Guest Post- Women: Jesus’ Forgotten Disciples

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by Justin Rose

 

James, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple.

Phillip, Thomas, and Andrew.

Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot.

 

These, and other names, comprise the men whose chief role in Christian memory is the recollection of intimacy with Jesus of Nazareth.  They are the faithful disciples who refuse to abandon Jesus (until his betrayal and arrest), the founding primates of the Church, and the martyrs who face the sword, the cross, the beasts, and the fire on account of their faithful witness.  These so-called Twelve make up the totality of Jesus’ closest circle of students and followers.

Any attention to the gospel and the epistolary texts, however, reveal that Jesus’ company throughout his ministry was not exclusively male.

The scant attention to Jesus’ childhood is overtly characterized by the presence of his mother, Mary. The gospels make significantly more space for his friendship with the women in the sibling group of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  There is also the anointing at Bethany, the exorcism of the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter, and the woman Jesus meets at the well.  Then, of course, there is the initial revelation of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb, which depict Jesus’ unusual affirmation of women and their proximity to his movement in first-century Palestine.

Despite these examples of the centrality of women in Christian origins, patriarchal  institutions have acted through the centuries to suppress the memory of these women. Even in the text itself, we witness the creeping in of anonymity and belittlement of the women who Jesus most likely counted as close to him, as he did the Twelve.

In the biblical narrative (Mark 14), a woman enters the house where Jesus is dining with Simon the Leper and anoints his head with a jar of alabaster. Though she is scolded for this expensive display of honor, Jesus rebukes her male critics and declares that whenever the good news is proclaimed in the world, her story would be told in remembrance of her. From the very mouth of Jesus comes the spiritual and ecclesial promotion of this woman.

This sign-action the woman performs is a priestly and prophetic gesture; signaling the suffering, death, and burial of Jesus. It is also an allusion to the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of the anointing of kings of Israel, thus making the sign-action a foreshadowing of Jesus’ vindication by God and ascendancy to his future as Christ the King.

In Luke’s gospel, however, the woman who anoints Jesus is remembered not as a friend of Jesus, but as a sinner. This, it should be noted, is not an uncommon tendency in the zeitgeist of patriarchal narrativity. That is, patriarchy consistently seeks to demonize or “other” women whose narrative function deconstructs or alters “traditional” roles of women, especially in antiquity. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza points out in her book, In Memory of Her, that while Jesus, the head of the Church, champions the behavior and the memory of the woman who anoints him, her name is lost to us forever.

Another woman whose courageous engagement with Jesus in their patriarchal Greco-Roman context is relegated to anonymity is the woman with the daughter possessed by an unclean spirit.  She is also known as the Syro-phoenician woman.  (This biblical narrative is found in Mark 7:25-30 and paralleled in Matthew 15:21-28).

In this particular case, Jesus proffers a controversial response to her request that he deliver her daughter of this evil. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says. While at first blush this might not seem the most compassionate of responses, it is in keeping with his earlier command that pearls not be cast before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus in the gospel texts, though radically inclusive, does caution his followers not to share the precious gospel so unguardedly with those who would have no use for it and thus corrupt it.  Mark and Matthew provide this story perhaps as a warning for those early Jewish Christians who might take such advice as justification for their exclusion of the uncircumcised, the Gentiles.

In any case, the woman demonstrates remarkable sophistication as a student of the great teacher and, as any lover of pedagogy will note, does not simply accept Jesus’ rejection as correct. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

With this retort, the woman transcends the seeming daftness of the Markan male disciples and embodies the Matthean comparison of a Jesus follower to a faithful scribe. She is engaged with the divine teaching, wrestling with it, and allowing it to evolve into a helpful, nuanced part of Christian identity. This person, who exists outside the Torah sanctioned boundaries of inclusion, widens the table to make room for other Gentiles in the early Jesus movement. Her daughter is delivered of the unclean spirit and thus the work of liberation, which characterizes Christianity, is made universal.

At the heart of the Christian creed is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Here is precisely where the agency and leadership of Jesus’ women disciples comes into play.  At this heart, we witness the timidity, the denial, the betrayal, and the failure of belief in Jesus’ closest male disciples. Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus. The twelve cannot remain awake during his agonizing vigil in the garden. Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, denies his messiah three times. Most of them flee before his execution. And finally, upon his resurrection, many are hesitant to believe the good news he had foretold.  But, there is no account of abandonment by his women disciples. No betrayal. No denial.

Mary of Magdala and “the other Mary” were the first to learn of his resurrection, the first to witness his resurrected estate, and in Luke, the first to communicate the good news to the male disciples. In fact, in Luke’s redactional transmission of the account, a wealthy woman, Joanna, is added to the initial witnesses. His redaction is in keeping with Luke’s curious interest in powerful women, which probably says a great deal about the role of women in Christian origins.

So, what is the responsibility of the Christian who calls herself or himself a feminist when it comes to this problem of memory and of anonymity?  Can our biblical texts be reclaimed so that the agency and leadership of early Christian women might take their places at the table?

Surely, the radical example of inclusion and table sharing in the life of Jesus and the call to participation in God’s proclamation that all things are being made new are sufficient validation for this endeavor.  The observations that have been made here are merely at the surface of what is a massive reclamation and indeed reconstruction of Christian origins, which prioritizes the lived experiences of early Christian women in the beginnings, development, and missionary activity of the Church.

A Christian feminist has an obligation to the Church, to women, and to those at the margins of society in general, to “excavate” these anonymous disciples’ biographies.

Guest Post: God as Mother

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“Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.  You must be compassionate (wombish), just as your Father is compassionate (wombish).     – Luke 6:35,36 NLT

Words often fail me.  This is quite the problem, as my vocation demands my use of them. I am a pastor and a religion professor and thus I am tasked daily with communicating God to my church family and to my students in ways that are both relevant and truthful.   I fail all too often.  I console myself with the fact that to speak of God is an utterly impossible task.  To borrow the words of Augustine, “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God. Let us rather make a devout confession of ignorance, instead of a brash profession of knowledge. Certainly it is great bliss to have a little touch or taste of God with the mind; but completely to grasp God, to comprehend God, is utterly impossible.”

This confession of inadequacy did little to comfort me, however, when my friend Hannah walked into my office a year ago and confronted me with the following statement, “Nothing said from the pulpit applies to me.  Everything is couched in masculine language. What are you going to do about it?” Although initially taken aback by her bluntness, I had to admit that her claim was all too true and that I would do my best to ensure that we would be more intentional and inclusive with our language in the future.

In the weeks and months that followed, I would find myself reflecting on my discussion with Hannah and imagining how our faith community might actively explore the feminine aspects of God. This reflection prompted my sharing of the following in a talk entitled, “Jesus the Compassionate,” on this past Mother’s Day:

  • The church tends to think of God in masculine terms because the scriptures were penned in a patriarchal context and because of Jesus’ oft-employed image of God as Father.  (To name only two factors).
  • God is, however, neither male nor female but is instead beyond gender.  (See Alister McGrath’s discussion of this in his text, Theology the Basics).
  • Jesus emphasized that compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life lived unto God.  We see this in Luke 6:36.  It is also important to note that the word translated as compassion, “rachmin,” stems from the word “rechmen” which means “womb.” Therefore, Jesus is stating that if we want to be like our Father then we must be wombish like our Father is wombish.  (Thanks to Marcus Borg for introducing me to this concept in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).
  • To be wombish is to be life giving, nourishing, protective and embracing. Again, this is how Jesus sees God.  God is not only Father, but also Mother! (See Jeremiah 31:20 and Exodus 34:6).
  • I believe Luke 6:36 is superior to its corresponding passage in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” as it is more in keeping with the overall tenor of Jesus’ teachings and ministry.  (Again, see above for Borg’s discussion on these two motifs as it relates to Jesus’ attack on the purity system of his day).

I understand that this language might be hard for some to accept, but I believe that it is necessary for the church to begin to employ metaphors and models that highlight the feminine aspects of God as well as the masculine. In doing so, we might better avoid the incomplete and often chauvinistic image of God that is portrayed in so many of our congregations.

My Husband, My Companion

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As a Christian feminist, I often feel conflicted regarding how to view my husband.  As a feminist, I’m told to view my husband as my equal.  I believe whole-heartedly in this and I do view my husband as my equal. But I have found that among feminists, it is sometimes unpopular to praise your husband simply because of his gender.  So, I find myself reserved in communicating my admiration of him. On the other hand, I’m told by conservative Christians that I am to view my husband as my authority, my “head,” the protector of my fragile/weaker frame, and the ruler of our home.  So, for me to communicate that my respect for my husband exists outside of this hierarchal and patriarchal framework, I am deemed “not a good Christian wife”.  Thus, I’m left perplexed in how I should view him.

When I look at my marriage, I try not to view it through the lens of gender.

It is hard for me to type that statement because I do not believe the answer to gender inequality is to eliminate gender identity.  I do understand that it is difficult to determine what is male and what is female simply by looking at the surface of a person.  Our society is slowly learning that gender is determined by more than a person’s anatomical make-up.  Even though this difficulty exists, I believe that we will do ourselves a disservice if we try to eliminate gender identity all-together.  Within our gender identity lies more opportunity for diversity.

For some, acknowledging the differences in one another is negative; because the belief is that we are predisposed to ranking that which is different, thus creating a hierarchal system.  The claim is that some differences are good, some are bad, and some are better than others.  But, I believe these differences should exist solely in-and-of themselves.  I should be able to acknowledge that my husband is male and that I am female, and just let that be.  The fact that my husband is male does not make him superior to me, just as I am not superior to him simply because I am female. The same can be said of all differences.

With that being said, in my marriage, I do not believe our gender to be pertinent.  While, yes, the fact that my husband is male makes up a part of who he is, the overall enjoyment I receive from his personhood goes so far beyond his gender identity.

I believe I should be able to verbally communicate my love and admiration for him with the understanding that this exists outside of his identity as a male.  For me to withhold my praise and admiration simply because of his gender would mean that I, myself, am partaking in gender injustice.  Not to mention that I would be missing out on celebrating the person my husband is.

In the same way, I should be able to communicate that my respect for my husband can and does exist outside of the fact that he is male.  This does not make me a less-than-ideal Christian wife.  I believe that this actually makes me a better Christian wife, because my respect for my husband is not out of obligation or solely founded upon his gender identity.  My respect for my husband stems from who he is on the inside, which I believe to be Christ-like.

When I look at my husband, I view him through the lens of companionship.  What I see in him is the friendship we have cultivated. I see the daughter we co-parent.  I see the son who will soon join our family.  I see what sets fire to his bones.  I see what causes a frown on his brow.  I see the memories he has shared with me from his childhood.  I see the family that has helped create the person he is today.  I see him, Jonathan; the entirety of his personhood.  Not simply Jonathan, who is male, but Jonathan who is my husband, and my companion.