Here’s the third and final part of my talk answering the question posed by Newcastle CU – ‘Does God want women in the kitchen? Is Christianity sexist?’
In the Bible there are four biographies of Jesus’ life – eyewitness accounts that are usually referred to as the gospels. They tell us lots of information about what Jesus did and said, and the way that he interacted with various different groups and individuals.
1st Century Israel and Palestine, where Jesus lived and worked, was not a culture that was particularly friendly to women. They were seen as less than men in almost every way – education was unavailable, they were unable to provide witness or testimony in a court because their word was not considered trustworthy or useful, they were discouraged from public gatherings where they would have to interact with men who weren’t immediate family, and they were usually treated as little more than property – useful to a father for a bride-price, and useful to a husband to provide him with sons. Against this backdrop, Jesus’ treatment of women is startlingly counter-cultural.
There are lots of stories that I could tell to illustrate my point, but I’ve picked one that I thought was especially appropriate bearing in mind the title of this talk. You can find it to read for yourself in Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 10), but for now I’ll just tell it to you:
We’re told that Jesus is having dinner with some friends, Lazarus (now famous for dying and being brought back to life by Jesus) and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. In the account we’re told that Martha was busy serving – we can assume that this was a fairly big dinner, with lots of guests and lots to do. Jesus was already pretty famous by this point, so there would have been no shortage of people accepting an invitation to come and see him, plus, probably a number of people who would have just stopped by the house to catch a sight of the local celebrity. So, with all these guests Martha is pretty busy – rushing around, and obviously a little stressed out. It seems like she might be the only woman amongst a large group of men, and in that culture (way, way more than ours) women did the domestic work, while men (literally) lounged around the table.
However, it turns out that she isn’t the only woman. Her sister Mary is there too, but rather than rushing into help serve, Mary is out with the men, sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him. That may not seem like a big deal to us, but for this culture what’s going on is utterly bizarre. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet like a disciple, amongst the men, something that is inappropriate to the point of scandal. Of course, maybe we could just say that it’s a mistake. Perhaps she’s hiding behind one of the men and Jesus hasn’t noticed that she’s there, or maybe he has noticed but he’s uncomfortable with the idea of making a scene, so he just ignores her and carries on teaching. I suppose we could leave thinking that, but the story continues.
Martha comes over to Jesus with her complaint. She’s busy and rushed, and will he please tell Mary to stop learning from him, and get back into the kitchen where she belongs?
Nope. This is how Jesus responds: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
There are plenty of other examples of the way that Jesus’ treatment of women stood against the culture of the day, and that example had an immense impact on the shape of the early church. Those early Christians treated women in a way that was stark in its contrast to the oppression of the surrounding culture. It both took care of women when society caused them to be vulnerable, and freed them to be people in their own right, most obviously, in the realm of marriage. Whilst culture required women to marry, often utterly against their will, to provide money for their father and children for their husband, the church gave the opportunity to remain single, or to marry, by choice. The point was that in either scenario they weren’t silent objects to be passed from one to another, but living, breathing, speaking, thinking people, who could decide for themselves, and serve God as individuals.
It’s worth noting that the earliest roots of feminism came from Christians. These women (and men) recognised the truth that both male and female were created by God, in his image, and that both male and female were invited to receive what Jesus offered.
Later in that gospel of Luke we’re told that Jesus, though innocent, is put on trial, tortured and beaten, and executed, in a most brutal manner. After he dies, he rises again and his empty grave is seen, first of all, by a group of women – despite the fact that their testimony to the fact would have been considered invalid.
Jesus later appears, in human form, to many people, and explains what has happened, and why. The point of this death and resurrection wasn’t just a cool magic trick, or demonstration of power, in and of itself. No, there is a purpose to it all – namely, to save people.
We’ve already seen that the world we live in is corrupt. Despite God’s design of harmony and equality we live in world of corruption and oppression. To use just the examples that come from this one issue of sexism, we see that women around the world are subjected to the institutional oppression of governments who discriminate against them, and the individual oppression which comes at the violent hands of strangers, and family alike – we live in a world, and country, and city, where domestic violence and sexual assault are a daily reality. And even if we’re not guilty of being the oppressors in these particular scenarios, I am unable to say that I have lived a life of total perfection, and my guess is that you can’t either. Our default is towards corruption. Feminism actually offers a perfect example of this, and we see it in a lot of similar struggles – what begins with a desire for equality quickly shifts, feminism stops being about women being allowed equal rights, and moves to women being the victors whilst men are trodden down for a change.
This is our default, but Jesus came and died and rose again to put that right: to take the punishment that we deserve; to reconcile our relationships to one another (men and women) and to God.
Ann Stagg, a lady who led a party of women to campaign Parliament during the Civil War, made a speech containing this line:
“Christ purchased women at as a dear a price as he did men.”
Ultimately, that’s the answer. God created both men and women in his image, and Jesus Christ went to the cross for both men and women. That reconciled relationship made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection isn’t offered differently to men than to women – all of us are equally human, and all of us are equally invited to know God. An invitation not based on the body parts we’re equipped with, or the chromosomes we possess, but based entirely on the work of the one (Jesus), all for us.
So, does God want women in the kitchen?
No, he wants them with him: learning from him, listening to him, and accepting the offer of the relationship which he bought for them at such a very high price.
In summary: done.