During retreat we reflected on two scriptural passages featuring women, which lead me to believe that Paul had a shaky foundation for the claim that, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:34-35).
The two passages were, Luke 21:1-4 and Matthew 15: 21-28. In the first passage, Jesus uses a woman as an example of an ideal giver in the name of the Lord. In the second, he directly engages with a Canaanite woman, who challenges him to change his dogma.
Women are in short supply in the Bible. Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman and a group from Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota recently published that 93 women appear in the Bible, 43 have names and they utter 14,000 of 1.1 million words quoted in the entire Bible. That makes passages with women, especially those with women at the heart, worth a very close read.
They were familiar passages to me, but again the Lectio Divina helped me consider new interpretations. My interpretations of these texts are probably not groundbreaking. They are certainly not well-researched. They are instead my gut interpretation based on some armchair interest in critical analysis of scripture. I do believe that they are valuable interpretations and ones that might be helpful to those readers unfamiliar with the passages.
Luke 21: 1-4, sometimes called The Widow’s Offering, finds Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem watching the faithful give their offerings. The rich give vast sums, just a drop in a bucket of their wealth, seeking to display superiority and advance their social standing. Meanwhile, an old widow enters and quietly offers her comparatively small offering.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.
The message is pretty straight-forward. Don’t be a hypocrite and sacrifice for your faith. Sure, you can refine it and I am sure there are other more informed interpretations. Plus, you could spend a great length of time exploring how this message applies to our lives, but at the end of the day, one thing is clear: Jesus valued that widow’s action over anyone else in the temple.
In fact, Jesus wants to make an example of the widow for everyone. She, not these wealthy, outwardly pious men, gave all she could to improve the church. She is the prime example of a good and devout worshiper of God.
She was a widow with little to no economic or social standing. No one pays her any attention and she would not be heard, whether or not she chose to speak.
Underlying the message on sacrifice and hypocrisy, Jesus seems to teach us to look to the downtrodden for a prime example of living faithfully. This woman is to be venerated, not judged for her poor offering. To dismiss her presence ignores that truth.
Of course, this story could still fit within Paul’s advice. This widow does not speak and still shows that her piety. At the same time, I feel women would largely go ignored if they were not allowed to speak.
Fortunately, I do not have to delve into hypotheticals, because of what we find in Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman, also known as the Syrophoenician woman from Mark. Within the context of Jesus’ story, he is withdrawing for the purposes of getting a little rest. He’s been busy what with preaching giant crowds and communicating a radical new message. What budding champion of a social justice cause does not know similar struggles?
Keep that in mind as we read one of Jesus more disturbingly rude moments.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
In this passage, Jesus is a jerk. As I joked to my father once, I feel he could have used a Snickers, because he starts to act human when he’s hungry. A joke I made following a sermon offered by my mother on this text, or its parallel, which inspires much of my interpretation. She dwelled at great length on Jesus’ human side here.
I know plenty of those who fight for social justice causes who reach their limit and just snap. Without self-care, even the most dedicated and genuine folks can say some things that they regret later. I certainly have.
Likewise, I feel like Jesus is definitely questioning his call in all this. He’s still working out the finer details for who he came to serve and why he was sent to Earth. As a result, he snaps at this woman for seeking something and showing this unexpected faith.
Perhaps he has been struggling with the question of whether or not to include others in his work on Earth. And as many do when forced to take a stance on something they wrestle with, he sticks to his guns and even takes some regrettable shots at this woman.
A woman who is desperate. Her daughter is demon-possessed. The exact meaning of demon-possession is unwell, the narrative is clear that her daughter is unwell.
She is also a foreigner. Whatever the historical relations are, it is clear that Jesus and likely his people deem her worthy of insult. He calls her a dog and undeserving of his healing power.
Most obviously, she is a woman and at the bottom of a patriarchal society. Approaching a group of men in search of their assistance is unusual and requires an overwhelming amount of courage.
And what does she do? She openly challenges Jesus’ insults and better yet, changes his mind. She shows him that even if his characterization of her as a dog is true, she still deserves his healing power. She out-logics Jesus here.
Try and think of another instance where someone bests Jesus in a battle of words. Go.
Time is up. If you thought of one, share it in the comments.
The fact is, Jesus is not often persuaded by humans. He is Jesus. He is perfection walking in an imperfect form. Logical debates of what that means aside, Jesus does not really get it wrong much.
Most sermons I have heard shift their focus back to Jesus at this point and explain that he gave us the perfect example of recognizing an error, changing one’s mind, and moving on. That’s a great direction to take things, but I’ll instead focus still on what this woman did.
After this scene, Jesus opens up to reach out to all people. He serves in areas outside of Israel. He dies for all people’s sins. As a result, the church becomes one that preaches the Good News to all people. Everyone can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ, not just the “lost sheep of Israel.”
That’s a major ideological shift. And it seems to follow from this moment of clarity for Jesus as a result of this conversation with a desperate, foreign woman. She inspires a theology-defining moment for Jesus.
Her voice matters and should be heard. I am floored by her courage to challenge the one who inspired her faith, not just for the safety it provides her daughter, but the change it makes in the Christian story.
With that in mind, how can Paul possibly claim that women should not be permitted to speak and inquire of their husbands? I know there is a lot of love out their Paul, but it just seems like he missed these two stories.
Perhaps, he was blinded by his upbringing in a patriarchal society. Paul is not infallible.
More importantly though is the value women play in the Bible. They may be in short supply, but they matter so much. And on a day like International Women’s Day, let’s just celebrate that.