Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:2 SM 12:7-10, 13; Ps. 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7:36-8:3. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061613.cfm
Today is Father’s Day. So, happy Father’s Day to all of us who merit the title “father.”
However, I must observe that despite the male focus which our culture gives this June 16th, today’s readings end up being quite critical of men and patriarchy. They reveal the misogyny of western culture and of the Christian tradition right from the beginning. Unwittingly, they also make a strong case for female leadership in the church even to the point of suggesting female leadership for the entire enterprise. Sorry, dads!
Start with the first reading. There Nathan condemns the great father-figure, David for his own male chauvinism and for his disregard of all the gifts the prophet says he himself gave David in God’s name.
Nathan recalls that as prophet he himself anointed David king over both Israel and Judah. Nathan rescued David from his rival, Saul. The prophet gave him the Lord’s dwelling and a harem to live with David in his palace. All these including David’s many wives, Nathan says, were gifts from God. (So much for Yahweh’s “traditional family values” allegedly favoring domestic arrangements with one father and one mother.)
And what was David’s response to all the favors conferred by Nathan? Adultery and murder. He used his power as king to steal the wife of one of his generals, Uriah the Hittite. Then in effect, he “rendered” Uriah to the Ammonites to have him killed, while preserving his own “deniability” for the crime. But neither Yahweh nor Nathan was fooled.
Of course, the woman’s in question was the famous Bathsheba who eventually gave birth to King Solomon, who ended up succeeding David as King of Israel instead of David’s eldest son, Adonijah.
In fact the section of 2nd Samuel in which this episode is found is referred to as “the succession narratives,” because it answers the question “why is it that Solomon is sitting on the throne instead of David’s eldest living son, Adonijah?”
Solomon is on the throne, the story says, because of David’s theft of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah, and the curse of Nathan which resulted: “The sword will never depart from your house.” That is, all of David’s sons, but Solomon were condemned to die violent deaths. According to this tradition, God’s sole “blessing” for the eventually penitent king is limited to the boon that he himself will not be killed. Father-rule – the patriarchy – does not come out well in this first reading.
Neither is today’s gospel selection kind to patriarchy. Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system But in this case, the “host” proves to be an inhospitable man in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.
Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Jesus as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one.
This is extraordinary, since the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Jesus the Christ. And it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in the reading from 2nd Samuel.
And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Jesus’ time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Jesus, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.
But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.
That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Jesus’ contemporaries.
Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.
And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Jesus’ company.
Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Jesus tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Jesus’ company are described as formerly sick and possessed.
Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community knew: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Jesus were his financial supporters of Jesus and “the twelve.”
But Luke doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Jesus. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Jesus or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.
Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Jesus as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”
In fact the Gospel of Thomas describes says:
“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?'”
Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus.
These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and us patriarchs so fond of “Father’s Day. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.
Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.
In short today’s readings help us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.
Mover over, Francis; bring on Pope FrancEs I!