Now let me return to the proposition of Jesus’ radical equality, especially in the case of women.
A crowd gathers around Jesus’ house in Capernaum and Jesus refers to all of them, the men and the women, as His family: “‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” That “whoever” is important. Jesus is talking to men and women, thus the male and female references, and when talking to both women and men He says intentionally “whoever.” Gender differences don’t make a difference to Jesus.
Some may hear in these words the message that the “will of God” means one thing for men and another for women. This is called “complementarianism” — or the belief that men and women have distinct, or complementary, roles at home and in church, and that these should not be confused. Jesus, however, had no qualms with women providing for Him and His ministry (Luke 8:1-3) so I’m not too confident that Jesus would subscribe to complementarianism.
This gender blindness is testified to further by His visit with Martha and Mary. Martha performs dutifully the “woman’s work” of preparing the meal. Mary has the audacity to sit at the teacher’s feet to listen and learn - with the men, like a man. When Martha tries to remind Jesus of this impropriety, Jesus distances Himself from such distinctions and says, “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:41-42). Woman or not, Jesus didn’t care. He saw someone who yearned for God. He didn’t see a woman. He saw “whoever.”
The “whoever” attitude of Jesus is screaming-loud in John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well. The disciples go off to find food leaving Jesus by Jacob’s well. The Samaritan woman shows up and Jesus asks for a drink. She is immediately surprised that a Jewish man would talk with her, a Samaritan woman. A lot takes place in the story, but I wish to jump to its conclusion. When the disciples return, after much talk about Jews and Samaritans has intervened, they don’t stammer a stunned question about the fact that Jesus is talking with a Samaritan. They are much more befuddled by the scandal of Jesus talking with a woman (cf. John 4:27). The disciples have taken on the role of Martha, but Jesus is still Jesus. He’s still preaching the “whoever” message.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce is based on this radical equality. In that day, in the Jewish tradition, a man could divorce his wife easily and for no reason. A wife could not divorce her husband no matter what. Jesus is asked about divorce by people who want to trap Him because under Roman law a wife could end a marriage. They’re testing Jesus. They’re figuring that however He answers, they’ll have Him. But in the oldest Gospel tradition, Jesus doesn’t allow for divorce at all. He speaks of the ideal of marriage where the two become one. This means that the husband can’t simply write off his wife for some real or imagined infraction or if he just gets bored with her. Jesus treats the wife as a person not as a piece of property. And then on top of this, Jesus holds the wife to same moral standards as the husband. Roman law would allow for her to divorce a husband, but Jesus holds the wife to the exact same standards as the husband. They both must work at the marriage ideal - equally.
About ten years later, Matthew retells this story and surprisingly (not really) he leaves out the passage about the wife having the possibility of divorcing her husband (because Matthew is writing for a Jewish-Christian community where such a possibility is not even considered). Then Matthew creates a proviso that the husband can divorce his wife for infidelity; the old ways are slipping back in. The church, right in the canonical text, is already interpreting the written words of Jesus. This is necessary, but we need to remember that the oldest tradition was Jesus’ insistence of complete equality before God and this should be honoured and carried forward if the interpretation is to remain faithful to the original.
And let me share one more story. Part of the story is the story. John 7:53 - 8:11 probably wasn’t a part of the original John. It probably was written after what is now Luke 21:38. We were just talking about interpreting the text right in the canonical text. Well, it may be that a Lucan editor was not too pleased with this story of the woman caught in adultery and forgiven so he excised the passage. John is a good ten years after Luke and the period is closing when eye witnesses to Jesus’ life are available. The window is closing on the biblical period. Rather than let this pericope disappear from the tradition, the editor of John works it into his Gospel.
It seems that the story was unnerving in its equality. As far as I know, it takes two to commit adultery. The woman was said to be caught in the act. The men filled with righteous indignation haul this sinful woman into the Temple courtyard to dispense the religious justice of the mob just like has happened throughout history and still today. The most vulnerable are always the victims. The powerful escape. The religious mob asks Jesus for His opinion. They should be more careful. Jesus calmly bends down and begins writing on the ground. We know not what. But I wonder if it had anything to do with Leviticus 20:10, which reads: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” The ones dragging the woman to judgment, they knew this law, but they didn’t really want to punish the man, they only wanted to kill the woman. Jesus would have none of this blood lust, this sexist savagery. He would not allow these men cloaked in religion to cover their offense with God-talk. Jesus would have none of it. The mob slowly disperses and Jesus talks with the adulterous woman as a person and moves her closer to God.
These are the reasons why I find it so hard to accept that churches continue to relegate figuratively women to the back pew in the name of this Jesus. You can see the more traditional worldly standards creep into the Christian text as the church grows older and strives to fit in more conventionally in the patriarchal society around it. In the authentic Pauline Epistle to the Galatians, for example, Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) In a later letter that is not considered to be among the seven authentic Pauline Epistles, the gender equality is stricken from a similar text: “In the renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) Where did the “no longer male and female” disappear to? The church gave in to the world around it and then in a weird turn of events the ones who so often call the ways of the world corrupt hang on to these changes and force them upon the church. This tendency only becomes more pronounced in the definitely deutero-Pauline Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus that complementarians love to quote. But when Paul stands up for Jesus with this radical equality and then someone usurping Paul’s name writes against it, I have to stick with Paul.
Much earlier I mentioned how religion as an institution has played a huge part in this separation between the message of Jesus and the earliest church and the message of Christianity. Religion as an institution has a built-in preservation mode. That’s the “traditionalism” we spoke about in the May 28th post. Women have not fared well in much of religious history, and even Jesus is having a hard time correcting this “traditionalism.” It’s not easy or even natural for a self-preserving institution to express the constant vibrancy of Jesus and the earliest church.
Thomas Aquinas, and I’m indebted to an article by Peter Harrison for this information, discusses “religion” (religio in Latin) in his Summa Theologiae not as a systematic set of beliefs and practices, as we tend to do today, but as a moral virtue. In its primary sense, religio refers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, and these interior aspects of religio are more important than any outward expression of religio. Even the outward expressions of “religion” are defined in the Epistle of James as acts of compassion rather than of worship (1:27). But somehow religion has moved from personal qualities and compassion to a strict system of beliefs and practices. The personal qualities of religion are orientated toward progress toward a goal. Religion as a system prefers the static.
The UCC recognizes this conundrum and has proudly re-proclaimed consistently and institutionally words of one of her earliest leaders. John Robinson was the pastor to the Pilgrims. In his farewell remarks to them as they embarked for the New World, he promised, “The Lord hath more light and truth yet to break forth from his holy Word.” This is the basis for our current theology of “God is still speaking,”. We are supposed to be constantly prepared to be surprised by Jesus. In a world where religions still act as a bulwark of sexism, the UCC is trying to follow Jesus’ genuine equality of “whoever” so that sermons about a girl’s appearance, or preaching that a wife needs to endure an abusive marriage, or that woman must be submissive, or that rapists should be forgiven so that the institution isn’t embarrassed, that such nonsense as this is not allowed to continue, that instead the Jesus of “whoever” may lead us forward.
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