We know Jesus in many ways: through grace, through faith, through spending time with Him in prayer, through Scripture, through the teaching and preaching of others and their music, art and poetry, which often deeply inspires us, through our developing, personal relationship with Him, through meditation and contemplation and through ways such as academic study, e.g., reading the opinions and the findings of expert historians, archaeologists and others, including people like members of the Jesus Seminar, whose expert work shines a light onto the way of life in the time of the historical Jesus, as well into the life of Jesus, Himself.
Scripture scholars and linguistic experts make enormous contributions to our knowledge of Jesus. I truly love learning about the historical Jesus and the more I learn, the more I feel I know Jesus even better. I am very grateful to Scripture scholars and people like the recently deceased Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, as well as Elizabeth Johnson and many others, for what I have learned from them about Jesus.
Elizabeth Johnson writes of Christians casting our lots in with Jesus “taking cues from his preaching and praxis as to the pattern of one’s own life, drawing hope from his destiny, in a word, being a branch on the Christic vine” (p.161). What a lovely image that is, to “be a branch on the Christic vine”.
Branches draw life from the main part of the plant, they grow stronger, longer and far-reaching. They belong together, each complementing the other. That is the ideal way for a Christian to be rooted in Jesus---to be belong and to be attached to Jesus, like the branch belongs to the vine and is attached to the vine. However, if we don’t have a deep, committed relationship with Jesus, we will never be able to be a strong branch bearing fruit in His name. In order for this to happen, we need to know Jesus and the more we can learn from experts in various fields about the historical Jesus and His world, the more we will know and appreciate Jesus for Who He was and what He did during his life on Earth.
Elizabeth Johnson writes that the research being done on Jesus is making a difference to “the high doctrinal Christology supported by a literal reading of the gospels” (p.162). She continues by stating, “It is painting new pictures of how Jesus interacted with his world and providing new categories of how he can be understood” (p. 162). This is, indeed, wonderful progress and great news! Most people who call themselves Christians seem to retain an old-fashioned, outdated, childhood concept of Jesus.
I’m convinced the real Jesus was nothing like that image people have of Him. New information and a new understanding of Jesus and His world are just what we need! The more, for example, experts tell us about the way life was in Palestine of old, the better we can understand just how radical and different Jesus was.We can imagine and picture Him better in the world in which He lived, if we know more about life in that world. Research into the historical Jesus provides us with so much information on this.
He lived in a very strict, patriarchal religious society where women and children were considered nobodies. The Pharisees and their cohorts attempted to enforce hundreds of laws, many of them purity laws. Jews became ritually impure when they touched someone who was considered to be unclean. There were a variety of ways to make yourself unclean. For a man to touch a woman he was not related to would make him unclean and if that woman was bleeding or had leprosy or had touched somebody who was dead, that was even worse! Men did not associate with women in public and they most certainly did not have conversations with them! Jesus, the devout Jew, the Son of God, simply ignored all that and just went about doing what He had to do: touching, relating with, talking to, healing and consoling women…and making Himself ritually unclean in the process!
Women were an important part of His ministry. Why did He do such things as touch a girl considered by all except Jesus to be dead and raise her to life, and heal a hemorrhaging woman? He did this and similar things to show compassion and solidarity, love and care, to restore crippled lives to wholeness and women to the fullness of life. I also believe that He wanted to show the religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees and His own followers, that people were far, far more important than the religious laws that controlled their lives. He healed their spirits as well as their bodies and He gave them the understanding and compassion they needed to become whole.He gave them dignity and forgiveness, as well as friendship and love.
Let us consider for a few minutes the healing of the bent-over woman. She had been crippled for eighteen years. During all of that time, she was in pain and could not do all the things she had once done so easily. Any one of us who has had a fracture, surgery or an accident can easily relate to that! Her life was so completely different from what it should have been. Was she dependent on others for her shopping from the market and her water from the well? Probably. Was she scorned, considered useless and a burden and ignored by her husband, because she could no longer clean the house and fetch the food and water or because she found making love painful or difficult? Most likely. Was she ignored by her neighbors, as she wasn’t able to join them in their daily walks to the well and their other activities? Maybe.
Whereas others only saw the bent-over woman, Jesus saw beyond that. He saw the multiple burdens: the anguish, the isolation, the loneliness and the physical, mental, emotional, social and psychological burdens her infirmity had caused and, by extension, He saw and still sees the burdens of all kinds carried by all women. What joy, gratitude and marveling must have been in the thanks she offered to God “for showing her such tender mercy through the kindness of this prophet and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth” (p.216). Without Jesus research, most of us would not understand the deep significance of most of Jesus’ encounters with women. If only we could read more of His encounters with women. Perhaps, due to archaeological research and finds and future academic scholarship, one day we will.
Referring to the kinds of relationships Jesus had with women, Elizabeth Johnson writes,“Study of Jesus’ relationships during his public life reveal his lack of fear of women and a strong interest in their flourishing. No word of disparagement passed his lips, nor did he see women as a lesser class of human being” (p.219). This would, indeed, be something the men of today’s world, in particular, the male hierarchy of the R.C. Church and all controlling men, should aim to imitate!
Jesus made the women He met flourish! He treated “them with grace and respect, he healed, exorcized, forgave, and restored women to shalom, being particularly attentive to those most in need: the newly dead little girl, the widow whose son had just died, the impoverished widow who gave all she had to the temple, the adulterer about to be stoned” (p.219). He restored dignity to women whose dignity had been taken away by the men of the patriarchal society in which they lived. He even told the religious leaders of His day that prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they would! I can just imagine the outrage with which the Pharisees reacted to that remark!!! No wonder theJewish religious authorities wanted to get rid of Him! They made several attempts which failed and then they finally succeeded. Jesus did not die on a cross at Calvary to free us from our sins, as the Church has taught for about one thousand years. ‘Jesus’ suffering resulted “from his free loving fidelity to his prophetic ministry and his God.” What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured, but only the love poured out’ (p.173).
Jesus did so much for women throughout His ministry. No wonder women loved Him and travelled with Him, helping Him in His work in whichever ways they could. All of us who love deeply know the joy of working alongside and relieving the burdens of a person we deeply love; that is how it was for those women who were fortunate enough to be His disciples. It was the women who were the strong disciples, not the men! We don’t know a lot of the names of these women, as the writers of the New Testament were all male and males of those times usually totally discounted women, so, given that custom, it is surprising that we even have one name of one woman, but, fortunately, we do.
Mary Magdalene, of course, is the best known name of His female friends. There were several Mary's mentioned by name, as well as a Veronica (in the Gospel of Nicodemus), a Martha, a Joanna and a Susanna. It was the women who financially supported His work and it was the women who stood by His cross, unlike the male disciples who mostly went and hid for fear of being arrested themselves. Jesus must have had such deep trust in Mary Magdalene in order for Him to have given her such an important mission on the morning of His resurrection.
If we, as modern women, could rewrite the gospels, how different would be the stories contained within them! Women of the time of Jesus would be given the prominence they deserved. What we do know from the research that has been done outside of the domain of Scripture scholarship is that Jesus loved women, was loved by women and had extraordinary friendships with women, extraordinary from the perspective of the type of relationships which were normal at that time. Jesus gave dignity to women, as well as His friendship and love. As Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Theology in women’s hands has discovered Jesus Christ as compassionate friend, liberator from burdens, consoling friend in sorrows, and ally of women’s strivings (p.223).” She goes on to say, “He brings salvation through his life and Spirit, supporting women’s efforts to realize how beloved they are in the eyes of God” (p.223).
This, then, is a major part of our mission, to seek out the women who are still oppressed and raise them up to a better life, a life where oppressed women can, like the bent-over woman, stand up proudly, straight and tall and reach out to others and inspire and raise them up too. May Jesus send us His Spirit to renew us and energize us to notice women who are still oppressed and to seek them out and serve them and bring them to wholeness. “Woman, you are set free” (Luke 13:12) echoes down through the centuries as a promise from Jesus. We are the ones who represent Him now in the world and He relies on us to work to set others who live in bondage of any kind free.