If we read the New Testament through the lenses of our modern egalitarian culture we may miss some things in it which were shocking to the original readers and hearers, especially in the ministry of Jesus. We moderns in the West do not bat an eye when a man stops to speak with a woman in public. If I go down in the elevator of my apartment with a female neighbour, we both think nothing of it if I comment on the weather or if I ask her how she is doing today. In the homes of my parishioners we hold Bible studies which the women attend as well as the men, the ladies contributing comments and questions as frequently as do the gentlemen, and no one thinks anything of it. We mix socially across the gender divide with complete ease, and never even realize that there is a gender divide to be crossed. We do not stop and think to ourselves, “I am speaking with a woman”. For us the person with whom we are speaking is not “a woman”; she is just Christine or Susan or Amy. We naturally project this egalitarianism back upon our reading of the Gospels, and assume it was also like this. But it is not so.
In the time of Christ (and in much of the Islamic world today) a respectable man would never speak publicly to a woman, even if that woman were his wife. He would never start a conversation or exchange words in public with a woman he did not know. And Rabbis would certainly not teach the Torah to a woman. Indeed, there was a Rabbinical saying it would be better for the Torah to be burnt that to be taught to a woman.
Given this we can appreciate how revolutionary was the example of Jesus. We can appreciate how shocking it was for Him to say that He had the authority to forgive the sins of the sinful woman who wept at His feet at He reclined in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36f). We often fail to appreciate how shocking it was for Him to speak to her in public at all. Yet He did this sort of thing habitually, cheerfully trampling upon what was regarded as respectable in order to reach people. Thus He spoke to the Samaritan woman in public, and even asked her for a drink from her bucket at the well (John 4:4f). When the disciples returned to Him from their errand, John relates in a wonderful and typical bit of New Testament understatement, “They marvelled that He had been speaking with a woman” (v. 27). Respectable Rabbis never did that, but Jesus seemed to do it almost unthinkingly.
We see the same overturning of cultural convention in the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38f). Martha as a good host was busying herself preparing a meal for Jesus and His disciples, doubtless with the customary Middle Eastern sense of lavish hospitality. This was women’s work, and she not unnaturally expected her sister Mary to help her with this important and large task. But Mary was not prepared to help her. Instead she sat at Jesus’ feet with the male disciples, listening to His word and receiving His teaching. What the Rabbis who thought the Torah was better burnt than taught to a woman would have said about this we can perhaps imagine. What Martha thought we don’t have to imagine. The Gospel account tells us plainly what she thought and (probably loudly) said: “Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me!” (v. 40). Once again Jesus overturns the customs of His time, and refuses to send Mary back to the kitchen. He gently chides Martha for her inflated concern about the meal, and tells her that Mary had chosen the best part—receptiveness to His Word—and that He would not take this from her. Women as well as men were welcome at Jesus’ feet as co-equal disciples.
Jesus rejected some of the cultural norms of His day regarding women not through any cultural iconoclasm, but rather because He was preparing a new reality, one offered to both men and women alike—that of a new nature. Through baptism in the Church, anyone could be born again, and live thenceforth with a new nature, the “new man” which was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Ephesians 2:15, Galatians 3:28). Women could participate in this spiritual reality and spiritual power equally with men. Whoever would be baptized into Christ would put on Christ, whatever their gender or race. Jesus’ full acceptance of women as disciples pointed ahead to this new era of salvation.
As the Church slowly expands its mission and begins to spread among its neighbours of Islamic background, we need to keep this revolutionary approach of Jesus in mind. Much of the Islamic world bears a great resemblance to that of Palestine in the time of Christ. In this Islamic culture, a man would never address a woman in public and ask after her welfare, or accept her hospitality if her husband were not present. And a man might ask another man how his family was doing, but would never ask specifically how his wife was doing. In that culture, even when women are not covered with the all-encompassing burqa, everyone is acutely conscious of the gender divide. In our conversation with Muslims, we must be clear that what we are offering them as an alternative model for relations between the genders is not that of the secular West, which they all too often assume to be Christian, but that of Jesus. When they look at the West and observe Miley Cyrus twerking, they not unnaturally reject this in favour of the more traditional and modest Islamic norms. We must be clear that we Christians also reject such unseemly indecency and embrace a more modest model of behaviour. That model is rooted not in the secular and degenerate West, but in the Gospels. Not all egalitarianisms are created equal. The example of Jesus offers a different kind of egalitarianism from that of the secular West—one that combines modesty with social equality. It is this divine and Dominical egalitarianism which we offer to them and to the world.