In his Apostolic Letter dedicated to the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, St John Paul the Great wrote something powerful:
‘Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women … in Christ’s sphere of action their position is transformed’ (§15).
Living at a distance from the world of the biblical text, it’s easy to miss the drama of what it is Jesus actually says and does. It’s a world of language and custom and thought foreign to us, no matter how much we've inherited from it. One of the things we tend to miss is the significance of Jesus’ interaction with women. Sometimes the scandal is not stated explicitly – at least, in English it doesn’t sound explicit, but ancient readers wouldn’t have missed a thing.
Take, for example, the famous passage involving Jesus coming for tea at Martha and Mary’s house in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). You will no doubt have heard sermon after sermon talking about the ‘active’ way of life and the more ‘contemplative’ way of life, and how in favouring Mary’s decision to sit at his feet, Jesus is teaching us to be more contemplative. That interpretation is fair enough as far as it goes, but if we want to pay attention to what is actually said we’ll find something dramatically different.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright talks about this in Surprised by Scripture (2014), where he posits that when Mary sits at the feet of Jesus two significant things are taking place. Firstly, she is flouting the most basic social convention of the ancient Middle East: she was sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house. According to the custom of the day, she should have been at the back of the house preparing food with Martha. Instead she sits in front of Jesus, learning from him.
Secondly, the phrase ‘sat at the master’s feet’ is not simply an expression of personal devotion. It’s the scandalous posture of a disciple sitting at their rabbi’s feet to learn. This is so important to understand because becoming such a student was generally with the intention of one day becoming a rabbi and teacher yourself. As a woman, this made Mary’s action doubly scandalous. Yet, Jesus welcomes it. She was doing the one thing necessary: being a disciple.
This is but one example of Jesus’ dramatic upending of social conventions in regards to women. On 22 July, the Catholic Church also celebrates the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, one of the most important and prominent women in the Gospels.
St Thomas Aquinas referred to Mary Magdalene as the "Apostle to the apostles" because she was the first person to announce the good news of Christ’s resurrection. In the closing chapters of John’s Gospel, we have a beautiful and intimate scene described: Mary weeping bitterly over the death of Jesus, yet he appears as a gardener; he speaks her name and in hearing it spoken she recognises him. In response she cries, ‘Rabbuni!’ (John 20:16-18). Even in English you can’t miss the emotion of that moment.
In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II said that this scene in the Gospels is what ‘crowns’ every other interaction between Jesus and the women around him: he trusts her as a witness, trusts her to give testimony, and trusts her with ‘divine truths’ (§16). Even though it is not stated explicitly, there is something scandalous going on here: in the ancient world, even in Jewish law, women were not always seen to be reliable witnesses in a court of law. Their testimony was an inherently compromised one.
What Jesus does here is entrust a woman, as a disciple, with bearing witness and testimony to him. It is a remarkable and moving moment in the Gospels.
As we celebrate the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, let’s pray that we can imitate even a portion of her devotion to Jesus, because she stayed close to him even when nobody else did.
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022
Fiona Basile10 August 2022