When Jesus walked the streets of Palestine he set an example, a standard of behavior we are taught to follow. At that same time, and even today, the women of the Holy Land were oppressed. Women were forbidden to read scriptures, to pray, or to worship in the same court as men. In fact men used prayer to express gratitude and relief to God that they themselves were not created as a woman. Speaking to a woman in public, even if she were one’s wife or daughter, was viewed as improper and dirty. Understanding this cultural context sheds light on the behaviors of our Savior when he frequently crossed the lines of propriety and spoke with women, taught women, prayed with and for women, and even revealed himself as the Messiah and Savior of the world to women!
Leonard Swidler, a professor of Catholic Theology, wrote an article entitled “Jesus was a Feminist” (http://www.godswordtowomen.org/feminist.htm). He begins his thesis with a definition of feminism that I find accurate and enlightening: “By a feminist is meant a person who is in favor of, and who promotes, the equality of women with men, a person who advocates and practices treating women primarily as human persons (as men are so treated) and willingly contravenes social customs in so acting.” Using events recorded in the gospels, and a history of Palestine as a nation (and thus its treatment of women) Swidler eloquently describes the brave feminist acts Christ demonstrated even in the presence of the Pharisees and Sadducees who perpetuated women’s suppression. Swidler analyzes women as disciples, commanded by Jesus to teach the gospel to others; women and resurrection (raising of Jairus’ daughter, raising the only son of the widow of Nain, and raising of Lazarus’ at the request of his sisters Martha and Mary); and women as humans, not sex objects, when he rebuked the accusers of the woman caught in adultery. All these events sincerely displayed Christ’s disapproval of gender inequalities, but what perhaps moves me the most was how Jesus’ healed the woman who had an issue of blood.
Cross-culture taboos continue today regarding menstruation as a curse of uncleanliness. Palestinian taboos surrounding menstruation demonstrated this belief. This woman had bled for twelve years, spent all her money doctors who could not heal her, and was seen by all her community and constantly ritually unclean. As multitudes surrounded Christ she, knowing of the negative beliefs all held about her bleeding, sought to discretely touch the robe of Jesus with faith in His healing. Her faith was remarkable and she was healed. But then Christ responded in such a way that defied ritual norms: He asked for the woman directly and in the midst of the multitude spoke “thy faith hath make thee whole; go in peace and be whole of thy plague.” Jesus addressed and healed a woman, a woman in public, a woman with an “unclean” disease.
Although this story is one I know quite well, hearing it in historic context illustrated to me how much the Savior exemplified equality between men and women. I believe in equality, I believe in Christ, and I now feel confident in declaring, “I am a feminist,” and am following Christ’s example.