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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 11 June 2007

Are Women Human?
Jesus, Women, and Identity Politics

For Sunday June 17, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           1 Kings 21:1–10, (11–14), 15–21a or 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13–15
           Psalm 5:1–8 or Psalm 32
           Galatians 2:15–21
           Luke 7:36–8:3

Woman at the well, John 4.
Woman at the well, John 4.

           Are women human?

           That's the question the British writer Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) posed in two short essays written in 1938. She had more than an academic interest in the question. When she finished Somerville College, Oxford, with first class honors in modern languages in 1915, they didn't yet grant degrees to women.

           "Man is willing to accept woman," she quoted DH Lawrence, "as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won't accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex." That was the gist of Sayers' radically simple argument, that women be acknowledged as human beings, and only subsequently labeled as a class of human beings qualified by biology, culture, ethnicity, age, economics, nationality, and so on.

           Sayers also made an observation about the Gospels. Women, she noted, were "the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross." Luke's Gospel for this week punctuates that point: "Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many other women. These women were helping to support them out of their own means" (Luke 8:1–3).

Women celebrating the eucharist.
Women celebrating the eucharist.

           The prominence of women in the life of Jesus is both deeply embedded in the gospels and also highly unusual for that time and place. In one incident the disciples expressed amazement that Jesus spoke to a woman (John 4:27). Respected rabbis would not have associated with women like Jesus did, and women were not allowed to study the Torah. A well-known prayer found in three rabbinic traditions (Tosephta, Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud) thus thanks God for not being born a Gentile, a woman, or an ignorant man, none of whom enjoyed the privilege of studying the Torah.

           Today the women mentioned by Luke are barely known to us. Mary Magdalene is mentioned several times in the Gospels, Joanna was a witness to the resurrection (Luke 24:10), while the identities of her husband Cuza, Susanna, and the "many other women" who supported Jesus remain lost to history. In Luke's day they must have been well-known people of financial means who had left their husbands and families in order to underwrite a sizeable group of itinerating evangelists. Perhaps they were some of those first believers who sold their lands and houses and used the money to support the Jesus movement (Acts 4:34). Whatever the particulars, they were, as the poker expression puts it, "all in."

           These women traveled with Jesus and his followers for nearly three years, supported them, witnessed his crucifixion, and then were the first heralds of the resurrection. Mark writes that at his death "some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there" (Mark 15:41). After the ascension "the women"—as if their identities would have been obvious to the original readers—are also mentioned as part of the core disciples in the "upper room" (Acts 1:14).

Woman at prayer.
Woman at prayer.

           Four infamous women are listed in Jesus's genealogy of forty-six names (Matthew 1:1–17). Tamar was widowed twice, then became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah who mistook her for a temple prostitute. The offspring of this incest were the twin boys Perez and Zerah. Perez is a relative of Jesus (see Ruth 4:18–21). Rahab was a foreigner and a whore who by her lies protected the Hebrew spies. She's mentioned only three times in the New Testament: as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:31), as an exemplar of good works (James 2:25), and as the great-great-grandmother of King David (Matthew 1:5). Ruth was a foreigner and widow who married the wealthy Boaz, King David’s great-grandfather. Bathsheba, the subject of David's adulterous passion and murderous cover-up, was the mother of King Solomon. These women were part of Jesus's family of origin.

           The many women who financed the life and ministry of Jesus, says Sayers, "had never known a man like Jesus—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about women's nature."

           I've tinkered with Sayers' description of how Jesus treated women by substituting other common categories of today's identity politics. The permutations are almost endless. Jesus never nagged Republicans or flattered Democrats. He didn't patronise illegal aliens or have an axe to grind with natural born citizens. He never joked about gays or jeered at straight people, but took their arguments and questions seriously. He had no axe to grind with the poor and didn't manipulate the rich. He never used any of these people as negative examples, but instead accepted them just as he found them.

Jesus and Mary.
Jesus and Mary.

            Identity politics help us to remember people whom we try hard to forget. We marginalize people because in our limited experience we consider them as strange, and therefore as a threat to our own narrow identity. Still, at the end of the day, labels of race, gender, nationality, politics, ethnicity, and sexual identity feed the reductive rhetoric of the latest fad, a partisan cause, or someone's political ideology. Such classifications narrow rather than expand what it means to be human.

           Identity politics thus forget a deeper truth that we should always remember—that God loves all of us without conditions or limits, not because of or even in spite of anything at all, other than that as human beings we are His children. That's the "good news of the kingdom of God" that Jesus proclaimed in village after dusty village, thanks to the many women who sacrificed family and finance to support him.

For further reflection:

* Who have been the important women in your life? How and why?
Who are you tempted to marginalize and why?
What narrow ideology, cause or commitment restricts your view of the expansive love of God?
See Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 2005), two essays from her collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions (1947).