I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how women are treated: in society in general as well as within the church, and with International Women’s Day coming up on 8th March, I thought it was a good opportunity to write a blog post. All I wanted us to do is consider some aspects of how Jesus treated women during his time on earth, and I noticed that we get a good snapshot of this in John 11.
In verses 17-36, which describes Jesus arriving close to the home of his friend Lazarus, after Lazarus had died, and interacting with his two sisters.
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Jesus is on his way to raise Lazarus from the dead! He knows that is his plan, and that is his intent in travelling to Bethany, and yet he still takes time to speak to these two women in their grief, instead of simply telling them he’s about to fix the problem. They appear to have very different characters, and Jesus treats them as individuals. It was pretty unheard of at the time for a Jewish man (let alone a teacher!) to befriend and then to spend time talking with a woman, especially alone, and the content of their conversations is even more unusual.
We get the impression that Martha is the more practical of these two sisters. She has clearly been thinking things over and as soon as she hears that Jesus is nearby, she rushes to him with a mini speech prepared. She isn’t rebuking Jesus for not coming straight away to save Lazarus, as even if he’d arrived after first hearing of his illness, he would have been too late to heal him. Instead, Martha laments with Jesus, showing her faith in him, which is grounded in Scripture. Jesus draws out her theological thoughts by conversing with her. He cares what she thinks and takes time to listen to what she has to say.
This is the longest, and most theologically accurate set of statements we’ve had from a believer in the gospel of John so far. She seems to be the most astute of Jesus’ followers, based on what she says here… and she’s a woman. In this culture many believed that teaching Scripture to women was a waste of time at best, and a sin at worst. But here is a woman who has engaged with Scripture, and can apply it to her life, explaining it articulately and logically to Jesus as she answers his questions.
When Martha tells Mary that Jesus is nearby and wants to see her, Mary too rushes out to meet him. She has the same thought as soon as she sees Jesus, that if he had been there when Lazarus was ill, Lazarus would not have died. Such is their faith in him that they knew without a doubt that Jesus could have healed Lazarus. But they each express this differently. Where Martha was quite collected, reasoning out that “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v22), Mary cries it out as she falls at Jesus’ feet weeping (v32).
Jesus doesn’t tell Mary to calm down or be quiet. He is the only person who could ever fix this problem, and he actually is about to… but he doesn’t just get on with the job of raising Lazarus from the dead. No, he cares about Mary’s distress, he gives her time to grieve, and he joins her in it by openly weeping with her. A crowd has gathered at this point and they remark at how much Jesus loved Lazarus because of this show of emotion (v36).
Stepping away from stereotypes
Jesus knows that these women are different from each other, and he treats them as individuals. Neither one is presented as more feminine than the other. The fact that they are women is not even really highlighted. I hadn’t even really thought about the fact that they are women, until now. Jesus takes them seriously: both the deep theological thoughts of Martha and the passionate emotion of Mary. He doesn’t demean them or make them feel like they’re being silly for their thoughts or feelings. It’s interesting that both women take the initiative in these encounters with Jesus, too. They go to him, not vice versa. It is they who take the lead in the conversation.
Today, in the wider culture where there is confusion about what it means to be a woman and if gender means anything at all, it is easy as Christians to get so caught up in laying down correct definitions about roles and differences that we forget the simple truth illustrated beautifully by Jesus here that he honours women as true disciples. As Christians, are we doing all we can to be known as people who take women seriously in every sense? In our churches, are we listening to women, learning from them and respecting them? Are we thinking about both men and women as individuals, who have differing interests and skills, or are we lumping everyone of the same sex together in a characture of manhood or womanhood?
In thinking these things (and more) through, one of the books I’ve read this year is Worthy by Elyse M Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher – I didn’t agree with how the authors argued everything in this book, and I felt that some of their emphases were in the wrong places, however it is SUCH a helpful book for facilitating discussion between the sexes, and between congregations and church leaders.