This week I’ve been reflecting on the relationship that Jesus had with women during his earthly life and ministry. This is part of my ongoing preparation for future online retreats. While many stories have evolved through the centuries, positing possibilities about his relationship with women such as Mary Magdalene, I find myself more intrigued by the question of how Jesus learned to treat women with respect, equality, and humanity, in a time when women had no rights and few privileges. I suspect that the answer could have more to do with Mary, Jesus’ mother, than with Mary Magdalene or the other women he met during the course of his ministry.
Have you ever wondered if, and when, and how, Mary told Jesus about the visit she received from the Angel Gabriel? I’m thinking of the event we now call the Annunciation, when Gabriel appeared suddenly, and unexpectedly, to this young Jewish woman and told her she would become pregnant and bear God’s child. Might Mary have waited until she felt Jesus was old enough to understand all aspects of the story, or might she have first made it into a kind of “once upon a time” story that she first told Jesus when he was a very young child? Would it make more sense to Mary that Jesus first hear about angels when he’s very young, or when he’s old enough to ask questions about human assent and agency?
Whenever he first heard it, Jesus would have learned from his mother that God respected her. Gabriel explained what God desired and waited for Mary’s consent. (Yes, this point is debatable, and I address this in my podcast meditation on the Annunciation in my online retreat on The Incarnation of Jesus through the Eyes of Others.) Jesus probably also grew up hearing Mary tell him Bible stories about women like Esther and Ruth, who took matters into their own hands to care for themselves and their people. Perhaps they also had been visited by angels, but those stories didn’t make it into Hebrew Scripture….
I’m guessing that Jesus also learned about the realities of women’s lives by watching his mother be treated poorly and with disrespect by occupying Roman soldiers and collaborating local leaders. What do you think Mary might have said to Jesus on such occasions?
There is so much about the relationship between Mary and Jesus that we just don’t know. Scripture gives us a few hints—we know Jesus respects his mother, following her wishes when she encourages him to test his miracle-making muscles for the first time. He is also careful to provide for his mother, even from the painful height of the cross, in his last hours of life.
Perhaps it is from that relationship with his mother that he formed his respect for the women he encountered. Certainly the stories we find in the gospels show that he treated women with dignity, engaging them in conversation, treating them as persons worthy of value and understanding, even being willing to learn from the women he encounters during his ministry. These stories are ones I intend to explore in more depth, and from the perspective and voice of these women themselves.
Which women’s voices would you like to hear?