Lesson 1, Activity 2
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Studying women in the New Testament brings its own challenges and offers great rewards. Challenges include the relative lack of information about women's lives, plus the prevailing patriarchy or sexism that permeated society. Nevertheless, this study brings great reward, for we discover how women lived and loved, how they created meaning and gave meaning to others in their circles of influence. And we do a bit of myth-busting as well. Most of all, we study the women of the Bible because their stories matter to God, to the people of God, and help us make sense of our own journeys.

So in each session, we will examine an aspect of the social and cultural world of the New Testament, and we will explore a biblical woman's story in relation to her context. We will look at marriage, we'll look at motherhood, at discipleship, at patronage, teaching, leadership, as New Testament women live out their callings before God and in the Christian community.

So we will look at Mary, the mother of Jesus; at Mary Magdalene; at Mary and Martha; Phoebe and Junia, found in Paul's letters; we'll look at Priscilla and Lydia from the Book of Acts; and we'll look at unnamed women, such as the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15; and the Samaritan woman of John 4; the hemorrhaging woman; and Jairus's daughter. We will even take a glimpse at those Old Testament women who form part of Jesus' genealogy.

Well, let's get started by looking at Mary, Jesus' mother. Many of us remember the story from Luke's gospel of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary with great news: She's highly favored by God and will bear a Son who will redeem Israel. Well, we need to look at this news from two vantage points. First, how does Mary's story play out in real time based on the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke? And then second, how does each of these gospels accent aspects of the story to highlight key theological points in Jesus' own story?

We meet Mary as a young woman betrothed to her future husband, Joseph. The angel Gabriel greets Mary as one highly favored by God and reassures her that his message is indeed one of good news. Now in Mary's world, and in many places in the worldwide church today, supernatural encounters with angels are deemed possible. So in that sense, Mary is not as surprised as you or I might be.

Now, I mentioned Mary is betrothed, which carries more social weight than our custom of engagement. A betrothal means that the families have agreed on the dowry, and all is settled. The only thing remaining is the actual wedding and wedding night. A delay in the wedding might be the result of families saving money for the wedding feast. Although not technically married, Mary can be charged with adultery should she have any sexual relations with another man. Had she not been betrothed, any sexual relations she might have had would result in her being considered immoral and as bringing shame to her family, but she would not have been considered an adulteress. But as it stands in our story, it looks like she committed adultery, and Joseph has to make a decision.

On the one hand, he could bring a public case against her, and her family would have the opportunity to defend their daughter's honor. But obviously in Mary's case, her growing belly would belie any declarations of being a virgin. On the other hand, according to newer interpretations of the law, some Jews at this time argued that a man could divorce his wife quietly and for reasons other than adultery. And Joseph was considering this option so as to avoid public shame, because if Joseph rejected the child, it would be obvious to all that he considered Mary an adulteress, and Jesus would be labeled illegitimate. Very shameful indeed at this time.

But before any writ of divorce could be written, Matthew indicates that an angel visited Joseph in a dream. The angel informs him that Mary's child has not been conceived in the usual way. That is, Mary has not been unfaithful to her betrothal vow. It is also possible that Mary spoke with Joseph after receiving the news from Gabriel. And I say this because in the marriage or dowry documents from this time, it is often stated that a wife cannot travel away from home overnight without the express approval of her husband. And Luke informs us that Mary travels to see her relative Elizabeth and remains there three months. This implies that either Joseph or perhaps Mary's father approved of her travel, and even if her father was the one who approved her travel, Joseph would have been told that Mary was going to visit Elizabeth. So in this scenario, the angel's information in Joseph's dream assured Joseph that Mary has told the truth. In any case, the betrothal of Mary and Joseph stands.

When Mary is getting close to her due date, she and Joseph trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem and stay with a family there in a portion of the house that's also used to keep their animals. They're not in a barn though. Jewish hospitality would have treated Joseph as family. There, Mary gives birth to Jesus, probably with the aid of a midwife. And after eight days, we learn that Jesus is circumcised, and after forty or more days, the couple travels with the baby to nearby Jerusalem to the temple for Mary's purification rites and to dedicate Jesus, their firstborn, as commanded in Exodus 13:1.

At the temple, both the prophetess Anna and the devout man Simeon speak about this special child, and Simeon adds to Mary that, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke presents Mary as active and contrasts her faith with the doubt shown by John the Baptist's father Zechariah. But the wider goal for Luke is to contrast John the Baptist and Jesus to show that John the Baptist leads the way for the Messiah, Jesus. And this portrait of Mary is part of his larger objective.

If we look at what Matthew's gospel communicates theologically with the use of his details, we might see a rather passive Mary, but this is not a passivity related to weakness. Rather, it is a passivity that heightens the suspense surrounding the dangers faced by Jesus and Mary. Notice that almost every time Jesus is mentioned, so is Mary, and every time Mary is mentioned, so is Jesus. Thus, the two are an inseparable pair as they both face danger. And Matthew highlights the work of God in directing all events.

As Luke develops Mary's character, she emerges as a prophet and her prophetic role takes form in her Magnificat, that hymn to God sung after she visits with Elizabeth:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. (Luke 1:46-55 NRSVA)

Notice in that hymn that she announces God's judgment upon those who abuse their wealth and power, and she highlights God's vindication of the poor and the needy. Additionally, Mary testifies to that widespread Jewish belief that the Messiah would establish the Davidic kingdom.

Now, this hope was usually understood to mean that the Messiah would reestablish righteous worship at the temple and would drive out the Romans from the land. Mary's belief that this Messiah Jesus will bring about a political kingdom was reinforced both by the shepherds and by the magi, who adore the Christ child, and also, by Herod's pursuit of those babies born about the same time as Jesus. Mary was one of the many, many Jews who longed for God to act in history, to free them from the terrible taxation burdens, to rescue them from famines that lurked just around another corner, and to restore right worship and faithfulness in the land.

Let's go back to Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel. Mary does not understand all that God is doing with the birth of her baby, but she thinks she knows more than it turns out she actually does. And how often in our own lives do we think we know exactly where God is going with this or with that, only to be brought up short? This confidence in her own clarity about God's plan is shaken as Jesus begins His ministry. Mary fails to grasp what He's doing, and yet she is also arguably the one who could be considered most open to Jesus' work. She is both eager and fails to see. And this is a common enough plight of the disciples overall.

Two particular incidents illustrate this point. John writes a most unusual miracle story about Jesus turning water to wine. This is at a wedding and at the apparent request of His mother. Mark speaks about Mary and Jesus' brothers seeking to take Jesus out of the limelight and back home. They think He might be going crazy. The one story suggests disbelief about who Jesus is, but the other, in John, at least signals some belief. So what is going on? Mark presents Jesus' family seeking out Jesus because they're convinced He's out of His mind.

Now we must remember three things as we interpret this. First, in Mark, Jesus' exorcisms indicate His authority. Second, in Mark, every disciple is drawn in less than flattering light. Each disciple fails to appreciate who Jesus is and what His ministry entails, at least until the resurrection. And third, the immediate context for the family's intervention is paired with accusations from the teachers of the law who want to destroy Jesus' ministry.

Now, when we put these bits of information together, we see that Jesus' family is concerned that Jesus' healings and exorcisms might indicate that He's been influenced by powerful spirits. They want to protect their family honor by removing Him from center stage. To His family, Jesus declares that His ministry to God takes precedent over their claims.

Now, John tells of a miracle in the village of Cana, where a local wedding celebration is happening. And there Jesus miraculously makes water into wine. Two words are especially important in this story. First, Jesus identifies His mother as “woman.” In fact, John does not name Mary, and Jesus never addresses her as “mother.” We hear of her only here at Cana and at the cross. “Woman” is not a typical designation that a son would use towards his mother, but we should not assume that Jesus speaks this word with a sneer in His voice. Instead, Jesus reorients their relationship from familial to disciple. The evidence for this includes our second important term: “hour.”

For the first time in John's gospel, Jesus speaks about His hour; His hour has not arrived, and the reader wonders, Well, what is this “hour”? And as the gospel unfolds, we discover that “hour” points to the cross, when the Father will glorify the Son. Mary is the first to hear of the “hour,” and she will be there when this “hour” is complete.

John indicates that Mary stands with the beloved disciple near the cross as her Son takes His last breaths. The personal anguish must have been overwhelming. And I wonder if Simeon's words come to her mind: “A sword will pierce your own soul.” Did she recall her Son's words spoken as a boy? “I must be in my Father's house,” and wonder where was His Father at that moment when Jesus was suspended between life and death.

The gospel of John does not focus on these things. Instead, it highlights Jesus' words to Mary. Jesus addresses her one last time, “Woman, here is your son.” And then He shifts His gaze to the beloved disciple. “Here is your mother.” Jesus identifies Mary as a disciple, as one who has pondered the teachings and deeds of her Son, no, of her Messiah, even to His final hour when the Son is glorified by the Father.

We don't hear of Mary at the tomb, discovering it empty or seeing the risen Lord. Once again, she stands beyond the immediate narrative. We have to move into the Acts of the Apostles for the final scene. In Acts 1, we find her with those believers and apostles who diligently pray as they wait for God's next act. And it was soon in coming, Pentecost. Mary participates in the birth of Jesus and in the birth of the church. She knew the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit in her conceiving of Jesus, and she experienced the indwelling fire of the Holy Spirit as the church burst into being.

Mary's identity includes being Jesus' mother, being a prophet of God's work in the world, and being an exemplar disciple or follower of God. Mary demonstrates the deep relationship that believers share as they enter into God's covenantal grace that is extended to humans through her Son, our Lord Jesus. This relationship is marked by suffering and confusion, alongside hope and joy. Mary's song invites believers to magnify the Lord, to rejoice in our Savior, to rest in His mercy, and trust in His promises.

Her life reflects a journey of joy and sadness and confusion and ultimately fulfillment of her hopes, the redemption of God's people and the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the church. Her testimony invites our response to go and do likewise, to be open to God's call, eager to see God working, willing to stand fast in the face of our own confusion, knowing that in His time, God will make all things known. In our next session, we will look at the five women in Jesus' genealogy and address the misperception that they were sexual sinners.

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