Part Two: Gender Matters
In his book, The Story Luke Tells, Justo Gonzalez devotes a chapter to “Luke and Gender.” He contributes to the large body of scholarship on the role of women in Luke-Acts. The Lukan author includes more references to women in the life of Jesus and the ministry of the Church than does any other New Testament writer. Whether that is a positive or a negative thing is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate.
Many scholars have noticed a particular structural reality in the Lukan account. The Lukan author tends to present male and female characters in paired texts, often in parallel to one another, a fact first observed, perhaps, by Constance Parvey. That structural reality can give us some interpretive help in understanding the text before us. One of the questions this observation raises for us is, who exactly is the Lukan author pairing with whom, and why?
Gonzalez pairs the Samaritan man with Mary because they are both characters who do the unexpected. Therefore, as I noted in the previous post, this pair is identified as unlikely and yet authentic disciples. Gonzalez writes that “both passages show that these people, a Samaritan and a woman, whose ability to be true disciples and followers of the Law might be doubted, are the ones who really understand and practice what God wills for them” (page 49).
Mary Rose D’Angelo proposes a different pairing in her article. But before she does that, she offers a more general assessment of the Lukan author’s use of women’s stories in the gospel account. “On the one hand,” she writes, “the author of Luke does increase the number of stories about women in the Gospel, and the increase is a deliberate choice on the part of the author. On the other,” she continues, “the roles in which women appear are more restricted by what is acceptable to the convention of the imperial world than are the roles of women in Mark or John” (page 442).
D’Angelo argues that the Lukan author is walking a cultural and political tightrope in the author’s revision and updating of previous Gospel accounts. The Lukan account “offers to its women readers a wide variety of female role models who are the means at once of edification and control,” she writes. Women continue to become Jesus followers and need the instruction that such role models offer. Yet, the early Church may have been anxious about Christians being seen as “un-Roman” in their values and practices (see page 443).
I’m going to digress a bit, but I hope it won’t be wasted time. This waffling on women’s leadership in the early churches is a feature, I think, of those churches as Christianity becomes more visible and thus more of a potential threat to the Imperial administration and worldview. Many of us have this popular view of Christians in the arena, thrown to the lions as they shouted their allegiance to Jesus, prayed for their persecutors, and sang hymns amidst the flames. That happened, but not nearly as often as we might romantically think.
It’s not that persecution of Jesus followers didn’t exist. It certainly did. But it was more sporadic than systemic. I think about the letters from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in the second decade of the second century CE. Pliny was a Roman governor in Asia Minor. He was puzzled by these early Christians and unsure of how best to punish them for their apparent lack of devotion to the Imperial cult. His question was basically, “Should I kill them or do something else?” The answer was, “If that seems necessary, then do it. But try to find less bloody means first.”
My point is that the place of Jesus followers in the Roman community and polity was not clear in those early generations. One strategy of any colonized and oppressed population is to keep their heads down and try to be good citizens. We can see the beginnings of that approach already in Paul’s letter to the Romans. I think we see it clearly a generation later in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. The “household codes” in those letters represent a walking back of the liberation of the enslaved, of women, and of children which were likely a feature of first- and second-generation Christian communities.
I mention all of this in part because the second readings in the Revised Common Lectionary come, for a few weeks, from the Letter to the Colossians. I find it unfortunate but understandable that the Lectionary omits any reading from Colossians 4, a place where the “household code” language is explicit. I can understand the desire to keep preachers out of “trouble” in this way.
However, I think that omitting Colossians 4 from our schedule of readings is a sort of collusion with the “walking back” of liberation language for the enslaved, women, and children. When I have preached on Colossians texts, I have spent an entire summer going off the lectionary and preaching on the whole letter. In this way, I have hoped to meet chapter four head-on and refused to participant in suppressing these verses. I put this out here for consideration, at least.
Now, back to gender matters in our gospel reading. D’Angelo suggests that in some cases in the Lukan account, the pairing of man/woman stories is also connected to source material. The story about the male character is often found in the larger tradition. The story about the female character is often found only in the Lukan account. If we read the question from the lawyer as a Lukan variation on the scribe’s question to Jesus in Mark 12, then the man story comes from the larger tradition. There is no question that the Martha and Mary story comes from the Lukan author’s special source.
Therefore, the inclusion of woman stories in these pairs is not accidental or a repetition of the existing tradition. The Lukan author intentionally adds, for example, the Martha and Mary story to the existing accounts. But why? D’Angelo has noted the edifying use of these stories for women catechumens. She writes that “the women in Luke are especially important as examples that invite the numerous and important women in the congregation to act in response to the gospel. But,” she continues, “the roles that were offered to women in Luke-Acts present a very limited and conventional scope for their activity” (page 448).
D’Angelo argues that while the Markan account shows women in prophetic ministry, “when Luke names the women disciples [in chapter 8], their ministry seems to be limited to a ministry of charity” (page 453). Our text presents some particular challenges in understanding the Lukan perspective on women in ministry at the time of the Gospel composition. Mary certainly assumes the posture of a disciple as she sits at Jesus’ feet. However, she never speaks a word. Martha is engaged in the ministry of service (diakonia), and she speaks freely.
Thus, it’s not the case that Mary is a disciple and Martha is not. In fact, all the Greek manuscripts refer to Mary in Luke 10:39 (as D’Angelo notes) as the one who “also” sat at the feet of Jesus. This means that Martha is regarded as a disciple too. The NRSV does not include this more accurate translation and “demotes” Martha to a secondary status – at least in the minds of many preachers and readers. “Commentators as well as translators have found this wording puzzling,” D’Angelo writes, “but once it is recognized that sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing his word indicate discipleship, the meaning should be clear: Martha, who received Jesus has a sister who,” D’Angelo concludes, “like Martha herself, was a disciple” (page 454).
Thus, one the one hand, both Mary and Martha were regarded as disciples. That’s good for catechizing female converts. On the other hand, the women who get the highest marks from Jesus in the Lukan account are Mary and the repentant women in Luke 7, “neither of whom,” D’Angelo observes, “says anything at all…Women speak in the Gospel [of Luke],” D’Angelo concludes, “only to be corrected by Jesus” (page 452).
I’d like to think that controversies about women in ministry are limited to the acrimonious debates among American evangelicals about women as preachers, complementarianism, “biblical womanhood,” and so forth. I’d like to think that, and I’d be wrong. Gender continues to matter in my modestly progressive denomination and in many others. Issues concerning women in ministry may have been resolved in polity terms fifty years ago. But in many congregations, those issues have not been resolved at all.
It continues to be more difficult for women to get pastoral calls than it is for men. Women pastors in mainline denominations are still compensated on average less than men for the same work. Women pastors are still less likely to be called to lead pastor roles in large congregations or to be elected as synodical bishops. There has been progress in all these areas, but the “propriety” of women in ministry leadership –especially as pastors and preachers – continues to be contested in some places.
At the very least, we preachers dare not set the two women in the story against each other. Rather, we have the opportunity to celebrate the leadership of women in all areas of pastoral and congregational ministry. Mary may have chosen the more important starting place, in listening to Jesus. But that’s not an invitation to denigrate Martha and collaborate in the silencing of Mary.
Sometimes the text invites us to make corrections, based on data in the text itself. I think this is one of those times. “Luke may have reckoned without the subversive potential,” D’Angelo concludes, “of telling women stories of themselves” (page 461).
References and Resources
D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990): 441–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267051.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614476.