Jesus Liberates Women
When we try to reconstruct Jesus attitude to women, we detect an awareness of their presence among his audience. Jesus draws his examples from the life of women, no less than from the life of men. He knows that women keep their treasures in boxes, and that they light a lamp at dusk (Matthew 6,19-21; 5,15-16). He speaks of children playing in the market place and of girls waiting for the bridegroom at a wedding (Matthew 11,16-19; 25,1-13). He often tells his parables in pairs, with a story about a woman running parallel to a story about a man:
- the housewife who mixes leaven in the dough/ the farmer who plants a mustard seed;
- the woman who lost a coin/ the shepherd who lost a sheep;
- the widow pestering the judge/ the friend waking up his neighbour at night.
Luke 13,18-21; 15,3-10; 11,5-13 and 18,1-8.
We can be sure that Mary, Jesus mother, had a great influence on him. Jesus learned many of his ideals from her. She must have encouraged him when he began his public ministry. A trace of this has been recorded in the Gospel of John. During the wedding at Cana it was Mary who urged him to perform his first miracle. My hour has not yet come, Jesus protested. But when she quietly insisted, he changed his mind and ushered in the messianic era by turning water into wine John 2,1-12).
At various crucial stages in his own development Jesus gained insighst and was prompted to action through encounters with women.
* When the woman who suffered of a flow of blood touched Jesus from behind, he perceived in himself that power had gone forth from him. Perhaps, Jesus healing ministry took its beginning from such encounters (Mark 5,21-43).
* The Syro-Phoenician woman pleaded with Jesus to drive the demon from her daughter. Jesus refused because he felt his mission was restricted to his own people. However, the woman argues with him; and Jesus gives in, thus making a first step on the way to his universal mission (Mark 7,24-30).
* In the house of Mary and Martha Jesus meets, perhaps for the first time, a woman who, like the men who sit at his feet, wants to be a disciple. Jesus is impressed by this and encourages her discipleship even if it runs counter to conventional expectations of a womans role (Luke 10,38-42; see also 8,1-3).
Jesus also responded to the silent gestures of women: the repentant prostitute who poured ointment on his feet, the widow of Nain who walked behind the bier of her dead son, the woman who was bent double with arthritis, the widow in the Temple who put two small coins in the offering box, and the women of Jerusalem who wept as they saw Jesus carrying his cross (Luke 7,36-50; 7,11-17; 13,10-17; 21,1-4 and 23,27-31).
From all these and other texts we can be sure that the historical Jesus was very much aware of the concerns of women. He cared about them. He learned from them. He recognised in their needs, and their suggestions, promptings by the Spirit. The forgiveness and reconciliation he brought from his Father, were as much for women as for men.
For an analysis of such Gospel passages, read: Elisabeth MOLTMANN-WENDEL, The Women around Jesus, London 1982; A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, London 1986, pp. 137-148; Mary GREY, Redeeeming the Dream: feminism, redemption and Christian tradition, London 1989, esp. pp. 95-103.
Jesus Christ liberates
We could now proceed to a deeper level and ask: What use has Jesus concern been to women? Has it actually resulted in facts of liberation? Has the Risen Christ proved as effective for women as the promise held out by Jesus of Nazareth?
The answer is: yes! The position of women in religion changed dramatically with the coming of Christ. Whereas she had only belonged indirectly to the covenant of Moses, woman was now made a child of God on an equal footing with man.
In the Old Testament, it was only the men who were the immediate bearers of the covenant. It was the male children who were circumcised when they were eight days old (Genesis 17,9-14). The covenant, therefore, was concluded directly with the men. Women belonged to it only through men - first as daughters of their fathers, then as wives of their husbands.
It was the men who were expected to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Three times a year, at the three major feasts, all the menfolk were to appear before Yahwehs face (Exodus 23,17). The women could come along and take part in the sacrificial meal, as did children, slaves and guests. But it was not really their own sacrifice. The principal reason (rationalisation!) was that the wife, like children, slaves and cattle were, in fact, owned by the husband (see Exodus 20,17). A good wife is the best of possessions (Sirach 26,3; see also Proverbs 31,10). The husband could practically divorce his wife at will, she could not divorce him (Deuteronomy 24,1-4). A religious vow by a woman was only valid if it was ratified by her father or husband (Numbers 30,2-17).
In the Temple at Jerusalem, Jewish women could enter inside the wall of separation into the court of women. They were not allowed to proceed further.
The men, on the other hand, could enter the court of Israel. It was this court that faced the altar of holocausts and it was there that the priests accepted the gifts for the sacrifice. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, Mary had to stay back in the court of women, while Joseph carried the child Jesus and the turtle doves into the court of Israel. It was there, in the womens enclosure, that they met Simeon and Anna (Luke 2,22-38).
Also in traditional Judaism the same distinction persisted. It was the men who were required to recite the regular prayers. Men had the principal seats in the synagogues. Men could read from the Torah. Only males, ten of them, could form the quorum, minyan, required for public prayers. At the age of 13, boys were initiated into their adult religious duties by the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. No such thing existed for girls.1
Only since 1810 AD, in socalled Reform Judaism, has more attention been given to women. A Bar Mitzvahceremony for women is now common. For an orthodox explanation of womens duties in Judaism, read D.EISENBERG, A Guide for the Jewish Woman and Girl, Brooklyn 1986. A feminist approach to modern questions is presented by the liberal rabbi Julia NEUBERGER in Whatevers happening to Women?, London 1991.
It is with this background in mind that we can appreciate the revolutionary change brought by Christ. For both men and women are initiated into the new covenant by one and the same rite, namely baptism. We have already seen above that in baptism we die with Jesus and rise with Jesus. Both men and women undergo this transformation and come out as a new creation.
On account of this, both men and women share equally in the eucharistic meal and have equal religious duties. These are factual changes with enormous consequences.
Let us listen to Paul:
All of you are children of God
through faith in Christ Jesus.
All of you who have been baptized in Christ,
have clothed yourselves in Christ.
Thus there is no longer Jew nor Greek,
free nor slave,
male nor female.
For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Notice the revolutionary changes Christ has brought about in the factuality of human relationships to God. But this religious factuality still needed, and needs, translation into social and ecclesial factuality.
The Catholic Church is still discussing all the consequences. It took the Church more than 19 centuries to publicly accept that slavery is incompatible with God's design and against the mind of Christ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes no 29). Now Rome is still resisting the admission of women to the sacramental priesthood. We can be sure that ultimately this question will be resolved on the basis of the fundamental equality established by Christ.
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