Interestingly enough, I get a lot of emails from people who want to know why it is necessary to have a website called “the churched feminist.” Isn’t it enough that Jesus loves all of us? Of course it is enough to know that Jesus loves all of us. But some folks didn’t get that memo. Some believers talk one theology and walk another. I write for the women in churches that are not necessarily affirming of God’s love for all of us. I write for those who might need to be reminded that femininity is also an expression of God. I write for those persons everywhere whose church experiences have left them feeling relegated to the sidelines, and as such how Jesus speaks to and handles women’s issues is worthy conversation. One text that masterfully illustrates this is Luke 10:38-42.
This is probably a familiar Scripture passage, the story of Jesus’ interaction with two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha is irked that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet while he instructs the disciples, leaving Martha to handle the meal preparations by herself. Iti s worth noting that Mary does not utter a single word in this exchange between Jesus and Martha. This story (and its subtext) speaks to us about women in terms of our gender roles, our roles as disciples, and our ministerial aspirations.
As a woman who went to seminary, I can relate to Mary sitting amongst the male disciples receiving religious instruction from Jesus. I can particularly relate to the feelings of resentment and entitlement from the men who felt as though women seminarians were encroaching upon their turf (read: pulpit as male space). I could fill up this blog with stories of classroom incidents where the resentment of women in classes about ministry reached Jerry Springer-esque proportions. So this text about Mary sitting at the feet of a rabbi, taking the posture of a rabbinical student, will forever give me life. The expression ‘sitting at the feet’ in this instance refers to one who studies and is educated by a mentor (see Acts 22:3). Clearly, Jesus has no problem with female disciples, and is not against formally training us.
It is what Jesus doesn’t do that gets my blood pumping. He does not flatter Mary or call her ‘Miss Lady.’ He does not tell her she needs to be feminine or that her presence is a challenge to masculinity or tell her she has to speak from the floor. Jesus does not tell Mary she is ‘beloved for a dark-skinned girl.’ And he does not tell Martha to stay in her place.
Rather, Jesus defends Mary’s right to learn from him directly and without proxy. Even though Jesus can probably smell Martha’s stank attitude coming from the kitchen, and understands that Mary is not fulfilling her duties as a host in a hospitality driven culture, Jesus cautions Martha by reminding her that her sister made the better decision. Jesus does not deny or renounce Martha’s discipleship at all, he simply declares that Mary chose the better part. Now, you could get real fancy and take that to mean that Jesus does not think women should be relegated to kitchen duty or that being in a kitchen made Martha any less a disciple than Mary. You could take that to mean that Jesus does not think gender should be a factor in determining who does what household chore. Or you could take that to mean Jesus is upsetting the relegated roles of women apple cart. I believe what Jesus is demonstrating here is the need to stop relegating women to either/or binaries. We can be both/and. I believe that Jesus is making the case that those who follow him must be willing to learn as well as teach. It shows the importance of managing your time to the degree that you can make the time for needed daily activities, make time for studying, and making time for listening for Jesus as all necessary parts of the disciple’s repertoire, and by he way, that repertoire is non gender specific. More importantly, Jesus demonstrates that following him may cause you to breach some socially accepted beliefs about what a woman should do, and he is okay with that. We should be okay with it too.