In the last few decades, most of us have become aware of at least some of the devastating effects of patriarchy. Women, men, girls, and boys have all suffered from the patriarchal structures and assumptions that have afflicted most cultures for millennia. Much of the Bible was written by men who never questioned the role and reality of patriarchy in their own society. Women were at best second-class citizens. They were essentially the “property” of their fathers until marriage at which time they become the “property” of their husbands. Ancient people believed that it was the father who created life through his seed/sperm while the mother was an incubator for this life. Consequently, patriarchy was based in part on this assumption that creativity and, therefore, esteem and honor belonged to the man who created and not the woman who merely served as a receptacle keeping the new life in her womb. Women’s access to the wider world as well as their rights regarding divorce, marriage, inheritance, and participation in the religious life of Jews was seriously curtailed. Because of their “inferior” status as women, their testimony was not valued. [It’s interesting that all four Gospels list women as the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t even mention the women who first came to the empty tomb. Most scholars assume he omitted the women because he was aware of the prejudices within Jewish and Greco-Roman societies. If the Easter accounts in the Gospels were “made up” (as some scholars have maintained), it’s doubtful men would have chosen women as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Such “hysterical creatures” were not considered reliable by boneheaded men.] There were many other ways the lives of women were limited and belittled within the ancient world. Just search for “women in the New Testament world.”
Jesus was born in a patriarchal empire (Rome) and within a Jewish society (Galilee and Judea) which reflected the same assumptions found throughout the Mediterranean first century world. Many Christians today presume that Jesus never questioned the role and effects of patriarchy. Over thirty-five years ago I remember hearing a presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in New Orleans by a New Testament scholar who had spent his sabbatical comparing Jesus’ attitude toward women with that of the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. He convincingly argued that Jesus’ view and treatment of women had no parallels in the Jewish or Roman world. He dismissed the suggestion by one critic of his research who maintained that the more open approach of Jesus to women was actually a later development in the church. The critic argued that this development was an attempt to make Jesus more palatable to women. I felt sorry for the guy who raised the objection because he was laughed at by the biblical scholars in the audience. The presenter gently reminded the man that the New Testament itself demonstrates that the very opposite had occurred. In his critique of patriarchy, Jesus let “the genie out of the bottle.” And by the time we get to the later books of the New Testament and some of the writings of the early church fathers, we find writers trying their best to put the genie back where they felt she belonged. In his world Jesus was unique in the way he viewed and treated women.
Another participant in the seminar pointed out that none of the twelve disciples were women. Once again, the presenter gently explained why in that culture it would have been impossible for Jesus to have women among these select followers. There were cultural restraints that could have endangered the lives of any women Jesus chose to be a part of the inner-circle who would be sent out to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.
In this article I want to present what, for me, reveals Jesus’ radical view and treatment of women. I don’t remember much of what was said in the SBL presentation other than what I have shared above. But since that time, I have sought to reread the Gospels with an open mind. Here are some of my observations. I would urge those reading this blog article to also read the biblical passages I will mention with each point.
- Mark 10: 28-30—Years ago I was reading this passage in preparation for a sermon on the importance of community as we seek to follow Jesus. In the preparation I saw something astonishing that I had missed for years. Jesus says in the passage, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” What I had missed was the absence of the word “father” in the second part of this passage. Jesus mentions “father” in what a follower may leave to become his disciple, but he purposely leaves out “father” in what one will receive in the new reality of the Kingdom of God Jesus was inaugurating in this world. Now obviously Jesus did not mean that anyone who is a father cannot be a part of his God Movement. What he is saying is that there is no place for the oppressive and controlling effects of patriarchy among his followers. No woman or man need any longer be subject to the dictates of a father whose words and actions are contrary to the liberating and healing message of Christ. In the world of God’s kingdom, there is only one father, and that is the One Jesus called Abba.
- The same point is made in Matthew 23:9 when Jesus says, “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” Women, children, and men were subject to the rule and decisions of fathers in the ancient world and within Judaism. Women especially were cruelly restricted in the ways they could be and function in their society. But when Jesus says, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven,” he is effectively dealing a death blow to patriarchy among those who choose to follow him.
- Even though Jesus did not have women among the Twelve, he did relate to women in amazing and uncharacteristic ways. His close association with the sisters Mary and Martha is stressed in the Gospels of Luke and John. In Luke 10: 38-42 we find an instructive passage regarding the role of women as understood by Jesus. Jesus was welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary. While Martha is doing “woman’s work” preparing to feed and entertain Jesus, Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus listening to every word Jesus said. Martha complains to Jesus that she is having to do all the work while Mary wastes her time sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus gently rebukes Martha pointing out that what Mary is doing is more important than what Martha is doing in the kitchen preparing an impressive meal. Many years ago when I was at seminary, I heard a student argue that this passage demonstrates that women should be subservient to men. He said that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, and “that’s where all women belong—at the feet of men.” What the seminary chauvinist missed was that “to sit at the feet of someone” is a technical phrase meaning to be the disciple of that person. Rather than putting women in their place, Jesus was affirming Mary’s place and right to be his disciple.
- Luke 8:1-3 says that as Jesus went through the cities and villages bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God, he had with him the twelve disciples as well as some women. Luke then names some of these women. If this really happened, then I can’t begin to express what a potential scandal this could have been. Women were a part of Jesus’ Galilean and Judean tour! And they helped provide for him out of the resources they controlled. Instead of staying at home and keeping out of sight, these women (apparently with Jesus’ approval) were walking the dusty trails of Palestine with Jesus. It would be unimaginable to find any rabbi who would travel with women in his entourage. There is a freedom enjoyed by these women that was virtually unknown in Jesus’ day.
- In Luke 7:36-49 we have the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair mixing tears and an ointment. The host of the dinner knows that this woman is a “sinner.” The term “sinner” when used of women often meant prostitute. This woman is so grateful for the good news she had heard Jesus proclaim, she does something no self-respecting woman would do. As was the custom in Jesus’ day, Jesus was reclining at the table and his feet would have been stretched out on the couch behind him. The woman could have easily anointed his feet. Jesus, after reprimanding his host, tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” Once again, we see an attitude on the part of Jesus that one would not expect from anyone in the ancient Near East or throughout the Roman Empire.
- In Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus has left his Jewish homeland to find some much-needed rest in the district of Tyre and Sidon (Gentile territory). He encounters a pagan woman who begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus says that he has come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not for her or other Gentiles. But the woman continues to beg. Jesus then says that it’s not fair to take the children’s (Jews) food and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles). But the woman replied that even “the little puppy dogs” eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Jesus, amazed at her humility, intelligence, and persistence, says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as your wish.” And we are told that the woman’s daughter was healed immediately. Some scholars maintain that this incident was a moment of great revelation to Jesus. Up until then, he had restricted his mission to his fellow Jews. I think he would have assumed that eventually his message of the Kingdom of God would have included Gentiles. Many Jews, taking their cue from the Old Testament prophets, believed that God’s grace and mercy would include all nations. But this woman opened Jesus’ eyes and perhaps taught him something about the good news that Jesus had not yet fully realized. One scholar even calls this the story of a “woman who taught Jesus a lesson.”
- We could also look at some of Jesus’ parables where women demonstrate something crucial about the nature of God or about the nature of faith. (Consider the parables of the woman with the lost coin, the woman who kneads the bread with yeast, the widow who irritates a corrupt judge who won’t hear her case until he says, “I don’t fear God nor man, but to shut this woman up, I will hear her complaint.”) We also have the reference in Matthew 23:7 to Jesus’ poignant lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!” How many times have you heard Jesus compared to a mother hen wanting to protect and care for her young? What does this say about Jesus? About God?
- And then there is the parable of the prodigal son. The father in that parable does not act like any patriarch would have acted in Jesus’ day. Instead, he acts like a mother. He runs to greet his prodigal son. No Jewish male old enough to have grown sons would have run. Such was beneath a father’s dignity. He embraces his son and kisses him over and over, just like a mother would do to show her great love. (The Greek verb used here indicates that there were repeated kisses. That father slobbered all over the boy! No father would have done that in the ancient world—but a mother would have done so.) When the prodigal begins his rehearsed speech of repentance, the father cuts him off and tells the servants to bring shoes for his son’s feet, the finest robe (which would have belonged to the father) to replace his son’s rags, and a ring for his son’s finger. He’s just happy to have the boy home. And he commands that a fatted calf be killed to celebrate this homecoming. I wonder how many calves this father had fattened waiting for his boy to return home. The fatted calf would have been enough to feed the whole village. The father intends to announce to all his neighbors his intention to accept his son back with no thought of punishment or even reproach. And then he goes out to his older son who is sulking outside, resentful of the party being thrown for his brother. The father patiently tries to convince this elder son whom he also loves to join the fun and embrace his brother. No father would have gone out to his son. The son would have to come to the father. All through this parable, which would have seemed scandalous to the original audience, the father acts like a loving mother.
- And finally, as I have said in several blog articles, the primary characteristic of God according to Jesus is compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion goes back to a root word meaning the “womb” of a mother. It’s what a mother feels for her children. God’s essential and eternal nature is best compared to the deep love and empathy of a mother, not a father. The God Jesus called Abba is at heart a Mother whose love and grace would be hard to find among the patriarchs of any age.
I believe that professor thirty-five years ago was absolutely correct about Jesus’ view of and attitude toward women. One of the most sinister and destructive realities Jesus had to deal with two thousand years ago was patriarchy. We have made some strides in our day in disarming such a malevolent force, but we still have a long way to go. It’s way past time to let the “genie out of the bottle.” Once we do so, everyone (men and women, boys and girls) will be liberated from an oppressive structure that is at the root of so much of the misery, violence, and sadness within our world today.