There is a lie that there is something wrong with women, even though Genesis tells us that both women and men are wonderfully made by a God who delights in us. The lie of our inadequacy, our limitations, goes deep but Brené Brown suggests pushing back against lies that shame us. One way to do that is to take a good long look at Jesus and his interactions with women. He models how women should be viewed. Dare we hold on to an attitude so different from that of Jesus?
First-century patriarchal Palestine is not our world, and we often do not notice how radical Jesus’ actions were. Jesus clearly did not treat women as second-class or dangerous to his purity. He welcomed them into his circle and defied the restrictions of his culture and the hyper-religiosity of the Pharisees. He raised the eyebrows of those observing him. They were quick to see he was offering women a different way to value themselves. His enemies even tried to use his known sympathy for women to trap him, hauling the woman caught in adultery into their stone-throwing circle.
Obviously, Jesus’ interactions with women start with Mary. The daring commitment of this young girl in saying yes to God is a model for us. She did not always understand what her son was doing, but she followed his public ministry and was there at the cross, a silent witness of the gruesome spectacle of dying in the most shameful way Roman military-might could devise. Her persevering love was reciprocated in his concern for her, even in his extremity. We read later she was in the upper room praying with the other loyal followers after Jesus’ ascension and was probably there too when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost.
There were other Marys among the women who travelled with Jesus. Most of these female disciples were from poorer families in the north, but Joanna and Susanna came from households with more resources and were essential to his support team. As unusual as this was, it gave no cause for scandal and illustrates how comfortable all the disciples were in this mixed company, taking their cue from Jesus’ own attitude. Some of the women were entrusted with the earth-shattering revelation of Jesus’ resurrection. John singles out Mary Magdalene, she of the chequered past, as the first to encounter the risen Christ and give witness to his living reality. This in a society where a women’s testimony was not acceptable in court.
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had already shown unusual acceptance of women – of the haemorrhaging ‘unclean’ woman; the ostracised woman at the well in Samaria; the Gentile woman pleading with him for her child; the woman (maybe two) who let down their hair in public to anoint his feet.
In one episode in Samaria, we see the surprise of Jesus’ disciples returning to find him speaking at length to a disreputable woman. In his friendship with Mary and Martha, unmarried women living with their brother, Jesus again challenged the contemporary view of women. At different times he engaged Martha in robust debate and in one notable interaction specifically commended Mary for wanting to learn at the feet of the Master.
Jesus used a woman to represent God in the parable of the lost coin. We also find Luke in his gospel pairs women with men in a way that shows up the worth of the woman. Examples include Mary responding positively to the angel compared with sceptical Zacharias; a ‘sinner’ woman anointing Jesus’ feet in the home of neglectful Simon the Pharisee; a bent woman healed while a synagogue ruler condemns; a poor widow giving her all in the temple in the presence of rich men.
Given the attitude of the founder, it is not surprising that Acts records the early church having Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, Junia, and Philip’s daughters among its leaders and teachers. They contribute to the rapid spread of Christianity under the impetus of the Holy Spirit as the church moves its focus from Jerusalem to the rest of the Roman world.
There is a Greek word, perichoresis, used through the centuries to describe oneness within the Godhead. It describes a circle dance of equals, giving and receiving, each in perfect union. The word also has the idea of indwelling, because the participants in this Godhead dance are not separate entities, but one.
Perichoresis is also a good picture of our new status as redeemed women (and men). We are invited into the God relationship, not because we have ceased to be separate individuals, but because we are able, without shame, to enjoy divine friendship. Accepted by God, and accepting ourselves, we participate in the flow of grace and enjoy a dance of abandon with our Creator.