Friday, October 14, 2011

Did Jesus keep women "in their place"?

Today we're continuing our journey through the (chronological) Gospels, witnessing again and again how nearly completely opposite (the real) Jesus is from those who, through the last twenty centuries, have claimed to "represent" and "know" Him better than anyone else.

Today, we get a glimpse into what Jesus really thought about women.

As always, you can find all our previous posts in this series, going through the Gospels chronologically to find the real Jesus, here.

And as always you'll find the scriptures for today are here. (Note that you can change the human-translation version on this scripture page as suits you. I default to the NASB to get the more literal translation, but do use the one that works for you. Note also that I have no theological or other tie to the bible site I list above – it's just one that lists the NASB, KJV, and The Message, and most folks I've corresponded with seem to use one of those. However, another brother says you can also get the NRSV human translation at If you prefer yet another human-translation that isn't on one of these other pages, do send it to me. I will also list it here).

We've witnessed already that Jesus lived completely outside the expectations and demands of Good Religious People regarding people of different races, the poor, and people who aren't Good Religious People. Today we get to witness Jesus ALSO acting outside the expectations and demands Good Religious People had and have for women.

In today's scripture, we first see the woman who anointed Jesus' feet at the Good Religious Person's dinner party. Let's really set the scene, though, so we get the whole picture (and not just what Good Religious People since then have either ignored or twisted around to protect their own prejudices).

The party: In the ancient Jewish world, it "proved" or "improved" one's Good Religious Standing to be able to invite and get a popular teacher to come over for a big semi-public dinner. Imagine all the Good Religious People today, for example, who would strut like religious peacocks if they managed to have Billy Graham (or any of the other highly popular "Christian" television preachers or mega-"church" "pastors") over for a big banquet dinner that also included special local guests -- and even the "good" and "decent" neighbors, IF they behaved with appropriate deference to the Good Religious Atmosphere and hung back in the shadows, admiring what was happening without pretending to be so lofty as to actually be good enough to actively participate in it. I'm sure the atmosphere that night was absolutely choked with Good Religious "Virtue"!

The "seating" arrangements: The scripture tells us that they "reclined at table". That tells us that they weren't sitting in chairs, as we would eat, but rather laying on their sides on couches designed for this way of eating one's meal (see the drawing included in this post, to see what they did). These couches were only meant for the important people, of course, and they were always set up so that the recliners' heads would all be toward the center of the room where the table was, so they could talk to each other while they ate. This put the recliners' feet pointed out towards the walls of the room – and towards where all the "less worthy" people hung out.

The three "niceties" of being a good host in ancient Israel: It was expected back in that place and time that a host would either humbly wash his guest's feet or have a servant do it (if he was wealthy enough to avoid humility but still get "credit" for it). Life was dusty back then, and travel usually meant walking over dirt and rocky roads. Getting one's feet clean was a treat! It was also normal back then (just as it is today and through history in many cultures) for men to greet other men with a simple (completely non-sexual) kiss on the cheek – just as men in our modern, western culture greet each other with a handshake. Finally, in those dry, dusty times before modern shampoos and conditioners, it was considered a nice thing to provide oil for guests' scalps / hair.

So – here we have a big banquet dinner thrown by a local and well-off Good Religious Person who either admired Jesus or who simply wanted to partake of some of His popularity. At the dinner, while they laid on their dinner-couches, the host and his special guests would have eaten and discussed religious and other topics with the Guest of Honor, all while everyone else was required to stay back from the "honored" table and just listen quietly.

But then in comes the woman.

The scripture tells us she was a "sinner", meaning she was either a prostitute, or a woman otherwise living way outside what was considered "acceptable" by the majority culture she lived in. Knowing what it means to live in a small town/city and in a tight-knit, traditional community, we can know that ALL the locals would have known her, and known "what kind of woman" she was. Knowing also from the Bible and from our own history and experience that Good Religious People have never changed in over 6,000 years, we can just picture the scene among those in attendance as she dared enter the banquet room: the frowns, the shaking heads, the whispers, the indignant huffs, the murmured threats, the puffing up.

Then she did even worse:
  • She actually stood by the Guest of Honor – which meant she violated the dinner rule that said only the host and special guests could interact with the host and special guests ("How rude!"), and
  • She (a female) then touched the (male) Guest of Honor ("What a slut!"), and
  • She poured perfume she no doubt normally used for the benefit of her own sinful "paid guests" on the Guest of Honor ("How dare she lower Him to her level!"), and
  • She touched Him with her hair, which meant it was hanging loose instead of hidden under a cloth cover in the manner her human culture required of "decent" women ("A threat to all that's good and decent!").

I'm sure the moral outrage of the Good Religious People in the house that night was immeasurable, but the Bible only tells us the reaction of the banquet's host. Simon the Good Religious Person fell – as Good Religious People so often do – immediately into mumbled judgment, didn't he? Simon didn't speak out loud and ruin the atmosphere of his great party, but instead said to himself about Jesus, "This guy's obviously not REALLY a speaker for and knower of God, or he would have been able to see immediately what a whore this woman is so she wouldn't have tainted him." We can just imagine how Simon and his Good Religious People guests would have trashed Jesus' reputation after the party was over.

But Jesus confronted Simon with a learning-story, and then used it to (hopefully) open the Good Religious Person's eyes to how God was seeing this situation. Essentially, Jesus said:
Simon, you claim to honor Me with a dinner banquet – and yet you didn't give me any of the things this culture says a truly honored guest should get. Out of all the wealth and "righteousness" you have, you denied Me even a little water and a small towel to wash my hot, road-dirty feet. You denied me even a peck on the cheek to publicly demonstrate your acceptance of Me into your home. You denied me even a bit of common oil to soothe My body's exposure to the elements. So your "honoring" Me is half-done and false. 
Simon, you do live a low-sin religious life, and you do the Jewish religious things God requires for your sin-forgiveness, God forgives your sins. But you obviously only love God a little, and God knows it. 
But this woman – who, unlike you, has not even one bit of honorable status or wealth to 'share' with me – has honored Me above everything she is or has, has given the best of what she has to give. Simon, she washed My feet with the tears of her own sorrow and suffering, and used her own hair to dry them. Since I came in here she's not stopped publicly demonstrating her acceptance of Me into her heart, with her non-stop kissing of My feet. And she's given over her perfumed oil, one of the few valuable possessions she has and one of the 'tools' she must use each day to get the food and shelter she needs, loving 'wasting' it on My feet. 
Her honoring Me is extravagant and true. Simon, she does live a high-sin, non-religious life. Yet she obviously loves God hugely, and God, who knows her heart, forgives her hugely.
  • Have you ever been excluded – or perhaps helped exclude others – from being part of a religious group or religious function for "moral" reasons? The Bible tells us that's required sometimes, but only for people who won't stop making others believe a false Gospel. Knowing that, then, should this woman have had to sneak in to be able to participate in this banquet? 
  • No matter how sinful someone is (or is thought to be), should anyone ever be able to block them from seeing Jesus? 
  • What's your reaction to seeing Good Religious People in the Bible accusing Jesus (God Himself) of not knowing God and God's way (we've already seen it several times in our study so far)? If Good Religious People could be so spiritually blind 2,000 years ago, why should we believe they are any more likely to really see and understand God and His way today? 
  • Simon the Good Religious Person had Jesus over for dinner to "honor" Him – but since he did nothing else (not even the basics of common host courtesy everyone in those days was expected to do) to honor Jesus, who do you think Simon really meant to gain honor through this banquet? Good Religious People today also honor themselves by "honoring" Jesus. Do you imagine God feels "honored" having to "share" like that? 
  • A woman back in that time and place was required to marry (heterosexually) and remain married, in order to be economically safe. Their culture back then didn't have other jobs they could apply for, so only women wealthy enough to run their own business could avoid having to beg on the streets to stay alive (and few who begged would remain alive long). Unmarried women who couldn't return (for whatever reason) to their father's house, and who weren't wealthy enough to do anything else,  often turned to prostitution to keep food on their table – and then were condemned as whores (even by those men who made their living at prostitution possible). Do you imagine that Jesus wasn't aware of the dynamics that forced many women into prostitution in those days? Who do you imagine He had condemnation for: the woman who had no choice but to be a prostitute, or the people whose culture wouldn't allow her to keep food in her mouth and a roof over her head any other way? 
  • Good Religious People who even bother to recognize themselves in Simon will often point out proudly that Simon still only had "few" sins compared to the very sinful non-religious, according to the parable Jesus told Simon. Was that Jesus' point, or are they (too conveniently) missing His point once again? 
  • Who truly had the better life: Simon, with all his wealth and power and religious participation, yet whose heart had only the bare, required minimum to give to God; or the sinner who had nothing but pain in her life, yet whose heart could offer everything she had to God without question? 
  • We often see the sinner's pain and repentance in her tears, but do we also recognize the huge inner strength and faith this woman had? She knew exactly what all the people of her town thought of her, and she knew she was walking into a hornet's nest of Good Religious Hostility by putting herself not just within Simon's house, not just off to the side of the room where everyone else sat and listened, but pushing herself forward, right up to Jesus and the table He rested near. She risked everything they could say and even do to her, just to be near Jesus, just to express her love and gratitude to Him. Should you or I or anyone do any less? How great a model and mentor she should be to us all!

But Jesus didn't just leave it there. He gave God's comfort directly to the woman, as well, didn't He? He essentially told her, "The sins you so grieve over are forgiven!" The Good Religious People around the room were critical, of course, as in "Who does this guy think He is, forgiving people we KNOW aren't worth God's forgiveness?" Once again, those who claimed to be God's Best (or Only) People failed to recognize God literally right in the room with them. But Jesus answered their attack with even more reassurance for the woman. Even though she had not participated in any of the religious rituals God required of the Jews then to be saved, and even though she lived a life outside what was considered acceptable by the Good Religious (and other) People, He told her, "Your trust in God has saved you. Go on your way, knowing you're at peace with God."
  • Many times we get stuck in sin, and we grieve over our sinfulness. Did Jesus tell this woman she was stuck, or did He tell her to drop that burden and move on? 
  • Did the fact that Good Religious People wouldn't have forgiven or loved or appreciated this woman change Jesus' forgiveness, love, or appreciation for her in the slightest? Why would you, then, ever imagine God gives two cents what Good Religious People (or anyone else) things about you? 
  • How should it change your life to know that everyone else in the world – especially in the Good Religious World – can absolutely despise you, yet you can be completely and utterly at peace with God? 

The scripture tells us that after this, Jesus continued what He'd been doing: going from place to place, preaching God's Good News to everyone. "The Twelve" disciples were with Him (remember that the Jewish people, of course, understood themselves as descended from twelve physically-related brothers, but from now on God's people were to be counted as those who were spiritually descended from the new  twelve physically-unrelated brothers). But the Bible tells us that women also followed Jesus and travelled with Him, just like the men did. And Jesus allowed that to happen.

Sometimes women with money in those days were patrons of religious teachers or groups, but it would have been considered appallingly indecent for women to travel with Jesus and His male followers. Men and women in those days were kept separated in nearly everything, including education and attendance at religious functions. Most women, in fact, weren't even allowed religious or other education, at all (sometimes wealthy women were allowed education, but not in any coed setting). Even among the pagans, having women in a religious group caused scandalized gossip and moral outrage.

And in the midst of all that "scandal", we once again find Jesus. The Good Religious People (and the Good Pagans) of the day may have considered women unfit for learning – but Jesus taught women, and He taught them exactly what He taught His male students. Jesus also allowed them to follow Him, to participate in what He was doing as much as His male students did. And they did so, learning, growing, supporting just as the men did. In Jesus' real church, women were always right there with Him, ministering and being ministered to, from the very start.
  • Jesus seems to have been really good at not giving a hoot about the standards, rules, and expectations of Good Religious People, even when they felt they were only following or enforcing "God's law". Do you still give a hoot? 
  • Even though Jesus ignored or actively broke religious rules all the time, He never acted chaotically or in ways that ignored manners, being respectful of others, and living God's way. Think up three modern examples of religious rules that Jesus would have ignored or broken. Now think up three modern examples of other kinds of rules that Jesus would have not ignored or broken. What's the difference? How should those things be different in your own life?

Next week, we'll see more of how Jesus handled demons and evil.

See you then!
This article written by Lynne at You can contact Lynne at