Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Jesus' Gender Politics

Gender equality is a big issue around the world today: from equal pay for Hollywood superstars to educational bias in schools. We know it’s only fair for men and women to be treated equally, but society finds it strangely difficult to put into practice.
The Christian Church has been a bastion of male domination for centuries. One brief comment by St Paul, backed up by the fact that Jesus’ 12 apostles were all men, has been been enough to justify extremely unequal treatment of women.
The historical context of Jesus’ life, however, tells a very different story. Jesus was, in fact, a trailblazer for the inclusion of women.
St Luke tells us that when Jesus went on tour with his disciples, the group included a number of women - who he names. The world of 1st century rabbis and disciples was an exclusively male province. Wives and girlfriends were left at home. Luke isn’t telling us that Jesus took his own domestic staff with him; he is telling us that Jesus’ mission team was made up of both men and women.
Luke also tells us the wonderful story of Mary and Martha. While Martha was busy cooking dinner, her sister, Mary, was ‘sitting at Jesus feet, listening to what he was saying’. We imagine Mary sat on the floor like a child or a pet, but that is completely the wrong image. Rabbis would sit on the floor with their most senior disciples sitting directly in front of them. Lesser disciples sat in rows behind, and those who were just listening to their teaching would stand around the edge and at the back. But Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet which places her right at the front with Jesus’ core group of most valued disciples. Martha struggled to accept that Mary should be sitting with the men, but Jesus robustly defended her right to be there.
Some time later, Mary showed that her place in Jesus’ front row was well deserved. She was the one who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, expressing her understanding and acceptance of his decision to let the authorities arrest and kill him. Jesus’ male disciples all struggled to grasp his intention to die, but front-row-Mary clearly understood.
Jesus’ female followers were not his support crew; they were the ones who best understood his mission. They were the ones who were still there at his death, when all but one of their male colleagues had run away.
Jesus understood the importance and distinctive value of women. He broke deeply established conventions to have women in his team. As we struggle with the gender challenges of our day, we would do well to follow his example.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Being Yourself - Sunday 11th February 2018

There is an intriguing story from the final days of Jesus’ life, that relates a moment when one of the many Marys anointed his feet using some staggeringly expensive perfume, causing a embarrassed debate amongst his disciples. John’s account of the incident states that the perfume was worth a year’s wages, and identifies Judas as the disciple who questioned whether it would have been better for the perfume to be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
I find myself to be firmly on Judas’ side in this. Surely, to pour such an extravagance over Jesus’ feet was a pointless waste of resources which could have been used to much better effect elsewhere.
Jesus, however, defended Mary - boldly and strongly. And so I find my own attitude to be lovingly rebuked, along with Judas.
The story shows Jesus to be a man who is very comfortable in his own skin. Most of us would be hideously embarrassed to have someone attending to our feet in the middle of a dinner party, but Jesus seems untroubled.
Despite the moral outrage being expressed, Jesus allowed Mary to be herself, and to proceed with the action that she, in her own wisdom, had chosen. He made no attempt to control her, or correct or redirect her actions.
This is a consistent theme throughout Jesus' life. He did not attempt to control people, or tell them how they should behave. He allowed people to follow the paths that they have chosen, and continued to love them. Even on the last day of his life, Jesus did not interfere with the actions of the high priests, Pontius Pilate or Herod. He let them be themselves, even though that would lead to his death.
The history of religion (including Christianity) is very much a history of control. Religion regulates and restricts people’s lives, telling them what they may or may not do. Yet Jesus does not. He defended Mary’s choice - outrageously extravagant though it was - and commended her for it.
Our religions seek to limit and control our choices in so many ways, but God - it seems - loves for us to be lovingly and generously ourselves.