This year marks the centenary of votes being given to women, so there has been much discussion about the role of women in society. Progress is continuing to be made as women free themselves to take on roles that were seen as the domain of men. The place that we hope to arrive is a more equal society in which men and women are seen as eqal in every sense.
It is sometimes perceived that the Bible and Christian Churches provide a conservative voice in this area that resists change with regard to women and wants to restrict them to roles. But that in a way doesn’t always hold up to closer scrutiny.
In the Gospel Jesus interacts with women far beyond what would be expected of him as a rabbi in Israel. He sides with a woman taken in adultery, he speaks with a Samaritan woman at the well who has many husbands, he allows himself to be washed by a woman and for her to dry him with her hair. He counts as many woman in a close group around him as he does men. He goes often toi the house of Martha and Mary. It’s women who go with him, walk with him, to the cross; its women who come to anoint him at the tomb and its women who are the first witnesses in the resurrection – no men are to be seen, they are hiding. And in New testament times there as many women who are mentioned in roles of leadership in the local churches as there are men. In fact it is one of the criticisms that the earliest Roman writings about the Christians that everyone is treated the same, young and old, men and women, foreigners and natives. Paul records the role of many women in the NT times, these, some of these teach, lead and go to prison.
It’s clear that what the Christians are doing runs contrary to the norms of the times in which they lived. Rabbis were not expected to speak to women, not expected to allow women to touch them, not expected to be in their company. Jesus smashes this: he talks to women, allows women to touch him. The Gospel stories include as many women as they do men. Women join him as disciples and are part of that inner group that the apostles occupy. The women are key witnesses to him.
If you were looking to impress a conservative society, both civilly and religiously, you would not have told the story from this point of view. Women would not be called as witnesses, would not been seen as reliable or credible, they would not have been able to put their point of view.
The Gospel of today’s mass also features 2 women, one old and one young. One who has suffered much over years and another who has a sudden serious illness from which she dies. Two faces of a woman old and of a woman young. In them we see the face of many women, women who have died in history before they should have, women who have suffered much, women who have shouldered burdens and forced to be silent and maybe written out of history too – where were the writers and painters and poets and inventors?
If Jesus had been a conventional rabbi he would have discounted the woman and the young girl. He has every reason, he would have become unclean by touching the women who is bleeding, he would have been unclean by touching the child who has died. But that is not what we hear, Jesus smashes convention, the woman touches him and holds onto his garment and he allows it and acknowledges it. Jesus goes to the bedside of the young girl and holds her hand, he doesn’t stand on ceremony.
It is difficult for us to imagine what the breaking of conventions and rules must have looked like. The confusion it must have caused, there was a stepping over a line in an absolutely conservative society in which roles were clearly known and kept to.
Instead of being a conservative religious voice what we see here in the lines of the Gospel is very radical voice and freeing . Women accepted as equals. Able to receive grace as much as men. able to be healed as much as men. Able to have a voice as much as men. Able to know the friendship with Jesus as much as men. In New Testament times, able to teach and lead as much as men.
Instead of being a conservative voice, there is something quite radical here. St Paul speaks about that, there are to be no barriers between salve and free, gentiles and Jews, young and old, men and women. All receive the grace. No one is to be left behind.
What we are listening to is the cool, fresh breath of air that blew through the Christian Church in the first times. It was the same breath of fresh air that allowed them to divide up their monies and share everything in common. They prayed together without any sense of their status, their role, their wealth, even their gender there were no barriers.
We can see that the Romans and the religious authorities would have thought the Christians were free thinkers, the hippies of their day. They were seen as upsetting the social order with their views and practices, they had to be stopped.
Our voices can join with those voices of our own day who are calling for a more just and a more equal society in which all God’s children share.
There’s no mention of votes for woman in the Gospel, but there is clearly mention of conventions being changed, new ways of looking at things, woman sharing in a way that they hadn’t before. The question might be asked how did we get to being sounding so conservative and so grudging. Maybe we allowed society to shape us than the other way about.
Jesus didn’t put women in boxes or give them roles, they were each invited to his friendship and he did some things that would have been unthinkable made them the heroes of his stories (the widow’s mite), treated women fairly - the woman caught in adultery, he wasn’t afraid to talk with them and visit with them- Martha and Mary are his friends, Mary who washes his feet, the women who are the first to see him hen he is risen. These things cannot be ignored.
This is not the language of a conservative teacher. This something different, something new, something that invites change and a different way of looking at things.