What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Category Archives:Bible Women

The Two Marys Who Stayed

Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Joseph witnessed Jesus’ sufferings and death (Mt. 27:33) along with many other women. Then they emerged onto the scene as present in a unique way before and after Jesus’ resurrection. The women stand out from the men around them, in three ways, in Matthew’s gospel.

1. They Stayed

When evening fell…Joseph wrapped [the body] in fresh linen and laid it in his own tomb….Then Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. (Mt. 27:57-61).

Though the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, he came in the evening to place Jesus’ body in the tomb, and immediately went away under cover of night. There was danger and risk in being seen. Any one lingering could be identified as a follower to the religious leaders who spurred Jesus’s crucifixion.

The male disciples also disappeared, as Jesus predicted they would during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:31).

Yet, the two Marys stayed, and Matthew implies they stayed a while even past sunset, in the darkness, among tombs. The next day, the Sabbath no less, the religious leaders asked for a guard to be posted by Jesus’ tomb to keep the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body.

2. They Remained Standing and Listened

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary of Magdala came with Mary to inspect the tomb. Suddenly, there was a severe earthquake, and an angel of God descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, with garments white as snow. The guards shook with fear and fell down as though they were dead.

The angel spoke, addressing the women: ‘Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified…’ (Matt. 28:1-5)

In this passage, we see the Marys returning to the tomb at the end of Sabbath. Matthew points out that the male guards shake with fear and apparently faint due to the earthquake and the sight of the angel.

The women, however, remain upright. It’s to them the angel speaks, promising they will see Jesus in Galilee. Matthew writes, “the women hurried away with awe and great joy….” (28:8).

The women’s reaction is not to hide at home like Joseph or the male disciples, or fall down in fear before the angels like the guards. Rather, they joyfully respond to a new and deep understanding of the divinity of Jesus, as though this truth were, comparatively, all that mattered in the universe.

3. They Worshiped Him Without Doubting

Suddenly, Jesus stood before them and said, ‘Shalom!’ The women came up, embraced Jesus’ feet and worshiped. (Mt. 28:9).

Jesus Himself shows up, not to the male disciples in Galilee, but to the two Marys who are still on their way. He could have gone on to Galilee first, as the angel had said He was doing (“He now goes ahead of you to Galilee.” Mt. 28:7). But instead, Jesus finds the women as they journey to tell the good news of His own resurrection.

Why did He go to them even though that wasn’t the plan the angel had articulated? Jesus saw the women’s grief, courage and loyalty as they sat across from the tomb in the dark the night they watched him crucified. Did He want them to be the first to see Him in His new body?

Perhaps, just maybe, He was as excited as they were, as filled with “great joy.” Maybe He wanted to see them first.

Jesus encourages the women as the angel did, with “‘Don’t be afraid!’” He then gives them a mandate to tell the other disciples to “go to Galilee, where they will see me.” (Mt. 28:10). The Marys continue to have courage. They go “on their way” to do as Jesus has said (28:11).

When Jesus does appear to the eleven male disciples on a mountain in Galilee, they too fall down in worship as the two Marys did, “though some doubted what they were seeing,” says Matthew (Mt. 28:17). (Mark’s gospel shows Jesus “scolding [the Eleven] for their disbelief and stubbornness,” in Mark 16:14). In contrast, the Marys remain full of expectancy, hope and faith, from the first night after Jesus’ crucifixion, until their meeting with the resurrected Jesus. In fact, the two women were the first recorded to worship Jesus in his resurrected body.

The Two Marys Did Not Fall Away Because of Jesus

In chapter 26, Matthew has explained in length how the Twelve disciples failed Jesus in His most difficult moments (see last week’s post). They betray Him (Judas), deny Him (Peter), and fall asleep three times when Jesus nearly begs them to stay awake with Him in his grief. Then, for a time, they disappear.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph are the main actors after that in Matthew’s gospel. We do not hear about the male disciples again until Jesus appears in Galilee. They have, as Jesus said they would, “scattered,” perhaps doubting Jesus’ divinity to the point of  temporarily “falling away” as Jesus predicted (Matt. 26:31).

In every way, the two Marys who stayed at the tomb showed themselves stellar disciples of Jesus, and most of all, His loyal, faithful friends. 

 

Bathsheba Only Wanted a Bath: Exposing Power-sins in the Church

Bathsheba Wanted It

Bathsheba was a favorite subject for Renaissance painters, because she should obviously be painted naked. She was an adulteress, after all, right? Surely, she knew David was watching her do her monthly ritualistic bath from above. No, Bathsheba was a survivor of power-rape and a woman made a widow by her rapist, King David (Check out 2 Samuel 11 for a reminder of the story).

Why don’t we think of her this way, however? Because many of us, deep down, believe that sexual sins against women by big-name religious men don’t matter that much. We assume Bathsheba was all for it, too. Don’t women automatically fall for powerful men who approach them?

Bathsheba’s Opinions Not Recorded

The Bible doesn’t say what Bathsheba felt or thought. It does say she “mourned” the dead husband that David murdered, whom she had only recently married. What mattered to the author of 2 Samuel was David’s sin against Yaweh, and the prophet Nathan’s view of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, as David’s victim. David had stolen Uriah’s property. And from the author’s way of painting Yaweh, to kill David and Bathsheba’s first child as punishment was only hurting David. Ironically, Bathsheba was hardly seen at all.

King Yoder’s Sins

The same dynamic continues in our culture and time, perhaps unconsciously justified by misreadings of Scripture like this one. This week, I found out that John Howard Yoder, well-known pacifist author of The Politics of Jesus, made a practice of attempting to manipulate Christian women to entertain him sexually. Most of the women resisted him, but were scarred by what he did. The Society of Christian Ethics recently held several sessions in their annual conference to discuss the issues involved when a well-known leader like Yoder harms many people.

Yoder twisted theology to try to convince women that sexual play and even intercourse between them was morally acceptable. He used his personal power in the Mennonite church due to his social justice, pacifist writings. Yes, his social justice theology.

John Howard Yoder died 20 years ago. 20. years. ago. It’s not that no one knew what he was doing back when he was alive. The president of the college where Yoder taught tried to get him to change but ultimately protected him. One theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, even praised him in an aside and in his 2010 memoir, for how he handled the situation. (For the full story, see a 2013 New York Times piece and a recent one by feminist scholar Grace Yia-Hei Kao). Only since 2013 have Mennonite leaders been talking and acknowledging the injustice toward the women who live on, with their memories.

History Redux

An isolated situation, right? I think not. Historically great religious men have gotten away with a lot when it comes to misusing power with women. Ghandi was much like Yoder in aligning his religious beliefs with his abuse of women for his sexual pleasure. Martin Luther King was nothing like Yoder in using bad theology to get women to do what he wanted, but he did mistreat his wife with his affairs, with no accountability.

We all flinch when we hear Ghandi and King’s names linked with sins against women. But this is the exact problem I’m talking about. And it happens on even the domestic level, where no one wants to expose a Christian family man even though he is beating his wife and/or children. This is a big problem no matter how well-known, or not, the male abuser is.

Learning from Nathan

We can learn how to confront injustice toward women by powerful, and not-as-powerful, religious men through the prophet Nathan’s example. When Nathan heard from God to rebuke King David, he didn’t let fear deter him from speaking out what he heard from God. We can also learn from David, who didn’t go to self-defensiveness and pride as Yoder repeatedly did. David admitted that he was wrong.

We have to also start facing squarely the sins of the famous authors that we read, and not toss their personal lives off as an aside, as this particular theologian would like to argue we should. What Yoder did is a fact, not an allegation. It matters. I would feel physically sick to teach his work at all, especially when there are other good theologians who teach pacificism, such as Walter Wink and J. Denney Weaver.

We have to acknowledge and discuss the tendency for great thinkers to separate their minds from their emotions and bodies. That kind of split isn’t the Christian life. Following Jesus is not about having the right answers or ideas, no matter how interesting. Nor is it about keeping a perfect façade. King David understood that following Yaweh meant he would be accountable for sins he committed, even if he thought the only sin was against Uriah.

Though neither David, Nathan nor the author(s) of 2 Samuel 11 understood that David had sinned against Bathsheba, you know that Mother God did. And during all those years no one took seriously that John Howard Yoder was assaulting women, Mother God did.

She wants us to use the next four years to practice speaking out when we see power abused, especially in the church. Now is the time to learn from Nathan.

 

 

 

 

The Price of Being Mary

Holy Chutzpah

Mary is big lately. This week, I read a blog post about Mary by a woman trying to discover a Mary to identify with. She writes, “it’s exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don’t really relate to — the kind of person about whom people say, ‘oh, she’s really nice’ as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.”

Throughout this year, I have often noticed Mary at the beginning and end of the gospel of Luke and pondered in the light of my focus in The Mother God Experiment. One of the things I’ve seen is a very strong person who bucks her culture to be what Mother God calls her to be. That resistance has a hidden cost that the Bible doesn’t record directly. On this side of history, she appears singularly submissive, but to the people around her it was likely a very different matter.

For example, In Luke 1, after Mary receives the angel’s message to her, Mary takes off to see her cousin, Elizabeth, who is likely a lot older than she is. Apparently, she goes alone.

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Alone? What woman traveled so far alone at that time, pregnant, and young? But Luke does not record a companion for Mary.

Whether or not entirely alone, Mary sets out without parents or siblings to live with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months, just based on what the angel Gabriel said to her. That’s more than submitting to God’s will. It’s running to it. That’s called chutzpah in some circles.

Bad Rap on the Way

Mary has just conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit when she travels to see Elizabeth, so the new, divine life within her is still secreted away. But when she returns from the hill country, she will soon begin to appear pregnant, as though she had gone away from her parents, gotten into trouble, and returned.

One can only imagine the uproar her pregnancy caused within her family and town. The idea we have about Mary being kind of milquetoast needs testing with this thought. Mary would have been regarded as a bad girl. Her parents would have been heart-broken over her. Yes, Joseph believed her, thanks to an angel in a dream, but who else would have?

“Do the math,” townspeople would have said to one another over the fence. “Isn’t that Joseph amazing, that he would marry her anyway?” Or maybe they never could figure out what happened, but talked endlessly about it.

When Mary gave birth to Jesus, no family or friends were near to hear the story of the shepherds, or see the angels ascending and descending, or to meet the wise men who saw the star and came with beautiful gifts for the baby-king. And the knowing, blessing Simeon and the prayerful prophetess Anna lived far from Mary’s home.

Mary, Interrupted

When Mary and Joseph returned, they were going incognito, as ordinary new parents. Yet, still, they stood out. Mary was seen as having soiled her purity, while people may have whispered about Joseph as a kind of hero. Or, maybe folks assumed they had both sinned.

Perhaps all that could be forgotten over time. But how much time? I wonder if Mary could forget the rejection she had faced from the other girls and their families, the whispering, the stares. Did the devout introvert keep to herself ever after?

When Jesus dies, Mary is mysteriously absent from the group of women who vigil at the tomb (Luke 24:10). Though she stays with Jesus until he dies, she disappears from the Biblical record until Pentecost (Acts 1:14). When she emerges, however, this time it is “along with the women.” Once Jesus’ followers really understood who He was, her own reputation and dignity began to bloom again within her new community, and she could look other women in the face fully.

Look for the Back Story

Perhaps the sword piercing Mary’s soul, that Simeon prophesied about in Luke 2:35, was not only Jesus’ death, but her own isolation due to gossip. Like so many other history makers, it was only after her death that Mary was venerated. And so, she is not really the painted white face that history has turned her into. She is not “the Episcopalian country club Mary….Very serviceable, polite, nice….kind and inviting without edges.”

Maybe we can think about Mary this Christmas season when we see others going it alone, or who don’t fit in, or who seem to have made a terrible mistake. There’s always a back story, and sometimes only the angels, shepherds, wise men and prophetesses know what it is.

 

 

Fabulous Photina (The Samaritan Woman)

Have you ever wondered about the back story of some of the Bible’s women and men? Like what happened before, or after, a certain conversation with Jesus? Sometimes there’s a story right in front of us, hidden in the text. Or just beyond us, in the history kept through the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

A New Angle on the Samaritan Woman

I’ve read the passage about the Samaritan Woman of John 4 many times, and even written a fictional version of it. But only through the focusing practice of The Mother God Experiment have I been able to see her apart from all I learned about her in church. And then that new light led me to find out the Samaritan woman’s baptismal name, Photina, which the Orthodox and Catholic churches have kept sacred.

We all tend to think of the Samaritan woman as having lived a sinful life, since she had five husbands and was not married to her current man (John 4:18). Martha Pearl is the author of three works of fiction based on the historical Photina. She reminds us that after the church merged with the Roman Empire in the third century, the church began to see women as inferior to men, including Bible women of the first century. So this is the negative lens we tend to use when we read Scripture.

However, during my last reading of John 4, I realized that the Samaritan woman was not what she has always seemed. For example, she had no control over the number of husbands she had. Women did not have the legal right to initiate divorce–almost never, anyway. Each of her husbands either died or divorced her. And if the latter, her children were likely taken away to live with the father. That was the law.

The Decisions of a Leader

It’s not too hard to imagine why she finally decided to make her last relationship outside the bounds of marriage, though it likely cost her socially. My guess is she decided any new babies, and any property she had, would not be taken from her should this man leave her. She would not marry again.

Despite her choice, she was a leader in her community. For example, when she told the people in her town about Jesus, they believed her story (John 4:42) and came out to Jacob’s well to see Him. Without having even heard him speak, “many…believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” and they “asked him to stay with them” (John 4:39a, 40b). It was only after he had stayed two days speaking with them that they also believed because of Jesus’ message (John 4:41).

Based on the Bible text and history, she was a smart, knowledgeable, initiating woman. These qualities may have irritated the men she married. Perhaps her husbands left her for more docile, submissive women, characteristics more highly sought after in a Middle Eastern wife.

Finally, A Man to Believe In

Note that she did not ruffle Jesus. On the contrary, He showed His trust in her by revealing His true identity to her (John 4:25, 26) and His mission, which was to make true disciples who could worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24) and not only through religion.

When she met Jesus, she knew she had met the Real Thing, the one to give her life to. Martha E. Pearl writes about scholar Carlum Carmichael’s fascinating reading of John 4:18. Carmichael believes that Jesus was speaking of himself as the Samaritan woman’s final man when he said “you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband!”

Carmichael’s argument goes that Jesus was differentiating between the woman’s previous relationships and theirs, reinforcing that this relationship was not sexual. If this reading is correct, Jesus wasn’t exposing the woman’s immoral relationship. He was merely revealing that He knew her history and that the relationship He was beginning with the woman was different from the ones with her abandoning husbands. Very different.

The Rest of the Story

And she got it. Right away. The enthusiasm and leadership she showed in witnessing to her city carried over into her life following Christ.

The rest of her life? How do we know anything about that? Well, believers like me typically don’t, but our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition do.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition is the oldest one within Christianity. The Holy Martyr Photina is one of the most common early icons, or sacred pictures of saints, among the first churches. Martha Pearl whittled down the history about Photina that is most likely valid and not hagiography. She writes, “…certain central facts remain that seem credible historically.  These are:  she had five sisters; she had two sons who went on missionary journeys with her; she was present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was received; she was sent by the Apostolic Council as a missionary to Carthage and North Africa; she spent the years 62 to 64 AD in Rome, spoke before Nero, and died during or shortly after the Neronian persecution in 64 AD.”

I have always been afraid I was squeezing the text to use the word missionary for the Samaritan woman. I was gladly mistaken. Jesus sent her to her town, and then the Apostolic Council sent her to not only Carthage but all of North Africa.

Photina was a respected leader in her community. Her husbands may not have appreciated that. But Jesus did. She went on to share her experiences with the Messiah until her martyrdom. The Holy Martyr Photina would be called “Equal to the Apostles”.

More To Come

Intrigued by Photina, I did a search for first century female saints (in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions) and found there were many, some mentioned only briefly in the Bible. I hope to find out more in the weeks to come and share what I find!

 

 

Naomi, a Feminist Job

Meeting Naomi for the First Time

I opened the Old Testament the other day and found myself on the first page of the book of Ruth. As I read, I saw for the first time that the story is at least as much about Naomi as Ruth, and that Naomi’s story is similar to Job’s. I think this is the Mother God Experiment doing its work, enabling me to see the invisible women of the Bible with new eyes.

And I identified with Naomi for the first time, as well. I’ve always seen her as kind of ancient and sad, though loveable. But now she is my peer: a middle-aged woman, married with two sons, just like me.

Seeing Naomi Mirror Job

But Naomi’s husband and two sons died, and I have mine. She lost everything, just like Job did. From her perspective, “it is more bitter for me than for you [her daughters-in-law], because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” She sees herself like Job saw himself when his children died and he lost his health. He said, “The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison” (Job 6:4a).

When Naomi gets to her home town, the people can barely recognize her, perhaps due to the aging effects of grief (Ruth 1:19), just as Job’s body has changed due to sores (Job 2:8). She tells them she feels “empty,” compared to when she left Bethlehem: no husband, no sons, no grandchildren. She feels “afflicted” by “misfortune” that the Lord has “brought upon her” (Ruth 1:21). In like manner, Job says, “What I feared has come upon me….” (Job 3:25).

Naomi May Be Stronger than Job

Yet Naomi is a strong woman, willing to face the most lonely situation of her life with a generous spirit. Though she would be on the bottom of the social rung as a poor widow, she urges her daughters-in-law to go back to their family homes in Moab. They have come part way with her to Bethlehem and are both crying at the thought of leaving her (1:9). Naomi knows that the young women would be strangers in Judea, and she foresees how difficult it would be for them. She herself lived as a foreigner in Moab a very long time.

Job’s lengthy complaints to his friends do not exactly mirror Naomi’s own quiet generosity of spirit. (It could be argued, though, that Job has lost more because he loses his health entirely, as well as the wealth and reputation he started with). Job’s theme is his own innocense, and God’s inexplicable acts against him, so that Job “despises his own life” (9:21).

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Like Job, Naomi is likely feeling vulnerable, and rejected by God, but unlike Job, she does not lose her voice of strength in the book of Ruth. Her power is in her relationships, not her arguments. She accepts help from Ruth, and acts to help her in return. Naomi cares for Ruth as a mother would, calling her “daughter” starting in chapter 2.

Naomi Acts Like Mother God

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott says that in fact Naomi acts as Mother God would. She writes, “It is important to notice that when Naomi refers to God in 1:20-21, she names God with the Hebrew name Shaddai, a name which can be understood as ‘the God with Breasts,’ although it is usually translated ‘the Almighty’ or ‘the LORD.’ This reference underscores my assumption that for Ruth, Naomi had been an embodiment or incarnation of the One God as the God with Breasts.”

Ruth’s role is child-like devotion and submission, qualities revered in Hebrew women, but Naomi is the image of Mother God for Ruth. Naomi is the nurturing savior-leader-provider and problem-solver of the two. She is the figure of the mother bird that Boaz tells Ruth she has been protected by: “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (2:12).

Naomi tells Ruth: “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for” (3:1) And she gives Ruth instructions on winning her relative Boaz as a husband. (Boaz is also acting as Mother God’s protective covering, symbolized by Boaz’ garment thrown over Ruth [3:9]). Ruth fruitfully follows Naomi’s directions.

In contrast, Job’s one familial relationship is on the fritz, with his wife telling him to “curse God and die” (2:9) instead of remaining faithful to God and Job’s well-being. Perhaps Job wasn’t a great husband to begin with; we are not told that much. (I have always thought Job’s wife was failing him, but who knows the back story?).

But Naomi’s strong relationships with her daughters-in-law clearly show her likeness to Mother God.

God Restores Naomi and Job

And like Job, Naomi finds restoration and fulfillment in the last half of her life. She receives a grandson from Ruth. The women of Bethlehem exclaim over Naomi’s blessing, not Ruth’s: “Praise be to the Lord who this day has not left you without a family guardian. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age” (4:14). The women proclaim, “Naomi has a son!” (4:16), as though Naomi is starting all over again as a mother. It turns out, he is a special son, as the women prayed. He is Obed, King David’s eventual grandfather, and an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

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Naomi is no longer empty. Naomi is blessed, like Job, because of the strength of her love and wisdom, as well as Ruth’s devotion. Though we can’t rename the book of Ruth, we can turn to it with different eyes, able to now see a feminist foremother and the image of Mother God in Naomi.