The Woman Who Won an Argument With Jesus

Growing up the son of a preacher man in the rural south, I remember constant conversations about the women in the church, especially when Jan or Roberta asked tough questions about why they were never allowed to give the communion meditation.

And while no-one had ever heard of “complementarian” or “egalitarian” notions, it didn’t keep the men from gathering outside on those hot summer nights to squabble, stew and smoke as they asked questions only patriarchs dare to ask. “Should we allow women to pray in the service?” “Can they serve communion?” “Do we allow them to teach anyone other than the children?”

Looking back it strikes me that, for the most part, the church has been asking the wrong questions all along.  There really is just one question that begs an answer, and it’s time the church gives an unequivocal response to “Are women fully human or not?”

The answer seems obvious, but the historical record proves otherwise.  Aristotle argued, “We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”. Saint Augustine proclaimed, “I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” Confucius said, “One hundred women are not worth a single testicle.” And though modern conservative evangelicals champion traditional, biblical family values as the foundation of western culture, Christians must admit that for the most part, even the biblical narrative marginalizes women. A woman’s place was in the home or in the outer court of the Temple. Her body was both property and a plaything.  She was consistently given in marriage without her consent. Exodus 20:17 warns ”You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor”. Listing wives alongside slaves and work animals communicates one truth, woman is the property of her husband. Worse, polygamy was an accepted practice in the Old Testament for men, but not for women. In Deuteronomy, unmarried virgins are compelled to marry their rapist just as long as the male perpetrator can pay the standard bride price.

The New Testament extends this narrative. The writer of Timothy declares, Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” And what saves this fallacious woman? “She will be saved through child bearing”.  Augustine would be so proud. Even Mark’s Gospel ostensibly continues the age-old marginalization of women, this time with Jesus as the primal perpetrator:

But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’ And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

This text is as baffling as it is bizarre. A diligent reading discloses an initial affront by the woman herself, one that Mark’s male readers would have detected.  Women were not to speak to men in public—not to their husbands, not to their fathers and certainly not to a stranger. Her public solicitation is an insult to Jesus’ honor status: no woman would ever dare invade a man’s privacy at home to seek a favor. And so Jesus does what culture and tradition demand of him. He upbraids her by refusing her petition. Why shouldn’t he? The religious code required such a response to this public display of female indecency. Making matters more uncomfortable for the modern reader, Jesus continues his apparent castigation of the woman with what appears to be a racially motivated, misogynistic epitaph, referring to the woman and her daughter as ‘dogs’.

Virtually every New Testament scholar admits Christ’s response is an extreme insult.  Various references to dogs appear in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, none of which are flattering.  Dogs in the first century were considered scavengers and Jesus’ reference to food being “thrown” to them is further indication he is denoting wild, lawless animals. In today’s language, it is hard to hear anything except that Jesus called her a b**ch.  

And, just when we think the story can’t get any more abhorrent, Jesus abruptly changes his mind and heals the woman’s daughter.  He grants her plea, not by virtue of her faith, but on the grounds of her argument.  Her wit and wisdom best him, causing Christ to acquiesce to her request.  “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”

And herein lies the clue to the entire exchange. In just a few seconds of bantering, this nameless woman achieved what the Pharisees and Scribes never accomplished in all their years of verbal entrapment. She won an argument with Jesus! A woman outwitted the Son of God.  She rejects his rejection and masters the master. The unbreakable spirit of a life lived on the margins causes Jesus to pause in admiration of her dogged dignity. And, suddenly, this outsider stands firmly within the newly forming community of God.  For it was Jesus’ initial rebuff and callous sparring that validated her place in his kingdom. She earns inclusion, not from pity, but through merit. She attains full humanity, not through her husband, not through her father, but on her own worth as a woman.  It’s as if Jesus created this entire melodrama to provide yet another example of his subversive theology of status-equalization and gender equality. What looks like a disgraceful story with Jesus’ humanness on display is actually one of the most beautiful and humble conversations in all of Scripture. The God made flesh permits himself to be foiled by a woman and in so doing grants her the status of full humanity.

If history and even the biblical narrative are conflicted with the question, “Are women fully human?”  Jesus is not.  Jesus provides the definitive answer since He is the purpose, center and interpretive lens to all of Scripture. A Christological view of the text compels us to interpret the entire Biblical narrative in light of who God is in Jesus Christ. We recognize God through Jesus. We know how God resolves this issue based on how Jesus answers the question. And what is His resolution?  Despite the law, tradition and the weight of human history, Jesus redefines the very nature of the feminine. He taught women, and spoke to them in public. Women were his friends and companions. He sent women to be apostles to the apostles. It is women to whom he first appeared after his resurrection, since women were the only ones brave enough to be present at his crucifixion. As Sister Joan Chittister reminds us, “It is women who anointed him, and women who proclaimed him, and women who prepared him for burial…It was women, in fact, whom Jesus put at the very center of the only two mysteries of the faith—the Incarnation and Resurrection.” It is a woman after all, who turned God into flesh.

What then are we as modern Christians to do with Jesus’ seditious elevation of women? Quite simply we are to go and do likewise. Gender equality within the life of the church isn’t a matter of legalism, but of discipleship. It’s, “As he is, so are we in this world.” In our churches, ministries and communities, women are in purpose, role and function equal but…well, equal.  For too long the church has been dominated by her masculine half, and she is desperate for her feminine side to make her whole.

And what would women bring to the male dominated, franchise making, metrics-oriented, commodity-based, McDonalization of church life in America? Women would bring themselves. They would bring peace into disunity. They would bring flexibility instead of control. They would support instead of dominate. They would tell stories instead of forming systematic theologies. They would offer conversation instead of dogma. They would encourage interdependence instead of autonomy. They would be committed to people and place instead of growth. As one who has been marginalized, they would bring compassion to the outcast. Simply put, a church that embraces the fully human woman completes the image-bearing qualities of the church to the world.

The fully human woman gives life to a fully human church.

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