Jesus as feminist
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - April 18, 2019 - 12:00am

Tomorrow, Good Friday, Christians remember with great solemnity the crucifixion of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Nailed to the cross in Golgotha, he uttered seven sayings. As he looked down at his grieving mother Mary and his beloved disciple John, from his mouth came his third saying: “Woman, behold your son, son, behold your mother.” Mary is recorded to have been widowed at that time, and Jesus was concerned about her well-being. John knew what his master desired him to do, and he would do it – take Mary into his home and treat her as his own mother.

This scenario shows how Jesus treated women with deference and tenderness. Does that make him a feminist?

Leonard Swidler, author of Jesus Was a Feminist: What the Gospels Reveal about His Revolutionary Perspective, makes the case that “Jesus respected, cared for and even advocated for the rights of women, not in the sense of Betty Freidan, but in the highly personal relationships he formed and the subtle societal changes he was able to bring about through them.” A reviewer notes that indeed, the church as we know it couldn’t have come into being without women leaders at its beginning. 

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell of Jesus’ “revolutionary” treatment of women at a time when the prevailing culture had  prescribed rules on how women should act.

To establish the example set by Christ for the treatment of women, three scriptural passages were examined by biblical scholars: the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4), Mary of Bethany at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10), and the women at the resurrection (Matthew 28).  

The interaction with the Samaritan Woman was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He began by sharing his identity to the least relevant witness he could find – a foreign woman with a bad reputation.

Drawing water was a female responsibility to ensure the family was well supplied with water from the local well. Jesus had come to the well and asked for a drink. By interacting with a foreign man (Jesus) and starting a theological discussion with him, she begins to deny her society’s constrictive gender roles, and when she leaves her jar to spread the news of the Messiah she further defies expectations. In addition to this, she takes on the role of teacher or missionary, sharing the gospel – the good news of the come messiah – with the men in her town. The roles of teacher and student were both exclusive to men during this time period, but when Jesus allows a foreign woman to take these on, his ministry is furthered and more people come to follow him (Papazov, Wordelman).

It’s interesting, writes another author, that Christ allows the Samaritan woman to share her testimony of their interaction – at other episodes, Jesus performs miraculous signs and instructs the witnesses not to tell anyone. Here though, he allows the woman to share her testimony with the town, and it was because of that testimony that many Samaritans came to follow Christ. She was the first Samaritan to hear the good news, and the first to share that news with others. Very  important is how he offered Salvation to them – through a social outcast, a woman with a questionable past. Culturally speaking, Jesus’ choice of witness was not practical or logical, a theme that continues later in his ministry at his resurrection.

By taking this stand so early in his ministry, Jesus sets the tone his followers should adhere to – that all are equally broken and equally in need of God’s mercy.

Regarding gender, the example set by Christ is clear. If Jesus treated the Samaritan woman as equal, worthy of education and intellectual conversation, followers of Jesus should treat women in the same way. If women have Jesus’ blessing to testify and teach others, they should not be excluded from speaking and teaching in church.

 The story of Mary  of Bethany sitting at Jesus’ feet while he teaches found in Luke 10 is another example of  Jesus’ treatment of women.

In a time where a woman’s legitimacy was judged by her ability to care for her children, her diligence in overseeing the work of household slaves, and her skill in spinning and weaving, females were educated exclusively in skills that would allow them to be a good homemaker. 

Mary sitting at Christ’s feet as he spoke carries extreme significance – to sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be his student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. Mary taking this position defied the cultural standards for female religious education. She was learning from a rabbi, or teacher, with the implications of one day teaching others, despite the fact that as a woman, she was barred from public speaking or reading the Torah out loud when it was wrong.

Jesus takes  a public stand on women’s equality by defending Mary from Martha’s conformity in front of the other people present. Christ took an active role in the situation on the side of equality. To be a rabbi is not only to teach, but also to lead within the Jewish religion.  Jesus was not simply educating Mary, he was allowing her to sit as a rabbi-to-be, a role that would one day entail leadership. Not only should women have access to religious education, they should not be prevented  from leveraging that education to teach others and make leadership decisions.

 After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus chose to appear first to female followers despite their lack of credibility in that time and place. In that time women were not considered reliable witnesses. Society viewed women as “mentally and physically inferior beings, irrational and superstitious,” a view that supported the norm of male political power and authority. 

This perception bled into every aspect of female existence in the Roman Empire, writes a scholar. Women’s testimony was not considered acceptable evidence in court, and male-female conversation was frowned upon. Women were denied access to education and were often only taught what they needed to know to properly run a household.

It wasn’t logical to select a female witness to propel news of a resurrected rabbi, given the skeptical and misogynistic audience of ancient Rome. Scripture shows that even Jesus’ devoted followers did not believe the female witnesses to the resurrection.

The only woman mentioned by name in the four canonical resurrection narratives, Mary Magdalene emerges as a prominent figure in this section of Jesus’ ministry. As the first person Jesus appeared to and the first to be commissioned to testify, she is known as the First Apostle, and the Apostle of the Apostles. Mary was one of the least effective choices Jesus could have made to further the gospel. Not only was she a woman, susceptible to all of the oppression and underestimation that entailed, she had a past of insanity due to severe demon possessions. Even the disciples who knew Mary through Christ’s ministry did not believe her account of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, scriptures depict Mary as an incredibly devoted follower of  Jesus. He healed her of demon possession, to which she responded by serving his ministry emotionally, personally, and most likely, financial. 

The implications here are monumental. In John 2:11-18, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after raising from the grave, saying, “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary and the other women at the resurrection have gained some recognition for their role in spreading the gospel, and deserve to be known as “independent, motivated women” (who were) both the first witnesses to the resurrection and the first missionaries of the church.

Women, a portion of the Jewish people that had been given minimal presence in New Testament Judaism, were the first to share a gospel that is open to all people – man, woman, Jew and Gentile (Wainwright). The core message is inclusion of all disciples in Christ Jesus. Paul recognizes this in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Jesus deliberately chose female messengers as the first in Christianity, a choice that echoes the very spirit of the gospel. It is a message of salvation to a humanity that is uniformly broken, and equally in need of saving regardless of gender, race, class, reputation, past, or anything else.

Email: dominitorrevillas@gmail.com.

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