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Just after Jesus spoke his famous parable of the Good Samaritan to his disciples and followers – a parable where he taught that people should show compassion and service to others no matter how lowly or different they might be – he taught a new lesson by his actions, instead of by story. Jesus and his disciples, as reported in the Gospel of Luke, arrived at a small village outside of Jerusalem – one called Bethany which sat on a hilltop overlooking the famous city. As was his practice, he found shelter in the home of one of his supporters – in this case two sisters named Mary and Martha. In the hours before dinner, Martha was busy doing all of the work necessary to be a good host to someone of Jesus’ stature. Gracious hospitality was and still is a common middle eastern ethic – but it is one whose tasks fall largely on the shoulders of women. The male host typically makes a grand show of offering lavish hospitality to a guest – even as it is understood that the women of the household do all of work to prepare sleeping quarters and cook a suitably nice meal.
In this case, Jesus was shown great honor as a famous rabbi and itinerant sage. The work to host him should have been shared by the two sisters equally but, instead, it was Martha who did all of the work. Mary, on the other hand, appears to have been the idle one who sat at Jesus’ feet to talk to him, listen to him and learn from him. Obviously annoyed by her sister’s unwillingness to help, Martha scolds Mary and demands that she help too. Jesus, however, assures Martha that what Mary was doing was good – she wanted to learn and be present in the moment. Martha, Jesus implied, was the busy do-gooder who was blind to the real purpose of hospitality – to show companionship with another person. This account is typically used as an object lesson for the Martha’s of the world – of which I tend to be one. It’s not the quantity, expense or abundance of food, drink and sleeping quarters that are of primary importance in gracious hospitality, it’s the depth and quality of human connection that are a priority. Jesus seems to teach that it was Mary who understood this principle. Martha did not.
While this lesson is one to be learned, there is another lesson in the story that is often overlooked. Martha was performing the typically female role. Even today, it is often women who do the majority of hospitality functions. Men serve as the social host – the one who makes the personal connection with a guest. In this episode, Mary was acting as a man would. She was the one sitting with Jesus, learning from him and conversing with him. Such actions, however, were not acceptable in that culture. Women were to know their place in the social strata – as persons inferior to men, as persons who served and performed the functions of less intellectual or social importance. Martha was angry that Mary had stepped outside the cultural standard. Jesus – as a man – should have supported Martha. Serve me, feed me Mary, but do not speak with me. You are a woman and not my equal.
Instead, he taught the exact opposite. Mary and Martha, he suggested, should both sit with him, converse with him and enjoy his company. They should not concern themselves with typical cultural roles for women but instead enjoy the purely human impulse for camaraderie, friendship, and understanding. That is not an exclusively male privilege. Everyone should enjoy that right.
Very emphatically, by his eagerness to visit and speak with women, by his teaching to Martha that she too can enjoy socializing with a rabbi or anyone else for that matter, Jesus gave evidence that he not only believed in the equality of women, but that he was willing to advocate for it and practice it. He was a spiritual radical as much then, as he would be today. He was a feminist at a time when extreme male chauvinism was not only normal but the supposed right way to think.
This outreach to women – a class of outcasts in his time – is one reason why women were the last at the Cross of Jesus’ crucifixion and the first at his tomb. They mourned his death the longest, they were the ones willing to remain associated with him as a condemned criminal, unlike his male followers, and they were the most eager to honor his life by assuring a dignified burial. Women were acting out of appreciation for, and solidarity with, Jesus – a friend of all marginalized persons. As the British writer Dorothy Sayers writes in her book Are Women Human? : “Perhaps it is no wonder that women were last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this man – there never has been such another. He was a prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never patronized them, never made arch jokes about them, who took their questions and arguments seriously.”
Even so, women are often overlooked participants in the Good Friday and Easter stories. We tend to focus on the actions of Jesus himself, his male disciples and his male enemies. My message today seeks to correct that oversight as it emphasizes Jesus’ historic words and actions as one of the first male feminists.
Most current scholars assert that to be a feminist, one must not only profess the equality of women, one must also never act or speak in a way that demeans women or accepts a cultural norm of male domination. In all four gospels, Jesus lived up to this standard. Indeed, in other non-Biblical accounts of his life, the Gospel of Peter for instance, his stature as a supporter of women is even stronger. That he was a vocal feminist appears to be an historical fact.
While Jesus’ actions may not seem remarkable today when there are many women and men who advocate for gender equality, in the context of his time and culture his teachings and actions were revolutionary. Time and again he scorned religious laws that a man should never associate with or touch anyone considered religiously unclean and unworthy – like the handicapped, lepers, those with skin disorders, the mentally ill, people of other faiths, the sick, the poor and so called sinners like thieves, adulterers, or tax collectors. Prominently added to that list of outcast persons were women.
Indeed, the religious fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were called “black and blue Pharisees” because they literally practiced the rule that men were to in no way associate with women, except for one’s wife in the privacy of the home. Fundamentalist men of the time therefore walked in public with their eyes shut tight because they might see a female – even a little girl. They kept their eyes shut even as they would then bump into buildings, get run over by a cart in the street or trip and fall down – all to avoid glancing at a female. To bear multiple bruises was a sign of male piety – better to get hurt than to demean oneself by looking at a woman.
We need only imagine the psychic damage such attitudes did to women. Most men did not care. A common daily prayer of the time was, “Praised be God that I was not born a Gentile, praised be God that I was not born a dog, praised be God that I was not born a woman.” Teaching females how to read, write or understand the Torah was also prohibited. One first century rabbi said, “Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her lasciviousness.” Educating a girl was therefore the equivalent of raising her to be a whore.
This perception of women as the ones most likely to engage in sexual sin came from the belief that Eve tempted Adam with sex to eat the apple. Indeed, the four Gospels indicate that women bore all the blame for sexual sin – it was the adulterous woman who was to be stoned, not the man. It was the woman who had been married and divorced multiple times who was a sinner – not her husbands. It was prostitutes who were to be shunned and not the men who purchased their services. It was women, as luridly described in the Book of Leviticus, who were religiously unclean during their monthly periods and for seven days thereafter. A husband and all other males, including any boy over 13, were to be informed of her period in order that they avoid any contact with her.
The famous Jerusalem Temple was divided into a series of walled courtyards which limited access to areas closest to the Holy of Holies, where the male God resided. The outermost courtyard, outside of that reserved for Gentile men, the farthest from God, was the court for women. No female could be member of a synagogue, they could not pray in public and they were separated from men in all religious functions. The Proverbs of the Fathers, a common book of Jewish sayings, contains this injunction: “Whoever speaks much with a woman draws down misfortune on himself, neglects the words of the law, and finally earns hell.”
A man at the time could, according to popular rabbinic teaching, divorce his wife for any reason – even for the mistake of burning his food. A husband merely had to to hand his wife a signed statement that he divorced her and she was sent away. In a culture where wives did not co-own marital property, where women could not be educated, and where any non-virgin female was to be shunned, the financial prospects for divorced women were bleak. The insecurity wives must have felt cannot be imagined.
All of these apartheid practices towards women contrast sharply with the words and actions of Jesus. He not only befriended women, he refused to act as a supposedly normal man by treating them as his inferiors. He associated with women in full public view – refusing to practice the insulting ritual of closing his eyes in their presence. A substantial number of women were his constant followers and financial supporters. He welcomed their attention, allowed himself to be touched by them and advocated for their protection. His famous divorce teaching that excluded any reason for divorce with the exception of adultery was not designed to uphold the religious sanctity of marriage but rather to purposefully protect women and their rights. His divorce teachings were directed at men who routinely abandoned their wives as he pointedly disagreed with famous rabbis on this and other issues.
He disregarded rules about associating with menstruating women in his encounter with a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. She reached out to touch him, hoping to thereby be cured. By every standard of the time, Jesus could have demanded she be stoned to death for making him ritually unclean. Instead, he publicly praised her for her faith as he also declared her healed of her condition. By his actions, he restored her dignity and value.
Time and again he promoted equal and generous treatment of women – telling Peter’s mother-in-law to remain in her sick bed and not get up to serve him as she was expected to do, he praised a prostitute for her tenderness and faith when she cleaned his feet with her hair, and he promoted decency toward widows who, like divorced women, were often left without any way to support themselves. Overall, he considered women to be fully equal with men as he forgave them, assured them of God’s love, taught them, praised them, consulted them, accepted their help, ate with them, and enjoyed their company as much as he did his male followers. Secure in his own masculinity, his actions were unheard of, radical, scandalous but nevertheless deeply feminist. We do the historic Jesus no credit if we forget this, if we choose to interpret him as a political revolutionary instead of as a leading prophet and example of outreach to persons on the margins of a male dominant and elitist culture. Jesus was a radical feminist for his time and ours. Easter confirms it.
At his arrest on Passover Eve, Jesus’ band of followers were thrown into disarray. Peter attempted a worthlessly showy effort to fight back against Roman soldiers even as he then quickly hid his identity and his association with Jesus in order to save himself. Almost all of Jesus’ other male followers did the same – retreating to a secret hiding place where they fearfully waited.
In contrast to them, most of Jesus’ female followers remained with him on that first Good Friday as he was publicly tried and condemned, whipped, stripped naked, paraded through Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, and slowly suffered a humiliating death. His mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Joanna, Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee and many more women stayed with him until he died – their anguished cries for a man who had treated them as equals – heartbreaking. Jesus was not just a rabbi to them, not just a great man, not just a local celebrity. He was their advocate, their feminist messiah.
Upon his death, these women quickly wrapped his body in a burial cloth and helped inter him in a dignified grave. Since it was Sabbath eve, they like all other Jews quickly finished their work before sunset. They would return at the end of the Sabbath and at first daylight – what is now known as Easter Sunday morning. Arriving at the tomb, they intended to open the grave and anoint his body with oils and herbs to preserve it. Even after his death, they would show Jesus their love and appreciation for his support.
Whether or not the story of Easter is true, the accounts that women discovered his empty tomb, saw a vision of an angel and saw the resurrected Jesus, it is clear that the prominence of women in the Easter drama should not be overlooked. Indeed, Easter’s story is based on the testimony of women – that they, and not men, were eyewitnesses to what Christians assert is the single greatest event in history.
According to the Easter story, because of their love for Jesus, women discovered the resurrection and thereby helped, at least allegorically, redeem humanity; they helped tell the world that the realm of God’s love is at hand, that the perfection of earth is possible, that people need only look to Jesus to know how to live, speak and act. At a time when women could not testify in any court of law – their testimony being considered unreliable, women were nevertheless key players in the Easter story. Their devotion and their appreciation of Jesus as a feminist advocate kept them at the Cross until the bitter end, led them to his tomb, and helped establish him as one of history’s great prophets. Even as male writers of the Gospels altered facts about Jesus’ life, they could not and did not alter the fact that it was his female followers who refused to abandon him.
As with many other areas in life, if we seek wisdom about equality for women, if we want to fully honor the decency, goodness, compassion, and wisdom of women in general, we can look to the words and actions of Jesus. Too many Christians ignore the example of Jesus in their attitudes toward and treatment of women. It has been religion that has subjugated women and thereby encouraged larger society to also demean them. Genuine spirituality, as taught and practiced by Jesus, does the opposite.
Women must be paid equally. They must be able to be spiritual leaders – Pastors, Priests and Popes. They must enjoy the same right to reproductive freedom as men. They must be freed from outrageous claims that they are responsible for their own rape or abuse. They must be able to work in a career of their choice – from tending the home to being a business executive to becoming President. These are not true because I say so. They are true because of the universal equality of genders as clearly taught by Jesus.
As key participants in the Easter drama, women deserve far more credit for the role they played in his life and ministry. They were instrumental in the founding of the Jesus movement. Their support of his legacy helped spread news of his spiritually revolutionary message – a message that soon captivated all civilization. Even as that message was later distorted and exaggerated by men in order to create male structured religion, we can sift through all of the distortions to find the true Jesus – a feminist, an advocate for equality, a champion for the poor and the marginalized, a threat to the powerful and arrogant. I hope that this Easter we might see the holiday as a celebration of all Jesus’ teachings – and most especially his support for women as the equal of any man, including himself.
I wish each of you peace, joy and the empowerment to be your true self.
For talk back time, I pose this question:
What role has religion or spirituality played in framing your outlook on gender equality? What can we specifically do to make things better for women?