Feasting and Footwashing: The Five Senses of Maundy Thursday

As a part of Eastern Mennonite University’s Academic Festival, I presented the following paper on Maundy Thursday.  The scriptures for this paper are John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-17.

anointed_web
Anointed, Lauren Wright Pittman

Today is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday – that day in the midst of Holy Week where we’re not necessarily sure if we want to show up for worship at church or chapel…because we know what’s supposed to happen on Maundy Thursday: footwashing.

I’m guessing if you’re here, you knew something about that possibility. Maybe what surprised you was the reading – or rather, re-reading – the scripture from John 12 that was the lectionary text a few weeks back and is not typically read on Maundy Thursday.

My cheeky explanation for this double-reading of John would be: Behind every man’s “great idea” is a woman rolling her eyes…because she had the idea first…

But really, the goal of this presentation is two-fold:

First, to consider the way John 12 sets the stage for John 13, finding undeniable links between them by paying attention to the sensory-rich narratives.[1]

The second goal is to argue that the feasting and footwashing of Maundy Thursday promote a hermeneutical community where rituals are shaped by the interpretive embodiment of all believers.

We’ll begin with the sensory parallels. I’ll start with taste.

In John 12:1-2, Jesus is coming to Bethany to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus [bless his heart] is smelling a bit fresher than he had been the last time Jesus was in town,[2] and so a feast is set out for Jesus. The text reads that at this meal, “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.”[3] We don’t know too much about the meal or what was served, but we know it is in the context of celebration. Most of the action of this story will happen, seemingly, in the midst of a dinner party.

Switching to John 13 verse 2, “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table…” Again we don’t know much about the details of this Passover meal, but it is, again, a festive time. What is important in both of these stories is that they are necessarily framed around a table. A time of fellowship and feasting. The path into any ritual, into sacred space, is often paved with food.

The second sense is sight. I want to draw our attention to how these two scriptures invite us to look around to see that both are gatherings of Jesus’ beloved ones.

Backtracking to John 11:5, we learn, and this is a first its kind of mention in the gospel, that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus…”[4] So gathering for a meal with them, as they do in John 12, would certainly be punctuated by knowing looks and smiling eyes – a meal full of those moments where you look around the table and think to yourself, “I love that person. I love that person.” And so on.

Then in 13:1, John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”[5] Jesus’ love is conveyed here in the actions and teachings, and of course, later in John 13, Jesus gives a new commandment – to love as Jesus loved.

The writer of John indicates that at both meals, there is deep intimacy and trust. Using our senses, we are invited to enter into these rituals deeply seeing one another, and, if possible, deeply loving one another. Rituals are meant to deepen love. To offer healing. To make the journey more bearable.

Third is hearing. In both chapter 12 and 13, we hear Jesus’ words. That’s not particularly special. Rather, the connection between the narratives is that Jesus responds to misguided indignation.

Judas, appalled by the liquid gold being spilled out onto Jesus’ feet, erupts with resentment. “How could she pour out this vast amount of fine oil? Why didn’t she sell it? …the money could have been given to the poor.”[6] (“…or to me…”) Jesus responds, “Leave her alone. The poor’s not who you are concerned about anyway.”[7]

Or in chapter 13, poor Simon Peter, in a huff, goes on and on about how Jesus is doing a strange thing. Three times, Jesus responds calmly to the indignation. “Peter, later you will understand. Peter, I must wash your feet. Peter, just your feet will do.”[8]

The Divine Voice knows our indignation well; our refusal to show up at the table, our unease at being served by the Master. Yet, if we listen, we may hear a compassionate response.

Fourth is the parallel of smell.

“Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…” (13:5) The room is full of bodies likely less frequently bathed than the modern Western person. Feet, once sweaty and now crusty with dust and sand, are exposed. It is a normal odor, and there is a lot of it.

Mary comes in with a jar of nard, and drizzles on Jesus’ feet. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (12:3b) It is an unexpected odor for this occasion, and there is a lot of it.

Research shows that the sense of smell, perhaps more so than the other senses, is closely linked with memory.[9] Before we take the bread or the wine, let’s smell it. Smell this in “remembrance of me.” As you take a friend’s hands or feet out of the water, pay attention to the smell of lavender essential oils wafting into the room. Remember the nameless marginalized people who point the way to Jesus, like the woman, who in Mark 14, anoints Jesus. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what they have done will be told in remembrance of them.” (Mark 14:9)

Lastly, touch. There is surprising touch in both texts.

The Greek verb ekmasso, “to wipe,” is used three times in John, twice in reference to Mary’s actions wherein she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair; and once in reference to Jesus’ actions in wiping the feet of the disciples with a towel. The only other time that this verb is used in the New Testament is in Luke 7, where an unnamed woman similarly wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.

There is great tenderness in these touches; it is not aggressive, violent, or used to show power over. It is gentle, the act of a servant. As Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger writes, “In both meal scenes, the unusual action is a symbolic act full of meaning, and both times it involves the feet of the recipients.”[10]

We cannot enter into ritual disembodied. There is always touch: between people, between people and the earth, between people and the elements.

Taste, sight, hearing, smell, and touch: I hope it’s clear, at this point, that Mary’s demonstrations in chapter 12 set the stage for Jesus’ actions in John 13.[11] And fundamental to this parallel is that bodies and their sensuality are crucial to telling the stories, to presence in the rituals, and in communing with the Divine.

This brings me to my second point: that feasting and footwashing not only invite radical fellowship; they also attend to our sensuality, and so we press for the radical embodiment of all believers.

Anabaptists have this thing we call the hermeneutical community. Lydia Neufeld Harder defines the hermeneutical community as “an approach in which conscious commitment to a community of reference and accountability accompanies an openness to dialogue and critique.”[12] For Anabaptists, this “conscious commitment” is directly related to the foundational place of scripture for the church. Discernment of scripture is necessarily both dynamic and communal – meaning that authoritative interpretations require an awareness of the particular context where interpretation is happening (dynamic), and that individual interpretations are only acceptable when brought to the faith community for further engagement.[13] Harder connects the idea of the priesthood of all believers to the discernment of scripture, writing, “All participants in the community must have the same opportunity to initiate and be involved in the discussion. They must have the same chance to express attitudes, ideas, and feelings.”[14]

In other words, Anabaptists think that we need one another to do scriptural interpretation and every committed member should have an equal voice in that interpretation.

The next step though, that I am encouraging, given our texts this Maundy Thursday, is to explicitly recognize that interpretation doesn’t stop in our heads and our mouths. We believe that faithful discipleship affects our ethics. John 12 and 13 strongly suggest that we pay attention to the way our bodies interpret scripture through ritual.

The priesthood of all believers remains a central tenet of our faith; the embodiment of all believers is where the priesthood of all believers finds its feet.

Karl Koop writes, “Making sense of the faith is not simply an intellectual activity for spectators; neither can it be carried out on the basis of some disembodied, ahistorical principles. It demands that interpreters themselves be participants…”[15]

The invitation this morning is to join in the cosmic experiment with the Divine, placing ourselves and our bodies in the stories of the holy scripture. What Mary intuited at that celebratory meal was that she could not sit still in the kitchen or even at the table. She took her body and placed it at the feet of Christ.

I like to imagine, then, when it was all over, Jesus was thinking about it and what Mary had done, and he said to himself, “I’ve got this great idea…”

And thus we have a weird holiday, where we at least try to submit ourselves to one another and try to have a relatively pleasant meal together, where we take our shoes off and our socks,

We can’t do Maundy Thursday without our bodies. And that can be petrifying. And yet, this is the form that Jesus took. And these bodies are part of what God so dearly loves about the world that God gave their only child.

Join us, if the Spirit leads, for this experiment in a full-bodied encounter with the Divine.

——

[1] I rely on the inspiration found in Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz. “The Fragrance of Her Perfume: The Significance of Sense Imagery in John’s Account of the Anointing in Bethany.” Novum Testamentum 52 (2010), 334-354.

[2] Kurek-Chomycz. 341.

[3] Scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

[4] The “disciple that Jesus loved” is mentioned for the first time later in John 13:23.

[5] For more, see Levine, Vol. 1, 182.

[6] Scripture here is from The Voice Bible paraphrase.

[7] My paraphrased interpretation of the text.

[8] Again, my paraphrased interpretation of the text.

[9] http://www.fifthsense.org.uk/psychology-and-smell/

[10] Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger, “Transcending Gender Boundaries,” in A Feminist Companion to John: Vol. 2, Jill-Amy Levine, ed. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003, 173-207), 186.

[11] Amy-Jill Levine, ed. with Marianne Blickenstaff, A Feminist Companion to John: Vol. 1 (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), 92

[12]. Lydia Neufeld Harder, The Challenge is in the Naming: A Theological Journey (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2018), 50.

[13]. Harder, 51.

[14]. Harder, 58.

 

[15]. Karl Koop, “Scripture and Tradition: A dilemma for Protestants,” Vision 6, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 20, accessed December 9, 2018, http://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/issue/view/6-1/6-1.

 

Psalm 23

Looking ahead to the Fourth Sunday after Easter, we encounter the image of Shepherd in three of four of the readings.  The Psalm lends itself to communal prayer.

A Prayer for Reflection and Praise – Psalm 23:1-6

One: The Eternal One is our shepherd; we need nothing more.
Many: God makes us lie down in green pastures,
and leads us by gentle streams.
God invites us to rest. (silence)

Even when we walk through rugged terrain,
we are fearless, for you, O Holy One, are with us,
to guide and protect us. (silence)

Wisdom’s table is set before us and those we once called enemies;
You anoint our heads with oil;
You bless us with abundance. (silence)

Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives;
And we shall live in the house of the Eternal One forever.

 All: Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

This week’s passages dip into that timeless good fruit/bad fruit metaphor. From the Jeremiah passage, we are reminded that to trust in God means to send roots deeper, to nourishment that makes better fruit. There are certainly allegorical parallels here to the passage in Matthew 7:24-27, where Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish builders. Psalm 1 also uses the imagery of a tree, where one prospers and bears fruit when trusting in God’s holy teachings. Both Jeremiah and the Psalmist allude in no uncertain terms to what happens to those who follow “mortals” or human teaching – it is death. For Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, he implores his audience to not trust words that are not true, words that don’t yield what is good. Some have been saying that Christ has not been raised; yet, regardless of human capacity to understand, Christ was raised by God. The onus of proof, or of the possibility to produce “good fruit” is not on humans, but on God’s action and teaching.

In our context, whether one is a good or bad fruit is often tied into cultural preferences, stereotypes, access, and privilege. We have created a sort of “respectability” theology, where those who “work the hardest” and “trust God the most” are obviously the most faithful ones, the ones God has chosen to bless. Yet, what of our learned racism? What of our learned sexism? How much harder it is for a black man to be seen as “good fruit” in our context!

Luke, then, fully ushers us into a suspicious reading of the other texts and begins to address our respectability theology. The ones who are respectable and find blessing are those who have been denied it. The good fruit is grown in places that surprise most of us. Jesus, in Luke, reminds us to be wary of applying our image of a “good fruit” to God’s.

The collective call of these passages is to root deeply in God’s trust, acknowledging that God has the final word on what “good fruit” is, and to stand in solidarity with those who both seek to trust in God and face systemic, cultural prejudices that automatically characterize them as “bad fruit.”

Epiphany – Call to Worship

One of the beauties of Christmas is that with all the decorations, at least I find that I look up, look out a bit more. We can be drawn into lights that flicker or beam brightly from lawns, houses. The light reminds us of the light that shone brightly over a little town in the Middle East, light that drew in curious wanderers and wonderers.

Epiphany marks yet another moment in the liturgical year where we are invited to simply meditate or reflect on the “rich variety” of ways that the Good News of a Loving God is born anew in the world each day, in us and around us. We, like the Wise Ones, are invited to open our eyes, to take the next step into new life and healing light.

Here is a call to worship, based on texts from Year C.

One: Wise Ones, arise, shine: for your light has come!
Many: We bring praise to the Light of the World.

Wise Ones, come: With fragrance and food, with songs and smiles,
We come bearing gifts for the Christ child.

Wise Ones, look: The child on Mary’s hip is Good News for us all.
We revel and delight in this divine mystery.

Wise Ones, rejoice: The glory of God is in this place.
We celebrate the dawning of Epiphany!

When God Goes AWOL

From a sermon preached on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15.

If I would have thought of a title soon enough for today’s sermon, it would have read like a headline. God goes AWOL: Leaves Job, Psalmist in Utter Darkness

But I wanted you to stay for the sermon, so maybe it’s best that the title didn’t get published.

Delayed disclaimer: The scriptures this morning aren’t the bright, cheery, “good news” sort of texts that are easy to hear or read. There is no release of the captives, sight to the blind…There is no jubilee here or great feasting.

Why hear them? Why take time to go into life’s dark spaces? Or maybe you’re still stuck at: Why does Valerie have to be such a Debbie-Downer?

Like walking outside on a crisp, autumn evening, we’ve got to give the eyes of our spirits a little time to adjust to the different environment we’re entering into today – the difficulty of looking into scriptures that make us deal with our darkness.

Particularly in the U.S. culture, I’m not convinced that we have found a way to express for ourselves our grief and our sorrow…our shadow sides. Ours is an optimistic, often superficial culture, where happiness is success and sadness is failure. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, “Emotions such as grief, fear, and despair have gained a reputation as the ‘dark emotions’ not because they are noxious or abnormal but because Western culture keeps them shuttered in the dark with other shameful things like personal bankruptcy or sexual deviance. If you have ever spent time in the company of the dark emotions, you too may have received subtle messages from friends and strangers alike that you were supposed to handle them and move on sooner instead of later.”[1]

What I hear from Brown Taylor is that most of us don’t know how to live with such dark feelings that Job and the Psalmist bring up – when we find them in us, we can feel such shame for our doubt, our uncertainty, our questioning our faith. We feel bad that we feel bad. And we don’t always know how to live with others who suffer – how to just be with those who are experiencing darkness; because we haven’t done our own work, we find it difficult to be empathetic.

Do we avoid such texts because they make us uncomfortable? Do they hold up a mirror to an unpleasant reality that goes against the grain of our socialization? How can we step into texts like Job 23 and Psalm 22 to exercise some underdeveloped emotional muscles?

Before going any farther, however, it’s important to note that “darkness” means different things for each of us, and maybe you would use a different word to describe your experience. I don’t want to throw that term around lightly. For myself, I do not know the darkness that comes with chronic illness or living in a war zone or broken family relationships.

I do not experience visual darkness. I can physically see relatively well and find I can generally make my way when I’m walking if I keep my eyes open.

The darkness that I know and hear in the words of Job and the Psalmist is a sense of spiritual darkness in which God is distant, or totally absent or silent. The darkness I speak of today is a space of deep spiritual doubt that knowledge/intellect often cannot bridge. There are feelings of anger or suspicion that this faith thing/worship thing has all just been a farce. What if God’s absence means there is no God? Some call this experience the “dark night of the soul.” A crisis for which there is no easy remedy or fix, but is seen within “the evolution of the spiritual life.”[2] Some would say it is difficult and it is necessary for spiritual growth.

I wanted us to look at Job and the Psalm because they offer wisdom, permission, and a template for expressing the emotions of spiritual darkness. They can help us see that doubt and uncertainty are normal; it is a part of human experience to question God’s presence and God’s compassion. And sometimes, we get stuck in this place.

Let’s take a moment to see what both Job and the Psalmist offer us.

A Moment with Job

I’ll do the Cliff Note version for Job: At the beginning of the book, Job is a man who has never sinned and has prospered as a result of his righteousness. He’s got ten kids, a wife, thousands of animals. He is, by Old Testament standards, The Man.

In this context, of course, we have to remember that it was understood that sinful people suffered. Or, to flip that idea around, if you’re suffering, it’s because you sinned. We struggle with such theology and are likely opposed to it in this post-modern era; yet, that theology still exists – infiltrates us without our knowledge, particularly those of us who have white privilege… though that’s another sermon.

Back to Job. God’s bragging about Job to the heavenly court. And one of the members of the court, variously translated as “The Accuser” or “Satan,” responds to God, and says, “Of course Job is faithful – you’ve never tested him! He’s got everything! Why would he not love you? I bet if you took everything away, he wouldn’t be faithful.”

And God says, “I’ll take your bet.”

The Accuser takes away everything. Everyone dies – all his kids and livestock – in a succession of freak accidents. And then the Accuser gives Job painful boils. And essentially what ensues is that Job’s wife and three of his friends question him, asking, “Why don’t you cut ties with this God?”

Job responds, “I will curse all sorts of things, including my very existence, but I cannot curse God.” This sort of back and forth goes on for the bulk of the book.

And just before what we heard today, Job’s friends said, “Look, you must have sinned. Just admit it.”

And Job’s like, “I can’t. I didn’t sin.”

In Chapter 23, Job is asking for an audience with God. He wants his day in court to prove his innocence and prove his faithfulness. He wants the suffering to stop, but he needs to be able to plead his case to God. And God is absent from the courtroom.

Job’s response is telling — From the Message version, the scripture reads

“I’m not letting up—
    My complaint is legitimate.
God has no right to treat me like this—
    it isn’t fair!
If I knew where on earth to find him,
    I’d go straight to him.
I’d lay my case before him face-to-face,
    give him all my arguments firsthand.”

[But where is he?]

“I travel East looking for him—I find no one;
    then West, but not a trace;
I go North, but he’s hidden his tracks;
    then South, but not even a glimpse.

God makes my heart sink!
    God Almighty gives me the shudders!
I’m completely in the dark,
    I can’t see my hand in front of my face.”

Where is the God who supposedly rules with justice? That God is no where to be found. How do you protest your innocence when God is absent?

Job is left alone, his questions hanging in the balance.

Can we let the difficult questions of faith linger? When God is absent, how do we keep praying? One commentator on this passage remarked that “The Christian life presents no greater challenge than finding one’s way forward with integrity and responsibility in the dark.” Can we, like Job, speak into the darkness, keep engaging with it, and let it hold our anger and pain? Can we continue to call out to God to give us a fair trial?

A Moment with the Psalmist

Turning to the Psalm, these words are familiar to us because in two of the gospels, they are the last words recorded of Jesus as he is dying on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the posthumous memoir of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, it was revealed that she struggled with despondency and doubt. In letters to colleagues, she shared that for 40 years of her ministry, she felt a great emptiness and absence of God. In one letter, she wrote, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.” To another she wrote, “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

It is no surprise that Mother Teresa wanted these letters destroyed. We get it.

We could question, and many do, why she stuck with it. How could anyone still have faith after 40 years of such darkness? Who among us would fault her for walking away?

One hint the Psalmist gives for their willingness to wait is the memories of when God did show up. Times the Psalmist knew, really knew, that God had been present.

In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved…

…it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Those two words again: My God. My God. A god once intimately known to the Psalmist. A God who had been so close and receptive in the past. This is not just any god; this is My God.

Even Christ, in uttering these words, knew despair, suffering, and abandonment and Christ cried out to God from that sense of darkness. Christ normalized expressing our darkness to God. If the logic follows, then God, through Jesus, understands the suffering of humanity and of all creation. God does not will it; but God understands it. That can be a memory for us when we need it.

Letting the Questioning, Darkness Linger

And though I do not want to wrap this sermon up neatly by giving some unhelpfully optimistic, classic U.S. American remark about needing to stay hopeful when we encounter the dark night of the soul…It does seem like there are three possibilities for response.

Spiritual darkness can make us wonder if it’s God’s will that we’re suffering, and one possibility is that we resign ourselves to suffering.

The second is that spiritual darkness can make us want to deny or abandon our faith.

The third possibility, what I see being embodied by Job and the Psalmist, is to resist suffering and resist abandoning our faith. But to do that, we have to be willing to linger in the questions. To grapple with doubt. For the time being, to make peace with our shadows.

If we are willing to do this, we can more easily stand in solidarity with others who suffer in darkness. Our capacity for compassion and empathy becomes more profound. We find we can be with one another, and not rush the ‘moving on.’

God who hears what is too deep for words, beneath all our prayers for healing you perceive the buried hope; behind all our questions you understand the hidden longing; amidst all our singing you hear the struggle to pray. God who hears what is too deep for words, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 77.

[2] Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, 152.

Women Who Act

The group of youth waited patiently as I deliberated the answer to their question, “What’s your favorite book of the Bible and why?” Particularly self-aware as a new pastor in the congregation, I wanted to articulate my response carefully and in a way that might prompt further conversation. Finally, I staked my claim. “Luke,” I said, “because the author throws a fascinating light on women in the Jesus movement.” Fast-forward a year-and-a-half later, and while the answer may technically be the same on the surface level, my reasoning behind such a statement of Luke’s take on women has dramatically shifted.

Being a white woman of U.S. Mennonite background,[i] I grew up relatively unaware of the concept of white patriarchy and the way it so fundamentally shaped my experience. Ingrained in my religious education and formation was a sense of inferiority and limited influence in all areas of life, including within my church community. Even today, I often remain blind to patriarchy’s effect on the way I – and I would add, the church – tend to read the Bible. I recognize that this experience is not unique to me, to this era, or to white Mennonite women.

Thus, during a tense period of owning my pastoral identity, I found myself reflecting on biblical women who, amidst their own patriarchal contexts, found a way to step up and speak out against the injustice of their (gendered) oppression. Instinctually, I thought of stories in the Gospels, of women speaking to power – be it the powers-that-be, or be it The Power (aka Jesus). These stories and the advocacy in them are too important to remain reflections within me, particularly because my experience of oppression in the Mennonite church as a woman is not unique, nor has it been adequately addressed, even in “progressive” churches where women have (finally) been acknowledged in leadership for several decades.

This essay reaches back to the well-known observation that Luke includes more women in his narratives than any of the other gospels, and it digs deeper into the function of those stories. While a comprehensive study of Luke’s literary perspective is not possible in this essay, many feminist theologians have noted the need for a special consideration of the “double message” nature of the Gospel. As Turid Karlsen Seim notes, there is a tendency to overlook the frequency of women’s involvement in the Jesus movement and their simultaneous silencing, for in Luke, “women act as subjects and are treated as objects in the account of the story.”[ii]

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s classic book, In Memory of Her, begins with an observation that the “namesake” of the title, taken from Mark 14.9, is no longer known by her name.[iii] The reader (and the community of faith) is to remember an unnamed woman and her significant actions, and yet her identity largely slips from the frame. We encounter a similar trajectory in Luke’s Gospel, in which there are remnants of stories of women, though their names have largely been lost. The question, then, is: Of the women in Luke whose names are largely unknown, what is the “memory” of their story? And how do these memories relate to the forgotten names of those on the margins today?

In this essay, I consider the Lukan stories in which women own their agency and advocate for themselves within a patriarchal context. Using five scriptural passages, I develop several conclusions from the texts to apply to today’s church, a church still contending with white patriarchy and the voices who seek to challenge it for the sake of the gospel.

Agency and Advocacy: A Framework

A specific interest framing this work is to understand how women in Luke’s Gospel use agency and advocacy. Agency, as summarized from the work of Bronwyn Davies, is the authority people take to make themselves the subject of their discourse.[iv] Davies speaks of the “act of authorship” in which a person “takes up…speaking and writing in ways that are disruptive of current discourses, that invert, invent and break old bonds…”[v] In patriarchal societies, those on the margins (because of gender, sexuality, age, race, etc.) are often denied the ability to claim their authority, and in such a system, one purportedly cannot be an agent.[vi] Yet, there are many who critique these systems and claims, asserting that agency, as a construct, is available to all humans[vii] (and, I would add, to all living things.) While Davies’ definition does not explicitly mention the notion of advocacy as a partner to agency, Amartya Sen’s definition of agency clarifies that there is often a purpose beyond a simple interest in establishing one’s subjecthood. Sen asserts that “[A]gency maintains the position of the needy, however destitute, as subjects engaged in their own surviving and striving.”[viii] In brief, advocacy often provides the purpose or impetus for an act of agency.

When brought into a religious sphere, agency is when a person speaks or acts in the power of the Divine.[ix] Through an additional lens of Christian liberation and feminist theologies, the gospel’s overarching message – the emerging and inverted kin-dom – liberates those on the margins, freeing them to practice advocacy though still “trapped” in unjust structures, here, patriarchy. In other words, persons on the margin are freed by the Spirit to exercise agency with the unveiling of the Good News, regardless of oppressive human structures and expectations.

In this essay, then, I am particularly looking at how agency and advocacy function in the Gospel of Luke, expressly with those whose gender is identified as female.[x] Meanwhile, I recognize that gender is not a static construct across time and place. During Luke’s era there was a gender (male) that rose above another gender (female) in ways reflective of that context, though seemingly unreflective of the gospel (generally speaking) of Jesus. Certainly, the parallels are not exact between gender in Luke’s time and today, but there is adequate overlap to be compelling.

With the extensive material already generated around women in the Gospel of Luke, one might wonder what new observations may come out of another study with new applications for today’s world. Yet, biblical interpretation requires further nuancing around gender, patriarchy, and marginalization. Thus, through this lens of agency and advocacy, the women of the Gospel of Luke become exemplary agents whose experiences speak to people on the margins presently. In many ways the general acknowledgment that many white women today are afforded greater authority and privilege than our biblical foremothers is a reminder of the work still needed to be done. The gap remains wide between those who are “allowed” to speak in patriarchal contexts and those who are not, and that who is marginalized may shift in different contexts. So, while the women of Luke’s Gospel still speak to women’s experience today, their agency also applies in the U.S. to persons of color, to those who identify as LGBTQIA, to those whose economic worth barely affords them survival, and to those who struggle to be agents when multiple factors conspire for their silence.

Women Agents in Luke

For this study, I have identified five scriptures in Luke in which women may be seen as authors in their own story and who act in a way that demonstrates advocacy and purpose. The five texts are 7.36-50, 8.43-48, 10.38-42, 18.1-8, and 18.15-17.[xi] With each scripture, the framework for engagement will include four primary observations:

Who is the woman?

What does she do and/or say?

What are the results or reactions of others?

How does this scripture fit the “agency and advocacy” motif?

 

Luke 7.36-50[xii]

Luke gives little background information about this woman, aside from noting that she is likely a local in the city; and, he identifies her generically as a “sinner” (7.37).[xiii] Opinions on the type of sinner this woman is vary greatly: from an unquestioning assumption that she is a prostitute,[xiv] to a refusal to attach a specific sin for which is she known.[xv] Whatever the case, she is unclean and not to be touched (nor should she be touching others). So it seems, regardless of the type of sin, and thus regardless of her identity, this story is more directly about seeing the woman’s actions as a contrast to Simon the Pharisee.

While the woman remains silent in the text, Luke descriptively shows her actions: she stands in a purposeful location, weeps so that her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair and kisses his feet, and anoints Jesus’ feet with an alabaster jar of ointment (7.38). Jesus invites none of these actions (and Simon certainly does not either), nor are they seen as commonplace occurrences.[xvi]

The first reaction, tacit in the text, is that Jesus receives the woman’s actions without responding emotionally or verbally. Simon the Pharisee, however, questions Jesus’ identity, and can only see the woman for her sins (7.39). The scene shifts away from the woman for the moment, and Jesus, speaking to Simon, tells a riddle of two debtors in order to establish an “objective truth”: that the one to whom more is forgiven, will love more (7.41-42). The scene returns to spotlight the woman, and Jesus contextualizes the riddle (7.44). Simon’s actions and attitudes are compared with “the woman”; she is shown to be the source of the “objective truth” in the moment (7.44-47).[xvii] The “ones who were dining” there question Jesus, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” (4.49). Given Simon’s squeamishness, one could also imagine them saying also under their breath “especially the sins of this woman.”

The woman first uses agency to disregard her imposed identity as a sinner. She must know that this label has been attached to her personhood, a label that should serve to segregate her from a holy man. Yet, when Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” (7.44), he implies that she is the subject, and her agency and advocacy for self is the reason for Simon’s objections. Her body, which has been objectified as being sinful, is now the subject that demonstrates great love. Her place in the story is not first and foremost as a recipient of Jesus’ compassion; though she is silent, she is not passive.

Luke 8:43-48[xviii]

Again, an unnamed woman enters the narrative. She has experienced a “flow of blood for twelve years” (8.43), and thus is known in the story by her infirmity, though it is uncertain how widely her illness is known. Though Luke does not speak to this one way or the other, the reader knows that within this social context, her bleeding has made her ritually unclean.

Luke again renders the woman silent in her pursuit of wholeness. There is a perceived pre-story, in which the woman has been acting on her own behalf, seeking out healing. She has joined the crowd and made her way through until she is just behind Jesus, where she is able to touch the fringe of his garment (8.44). The woman is found out and acknowledges her actions and the subsequent restoration (8.47).

At the instant of being touched, Jesus stops to ask the crowd, “Who touched me?” (8.45). Peter reacts to Jesus, curious at the implausibility of the question (8.45). Dornisch writes here that “Jesus experiences what might be called vibes, vibrations, sensory or extrasensory dynamics,”[xix] as his “power goes out” (8.46) from him seemingly without his expressed permission. His response to the woman’s confession and profession is compassionate and dignifying. Calling her “daughter,” he commissions her to a life restored (8.48).

The woman has been advocating for herself throughout her illness, seeking healing from any who might offer it. She may be, as one scholar writes, “physically near death,”[xx] yet here we see the pinnacle of her agency, her choice to act as the author of her life, even if that action is potentially “illegal” in the eyes of her community.[xxi] Her body, in the push to Jesus, is her tool of agency, not her words. And, in contrast to the times when Jesus heals people without asking, the woman seeks the healing herself, and reaches out without permission.[xxii] She is not a passive recipient of her healing; instead, she claims her healing.

Luke 10.38-42

Two women feature in this story: Martha and her sister, Mary. Whether they are biological sisters or sisters in the Jesus movement is not made explicit, and while they are named, this is the only story in Luke where Martha and Mary are present.[xxiii]

At the start, Martha welcomes Jesus into the house, acting as host (10.38). Mary soon seats herself at “the Lord’s” feet to listen to his teaching (10.39). Martha seems busy and preoccupied, so she speaks to Jesus, asking him to take notice of her predicament and to speak to Mary, “so that she may take a turn” (10.40). Mary does not speak in the exchange, though one sees through Jesus’ eyes that she has actively chosen to sit with him (10.42).[xxiv]

F. Scott Spencer notices three key responses of Jesus in this passage. [xxv] First, Jesus names Martha twice, “conveying both a ring of intimacy and compassion and a sting of authority and correction.” Jesus then “pinpoints Martha’s shortcoming…He chides her attitude, not her action.” And finally, “Jesus defends Mary’s choice as ‘the good part.’”

The evident conflict between the sisters raises questions about the nature of competing agents, both of whom seek to advocate for themselves, one more vocally than the other. Martha seems to be acting as “an agent mobilized in response to a provocation,” the provocation here being Jesus’ presence and physical needs.[xxvi] Martha is rebuffed and corrected, but as Spencer notes, not because of her agency. Her motivations and attitude are what is questioned. While the classic conflict of the story is between Martha’s serving and Mary’s hearing, Seim writes, “It can thus be claimed that the fundamental antithesis is not between hearing and serving, but between hearing and agitated toil.”[xxvii] Meanwhile, Mary’s agency is hidden behind the text, and some question if her agency is tangible at all.[xxviii]

Luke 18.1-8

This scripture features one of Luke’s parabolic/fictional women, a widow. The widow, seemingly without male support,[xxix] is seen as “assertive” and “shameless” in contrast to her perceived powerlessness (as a woman),[xxx] and yet is knowledgeable about Torah law and widow’s rights.[xxxi] Contextually, these may have been surprising characteristics for a Jewish widow, who would have been expected to be passive and meek, “rarely stirring out of her home.”[xxxii]

In the parable, the widow, seeking justice, comes to a “certain judge” a character the reader is not meant to trust, considering he “did not fear God, nor was respecting of people” (18.2). The judge’s words to himself imply that the widow came to him repeatedly, asking for a decisive move in her case (18.4).

The judge’s primary response is less directed at the widow, and more reflective of concerns around his self-importance. Though the widow “affords him trouble” by “coming continually,” the reader is privy to a discussion the judge has with himself in which he reasons that he “will give her justice, in order that she does not wear me out” (18.5). The judge reckons it will save him time and energy if he simply gives the widow what she is demanding. As Spencer writes, “It would be the rare man in the ancient world, however unfeeling he might claim to be, who would not care about the quintessential indignity of being unmanned and outstripped by a woman’s hand.”[xxxiii] Jesus does not directly respond to the parabolic woman’s actions, and instead points the reader to “hear what the unrighteous judge says” (18.6).

The widow’s agency and self-advocacy are easy to see in the parable. She must take matters into her own hands to find justice, for there is no man around to speak for her. Yet, such a move is contextually unbecoming to a woman, “since women’s self-assertive appearances in open court were generally viewed as irregular and immodest, regardless of their comportment.”[xxxiv] Unique to this story, the widow exercises her agency not once, but over and over again. In the final verses of the text, Luke has Jesus expound the parable, asking, “And will not God do justice for his chosen, the ones who call out to him day and night…?” (18.7). The widow’s unrelenting actions are compared to the fervency of prayer, “not only asking for something but also the notion of commitment and vow or dedication.”[xxxv]

Luke 18:15-17

This is the one scripture in the study in which women are not specifically identified as such in the text. Yet, in Luke’s context, women were the primary caretakers of young children and Luke uses the term brephē (18.15), most often understood as “infants” or “babies.”[xxxvi]

The group of women brings their infants to Jesus “so that he might touch them” (18.15). Otherwise, the group is silent and behind the main action.

The response of the disciples is sharp. Seeing the children brought forward, they “rebuke” their caretakers (18.15). Jesus reprimands the disciples, and re-opens the way for the children to come to him, and compares the receptivity of the children to what is needed to “enter into the reign of God” (18.16-17).

This text highlights the possibility that a woman’s agency and advocacy may be on behalf of another person.[xxxvii] These women maneuver themselves into potential subjecthood and then transfer that to their children. In this act, the children become the subjects of the story, and they are equated with the reign of God. The children are eventually recipients of Jesus’ blessing, but it is the mothers themselves who exert their agency, advocating for the worthiness of their request.

Emerging Motifs of Women’s Agency

These five scriptures each shed a unique light on facets of women’s agency in the Gospel of Luke, yet laying the stories side-by-side creates a richer image of agency and advocacy for women. From the texts, I will draw five conclusions before applying them further to the current U.S. Mennonite context.

Conclusion one: Bodies may be used as tools of agency.     

The first observation is that agency is exerted in the act of female bodies entering traditionally male spaces. For example, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet situates her body in a male space, and then uses her body to invert her stigma and demonstrate great love (7.47). Her tears, her hands, and her hair become the means through which she engages with and touches the body of Jesus, and her agency is far from sterile. Similarly, the hemorrhaging woman, who touches Jesus’ garment, propels her body through a crowd in order to reach out (8.44). And, Mary’s body is situated “at the feet of Jesus” (10.39), a space traditionally thought to be a male’s prerogative.

Particularly in the first two instances, the sense of women’s touch is prominent, and their “impurity had its sources in the female body.”[xxxviii] Of women’s bodies throughout Luke, Elvey writes that “[B]oth women and nature are subjects of a double message in which a forgetting or suppressing of their independent agency is accompanied by an idealization of their responsiveness to the divine. But the double message concerning women is interrupted by the independent responsiveness of the improper female body.”[xxxix] Perhaps it seems simplistic to name, but because women’s physical presence was actively denied or questioned in male spaces, the women in Luke necessarily position and use their bodies in ways that demonstrate authority over their bodies.

Conclusion two: Using agency may require disregarding external impositions on one’s identity.

The women of these stories re-narrate their identities by disregarding or breaking past imposed barriers to their inclusion. Surely the woman of Luke 7 knew she was seen as a “sinner.” Surely the woman of Luke 8 knew her flow of blood meant she should stay at home. Surely the widow of Luke 18 knew it would be better for a man to speak on her behalf.

These restrictive identities are placed onto the women’s bodies by external sources and structures; the women do not self-identify in the text as “sinner” or “unclean” or “immodest.”[xl] Yet Jesus’ response to women’s re-authorship of their identities is supportive. Schüssler Fiorenza writes that stories like Luke 7 “assert, then, that Jesus and his movement invited into their table community not only women but even notorious and well-known sinners. Sinners, prostitutes, beggars, tax collectors…constituted the majority of Jesus’ followers.”[xli] Perhaps the Jesus movement attracted those persons who carried — and were willing to reject — socially-constructed barriers to their inclusion. This second conclusion works in tandem with the first conclusion: not only do women’s bodies enter male spaces in dramatic ways, but the women also simultaneously shed oppressive qualifiers placed on them by patriarchal structures.

Conclusion three: Conflict arises when women advocate or act on their own authority.

I have demonstrated above that the scriptures include conflict and resistance to women’s advocacy. Of Luke 7.36-50, Dornisch writes, “This is one of the Lukan stories in which a woman or women are given prominence and a male figure or men come off badly.”[xlii] Simon the Pharisee is the most obvious opponent to the woman anointing Jesus’ feet (7.39), though “the ones who were dining” with Jesus also resist the invitation to transformation (7.49). In the story of Martha and Mary, the conflict is lodged in conversation between Martha and Jesus, though it seems potentially representative of broader “household divisions” in Luke 10-12.[xliii] In the parable of the widow and the judge, the conflict develops in the response of the dithering and “unrighteous” judge who is slow to grant justice. And finally, the disciples, like hypersensitive guard dogs, intercept and “rebuke” those who bring infants to Jesus.

Subsequently, the conflict creates a contrast to the women’s actions. Again, Simon is contrasted with the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. The hemorrhaging woman, within the broader textual context, is contrasted to Jairus and his dying daughter.[xliv] Martha and Mary are contrasted to one another. The perseverance of the widow is naturally contrasted to the indifference of the judge. And, in Luke 18.15-17, the contrast is between the people who initiate the bringing of children and the disciples who seek to keep them separate.[xlv]

While there is contrast and conflict in these stories, the women do not use violence to achieve their goals. Their agency is not enforced with violence or in ways that take away the dignity of others. Advocacy is never exerted over or against someone or with the intent to hurt.

Conclusion four: Any blessing or healing from Jesus follows a woman’s act of agency.

This conclusion is particularly evident in view of Luke 7.36-50, 8.43-48, and 18.15-17, and in comparison with other Lukan texts. The women in these three scriptures are firmly subjects, acting first in their movement toward good news and liberation, and experiencing secondarily blessing or healing. This is in contrast to other stories in Luke where women are seen as recipients of Jesus’ healing (e.g. Luke 8.1-3 or 13.10-17). Seim seems to see little distinction between the women’s acts studied here and the examples elsewhere in Luke. She writes, “[W]omen do not come openly and courageously to Jesus with their request for help. Their appeals are indirect: others ask for help on their behalf (Lk 4.48) or they hide themselves in the crowd (Lk 8.43). For the most part, they are in the same place as Jesus, and he sees them and acts.”[xlvi] While I disagree with Seim on her observation of the woman in 8.43,[xlvii] her statement overall is telling. Women more often are seen as recipients of Jesus’ healing, object-lessons for (Luke’s version of) Jesus, and some see the parallel blessings of 7.50 and 8.48 as afterthoughts, Luke’s patriarchal re-assertion of Jesus’ authority in the text.[xlviii]

Conclusion five: A woman’s act of agency is never questioned by Jesus.

Women in these Lukan texts speak and act in ways that demonstrate their agency. Though the community around Jesus questions women’s agency and responds with resistance, Jesus himself never rebukes them. The closest or most “tempting” admonishment to confuse with this observation is Jesus’ response to Martha, yet as discussed above, the “better” interpretation is that Jesus challenges Martha’s attitude, not her agency.

This final conclusion, though based on “silences” in the texts, is affirmed when looking more broadly at Luke’s Gospel and at the other Gospels. Helpfully, Schüssler Fiorenza notes that “[S]ince the Gospels were written at a time when other New Testament authors clearly were attempting to adapt the role of women within the Christian community to that of a patriarchal society and religion, it is all the more remarkable that not one story or statement is transmitted in which Jesus demands the cultural patriarchal adaptation or submission of women.”[xlix]

Interpreting Luke for Today

All of these conclusions are seen best when one “reads the text against the grain” for the times “when Luke’s rhetoric eclipses women and reinforces silent, passive roles.”[l] This, again, is the result of Luke’s “double message,” in which women’s high frequency in the text is surprising, yet the women’s voices are relatively non-existent. The conclusions are also transferable to any culture, though the contextual equivalent of who the women “are” and what they “do” may shift to reflect those who are marginalized in particular. These groups may also shift over time, yet the move to engage with texts is affirmed by many, including Barbara Reid who writes, “It is preferable to engage in a process of recontextualization and reinterpretation in which Luke’s patriarchal biases are recognized and challenged.”[li]

It is certainly the case in Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) that a patriarchal Christianity still holds fast and women’s voices, like those in Luke, are silenced, resisted, and questioned. There are also other populations whose voices and actions are similarly drowned out, and in view of a Mennonite ethic of creation care, patriarchy aims to keep biblical interpretation and theology firmly anthropocentric and furthermore, androcentric.[lii] Over the last decade, questions around women’s leadership in MCUSA have been raised and worked at, with no shortage of resistance (mostly, it seems, from men). The Women in Leadership Project is an example of an initiative that grew out of acknowledged structural sexism within the denomination.[liii] Anita Hooley Yoder’s history of women’s groups in the U.S. Mennonite context notes a similar question around women’s ongoing roles in leadership, and Hooley Yoder highlights in particular the barriers for women of color.[liv]  She observes that histories of women in the Mennonite church have largely been non-existent, their voices effectively silenced over the last century.[lv] Meanwhile, at both a denominational level and a conference level, women have not occupied nor currently occupy formal positions of leadership in significant numbers. Persons of color and persons who identify as LGBTQIA are found in even lower proportions than women.[lvi]

Musa Dube, in a stylized re-reading of Mark 5.24-43 (a parallel to Luke 8.43-48), inserts “Mama Africa” as the woman with a flow of blood who seeks healing. Dube’s re-envisioning provides a framework for MCUSA to imagine the agency the denomination may take, if it chooses to acknowledge the way the body suffers under white patriarchy. MCUSA “is coming behind Jesus. She is pushing through a strong human barricade. Weak and bleeding but determined, she is stretching out her hand. If only she can touch the garments of Jesus Christ.”[lvii]

The conclusions drawn from Luke on the agency of women may be applied to formal structures of MCUSA as a denomination and more informally on a local level. For simplicity’s sake, I will briefly interpret their meaning in each of these contexts. First, along with the efforts to challenge the patriarchal nature of the denominational structures, there is biblical precedent for those on the margin to speak up, to show up where we/they are not supposed to be, and to take on the act of re-authoring the story within the denomination. The work of the denomination is to be alert to those who resist these actions or who seem to escalate the conflict in ways that tighten white patriarchy’s grasp on power. The work is to resist the “patriarchy” of all believers, and be transformed into a “priesthood” of all believers.[lviii]

Perhaps most impactful, the conclusions above are a call for action at a grassroots level, where relationships are stronger and power differentials are contained within a relational community. De-patriarchalizing the church will have a trickle-up effect from the local congregational level, where those on the fringes use their agency to demonstrate the vitality and beauty of the church on the edge. The idea is not to necessarily suggest that those marginalized advocate for a space in the center, displacing the white, patriarchal status quo, but to “re-perceive the margin…as a place of critical movement and full of interest.”[lix] All MCUSA churches are infected and influenced by white patriarchy. It is in the air we breathe in our broader North American context. It is deep in the DNA of our churches because it has been the collective history of this nation. Structures and communities within MCUSA have benefitted from white patriarchy, perpetuated it, and done little to challenge it.

Thus, congregations should contemplate that in the Gospel of Luke, a woman’s act of agency is never questioned by Jesus. The body of Christ should not resist the exercise of agency of those who have been marginalized. There remains the necessary role of communal discernment when a person or group advocates, but ultimately, the invitation of the congregation is to answer Jesus’ question “Do you see this woman?” (7.44) in the affirmative.

Yet, the likelihood is low that a congregation will favorably “see this woman” and a conflicted response should be presumed. The agency of those marginalized by white patriarchy will be questioned and challenged, yet their agency is a sign of great love, which may come at great cost like a jar of alabaster ointment. When bodies are used as tools of agency, there is the real possibility of physical harm. When persons disregard identity markers imposed on them by others, oppressors will likely – if subconsciously – lean in to re-inflict harm and power, be it psychological, emotional, or spiritual harm. And women or those on the margins will need to act without a guarantee of blessing from the church.

Congregations within MCUSA, even those with paid women leaders or leaders of color, are not immune to perpetuating a patriarchal church. Regardless of demographics or good intentions, the propensity on the congregational level is to revert to societal patterns and customs. There are certainly parallels to the emerging church, as evidenced in Luke that those in power do not readily bend to resist old traditions. The early church found patriarchy creeping back in, threatening to override the gospel message of inclusion for those on the margins. Yet, Schüssler Fiorenza writes,

[T]he basileia vision of Jesus calls all women without exception to wholeness and selfhood, as well as to solidarity with those women who are the impoverished, the maimed, and outcasts of our society and church…It empowers us to walk upright, freed from the double oppression of societal and religious sexism and prejudice. The woman-identified man, Jesus, called for a discipleship of equals that still needs to be discovered and realized by women and men today.[lx]

Conclusion

The women of Luke are model agents, demonstrating a divine disregard for patriarchal barriers that stand in the way of the gospel. From these women, today’s church learns that the gospel message to those on the margin is clear, even when Luke’s patriarchal authorship obscures it: there is biblical precedent for agency and advocacy, and there is biblical precedent that agency results in patriarchal resistance.

And, while women today are still invited to tap into these exemplars of agency, white patriarchy has marginalized and continues to marginalize multiple groups and abuses the earth. All who do not conform to a patriarchal-defined “center” are encouraged to advocate for the revelation of good news on the margin. So too, should they hold firm to the memory that Jesus makes no claims for a patriarchal church nor will Jesus question acts of agency of those whose identities are deemed lesser by the powers-that-be. Our foremothers whisper through the scripture: Your agency has saved you. Go in peace.

Notes

[i]. My context here and throughout, when I mention U.S. Mennonites and my affiliation with them, is specifically tied to the denomination known currently as “Mennonite Church USA.” There are other Mennonite groups in the U.S. to which I am not able to speak authoritatively.

[ii]. Turid Karlsen Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke & Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994),10.

[iii]. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985), xiii.

[iv]. Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (Dec. 1991): 42-53, accessed June 16, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23164525.

[v]. Davies, 50.

[vi]. Davies, 42.

[vii]. For example, see Elsa Tamez, “Women’s Rereading of the Bible,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 48-57.

[viii]. F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), 280 (emphasis in original). Spencer quotes Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor, 1999), 189.

[ix]. Schüssler Fiorenza, 36.

[x]. There will be one exception to this, in which gender of an agent-subject is not explicitly female.

[xi]. While Luke includes many more pericopes in which women speak or act, most of these women are the objects of the story, not the subjects. Many want to add Mary, mother of Jesus, to the list, but she enters the Gospel as an object of the Spirit’s action, not of her own volition. Others want to include the women listed in 8.1-3, but again, Luke identifies that these women are first recipients (objects) of Jesus’ healing. They may have exerted agency in their own right, but we are not afforded their stories. For more on this, see Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, Minn: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 52ff.

[xii]. Parallel texts to this story can be found in all the other Gospels. Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, and John 12:1-8 all feature a woman who anoints Jesus with alabaster ointment. While John identifies this woman as Mary of Bethany, she goes unnamed in Matthew and Mark as in Luke. There is reference in the other traditions to the great expense of such an action, which Luke does not include. One detail which is present in all is that the woman is contrasted to the men of the story. See Loretta Dornisch, A Woman Reads the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 85.

[xiii]. All biblical citations in this essay represent my own translations of the texts in question.

[xiv]. Seim, 90. Seim offers no hint of suspicion of this assumption.

[xv]. Schüssler Fiorenza, 127-8. She states, “The notion of “sinner” can have a whole range of meanings. It can characterize people who did not keep the Torah…; those who, in our terms, were criminals…; or those who worked in disreputable jobs…”

[xvi]. Seim, 55.

[xvii]. I use scare quotes here, given the infinite numbers of definitions one might use for the term “objective truth.”

[xviii]. Versions of this story are also found in Mark 5.25-34 and Matthew 9.20-22. Mark expands the narrative to include more of the woman’s story – that she had sought help from many doctors, spending all her money, all to no avail.

[xix]. Dornisch, 104.

[xx]. Anne F. Elvey, An Ecological Feminist Reading of the Gospel of Luke: A Gestational Paradigm (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), 170.

[xxi]. Dornisch, 103.

[xxii]. Spencer, 13.

[xxiii]. The Gospel of John includes other traditions related to Martha and Mary in John 11.1-44 and 12.1-8.

[xxiv]. Seim, The Double Message,100. Seim notes the absence of Jesus’ name in this passage. Luke chooses to refer to him with the term kyrios. She writes that this “characterizes Jesus as the teacher and as the authoritative Lord of the community.”

[xxv]. Spencer, 170-1.

[xxvi]. John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 48.

[xxvii]. Seim, 105.

[xxviii]. Jane Schaberg, “Luke” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 377. Schaberg writes that Mary’s “attitude is that of a disciple, but she is not a disciple. She is only an audience. What she has heard and learned at the Lord’s feet is private; it does not instruct and shape the whole community.” Elsewhere in Luke and Acts, men who hear go on to preach.  Schaberg further notes, “‘The word’ is preached by both the Twelve and the Seven in Acts, but it is only listened to by Mary…”

[xxix]. Elvey, 172.

[xxx]. Mary W. Mathews, Carter Shelley and Barbara Scheele, “Proclaiming the Parable of the Persistent Widow,” in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, ed. Mary Ann Beavis (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 50.

[xxxi]. Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 192.

[xxxii]. Mathews, Shelley, and Scheele, 50.

[xxxiii]. Spencer, 289.

[xxxiv]. Spencer, 277.

[xxxv]. Dornish, A 186.

[xxxvi]. Seim, 120.

[xxxvii]. Dornisch, 187.

[xxxviii]. Seim, 91.

[xxxix]. Elvey, 173.

[xl]. And certainly, not only women’s bodies, but others as well who were seen in that context as unclean or “lower” in the natural order.

[xli]. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 129.

[xlii]. Dornisch, A Woman Reads, 85.

[xliii]. Spencer, Salty Wives, 145ff.

[xliv]. Dornisch, 103.

[xlv]. Also of note here, there is the metaphorical comparison of the infants to the reign of God, a comparison that is a result of the encounter.

[xlvi]. Seim, 55.

[xlvii]. My disagreement with Seim is that, in Luke’s version of the woman with a flow of blood, the “lack of courageousness” in speaking up does not diminish the initial action of moving through the crowd or the reaching out or the woman’s primary motivation or emotion for her healing. Rather, these all demonstrate great courage, and moving as “openly” as she could in public!

[xlviii]. Schaberg, 375.

[xlix]. Schüssler Fiorenza, 52-3.

[l]. Reid, 6.

[li]. Reid, 53.

[lii]. By their very nature, the Gospels (and scripture generally) are most concerned with and directed at men. Schaberg, “Luke,” 369 writes, “[W]omen have had to read as though they were men in order to hear themselves fully addressed and challenged.” This is the historic basis from which biblical interpretation has typically been done.

[liii]. For more information, see “Women in Leadership Project,” http://mennoniteusa.org/what-we-do/peacebuilding/women-in-leadership-project/. Women who write on the Menno Snapshots blog attest to the ongoing realities of sexism that permeate life in MCUSA.

[liv]. Anita Hooley Yoder, Circles of Sisterhood: A History of Mission, Service, and Fellowship in Mennonite Women’s Organizations (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017). See Hooley Yoder’s final chapter, “Future Directions for Mennonite Women’s Groups” and her epilogue for reflections on conversations around historic women’s groups within MCUSA.

[lv]. Hooley Yoder, 248.

[lvi]. It should, of course, be noted that MCUSA has in 2018 appointed its first person of color in the “highest” position of Executive Director of the denomination. However, as Melissa Florer-Bixler writes, “I’m reminded by colleagues and friends in the Mennonite Church that top level positions only go to people of color and/or women when the ship is on the rocks. If it’s going down, we want to make sure it’s not on the watch of one of our white male leaders.” Melissa Florer-Bixler, “Moving Towards Competent Leadership: Strategies for an Anti-Sexist Church,” Menno Snapshots (blog), September 26, 2017, http://mennoniteusa.org/menno-snapshots/moving-towards-competent-leadership-strategies-anti-sexist-church/.

[lvii]. Musa W. Dube, “Fifty Years of Bleeding: A Storytelling Feminist Reading of Mark 5:24-43,” in Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible, ed. Musa W. Dube (Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2001), 60 (emphasis in original).

[lviii]. I can’t help but note that “priest” in itself is a masculinized term, too.

[lix]. R.S. Sugirtharajah, introduction to Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 2.

[lx]. Schüssler Fiorenza, 153-4.