There’s a depressing phenomenon in the children’s book industry: girls happily read books marketed to both girls and boys, while boys usually only read books marketed to boys. What this means is that boys tend to have their worldview reinforced, whereas girls tend to see the world through the eyes of both girls and boys. It reminds me of the scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Trillian zaps Zaphod Beeblebrox with the point-of-view gun. Zaphod, a complete narcissist, suddenly sees the world and himself through her eyes. He reels in shock, then grabs the gun to zap her back. She looks at him and shrugs. “It won’t affect me,” she says sadly, “I’m already a woman.”
On Sunday we heard a story of two women: Martha and Mary. So often in churches, it is read as a story about women. First, we notice that Jesus praises Mary, who has exploded traditional gender norms and adopted the position reserved for male disciples: sitting at the feet of her teacher. We conclude rightly from this that both men and women are invited to be Jesus’ disciples.
But then we denigrate ‘women’s work.’ There are countless commentaries and sermons telling Martha to hang up her apron and, in effect, act like a man. That is, they suggest that to be a disciple she must also sit at the feet of the teacher, without wondering whether the blokes might be called to participate in cooking, cleaning, washing and serving. In other words, they see only the women, and belittle women engaged in service, something Jesus usually praises. I tackled the critique of Martha’s activity in Sunday’s reflection here; in this post, I want to wonder why the story is so often interpreted in this way.
Like girls reading books for both boys and girls, when women read the Bible, they tend to identify with both female and male characters in all their mess and glory. They know what it is to be one of the faithful women who follow Jesus and support his ministry; they also see themselves in Peter, the archetypal disciple; Thomas, who doubts and questions; and even the betraying Judas. And when women (and men) read a story about two people who happen to be men, they don’t particularly notice that it’s men: they just get on with their usual wondering: Who do I identify with? What is the living Word saying to me here? What is my response?
But I’m not convinced that this happens when we read stories about two women. Instead, most commentators stop seeing it as a story of two people, and instead notice only the female bit. This is what happens in a culture like ours, where male is perceived as normal and women are perceived only in their ‘difference’ to that assumed norm. So in our culture, a story about two women becomes a story about women and women’s roles; while a story about two men is rarely generalised in this way.
Jesus, however, incarnates a different culture which sees beyond gender and recognises both men and women in their full humanity. The male writers of the gospel may not have included women among the named Twelve, but they are everywhere: following Jesus, supporting Jesus, listening at his feet, serving him, being held up as examples, and being healed, rebuked, encouraged, challenged and listened to, just like the men. For as the apostle Paul reminds us, in Christ there is no male and female: all are one in Christ Jesus, all heirs according to the promise given to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29, paraphrased): and it is this Christ-culture we are striving for.
Here, then, are some questions for the fellas out there: Do you ever identify with a female character in the Bible? If not, why not? What blocks you from identifying with a quester for knowledge, a laughing woman, a dancing prophet, a wise judge, a grieving widow, a childless woman, a loyal daughter-in-law, a vulnerable young girl, a persistent widow, a financial supporter of Jesus, or a first witness to death and resurrection? How would seeing past gender broaden your self-understanding? How would it enrich your relationships and deepen your faith? Unfortunately, we don’t have a point-of-view gun; in its absence, how can we help the scales fall from your eyes?
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