Was Jesus nice to women?

I’ve been thinking about that gospel reading that we had on Sunday all week.

Here at St Mary’s I read the central part of the reading, the dialogue with the woman at the well as a dialogue between my voice and that of a female member of the congregation. You learn new things by the way you perform scripture. I found myself feeling more uncomfortable reading the words of Jesus to a woman who was standing there responding than I would had I just read the whole of the gospel out in my own voice.

‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
‘I have no husband.’
‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’

How did it feel to be on the receiving end of that?

It made me wonder whether again whether Jesus was nice to women and how I can know.

There is a view that is fairly common that Jesus was better than most men at the time because he spoke to women and the culture he lived in was not one in which women and men could normally converse. This is a relatively common reading of Jesus’s dealings with women, particularly by liberals.

I would parrot that view were it not for a conference I went on a few years ago when a feminist orthodox Jewish scholar made the case that this is an antisemitic reading of scripture and that Jewish culture then as now was one in which men and women could converse, do business and make friends. Imagining a world which is particularly negative for women and placing an imagined Jesus in the middle of it who seems to have more liberal values is a way of denegrating the culture and sociological surroundings that he had.

That gospel reading does provide some fuel for this negative reading of Jewish culture of the time with the line:

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’

However, one can counter that by saying – well, John’s gospel is the most uneasy of the gospels when it comes to affirming the Jewish tradition that Jesus came out of. Perhaps this is an early Christian slur against Jewish life alongside a lot of other negative language about “the Jews” in that gospel.

It often strikes me that we want to believe in a Jesus who was nice and who by implication will like us and like our own mores, presumptions and even peccadillos.

Scripture doesn’t always help us to maintain that view.

Was Jesus nice to women? Can you answer this in the affirmative without denegrating the culture he came from?

And for a side discussion – what are the issues around giving this picture to children to illustrate the tale?

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Sermon preached on 1 September 2013

Quite often, Jesus talks about things that I don’t know much about. A man may have gone out to sow – but I know precious little about agriculture. A father may have said goodbye to a prodigal son but I know nothing about having a jealous brother. A young man may have been told not to look back from the plough – but my soft hands, have clearly never touched a plough in their life.

However in the Gospel today, Jesus does stray into an area where I know a thing or two.

He is talking about [Read more…]