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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Jesus and Women



The society that Jesus lived in was thoroughly male-dominated. Women in First Century Palestine had few rights and were seen as inferior to men. In this blog we will look at some of the ways Jesus promoted the rights of women and protected them from exploitation. My main reference is a book called Women in the Ministry of Jesus, by Ben Witherington III.

Firstly, women in this society were not allowed to testify in court, because they were seen as too emotionally frail to serve as reliable witnesses. By contrast, Jesus prophesied about a woman who would testify on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 12:42). Remarkably, God also chose women to be the first witnesses of the most important event in history: the resurrection of his Son. This was certainly a great surprise to the twelve disciples (Luke 24:10-11).

Secondly, men did not speak to women in public. By contrast, Jesus had a long conversation with a woman (a woman from a hostile ethnic group, the Samaritans, no less!) in public, which again surprised his closest followers (John 4:27).

Thirdly, the legal system of the time allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason, even for burning his dinner and could simply send her away with no financial support; his wife had no right to protest. But Jesus taught that divorce is wrong (Mark 10:2-12), and that a man who divorces his wife is causing her to commit adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). This was because women who were divorced could be driven to transactional sex or prostitution as a means to support themselves.

Fourthly, rabbis (religious teachers) of this time never had woman disciples. Jesus had no women in his inner circle of disciples (this would have been seen as highly inappropriate given that they slept together during travels), but he did have woman disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

Fifthly, women were seen as sources of temptation to be blamed for men’s sins. John 8:3-11 illustrates the double standard, because a woman caught in the act of adultery was to be stoned but the man had presumably been allowed to get away. Jesus acknowledged her guilt but showed her mercy. He also disdained the idea that women are at fault when men yield to sexual temptation; rather, a man has only himself to blame for his lack of self control (Matthew 5:27-28).

Sixthly, women were not educated: “Apart from the role of the woman in the home in giving her children some basic religious instruction (and even this was disputed), a woman had no educational functions except in very rare cases” (Witherington III, p. 9). By contrast, when a woman was criticized for listening to Jesus teach when she could be working in the kitchen, Jesus praised her passion for learning (Luke 10:38-42).

Seventhly, women were seen as unimportant and unworthy of praise and recognition. By contrast, Jesus praised certain women for their righteousness (Mark 12:40-44; Mark 14:3-9), told parables that were relevant especially to women (Luke 13:20-21; Luke 15:8-10; Luke 18:1-5), and showed special concern for women when prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-28).

In summary, it would be inaccurate, not to mention anachronistic, to portray Jesus as an advocate of modern Western gender norms. He did not promote the confounding of male and female roles in society, church or family. However, it would be correct to say that Jesus promoted the idea that women and men are of equal value, despite living in a society which believed otherwise.

Jesus' special care and concern for the so-called weaker sex were not without result. It would probably be fair to say that in most church congregations throughout Christian history, women have significantly outnumbered men.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Why do you call me good? (Part 2)



In last week’s blog we discussed Jesus’ surprising response to a rich young ruler who addressed him as Good Teacher: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). We listed four possible explanations of what Jesus was getting at with this rejoinder. So what is the correct explanation?

Some key points we can identify from this exchange are as follows:
1)      There is an absolute distinction drawn between God, who is good, and human beings, who are not good.
2)      Jesus is probably drawing on Psalm 14:2-3, where the reason why human beings are not good is their sinful deeds (the same passage is cited by Paul in Romans 3 as evidence that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’).
3)      With this distinction in mind, Jesus questions why the ruler has chosen to address him as Good (however, he does not indicate that the ruler was wrong to do so).

The Gospel writers were little concerned with recording pithy philosophical discussions. They chose to include events and dialogues which best served their underlying purpose – namely, to show that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Given that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this incident, we may reasonably conclude that it makes an important contribution to understanding the identity of Jesus.

The thrust of this exchange, therefore, comes down to what it teaches us about Jesus. The fundamental question that must be answered is, was the ruler correct to address Jesus as good? In other words, to which side of the ‘absolute distinction’ between divine goodness and human sin did Jesus belong?

The testimony of the rest of Scripture provides us with a clear answer. Jesus self-identified as “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) which is little different from “Good Teacher.” He was described by his followers as “The Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), likely with allusion to OT prophecies like Psalm 16:10, Isaiah53:11 and Zechariah 9:9. He was not merely identified as “a good and righteous man” in a relative sense (cp. Luke 23:50); these passages contain the definite article demonstrating a unique and absolute kind of goodness – the Righteous One. In John 8:46 he challenged his opponents to prove that he was guilty of sin, and in John 10:32 he implored, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”

Thus, neither in Jesus’ own self-consciousness, nor in the esteem of his earliest followers, was there anything separating him from the goodness of God. And the accolades only grow in the later books of the New Testament (see, for instance, 2 Corinthians5:21, Hebrews 7:26 and 1 Peter 2:22).

At the same time, as Robert H. Stein notes, like any human being Jesus’ goodness was subject to growth. He increased in wisdom and in favour with God (Luke 2:52). So there is a sense in which, by being human, Christ’s divine goodness was veiled for a time. However, I do not think this is the point Jesus is making here. Rather, he used this leading question to point to the great paradox that in him, the fullness of God’s goodness was present in human form. The young ruler’s form of address, ‘Good Teacher,’ was inadequate not because Jesus was less than a good teacher, but because Jesus was more than a good teacher in the careless, ordinary way the ruler likely used the word ‘good.’ This brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous ‘Lord, liar or lunatic’ trilemma from his book Mere Christianity, as it seems to highlight precisely the mistake that the ruler was making:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him:  I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”[1]
It also brings to mind Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:42-45 about whose son Christ was. The Pharisees were not wrong to answer “The son of David” – indeed this point is affirmed in the first sentence of Matthew’s Gospel. However, their answer was less than the whole truth, because it acknowledged only his humanity and not his divinity (see also Romans 1:3-4).


[1] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, pp. 54-56.