Jesus, the Humble Feminist

Jesus is a radical, especially in the sense of driving us to the root of the matter. His message brought great hope, but was also profoundly disturbing to those committed to the status quo and both the religious and political establishment of the time. And he was a radical feminist, although he differs from modern radical feminists in that he has a great deal more respect and honor for the vocation and gender of women than they do.

Jesus starts, not with gender, but with kenosis. We all are given a vocation to be humble, with Jesus as the role model for giving up the most power and glory to endure the most humiliation. “Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like the servant” (Luke 22:24-27). The goal for all Christians, male and female, is therefore not to claim rights in order to “lord it over” others, but to be effective humble servants. This is not at all to argue that the improved legal rights which women have achieved in our society should be repealed. But it is to point out that all of us have a Christian vocation to servanthood as our ultimate goal, not a vocation to power and riches. Success is not when an underclass exercises rights to be equal with the master to lord it over others, but rather that the Christian master should serve in humility, to achieve equality with “the least of these”(Matt.25:40). Relationships in a truly Christian society are defined very differently than in our society.

How does Jesus see this in terms of gender? Several examples will have to suffice to illustrate his worldview. The first is equality in worship. Judaism prescribes a “minyan,” a quorum of ten males as a minimum for synagogue services. Jesus alters that to “where two or three are gathered,” without reference to gender. The second is his comment on divorce (see Matt.19:1-11). He is talking to men. In that society, the man who divorced his wife threw her into helpless poverty, allowed by the Law (“Moses”) for “your hardness of heart.” Instead, he refers them back to the creation of the genders in one flesh, and the fulfillment of that in marriage. That oneness, beyond equality, refutes radically a society which saw women as inferior, hardly more than slaves, to be discarded when no longer wanted without regard to the consequences. The third is the visit to Mary and Martha. The latter was doing what was expected of women, the preparations and serving when there are guests. She complains that Mary is instead “listening to his word,” the intellectual role of men in that society. Jesus sides with Mary. Women should be as spiritually and intellectually involved as men, not simply housekeepers who do not think any further than to be “worried and bothered about so many things” (Luke 10:38-42).

The modern discussion of women in the priesthood seems to me to have ignored the Gospels. Those in favor speak of an equal right to share career choices with men. Those opposed speak of the headship of men, their God-given authority over women. Some on both sides argue further, to assert that women are better as pastors because they are more nurturing, whereas opponents claim they are weaker and more emotional, less able to lead clearly. (Surely the examples of Presiding Bishop Jeffers-Shori and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher should suffice to refute such psycho-babble in both directions).

Lord, have mercy. How do we get from the preceding paragraph back to the Gospels, to lives of humble service, to the absolute equality of all vocations, to complimentary equality instead of competitive sameness, to a church of love, not power, to a priesthood of fatherhood and motherhood, not a career choice?

In reviewing where it went off the rails, Father Michael Jarrett points out that the western Reformers knew only a celibate priesthood. They rejected celibacy, but had no role model for a married priesthood. While they thought celibacy unreasonable, the statement above about “a priesthood of fatherhood and motherhood” would probably have seemed scandalous to them. They had no access to Eastern Christianity, where they could have found the role model, a continuous one through the history of the eastern Church.

In Eastern Christianity, the priest and his wife are a team, each with their own vocation, to achieve a complimentary pastoral ministry. We have no English word for the priest’s wife, but eastern languages all do: khouria in Arabic, preotesa in Romanian, presbytera in Greek, and in Russian, the priest is called “father,” the priest’s wife “mother, Matushka.” Her vocation is established as separate from her husband, but complimentary to it as well as equal to it. The two are one, as Jesus said. This is, please recall, in the context of Christian servanthood. When I was ordained, the bishop asked my wife her view. She replied that I should do what I felt called to do. She has long since learned it is more complex than that, and come to see her own vocation as “matushka.” I now ask every ordinand’s wife the same question, and often get the same career-oriented answer. It triggers a serious chat, because a priest who is vocationally celibate even if married, is going to have a tough time, particularly in a parish. Instead of chasing the secular model of a solo priestly career where men and women are interchangeable, the eastern vision of parish fatherhood and motherhood seems a far better fit.

This doesn’t mean the priest’s wife can’t have a career at whatever. The priest can have a career at whatever as well. Increasingly as the institutional Church declines in a society alienated from it, and the sacramental Church increases, the money isn’t there for a professional salary. Presiding over the baptized parish family will be a service of spiritual parental love offered by the priestly couple, apart from their careers, just as they parent their own children in addition to career and income needs.

Some see that sociology as sad. I see it as the corrective action of God which he always does when the Church gets too fat and self-absorbed, instead of being the Sacrament of God’s love to the world, and when the priesthood becomes a “living” (to use the English term) and not a serving. In that serving, the unique vocation of “priest’s wife” needs its own word in English, too.