She wants everything to be just right. She stands in the kitchen stirring a boiling pot and patting out the dough and stoking the fire. She’s working her fingers to the bone. She wipes perspiration from her forehead, puts the wooden spoon down, peers in and sees kid sister Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, face all aglow, enraptured in Jesus’ teachings and hanging on his every word. “Psst, Psst.” Martha tries to catch Mary’s attention but Mary looks away. “Pssst.” Mary glances at her and Martha mouths the words ‘Come into the kitchen and help me?’ Mary frowns, rolls her eyes and looks back at Jesus. Martha She is frustrated and her resentment builds inside like steam in a pressure cooker. She feels abandoned and used. “Little sister Mary left me alone to do the cooking and cleaning and table setting.” She finally has had all that she can take from that little bratty sister and so Martha charges into the living room where Jesus is sitting with adoring Mary at his feet. Martha will tell Jesus on Mary.
“Jesus, can’t you see how much work I have to do? Don’t you care that my sister left everything to me? Tell my sister to help me!”
But Jesus affirms Mary. “”Martha, Martha you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This is just a little picture in the life of Jesus. How shall we take this little ‘slice of life’ story as told us by Luke?
Some past ways of treating this text
In the past some preachers have used this text to recommend the contemplative life over the active life (a justification for monastic life) Prayer and contemplation over action. But that doesn’t really seem to be Jesus’ point. Prayer and action go together and this is really not about prayer. Mary was not praying; she was listening.
Others have used the text to warn us against busy-ness. (There is even a title to a recent book Having a Mary heart in a Martha World.) Maybe that’s Jesus’ point. We do get too busy and fret now and then. Maybe that’s it.
But let us face a fact: Somebody has to cook and prepare or there won’t be any supper at all. People have to eat. Martha serves. Jesus in other places commends service and holds the servant role it in high esteem.
But I wish to take this text in a different direction this morning:
A Matter of Social Justice for women
Of the many stories of Jesus, why did Luke choose to include this one? I approach the Gospel as Holy Scripture, as sacred text. As such I do not believe the story crept in by accident. Luke did not randomly string his stories together with no rhyme or reason. Every story of Jesus had a purpose. When you read the work of Luke in its entirety you get the sense that this historian-theologian has something unique to stress. He has something he wishes to emphasize in his Gospel, different than the other Gospel writers.
Luke consistently focuses on Jesus’ ministry to the outcasts, the outsiders, the poor, the social rejects, and the destitute. Throughout his Gospel Jesus stands for the underdog and those marginalized by society. Hence Luke’s Jesus’ demonstrates interest in the Samaritan (as we saw last week), the Gentiles, the despised tax collectors, the economically poor, and women.
Some Bible scholars even call Luke the “Gospel of Women”. Luke records many stories and parables of Jesus in his Gospel relating to women that do not appear in Matthew, Mark, or John. Here are some examples of stories that we find only in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke includes many more stories of women also found in Matthew and Mark. The ones above are unique to Luke.
Luke’s emphasis on women continues through his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles.
We find a writer who seems to stress a theme we should be aware that we have hit upon a clue to what was important to that writer. Jesus’ ministry to women appears frequently in Luke’s writings. He records many incidents of Jesus and women. He often tells us their names.
To the theologian Luke, the Gospel of Jesus bore great significance for women. Luke illuminates the pages of his manuscripts Luke illuminates the pages of his manuscripts with accounts of how Jesus treated women and related to them. This stands in contrast with surrounding culture of his day.
Greek views of women
Susan Pomeroy writes that in Greek society, women’s status was very low. A woman’s main function was the reproduction of children, especially of sons.
Plato on women
The great philosopher born 427 B.C.E. held some enlightened views of women. But he felt women were naturally inferior to men. Plato believed in reincarnation: that after one dies they return in another form. Women’s’ inferior status was caused by the degeneration from perfect human nature. Plato believed that a bad man reincarnates as a woman. But a good woman can hope to reincarnate into a man. He wrote:
“It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. (Plato, Timaeus 90e).
This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed.
In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man in a future incarnation.
Anne Dickason, ‘Anatomy and Destiny: The Role of Biology in Plato’s Views of Women’, in Carold C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Feminism’, in Osborne (ed.), Woman in Western Thought pp. 24-33. Philosophy. Toward a Theory of Liberation, New York 1976; Julia Annas, ‘Plato’s Republic and
Aristotle on Women
Aritstotle studied under Plato and later tutored Alexander the Great. According to Aristotle, man rightly takes charge over woman, because he commands superior intelligence. This will also profit the women who depend on him. He compares this to the relationship between human beings and tame animals.
‘It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.’ Aristotle, Politica, ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10-14. ()
Aristotle believed that women are in some way biologically deficient, and that this has some sort of profound effect on their psychological deficiency. He also comments that the generation of the female is no better than that of “mutilated male.“
Julie Albrow writes:
“…the female does have some uses for Aristotle. Actually, the woman has one use, for nature only gives things one special function, and that function is the procreative one. The female will carry the foetus, give birth and suckle the young, and this role is reserved by nature for women. As the male role in procreation is short, men are obviously designed by nature to deal with the out-of-house activities, such as politics. To have women doing anything other than ‘homely’ activities would be to go against nature, and with women being emotionally susceptible they must therefore be ruled by men, who are emotionally steadier. Women were only fit to be subjects of male rule.”
The Nature of Women in Plato and Aristotle By Julie Albrow, Undergraduate Student
Plato and Aristotle’s view of the nature and capabilities of women.
The Greek world into which Jesus was born and out of which our New Testament was written was definitely a patriarchal, male dominated society. Women, barred from education were second class. The social structure favored the males and limited and oppressed the females. The opportunities for education for women and social mobility for women were definitely limited.
The status and role of women in Judaism were an improvement over that of the surrounding nations. But even so, it was a long uphill climb towards genuine equality.
Post-Biblical Judaism on women
The first few centuries before and after Christ produced growth and development within Judaism. In particular the sayings of the Rabbis were committed to writing and formed what we now call Rabbinic literature. Rabbinic literature expressed some attitudes that were negative toward women.
In Jewish religion women were also kept subordinate and silent. Women were more restricted in Judaism than they had been in the Old Testament. (101)
Women in many parts of the world today are still considered second class citizens. Men transcribe their lives. In some countries the law prescribes their attire and violations are dealt with quickly and harshly. A woman was drug from her car and beaten to death in Afghanistan for merely accidentally exposing her arm.
One woman who was caught with an unrelated man in the street was publicly flogged with 100 lashes, in a stadium full of people. She was lucky. If she had been married, and found with an unrelated male, the punishment would have been death by stoning. Such is the Taliban’s perversion of justice, which also includes swift summary trials, public amputations and executions.
Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
November 17, 2001
Jesus and Mary
When Jesus affirmed Mary he was in effect allowing her to do what was generally forbidden to women in his day: to sit at the rabbi’s feet and learn. This simple act would have seemed very radical in Jesus’ day. Can you see how Jesus and the Early Church challenged the dominant culture’s derogation of women?
That Jesus regularly conversed with women, had them in his company of disciples, ate with women, and even allowed them to touch him (as when the sinful woman anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair) This was scandalous. The women were the first to know of the resurrection in all four Gospels and Jesus appeared first to the women in three of the four Gospels.
Much that Jesus said and did appeared radical in those days. He was no social conservative merely repeating the traditional social conventions of his day. He challenged them and provoked criticism and opposition.
The Church was born into a world of skewed social relationships. The church entered a world in which such institutions as slavery, public executions, rule by Emperors, colonial occupation, high and unjust taxation, and the lower social status of women found overwhelming cultural acceptance. The Church could not and did not speak directly to
each of these social evils.
But already the Church’s allegiance to Jesus Christ as their true Lord and Master began to de-legitimate and subtly undermined these structures of injustice. The Church both tolerated many less-than-perfect institutions and challenged them in subtle ways. Notice the “Magna Charta” of the Apostle Paul when he wrote:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Throughout history women have been subservient to men in almost all cultures. It is a patriarchal world. That became very evident to me when Stephanie and I served in Tanzania in East Africa . The women were the work horses of the family. They bore sometimes nearly a dozen children. They gathered the firewood, cooked, drew water and carried 5 gallon buckets on their heads sometimes a mile or more. They cleaned the homestead and worked in the garden. We saw little girls age around 6 years old cooking over an open fire with a baby brother strapped to their backs. They had no childhood, no play. Boys played soccer, but the little village girls faced a life of drudgery and work from their youngest years. In some tribes female circumcision is practiced, administered around age 13. This was their culture. The more educated in the towns lived differently. But in Tanzania nearly 90% of the 29 million people lived in villages.
When we visited their villages we would be invited to eat with the people. We would enter a church leaders’ hut and be served. But the women were not allowed to eat with the men. They entered the hut to assist with hand-washing. They brought the food and served. But they all huddled together outside where they waited until the men folk had eaten and then they received the leftovers. It reminded me of our story today. I wondered what would happen if a village woman decided that she wished to remain in the hut and eat with the guests? She would probably be rebuked and ridiculed by her friends and family for breaking out of the norm.
Cultural habit and customs die slow. But when one adds religious justification and attributes the oppression to the very will of God the results are truly chilling. We may get a clue why some women wish to discard religion altogether as a contributor to female oppression. Some in despair end their lives as the soaring suicide rate among women in Afghanistan can testify.
Now I know that some will say, “But the Bible says”. One man in a Sunday School class in manila told the class hesitantly “I hate to say it, but it does seem to me that the Bible is patriarchal and God favors men.”
I do understand that. People want to know the Biblical view. Sincere Christians want to shape their lives around what the Bible says.
Just this past Friday I spoke with a sincere young woman who said that when she was in college she led a college student Bible study. But one day she read the verse from 1 Timothy 2:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
This young woman wondered, “Am I out of God’s will for leading this Bible study?” Is this scripture a rule to be applied today for prohibiting women to teach men? What about our Adult Sunday School program? Can a woman teach a man there? What about in the Stephen Ministry ? Can a woman lecture men on how to counsel? What about ordained women ministers? My wife Stephanie was not ordained but she often preached in Africa and among the Ayta people in the Philippines . Stephanie is a certified lay-speaker in the United Methodist Church in New Jersey and often filled pulpits among the churches there.
I think of a young women and mother Leah from the village of Kahangala in Tanzania who peddled a bicycle many miles over rough terrain to evangelize, preach and disciple a church in a neighboring village.
I have discovered that people approach the Bible with cultural lenses that filters and colors what they see. We all do it.
The point, however, is to be aware of the lenses we bring to the text. Become conscious that we approach the scripture carrying some baggage and some of that baggage may be questionable. We need each other to help point that out.
Frankly speaking conservatives need liberals and liberals need conservatives. Otherwise we end up in a kind of Christian ghetto speaking only to ourselves.
Southern Christian slave holders and defenders of slavery in the United States before the American Civil War justified slavery because of what they thought the Bible plainly taught. They felt that they were giving the straight forward Bible truth, not the watered down version given by those who opposed slavery.
Such writers as Thornton Stringfellow in 1856 defended slavery in his book Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery.
We have also shown from the New Testament, that all the churches are recognized as composed of masters and servants; and that they are instructed by Christ how to discharge their relative duties; …Christianity did not abolish the institution, or the right of one Christian to hold another Christian in bondage…we have shown, that “the words of our Lord Jesus Christ…adds to the obligation of the servant to render service with good will to his master, and that gospel fellowship is not to be entertained with persons who will not consent to it! (page 54)
Stringfellow even felt that fellowship should exclude those who opposed slavery.
Now, these were sincere believers. They loved their Bibles. But they failed to see that the writers of the New Testament reflected but did not justify the first century social norms.
They also failed to recognize that the New Testament writers accommodated to many social norms of their day. The New Testament did not lay down a legalistic blueprint for all eternity. Rather, the New Testament writers directed the Christians in how to live faithfully in the world recognizing that WHAT Paul wrote was true:
…this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Cor.7:31)
Of course in this world, even in the Church of Jesus Christ we still maintain our ethnicity: we remain Jewish or Gentile, Chinese, new Zealanders, Americans, brown, black, yellow, or white. Of course slaves and masters are both part of the church. Of course our genders remain either male or female.
But already the quiet and unseen work of the Kingdom of God enters
“…like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Luke 13:21)
It takes time. The kingdom work happens like a man that
“…scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” (Mark 4:26-28)
The Early Christians did not directly challenge many social evils for several reasons:
So texts about slavery or forms of government, or the role of women must be read in that light. There was a social context that makes those scriptures very relevant to those Christians. But to impose them as eternal law on the church today is questionable practice. We must all dialogue about that when decisions are to be made.
We may not all agree, but we must love as brothers and sisters
But of this we can be sure. Jesus did not come to further bind the slaves in chains. He did not come to spread despair and add to people’s burdens (“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”) He did not come to justify a theory of racial superiority nor of male superiority. Jesus did not come to place shackles upon women. He did not come to limit women and contain their God given gifts. He did not come to make the first century Greco-Roman world the standard for all eternity.
Rather, Jesus came and announced
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In a world where women can be educated and can participate in every dimension of public life it would seem to me strange for the church to prohibit women from active ministry Iand insist on a first century standard that guided the church in different times under different circumstances. In those days women were barred from education and limited in their participation in public life. The Church cannot be a ghetto uncritically conserving a social standard of a previous generation. A poem written in 1845 by which became a verse in the hymn ‘Once to Every man and Nation’ put our ever changing need to respond to present circumstances beautifully:
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Lowell wrote these words in protest to America ’s war with Mexico fearing that it would only expand the territory allowing slavery.
Women have often been and in many places still are second class citizens in the world. But today when educated women can lead countries as presidents and prime ministers; when women compete on the forefront of business and hold top executives posts, when they serve as Supreme Court Justices, senators and heads of corporations, surgeons, professors and Secretary of Sate; when women hold PhDs, surely the church takes a backward step when it takes some words of the New Testament, divorces them from their social context and applies them literally as eternal laws in order to limit a woman from preaching or holding leadership positions in the Church today.
One British missionary I know and served with in Kenya began, not at the top but at the bottom in the Church in Kenya . Beginning work in Kenya as a missionary social worker Jones served in the harshest conditions and living in mud huts working among the poorest of the poor. After some years Jones returned to England and completed required ministerial training to be ordained in the Methodist Church in England . Jones returned to Kenya now as a pastor and began work, again, in a hardship zone, much loved and honored by the church members. After many years of faithful service Bishop Zablon Nthamburi of the Methodist Church in Kenya appointed Rev .Jones to one of the leading churches in Nairobi , St. Peters Methodist. Rev. Jones’s continued pastoral ministry, effective preaching and work among the street kids of Nairobi won the hearts of the members and respect among the Methodists.
In the annual held in conference in Mombassa in 1996 during the hot debates over the election of a new Bishop, a young man who had been brought up under the ministry and guidance of Rev. Jones, now a minister himself, stood and nominated the expatriate British missionary as bishop. An older retired bishop rebuked him stating that this would only embarrass Rev. Jones. Not only was Jones British, but she was a woman. No one will vote for her, he predicted.
However, to the delight of many Rev. Maureen Jones won the vote hands down and became the first woman elected to the office of bishop among any mainline church in Africa . I was there when it happened.
Bishop Maureen Jones served as Bishop of the Nairobi Synod and hence was over the mission areas of Tanzania and Uganda. I can testify that Bishop Maureen Jones was one of the best Bishops under whom I ever served.
I thank God that Jesus let Mary sit at his feet. I thank God that Mary had courage to choose the better part and it will not be taken from her.