There was a pope who tried to tell us we are not allowed to talk about women’s ordination. He forgot to rip this page out of the bible though…
Before I had even looked up the gospel for this week, I was listening to Everything’s alright from Jesus Christ Super Star and even though it diverges in some ways from the story as “John” originally told it, there was a lot to ponder in it about power, about priorities and about how issues of gender are reflected in the story of Jesus.
‘Mary Magdalene’ in the song is looking after the mental health of Jesus, seeming to offer and evening of peace, massage and forgetting to be a workaholic savior figure. Although she is interrupted first by Judas’ pseudo-political critique and put downs and then Jesus’ irritating posturing (remember I am still talking about the song) which verges on mansplaining, I love that each time she relentlessly comes back with her message of comfort and gentleness and peace.
The ‘Jesus’ in the song comes across a bit like a neoliberal celebrity having an ego trip “you will be lost and so sorry that you didn’t pay attention for me” almost like the way of the cross is an attention seeking drama. The cult of the marketable personality is more important than the “poor” in the song. Meanwhile MM shushes both Judas and Jesus and insists that it is time for relaxing and letting go. Her idea of calm and domesticity and even perhaps pleasure, she insists is as important as any delusions about “bigger” things. Taken in moderation I think this is a good message, besides it underlines what it is that women do. In the midst of big events they continue to relentlessly take care of the little events (sometimes instead of the big ones but just as commonly AS WELL AS the big ones).
So this was the gendered idea I was taking into my reading of John. I knew that in the gospel it is Mary of Bethany (not Magdalene) who performs this scene and I was really hoping that Jesus would be less attention-whore rockstar and more wise teacher in the original, but I smiled at least that in the musical the scene belongs to Mary and Judas and Jesus do their important man-argument thing but can’t shout her down.
What then is Mary doing in John? She often gets interpreted as a prostitute or comfort women or at best a girlfriend sort of character for Jesus. We are meant to be so sex positive these days that we uncritically accept this, we avoid being slut shamers by embracing the idea that women is equated with sexuality. Jesus is just telling them not to slut shame her. Well…in a way perhaps there is that in the story because the history of interpretation is part of what we have as church and as church and society we have again and again been told that a good woman is a wife or girlfriend and a bad woman is a prostitute. Either way a woman exists for the comfort of the real hero (man/Jesus).
But this is Mary of Bethany.
Mary who Martha tried to pull back into a traditional female role and Jesus said “let her go she is following her true vocation” (apostleship/priesthood). Can we read her in the simplest and most obvious way? Considering the powerful symbolism and mystery that the gospel of John weaves through every and all story, all building toward the sacrificial and Eucharistic climax of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection? Considering it is a week before Psalm Sunday. This is the curtain raiser for the sacramentally enormous happenings. Mary is using oil in the lead up to Palm Sunday. Mary anoints the one who is to be the sacrifice. Mary surely here is a priest!
She uses her hair to wipe his feet. Her long, womanly hair is part and parcel of her priesthood to Jesus. She is not an honorary man in her role she is called and consecrated AS A WOMAN to serve Jesus and minister to Jesus and minister for Jesus and perform the prophetic, liturgical action for all time in the moment and in the gospel that is written as sacred.
Everything that she is she brings to lay at the feet of Jesus so that she too is at the feet of the teacher. She is a priest and a prophet a faithful apostle and one who has sat at the feet, one who has learned the trade, one who can teach after the teacher passes on. If we see any sexual tension in the idea of scented oil and female hair, then we need to sit with the discomfort of that sexuality being a priest-thing. Because it cannot be doubted that there is priestly work happening here.
Judas’ criticism (in the song he says “people who are hungry…they matter more than you” the ultimate put-down. Even in the song he is only caring for the poor because Mary is worth even less than them. But in the gospel, there are more sinister motives attributed to Judas. He wants to control the funds so that he can embezzle them. This is partly to set him up as the villain of the story of course, but it also speaks into the tendency many Christians have to suddenly develop a social conscience when talking about how other people should spend their money and their time.
Jesus’ retort then “you will always have the poor with you” can then be interpreted NOT as claiming that he is more important than social justice, but as a refocus on RELATIONSHIP not isolated “good works” as the key to the kingdom. Judas has the purse strings, he could be distributing funds to the poor every day but he waits until now to be suddenly concerned. An act of disconnected generosity here or there will not change the world; nor will top down controls over how people behave with their money or time. Judas as the treasurer, as a man tries to control Mary who is only a woman. Jesus reminds Judas that Mary’s faith journey is her own, how she expresses it is also her own.
We will always have the poor with us because we have not-yet become one with the poor to challenge the systematic injustices (such as man over woman). We will always have the poor with us if I am more interested in telling you, the less powerful how much to give to charity than in having the courage to challenge those who are setting up systems of abuse and inequality…or interrogating my own privilege and my use of the resources I am steward over. I think the church all too often acts like a Judas in our preaching and in the sort of actions we enable or close off.
So this week’s reading for me, reifies a woman’s absolute knowledge that Jesus has called and consecrated her to ministry. It turns and interrogative eye back to those who would try to keep her “in her place” or distract her with minor “good works” while basking themselves in an unfair system. It tells us that liberation is going to happen from a place of respect and dialogue (in this way it reminds me of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed) not from a top down set of rules or decisions from above. This is a democratically arriving kingdom of God.
It speaks to me of the longing for an authentic, visionary and always political church. There are churches like that (The man who threatened Rome tells of one example but I think there are ones also closer to home). How tragic that often in those stories of hope the church, bishops and Vatican play the part of Judas and shut down authentic liturgical action.
If only all of us had courage to practice a priesthood like Mary’s. Could we trust that Jesus would stand up for us when we are attacked?