What did Jesus have to say about women? Much like understanding dignity in Leviticus, to understand this we need to have a bit of background on what the culture Jesus lived in had to say about women.
Last week while exploring the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I reference Ben Sirach, a Second Century BCE wisdom book that still appears in the Catholic Apocrypha (books between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament). This collection of teachings, written by Ben Sira, was highly regarded by Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus.
Women in Jesus’ Day
For Ben Sira, at best, women could make for good wives and mothers, and as such, deserved respect. But beyond their relationship to men, he had little value for them. A sample:
But if you don’t like your wife, don’t trust her.Sirach 7:26
Be careful to keep records of the supplies you issue to her.Sirach 42:6-7
Deed no property to her during your lifetime and do not let her support you.Sirach 33:20; 25:22-26
Women are responsible for sin coming into the world and their spite is unbearable.Sirach 25:13-26
Moreover, for Ben Sira, having a daughter was a loss and her very presence in the home kept potential shame a constant threat. (Sir 7:24-29; 22:3-5; 26:9-12; 42:9-11).
At his worst he writes:
Do not sit down with the women; for moth comes out of clothes, and a woman’s spite out of a woman. A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; Women give rise to shame and reproach.Sirach 42:12-14
Jesus and Women
While there are several instances where Jesus demonstrates a radically different relationship with women, one of the most culturally shocking comes in Luke 10. It happens in the home of Mary and Martha and is often overlooked because it seems to be a dispute between two women. Mary wants to sit at Jesus’ feet while Martha wants her help in the kitchen.
Clearly, given the cultural values of the day, Martha is in a woman’s place. She is making sure that the men, who are learning from Jesus, are well fed. Mary, on the other hand, is sitting with the men at the feet of Jesus.
Sitting at the feet of Jesus is a loaded cultural term. In Acts 22, the Apostle Paul describes himself as being brought up at the feet of the Pharisee Gamaliel. In other words, to be at the feet of someone in that day, meant to be a student of theirs. Mary is doing the socially unthinkable, she is acting like a disciple of Jesus.
This is what distracts Martha. It is not the busyness of the kitchen, it is the social implications of Mary’s behavior. She is going to humiliate the family. And what man would ever marry such a brash and bold woman? Yet this is a world where a woman’s livelihood almost always depended on her ability to find a husband to take care of her.
So she brings her concern to Jesus, hoping that he will set Mary straight. Perhaps he missed her presence among the men and did not realize what she was up to. Surely he will know how to handle the situation.
Yet Jesus does the exact opposite. Rather than sending Mary off, either with a scolding or a bit of a laugh, he tells Martha that she is missing the point. Mary, just like James or Peter or John, is his disciple. Moreover, her presence, learning about this new world Jesus is out to usher in, matters far more to him than a fresh plate of food.
Where is a woman’s place? Wherever she wants. Jesus’ only request is that she brings in the Kingdom while there.