At last week’s Gospel, a scholar of the law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus – good teacher that he is – asked what he found written in the Law. The scholar answered to love God and neighbor. Jesus agreed with him and told him to put it into practice. Good lawyer and the scholar he asked for further clarification: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by a shocking story that forced the man – no doubt very reluctant – to include the hated and feared Samaritans as neighbors.
Today’s Gospel follows immediately on this, and asks how are we to love God. Jesus’s answer to this will be no less shocking. Jesus was an itinerant preacher, and would have expected to be greeted by the leading people of any town he visited. One family would host him in their home and would invite the leading men of the town to listen to him. The women, of at least that family, would be expected to prepare a meal for them. As Jesus was prestigious, they would be expected to outdo themselves to increase their status within the community. Before continuing, we should note that this was a noble activity, and should not be despised. Jesus is not making a general statement about sharing the housekeeping . He is saying simply to fulfill the injunction to love God, we need to listen to His word, about which is more important than any other duty or condition: male or female is incidental to discipleship.
Luke is very careful to maintain parallels. Several chapters before this, Jesus said to a potential disciple, “follow me.” The Man replied, “Lord let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered, “let the dead bury their dead, but you go and Proclaim the kingdom of God.” Knowing, loving, and proclaiming the presence of God and the world is more important than anything else. That Jesus placed women as equal to men and were to be instructed and formed in the same way would have been shocking to his audience – those born Greek as well as Jew – as telling the scholar of the law that the Samaritan was his neighbor. The great commandment of God to love God and neighbor cannot be accomplished without undermining the social structures of the day.
As we look around us, we may find the same situation. What will need to be put aside, if not a way for us to be able to listen to God’s word, not to put it into practice. You can call attention to the situation on our own borders and we ask you to listen carefully to the announcement at the end of Mass, but there is still more to be said about the specific situation of men and women in the Church, particularly the early church.
As it happens, we will celebrate the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene tomorrow. Now we use the word Feast loosely, usually for any liturgical celebration of the saints. There are actual four levels of commemoration: Feast has the second-highest surpassed only by solumnities such as Christmas or the Assumption. Pope Francis has made the celebration for Saint Mary Magdalene a feast with its own prayers and readings. If you’re interested in this kind of inside ecclesiastical baseball, you can find more information on our website or in the weekly email yesterday.
The point is that we acknowledge St. Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of, or to the Apostles. She is found in all the Gospels usually leading a group of women, and is always mentioned first. Also she is the first in all the gospels to experience the empty tomb and to bring this news to the other apostles. Thus the Apostle – one sent – to the other apostles.
In all the Gospels it is women who first experience the empty tomb. Now some commentators have developed ingenious theological reasons for this. I do not find them compelling. I think they’re simply recording a fact, and indeed a rather embarrassing one: men weren’t there. Luke, always seeking balance, included the story of the male disciples on the road to Emmaus, but however beautiful a story, it seems a little bit too contrived and convenient for me. It has been noticed that the women were there to perform a religious task of caring for the body of Jesus – that this may have occurred, but it was simply a female role.
Let’s look at this for a moment. This week, I was out with some friends, and one of them introduced me to a few of his friends. They were businesspeople, so he told them that over the years I have merged a number of parishes and started a charter school. It was a language they could understand, and I am happy – dare say proud – that I was able to have the chance to do that.
But looking back over 40 plus years of ministry, they are not what I most remember, or for that matter of what I find the most valuable. What brought me the closest to Jesus and gave me whatever insights I’ve been able to pass on to you was obtained by visiting the sick, especially the dying. For most of my ministry I have cleared at least one – before I was a pastor 2 days – a week to visit people and their homes or nursing homes or hospitals and bring them communion but mostly to listen to them, and often just hold their hands. That has been my empty tomb. I know that this is a ministry which does not depend on being male or female, young or old, educated or uneducated. It is simply being present to people.
Isn’t it interesting, however, that it is usually done by women. Now, I understand that many women object to the statement of a “female genius”, or emphasizing supposed female talents. I’m certain that there are differences, but like Luke I question how important they are for a vibrant ministry. The call of Jesus is still the same, and I feel many Christian men become Marthas – busy about many things, but it is women who have chosen the better part that leads to knowing Jesus.
Jesus has left the tomb and is now found in his body – the Church – most clearly and strongly in its weakest members: the poor, the outcast, the sick. Those who minister to this body and as a literal sense as possible, will be the first to encounter Jesus. Whoever they are, they are like Mary, the sister of Martha, and have chosen the better part, no matter what others may say. They are like Mary Magdalene: they will be the apostles to the rest of us. They will have the most important message, no matter what we think is more important.