Saturday, June 16, 2007

Women and The Bible

17 June 2007 * Pentecost 3 * 1 Kings 21:1-21a * Luke 7:36-8:3

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Women, Tradition and Inclusiveness

I hope you saw the church sign on Frederick Road in Catonsville this past week: “Women be subject to your own husbands as unto the Lord.” A curious rewrite of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and an all too familiar stripping of that one line out of its context in that letter – a letter which bears witness to attempts by Paul, of all people, to grant women equality with men in the church and in marriage. I digress, but this is related to the matters at hand.

There are at least two somewhat related, greatly important things going on in our lessons about Jezebel and the unnamed woman in Luke: one is what Walter Brueggemann calls “the traditioning” of women in the Bible, and the other has to do with attempts throughout history to “purify” Biblical religion. There are, of course matters to do with land ownership, prophetic actions and pronouncements, and a realization that Jonathan Edwards was at least right in part: we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

Back to the two women in our stories: A quick look at Webster’s yields the evolution of “Jezebel” as coming to mean a scheming, shameless woman as well as the 9th Century BCE wife of Ahab, king of the Northern kingdom of Israel. And Luke, through some literary mind-reading trick involving Simon the Pharisee, labels the unknown woman anointing Jesus as a “sinner.”

Now what is interesting to note here, without getting too detailed about it, is that the offending character in the first story ought to be Ahab’s father Omri who through marriage and diplomatic alliances attempts to supplant the religion of Israel and the God Yahweh with the religion of the God Baal. It does not take much analysis of the text to sense that what the narrator attempts to do, once again [recall the Genesis Fruit eating Story], is to pin it all on a woman, when in fact it was Omri and his sons who have caused all the trouble.

Are we really to believe this farcical portrayal that a mighty King of Israel is reduced to having an infantile tantrum on his bed over a vineyard, of which he seems to have many to spare? Besides, the offense here revolves around tradition – the land was not Naboth’s to give away according to Israelite tradition. The land is God’s, and Naboth’s family has been tasked to tend the land in perpetuity. So corrupted by Baal (who may as well be a golden calf) is Ahab that he has utterly forgotten the tradition.

Eventually enters Elijah to announce that the unfair transgressions against God and Naboth will not go un-avenged. But now it is Elijah, good defender of the faith, Jezebel corruptor of the faith. But it turns out that Jezebel and Elijah have a lot in common – Elijah has just slain a large number of Baal’s prophets, Jezebel arranged for the death of one man, both do so to defend their respective faith traditions. Ah, the complexities of religious pluralism seem not to be so modern after all! Elijah represents, in Northern Israel, a detrimental and minority opinion – an exponent of a militant fundamental Yahwism. Elijah might be called today a Yahwismofascist - espousing a fundamental purification of Israelite religion.

Meanwhile, the negation of Jezebel is the result of a deep ideological dispute within Israel, leaving us with no possible attempt to understand her as anything but ultimate evil opposing ultimate good – and such negation is underlined and given a harsher nuance by her simply being a woman. Big surprise there! Yet, Jezebel could be held in as high esteem as Elijah for remaining faithful to her religious convictions, for upholding the prerogatives of royalty, for supporting her husband and children, and for opposing her enemies until death.

Similarly, Luke seems to have taken the earlier story in Mark of an unknown woman anointing Jesus just before his passion, placed it earlier in the narrative, called her a sinner (which was not so in Mark), and has her anoint his feet instead of his head to make her appear even more questionable of character. Anointing the head is a the job of a prophet to appoint a King for Israel on God’s behalf, while anointing and kissing feet is made to look more like the actions-in-trade of what we might call “a woman of the night.” All this, it seems, so that Luke can give some radical new interpretive meaning to the parable of forgiving the two debtors which occurs in other narrative clothing in other gospels.

Understand, a woman in a story who was once portrayed as a prophet like Moses or Elijah anointing Jesus as King has been reduced to some sort of Galilean floozy so that Luke can editorialize on forgiveness. Though the outcome may be good, the utility of the woman and the original story is at least questionable, and decidedly deplorable.

I know, it is Father’s Day, and perhaps it seems as if someone like Mary Marguerite should be giving this sermon, but to avoid all this would only be to make the problem of the traditioning of women in the Bible as evil and sinners worse and ongoing. Men need to take the lead in this conversation.

There is hidden good news in all of this – Jesus never ever is portrayed as supporting the exclusivist purity tradition both of these stories are portraying. We get a full dose in 1 Kings of how evil and awful gentile foreign religionists can be, while in Luke how easy it is to look at an allegedly sinful woman and look down our Pharisaic noses at her with Simon and his cohort.

But Jesus does two things that are remarkable: 1) he allows the woman to touch him in public and forgives her and interprets her actions as acts of love on the part of someone who has recognized and accepted God’s forgiveness in Jesus, and 2) he allows women of all kinds, sorts, conditions and economic status, we are told, to travel alongside him and his disciples. He does not, in fact, allow them, he welcomes them and invites them. There is an important difference in that fact.

Paul’s letters, which predate all four gospels, give ample witness to the leadership of women in the early church. Their eventual marginalization seems to reflect the customs and social world of the emerging Christian community rather than any exclusionary policy of Jesus.

Put differently, Jesus refutes exclusionary-purity religion at every possible turn of events. No doubt this contributed to the fate he faced in Jerusalem. A look at how women, minorities, resident aliens, widows, orphans, homosexuals and anyone considered “others” are treated in the church and society today must begin with a realization that Jesus would have no part in marginalizing anyone. For Jesus the purity code was a thing of the past – an inclusive invitation and welcome for all to participate fully in God’s kingdom was to be the future.

The sad news is that the ideological disputes of 1 Kings and Luke are still with us today. The good news is that Jesus secured the victory over such exclusionary policies on the cross and beyond the empty tomb. To him we give glory, now and forever – we are to respond in love like the un-named woman and take our place alongside her as one of his true disciples. Amen.

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