At Old South this Lent, we are focusing on the women around Jesus. We are exploring stories about the women who worked with and were friends with Jesus. We are also considering stories of women, like the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4), who shared the good news and invited others to experience the love of God in a new way. Through these stories, we are also asking questions about why most of the world’s Christians gather in churches that continue to deny pastoral leadership to women. And, we are expressing our own grief that as our church shrinks, and others like ours, we wonder about what the Christian church will look like down the road. What will happen to the pastoral leadership of women in the Church?
As we consider woman after woman— from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary of Bethany, etc.— I find myself wanting to scream. These are not obscure characters, found only in small corners of the Gospels or in the stories that didn’t make the canon. The women around Jesus are a powerful group of women who did remarkable work and ministry. And, they are right there in full view. Except that they have been, somehow, ignored and/or belittled. I just want to scream.
I spend at least part of each Saturday reviewing sermon material, precisely so I won’t spend a major part of my sermon screaming. I can’t scream at the people who come to worship at Old South, especially since they clearly believe that women should be in pastoral leadership. I can’t scream at them. But, I still want to scream.
Take, for example, Martha. During a recent Bible study class, I asked the participants about their view on Martha. What did they know about Martha? What had they learned, over their years of church participation, about who Martha was and her place among the friends that Jesus gathered around himself? The participants in the Bible study either admitted to not really knowing anything about Martha, or they shared the story from Luke where Martha is in the kitchen, cooking for the crowd of people who suddenly showed up in her house. When she goes out to ask for help from her sister, Mary, Jesus gently scolds her and tells her that Mary, by taking her place at his feet to learn and to contemplate, had made the better choice.
No one in Bible study talked about the story from John 11, in which Jesus eventually arrives in Bethany and discovers that his friend Lazarus, Martha’s brother, had died and had been placed in a tomb. While much attention (for obvious reasons) is placed on the dramatic and miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead, there is in the dialogue between Martha and Jesus, a statement of remarkable consequence: Martha’s “confession”/affirmation that Jesus is the Christ.
In the other Gospels– Matthew, Mark and Luke— the “confession” is on the lips of Peter. It is Peter’s confession that helps to solidify his place of leadership and authority in the early church. So, why not Martha? Why is Peter’s confession so significant, whereas Martha’s appears to hold no special meaning?
It’s not that this hasn’t come up in the past. I’m no newcomer to the problematic treatment of biblical women and then, by extension, the women in the Church as a whole over the Church’s long history. In fact, I’ve preached on many occasions about the dubious ways through which New Testament women have been so casually sidelined and belittled. But, through my decision to place so many Gospel women in this one season of Lent, I’m now constantly reminded of the scandalous nature of the Church’s approach to women. And, I just want to scream about it.
It is maddening, to be sure, but I’ve also found myself considering, once again, the quality of unfaithfulness in the Church universal when it comes to women. While the early Church may have had good reason to sideline women, in its minority and vulnerable status, there is no good reason— and hasn’t been since the Church became the Church of the Empire— to continue to deny pastoral leadership and authority to women.
Jesus trusted Mary Magdalene with the Good News of resurrection, of new life, on that first Easter morning. I’m sure Jesus could have found a way to put that news on the lips of a man, if he wanted to. Jesus also trusted other women to be about his holy work. It’s beyond time for the institution that claims to worship him to follow his example when it comes to the treatment of women in the Church and its leadership.