Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13=16; Mk. 5:21=43

All of us, I know, have been following with great interest the Vatican’s confrontation with U.S. nuns. Officials in Rome are disturbed because the sisters have adopted what the patriarchy considers a “radical feminist agenda.” That agenda includes advocating a priesthood open to women.  It also places service of the poor ahead of issues dear to our male church leadership such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Towards resolving the crisis, the Vatican has insisted on placing a major national organization of sisters under the authority of a Rome-appointed bishop. The idea is that this man would determine what is best for the women religious.

Not surprisingly, the nuns find the Vatican’s action unacceptably patriarchal, patronizing and insulting. They also insist that the issues Rome finds objectionable are more in accord with the actual teaching and example of Jesus than the focus the hierarchy prefers. After all, the nuns say, Jesus said a great deal about the poor, but nothing at all about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or women priests.

Jesus himself might also be considered a radical feminist, some sisters hold.  They point out that in addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring them to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. We find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12 year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12 year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community. Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)  

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the oppressor of the second woman. On top of that the older woman in the story has been humiliated and exploited by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition. In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

So instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” So what we end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save the faith community from death. “Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise the community of faith will be for all practical purposes dead.”   

Could this possibly mean that we should imitate the women religious who evidently represent such a threat to the Vatican today? Could today’s gospel be telling us that their bold specifically feminist faith that sides with the poor and oppressed (like the hero of today’s Gospel) will be the salvation of the church which is otherwise moribund? Are they today’s real faith leaders, rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim to lead the church?

Consider some patriarchal history related to today’s Gospel reading. Does it suggest déjà vu?

As late as the 13th century Christian theologians were warning people that it was a mortal sin to have relations with a menstruating woman because sickly or possessed children would result from them. A hotly debated theological theme during the middle ages was whether a woman during menstruation (also called her “periodic pollution” or her “monthly venting”) could receive communion during mass or not. Even worse, the blood of a woman giving birth was considered to be more noxious that the menstrual blood. The Synod of Treves in the year 1227 established that after childbirth women needed to be “reconciled” with the Church – a disposition which combined the Jewish laws of ritual purification with Christian theologians’ rejection of the pleasure that is implicit in every sexual relation. In many cases of that epoch the religious hierarchy determined that women who died in childbirth could not be buried in Christian cemeteries because they had not been “reconciled.”

Such recollections do not inspire confidence in patriarchs making pronouncements on women’s issues. I mention them here only because they show those male “leaders” pontificating quite confidently about women’s biological processes, about the effect of sexual intercourse on fetuses, about God’s attitude towards women during menstruation, and about women’s “pollution” following sexual intercourse and childbirth. And in hindsight all of it turns out to be pure nonsense!  In summary, it reveals that male church leaders never have really understood female sexuality – or sex for that matter. Obviously, pronouncements like those just mentioned (however confident and supported by scripture) have nothing to do with “revelation.” Is it any different – can it be any different – in our own era? 

Today’s Gospel then suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood . Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our religious community which is currently sick unto death.

All of us can imagine how such suggestions apply to the controversy between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Let’s discuss that now. (Discussion follows).

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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