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.