Mathew: 18 : 4
‘Whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven!’
What was it like for women and what was the place of children at the time of Jesus?
It’s really hard for us to imagine!
Today there are still struggles for women to gain equal pay in many occupations. Recent revelations in the entertainment industry and the political arena, show us that the abuse of women, by powerful men, still exists. These attitudes need to be challenged. They should not be a part of society where we believe in the equality of men and women.
While there is still much to be done, the difference between a woman’s life today, and that in the past, is black and white. Even so, it is important to also note that there were also some wealthy and powerful women in Jesus’ day, although they were very much in the minority.
The place of children today is one of care and protection in most western societies.
This does not mean children were not cared for in Jesus’ day, but they were not treated with the same worth as they are today.
In Jesus’ day, women had no rights! They were treated as possessions by men!
So how did that come about? Well, prominent men, like Plato, actually wrote that women were inferior to men in every way. Intellectually, physically, emotionally, they were inferior, and should be treated as such. In their mid teens women were married to older men, and they had no choice in who they married. The expectation was that they would bear male offspring.
They could easily be divorced. If they wanted to go to court, they could not represent themselves, as a woman’s testimony didn’t count. Plato grouped children and women together, along with other marginal actors in society, like slaves and animals.
The lowly place of women and children was expressed in an awful way.
In the Greco-Roman world, there were almost 25% more men than women. It’s interesting that the genders were not more even, given you could not choose the sex of your child. It is partly explained through a regular action, called exposure. If you wanted a boy, and a girl was born and you could not provide for another child, you took the baby outside and exposed it to the elements. If someone found the child and took it in, that child would have the opportunity of a life, most likely as a slave. But if not, the child would die. Girls were a financial drain on society. Therefore they were seen as expendable.
In Jewish culture, children and slaves were a father’s property, just like material objects. A man could divorce his wife, his children and other household members as he pleased, without fear of any legal consequence. Little wonder, then, that a Jewish man would pray: ‘I thank you God, that I was not born a gentile, a slave or a woman!’
Jesus stepped into this culture, treating women and children in a very different way!
Each of the gospels record all sorts of interesting stories of the life of Jesus and his relationship and interactions with women and children.
- Luke (8:1-3) tells us of three women who followed Jesus, and also supported his ministry.
Firstly there is Mary Magdalene. Some assume that she was a prostitute, but we cannot be sure. What we do know, is that Jesus cast several demons out of her, so she was indebted to Jesus. Another was Joana, linked to the household of Herod, so possibly a woman of privilege and position, and also of influence. Then there was Susanna. She is only mentioned in this story, but we are told that out of her own means she supported Jesus.
These three women are also mentioned at the crucifixion of Jesus. They were there when all the disciples, who we know were men, had run away! (Mark 15:40-41) They also went to find the tomb empty, and were the first to announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead. (Luke 24:10)
- Most of you are familiar with the story of Mary and Martha. (Luke 10:38-42)
In the light of our attitudes and behavior today, it is a surprising story. Martha is working away, preparing a meal, while Mary is just sitting around. When Martha points out the obvious injustice of this, Jesus appears to take the side of the ‘lazy’ sister. It doesn’t seem fair.
The key to the story is that Mary wasn’t just sitting around – she was learning from Jesus. Martha had taken the traditional role for women of preparing food. But Mary on the other hand, was sitting at the feet of Jesus, the place of learning. Here was a woman learning, growing, and expanding her mind.
When Martha complains, Jesus makes the point that our learning and growth is important, and that should not be taken away from us. Not by her industrious and annoyed sister, or by the culture that believed that learning was not the role of a woman.
- Leadership roles and styles continued to be questioned in society.
This is not new. In Jesus’ day it was common to promote yourself as a leader and let the world know how wonderful you were. Just like it is today.
Again, Jesus turned the accepted perception of people regarding leaders upside down. On one occasion, his own disciples were discussing: ‘who was the greatest among them’. (Matthew 18:1-6) To illustrate the point he wanted to make, he placed a small child among them. He used the ‘humility’ of a child as an example of what greatness looks like. This is a lesson for us all. Like children, leaders are to embody the very model of Jesus himself as humble leaders. Not only that, children are as important as anyone else in society. They are to be loved, cared for, nurtured and valued like everyone else.
Many people wrongly view the church as misogynistic, or suppressing women.
We can understand that with the apostle Paul suggesting men should control women, using terms like: ‘the man is the head of the wife’ (Ephesians 5:23)
However, he also directs us all to: ‘submit to one another out of reverence for the Lord’. (Ephesians 5:21) In the Christian community, under the Lordship of Jesus, there are times when we will all lovingly surrender to others. In this way we bless others, we build healthy and functional communities, and most importantly, we honour God.
Jesus both models and teaches us how we are to treat others.
In a world where all too often women are treated as objects and children are put down, it is the message of Jesus that helps us to see all people as being free to be themselves. As Christian communities we have the privilege of demonstrating to all people their freedom in Jesus.
God has made us all for a purpose. It is only in relationship with him that we find our meaning and purpose. In God’s eyes we are: ‘precious and honoured in his sight, and he loves us’. (Isaiah 43:4) This is a particular challenge to us in Australia today where domestic violence and the abuse of children continue to be huge issues.
Jesus invites us as his people in the world to …
- Firstly, to treat all people with reverence and respect – giving them the opportunity to participate in ministry of his church and have a sense of significance in the world, and …
- Secondly to consider carefully how we view other people, especially women – not viewing them as objects but as the children of God, rescued by the blood of Jesus, and destined along with us to share in his glories forever.
- Thirdly, let us value all children – protecting and nurturing them to grow as God’s children.
So let us then joyfully celebrate the freedom we have in Jesus, encouraging and helping others to fulfil the potential they have in Jesus … so that we honour and praise a loving God who has made us in his image for a relationship with him.
Pastor: Gus Schutz