SPIRITUALITY TODAYMitzi Minor:
Summer 1991, Vol.43 No. 2, pp. 134-141
The Women of the Gospel of Mark
and Contemporary Women's Spirituality
A careful exegesis of Marcan pericopes that narrate encounters Jesus had with three women reveals them to be bold, faithful and courageous in their efforts at gaining wholeness, healing and affirmation of spiritual insight.
Mitzi Minor received the Ph.D. and M.Div. degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminiary. She has done post-doctoral study in spirituality at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. She is currently Assistant Professor of Religion and College Chaplain at Bethel College in McKenzie, TN.
CONTEMPORARY women who are seeking to nurture the spirituality both of themselves and of other women have discovered the need of women to develop their own sense of self, to become fully human, so that they are able to relate to God and to others as whole persons capable of developing and sharing their vital energies and creativity with the world. This need is a result of the reinforcement by most patterns of family and education of two roles for women: (1) women are socialized into being desirable objects who dress, think, and act in order to receive acceptance and adulation, especially from men; (2) women are socialized to live for others, that is, to submerge themselves in others' identities, needs, interests.(1) A woman who has been so socialized can give up too much of herself so that nothing remains of her own uniqueness. She may come to view herself as an emptiness seemingly without value to herself, to her peers, or, perhaps, even to God, writes Valerie Saiving (37). In such circumstances, this woman's sin, instead of being encompassed by such terms as "pride" or "will-to-power" (definitions of sin constructed primarily on the basis of masculine experience)(2) requires other terms such as triviality, distractibility, lack of an organizing center, dependence on others, inability to make decisions for oneself, sentimentality, mistrust of reason, weak submissiveness, fear, self-hatred, jealousy, timidity, manipulation -- in short, underdevelopment or negation of self (Conn 37,39,11).
Susan Nelson Dunfee has called this sin "the sin of hiding" and notes that it results in a woman expending her energy not in the acceptance of her own freedom and full humanity but in running from that freedom by pouring those energies into the lives of others (319). To have a healthy spirituality, women must "repent" of this sin. Furthermore, according to Karen Barta, instead of pursuing what is often viewed as the highest Christian virtue (i.e. self-sacrificing love which makes negation of self into a virtue),(3) women must first seek to become fully human by being self-asserting and self-possessing so that they have the courage to expose themselves to the fears and dangers involved in being fully responsible for themselves (94). By such claiming of themselves they come to understand themselves as whole persons with worthy contributions to make to God's creation.
Since Christian women continue to use the New Testament to nourish their spirituality, (4) we may ask what effect these scriptures have on women's needs to reclaim their sense of self. We are perhaps too well aware of New Testament passages that have been used (or abused) to keep women in the place assigned to them by a patriarchal society (1 Cor 14:34, "women should be silent in the churches"; Eph 5:22, "Wives, be subject to your husbands"; I Tim 2:11, "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission," etc.). But I believe there are other passages in the New Testament that women (and men) must also consider carefully, passages that can do no other than encourage women to be self-possessing and fully human in their relationships with Jesus and others. To show the presence of such passages in the New Testament and the type of emphatic encouragement they offer to women, I will examine three important stories of women who interact assertively with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
A WOMAN WITH A HEMORRHAGE
The first story to be considered is that of the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5:25-34. This woman, who had been ill for twelve years and whom no doctor had been able to help (5:25), had heard reports about Jesus and reasoned that he, unlike the doctors, could heal her (5:28), writes Jane Kapas (915). So, she joined the great crowd that thronged around Jesus as he was making his way to the home of Jairus who had a sick daughter. From the midst of such a crowd this woman reached out and touched Jesus' garment, and was immediately healed (5:27-29). Her healing happened solely at her initiative, a fact that makes this miracle unique in Mark's gospel, according to Elizabeth Struthers Malbon's reading of this passage (36).
What a risk she took to find wholeness for herself! She ventured outside the accepted female domain of the time (the home) and acted with "masculine" assertiveness that could only bring dishonor upon her from the crowd around her.(5) Furthermore, Elizabeth Amoah applies the regulations of Leviticus 15 to emphasize that her flow of blood meant she ought not even to mingle with people, much less intentionally reach out and touch someone, for fear of making them unclean (4). So it is no surprise that when her bold risk had paid off and she was made whole, she thought only to go back into hiding. She had sought her healing in secrecy and silence and apparently would have slipped away from Jesus without anyone ever knowing what had happened. On her own she would assert herself no further. Mark's Jesus, however, would have none of this hiding. He stopped and sought the now timid woman out of the crowd asking, "Who touched my garments?" (5:30).
Now we find out that she needed only some bit of encouragement to come out of hiding, for she knew what had happened to her, and she felt the awe that always comes over human being when they realize they are in the presence of the divine (5:33).(6) Because she had experienced God, she apparently wanted and needed to tell her story, for at Jesus' call, she came forward, fell at his feet, and told him the truth (5:33c). In effect, she bore witness to the crowd of the power of God to make her whole.
Jesus, then, rather than criticizing her "unfeminine" assertiveness or her violation of purity regulations, said to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (5:34). His first words place the responsibility for the healing squarely on the woman ("your faith has healed you"). Vernon K. Robbins surmises that she not only showed faith in touching Jesus' garment but also in her thoughtfulness, boldness, and willingness to initiate and take risks (510). Jesus' next words show his blessing on her actions: "Go in peace." Rather than calling forth passivity, triviality, dependence, and an inability to make decisions for oneself, the story of this woman encourages women today to reason and to have confidence in their minds, to initiate and to risk, to accept responsibility for themselves, and to have bold and assertive faith in Jesus who called this woman out of hiding, accepted her responsibility for her healing, and blessed her actions.
A SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN
In the story in Mark 7:24-30, a Syro-Phoenician woman, likewise, had heard of Jesus and came to him on behalf of her little daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit (7:25). A Gentile woman alone with a daughter did not hold a good position in first century Palestinian society. As a Gentile and a woman, she was an ethnic alien and invisible to the society since she was without a man to represent her in the public realm. Also against her was the fact that sons, not daughters, were the valued off-spring in that society.Sons were the focus of one's hopes and one's longing. Daughters usually cost money (at least for a dowry) and were often regarded as troublesome pieces of property weighing on their families until they could be safely married off to a suitable husband. (Ringe 70)This woman, like the woman with the hemorrhage, stepped beyond the prescribed female boundaries to seek out Jesus for the sake of her daughter whom she valued. Jesus at first refused her with harsh words because she was a Gentile: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (7:27). She, however, insisted on giving voice to her concern for her daughter. By means of her own analogy -- "Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (7:28), she engaged Jesus in a "verbal sparring match worthy of the craftiest of teachers (a role explicitly denied to women in Jesus' society)" (65). And indeed, she bested him in the argument; because of her word Jesus healed her daughter (7:29). Her faith was no mere doctrinal confession, but an act of trust and engagement that risked everything (71). She was bold, courageous, assertive, even stubborn, and she refused to accept her society's judgment that neither she nor her daughter were worthy of Jesus' time or attention. Precisely because she spoke up, Jesus granted her request, an act which reveals his honoring of these attributes of hers and his acceptance of her as his own equal (Malina 30-32).
A PROPHETIC WOMAN
Finally, there is the story of the unnamed woman who, like our other two women, stepped beyond the prescribed female boundaries when she entered another's house, disrupted a meal for the male guests, and anointed Jesus for burial at Bethany just prior to Passover (Mark 14:3-9). She is, first of all, a prophet, for Jesus interpreted her action as prophetic: she anticipated his death and anointed his body beforehand for burial (Beavis 7).
Secondly, she showed deep spiritual insight for she was the only one in Mark's gospel prior to the cross who understood that Jesus' messiahship must mean his suffering and death. Lee Oo Chung, a third-world woman, wrote that both Jesus and this woman knew that only where oppression, discrimination, pain, and fear are shared could there be salvation. Chung added, "Perhaps women are blessed with the ability to grasp the reality of history" (20). If Chung's insight is applicable to this woman, then she utilized her own experience as a woman as a revelation of God's qualities and activities.(22)
Lastly, we should note her boldness. She acted on her spiritual insight and understanding despite the sharp criticism that came from the men at the table who did not understand Jesus' destiny ("Why was this ointment wasted this way?" 14:45). For her prophetic action, her insight into the reality of suffering, and her courage this woman received from Mark's Jesus the lengthiest and most positive pronouncement on the words or deeds of anyone in the second gospel: (23) "Amen, I say to you, whenever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken in memory of her," (14:9; author's translation). Rather than calling forth a sense of worthlessness before God, this woman's story encourages women to accept and act boldly on their spiritual vocations.
These three stories in Mark's gospel show us women who were not content to remain within the spatial boundaries that were prescribed for women (their homes) or to observe the behavioral limitations placed on women (women should be passive, timid, and submissive) by their society. Instead they sought Jesus in the marketplace, in someone else's home, at a dinner for Jesus and his male companions. In each case they initiated the contact with Jesus, something which was a risky thing for a woman in their world to do. They were thoughtful, bold, faithful, and courageous. They spoke out, bore witness to the power of God, acted prophetically, and showed deep spiritual insight. I think we are justified in saying that these women took themselves out of hiding. For their efforts one woman was made whole, one woman gained wholeness for her daughter, and one woman received affirmation of her spiritual insight and helped Jesus prepare to meet his own destiny. Indeed, Mark shows Jesus accepting, blessing, honoring, and praising these women. These, then, claimed their sense of self on the way to a healthy spirituality. In the women in these stories modern women find examples to emulate; in the portraits of Jesus they find a friend who accepts and encourages them.
- Joann Wolski Conn, "Women's Spirituality: Restriction and Reconstruction," in Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development, ed. Joann Wolski Conn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 10-11. In a similar vein, Sandra M. Schneiders, "The Effects of Women's Experience on their Spirituality," also in Women's Spirituality, writes of women being socialized to "nonpublic" roles. In public roles, a woman is "male-dependent" -- the daughter of, the mother of, the sister of, the wife of someone who had a name in a way she never would" (32). Both of these articles were originally published in Spirituality Today, the former in Winter 1982 and the latter in Summer 1983.
- Saiving (35). See also Wendy M. Wright, "The Feminine Dimension of Contemplation," in The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays on Woman and Spirituality, ed., Mary E. Giles (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 109.
- Dunfee (321). Dunfee also noted that the sin of hiding actually hides under the guise of self sacrifice (322). Conn, in "Women's Spirituality," claims that "women are led to believe they are virtuous when actually they have not yet taken the necessary possession of their lives to have an authentic 'self' to give in self-donating love. They are often praised as holy when they are still spiritually dwarfed" (12).
- Mary Ann Tolbert, "Protestant Feminists and the Bible: On the Horns of a Dilemma;" Union Seminary Quarterly Review 43 (1989) notes that while the Bible is full of "patriarchal hierarchies of oppression," women must still "acknowledge the degree to which we have been shaped and continue to be nourished by these same writings" (8).
- Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) notes that the home was the place for women in the New Testament world and that socially acceptable (i.e., honorable) behavior for women included an unwillingness to risk, passivity, timidity, and restraint (43-45).
- I have interpreted phobetheisa (literally "fearing") of v. 33 as "awe" for a number of reasons. First, the story occurs in a cycle of stupendous miracle stories (4: 35-5:43) that emphasize the reaction of the fear of God or awe to the divine presence (4:41; 5:15; 5:36). Secondly, since v. 33 says the woman knew what had happened to her body, that God had healed her, her fear may be interpreted as the awe one feels before the divine presence. Finally, comparison with Luke proves to be instructive. In Luke the woman came with trembling and fell before Jesus when she realized she was not hidden (8:47). Mark's woman, however, knew what had happened to her, and as a result of that knowledge she feared and trembled. Her fear, therefore, is best understood as awe before the divine presence. For more detailed discussion, see my dissertation, "The Spirituality of the Gospel of Mark" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989), 169-174.
Amorah Elizabeth. "The Woman Who Decided to Break the Rules." In New Eyes for Reading. Ed. by John Pobee. Barbel von Wartenberg-Potter. Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone Books, 1986.
Beavis, Mary Ann. "Women as Models of Faith in Mark." Biblical Theology Bulletin 18 (1988).
Barta, Karen A. The Gospel of Mark. The Message of Biblical Spirituality Series, vol. 9. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988.
Chun & Lee Oo. "One Woman's Confession of Faith." In New Eyes For Reading. Ed. by John Pobee. Barbel von Wartenberg-Potter. Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone Books, 1986.
Conn, Joann Wolski, ed. Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.
Dunfee, Susan Nelson. "The Sin of Hiding: A Feminist Critique of Reinhold Niebuhrs Account of the Sin of Pride." Soundings 65 (1982).
Kopas, Jane. "Jesus and Women in Mark's Gospel." Review for Religious 44 (1985).
Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. "Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark." Semeia 28 (1983).
Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981.
Ringe, Sharon H. "A Gentile Woman's Story." In Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Ed. by Letty Russell. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.
Robbins, Vernon K. "The Woman Who Touched Jesus' Garments: Socio-Rhetorical Analysis of the Synoptic Accounts." New Testament Studies 33 (1987).
Saivin & Valerie. "The Human Situation: A Feminist View." In Womanspirit Rising. Ed. by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
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