Peter & Mary & You & I

iconofmarymagdaleneA careful (or even not so careful) reading of the New Testament reveals something interesting about the ability of the people around Jesus to receive the truth of who he is and what he represents:  the women get it and the men do not.

Over and over again, the 12 men who are the chosen and called as “official” followers of Jesus demonstrate their inability or unwillingness to accept who Jesus is or what he has to say.  We frequently see them scratching their heads about his teaching or missing the point entirely.  We find them jockeying for position and arguing over who will be the greatest among them.  We find them falling asleep at the moment when Jesus needs their companionship the most.  We find them panicking in the midst of storms.  Peter, who can be considered the representative of them all, is even called “Satan” by Jesus at one point, because he refuses to accept what is about to happen to Jesus.   That same Peter, an icon for all the male apostles, even denies his relationship with Jesus to save himself — and all his brothers run away in terror from the sight of the crucifixion (except, according to John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved”).

The women, by contrast, largely don’t seem to have these problems.   Represented chiefly by Mary Magdalene, the women (a surprising number of whom are named Mary) seem to companion Jesus in a much different way.  In moments where they are absent (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), that absence is likely the result of their not being welcomed by their male counterparts, rather than of a desire to stay away.  We see the female followers of Jesus anointing him and shedding tears over him — a much different response to his talk of his own forthcoming death than the refusal of Peter to face that reality.   In John’s Gospel, Martha and Mary are quite convinced that Jesus could have prevented the death of their brother, and speak confidently of resurrection in the way the male disciples do not.  The ultimate homage paid to these women in the gospels is the fact that Mary Magdalene (and sometimes other Marys, depending on the gospel) is the first witness to the Risen Christ.   The reality of the Resurrection is a reality the women are prepared to embrace more than the men, it seems.   It fits with the generally greater receptivity of the women compared to the men, and so they receive the good news of Easter first.

What I find most interesting about this difference is that the men represent authority and privileged status.  It is they, ultimately, who are entrusted with the formal leadership of the church, and in a heavily patriarchal culture, it is they who are allowed to have authority, whereas the women are relegated to an inferior position by their society.  As a result, the men are far more invested in the world as it was structured, because that world served their interests.  They are more wedded to culturally determined patterns of relationship, because those patterns of relationship reenforce their positions.  In other words, the fact that the social structure is set up to benefit men and preserve their power makes it harder for the male disciples to receive the fact that, in Jesus, that structure is being overturned and the patterns of relationship that come with it are being undone.

But the women are not nearly as invested in this social structure.  They have, for the whole of their lives, experienced that structure as one that put them in an inferior position, that prevented them from having any official power or even many rights, that defined them as weaker and denied them any formal authority.  They see their world from its margins, and the message that this structure is being overturned and old patterns are being undone is much more readily good news for them than it is for their male counterparts.  These women are willing to approach the tomb, even as the thought of doing so unsettles them.   They are willing to look at death head on — and thus they receive the news first that Jesus has undone even death.  They are prepared to welcome all this undoing and overturning, whereas the men need to be convinced and reassured, because all of this seems to them far more threatening.

As we consider these differences between the first male and female followers of Jesus, we might ask ourselves what all this means for us.   It seems clear to me that, for us, this is perhaps not so much about men and women (though, to the degree that males are privileged in a culture, it still is), but about where we are in relation to our investment in structures and patterns that need undoing.  The more we benefit from the ways of the world, the less likely we are to welcome the way in which the reign of God seeks to undo them.  The less we benefit from them, the more the reign of God appears as good news to us.  As we contemplate the forthcoming celebration of Easter, we might ask ourselves how ready we are to welcome the Risen Christ — and the undoing and overturning he represents.

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