dangerous territory

i have an article in this month’s Journal for the Jewish Museum of Australia, relating to their current exhibition ‘Women in the Bible: Tricksters, Victors and (M)others’

It reads like this:

There’s a beautiful story, told in all four of the Christian Gospels, of a woman who enters a house where Jesus is having a meal and anoints his head with oil. Even through the words used to tell the story are sparse, it’s obvious something profound takes place between them. As the Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe it, Jesus is moved to say, ‘Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

It’s quite likely that at least one of the gospels is describing a different event to the others, but in their re-telling the stories have most commonly been conflated into the one tradition. It’s ironic, given Jesus’ proclamation that she would be remembered, that the woman isn’t even named in the story as it’s told in three of the Gospels, and she’s identified only as Mary in the fourth. But that hasn’t stopped people creating a character around her in the two thousand years since: various mythologies have developed, claiming first that she was Mary Magdalene, one of the women who appears in a number of other stories in the Gospels, linking her to this Mary’s unsubstantiated reputation as a prostitute. Other traditions, while not supporting the connection with Mary Magdalene, still hold that only a woman of ill-repute would participate in such an action, which therefore means she must have been an adulteress. These traditions have taken such a hold that almost every Biblical commentary, reflection or sermon on the story now begins with a discussion of the woman’s identity – the rumour has become more easily recognised than the story itself. She is inextricably linked with a reputation that is entirely undeserved. She is remembered not for what she did, but for a fabricated image of who she was.

In this story, and in the way it’s been treated throughout Christian history, we a have a tiny glimpse at the bitter-sweet relationship that the Christian faith has with the stories of women. It seems that so much of the tradition just doesn’t know what to do with the stories that shatter the preconceptions we have about the place of women in God’s story. At different points in Christian history, most of the Biblical stories of women have become tools to promote a particular agenda about the way women should act, and which expressions of faithfulness will be honoured. When a woman’s story becomes too important and subversive, the Christian tradition has an embarrassing tendency to shift focus; to demean her character, so that the telling of her story will always be associated with morality and virtue, rather than courage and wisdom.

We enter dangerous territory when we create, out of religious stories, a mandate for our moral predilections. The stories in the Christian biblical tradition don’t work like that. The Gospels themselves are filled with stories where people were challenged by Jesus for interpreting faith with a worldview of morality and relationship in place. Instead, we are told, the story of faith is to be read into our worldview, confronting our stereotypes and prejudices.

After all, when we scrape away the historical interpretations, there are many wonderful stories of women encountering the Divine and responding – sometimes faithfully, sometimes unsure; with courage, with fear, with anger, with delight, with tears, with determination. They change the world; they change themselves. Some of them are prostitutes; all of them are remarkable. And when the Christian tradition has had the courage to remember and honour their actions, these woman become powerful expressions of how all people of faith can be co-collaborators in the story of the world’s transformation through love and grace. And one day we’ll have the wisdom to remember them like that.


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