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In Luke’s gospel we read of Jesus teaching his audience, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36 cf. Matthew 5:48)
We can split this saying into two parts. The first portion is obvious: the call to adopt “mercy” and apply it to the way we relate to each other. The second portion of the saying involves Jesus naming God as our “Father.” Let’s begin with this second part first.
Many have described Jesus as progressive for his era in his estimation of and relation to women. In a piece written a few years ago by a friend of mine, 7 Reasons Why Jesus Would Have Been a Proud Feminist, Eliel highlights some of the evidence for this. Yet Jesus still taught within the gender inequality of his culture.
In a presentation I gave in the summer of 2015, The Radically Inclusive Jesus, I argued that Jesus taught that women also bore the image of the Divine. In the Gospels, Jesus uses feminine images to represent God and God’s reign. (See Matthew 13:33; Luke 15:8; Luke 13:34; and Matthew 23:37.) Other writers also argue that including feminine images for God as Jesus did was perfectly in harmony with the Hebrew scriptures (see “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture).
Even with these steps toward egalitarianism, though, the Jesus story is not without incident when we speak of harm reduction for women. Marcella Althaus Reid (Indecent Theology) is just one theologian who has pointed out the problems created for women because both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives begin with a virgin birth. Matthew also centers male perspectives and voices in sections of his gospel, including the Sermon on the Mount. Delores Williams (Sisters in the Wilderness), Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse), and Rita Nakashima Brock (Journeys of the Heart) all critique traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death in the gospels and how substitutionary and redemptive interpretations of Jesus’ death have contributed to the abuse of women. Our saying in Luke and Matthew presents another challenge to the treatment of women within Christianity, and that challenge is Jesus’ gendered term for God, “Father.”
Karen Armstrong makes a helpful statement in her book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions about the patriarchy of Axial Age cultures like Judaism:
“The Axial Age was not perfect. A major failing was its indifference to women. These spiritualities nearly all developed in an urban environment, dominated by military power and aggressive commercial activity, where women tended to lose the status they had enjoyed in a more rural economy. There are no female Axial sages, and even when women were allowed to take an active role in the new faith, they were usually sidelined. It was not that the Axial sages hated women; most of the time, they simply did not notice them. When they spoke about the “great” or “enlightened man,” they did not mean “men and women”—though most, if challenged, would probably have admitted that women were capable of this liberation too . . . It is not as though the Axial sages were out-and-out misogynists, like some of the fathers of the church, for example. They were men of their time, and so preoccupied with the aggressive behavior of their own sex that they rarely gave women a second thought. We cannot follow the Axial reformers slavishly; indeed, to do so would fundamentally violate the spirit of the Axial Age, which insisted that this kind of conformity trapped people in an inferior and immature version of themselves. What we can do is extend the Axial ideal of universal concern to everybody, including the female sex. When we try to re-create the Axial vision, we must bring the best insights of modernity to the table.” (p. xxii)
I agree with Karen here. In the New Testament we witness a push and pull in the stories of women for liberation from male-dominated oppression in the early churches. That these stories survived means that at least some women in the early church felt Jesus’ teachings set them on a trajectory of egalitarianism. One book that made a strong case for the beginnings of equality for women in the Jesus story is Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee. (Unfortunately this book assumes firm gender binaries.) Elaine Pagels also acknowledges this struggle in her book The Gnostic Gospels. She writes that one of the differences between those who won and those who lost the power struggle for control in the church of the second and third centuries was their difference of opinion on whether women and men were equal.
So again, I agree with Karen’s statement above. The trajectory of the Jesus story can inspire us to bring to our reading of the gospels the “best insights of modernity.” As we discuss in Jesus, Judaism, and Anti-Semitism, Rabbinical Judaism, in the first century, eventually embraced recognizing every person as bearing the image of God, regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. That same trajectory eventually allowed people to recognize the image of God in women as well as men, too. We see this trajectory acknowledged in the writings of the controversial New Testament Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) James V. Brownson (Bible, Gender and Sexuality) pointedly states that within the New Testament there are two streams. One is egalitarianism and the other patriarchy. The question we have to answer for ourselves is whether we perceive Jesus as pointing the way from the stream of egalitarianism toward patriarchy or from patriarchy toward egalitarianism.
So today, as we recognize the equality of “male” and “female,” as well as those who identify as neither, it is just as appropriate to speak of God as a parent, to refer to God as both mother and father, or “Mother-Father” God. We could just as accurately say, “Be full of mercy, just as your Mother-Father God is full of mercy.”
In Matthew’s version of our saying (Matthew 5:48), Jesus makes reference to a God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all indiscriminately and Jesus calls us to imitate this.
The word for “mercy” in Luke is oiktirmones. Oiktirmones can be translated as compassion, pity, or mercy, and each of these translations has subtle differences, so let’s discuss each of them.
Compassion is sympathy for those who are suffering and a desire to alleviate their suffering and work toward their liberation. Pity can imply a feeling of superiority; whereas mercy is compassion shown toward someone who deserves punishment or harm. I prefer an ethic of compassionate action alongside those who are enduring injustice. The teachings and example of Jesus do affirm this kind of active compassion. Pity contains the temptation to believe that we are superior and disconnected from others. But our goal is interconnectedness, not superiority. All humanity is connected, and Jesus sets the radical transformation through our connectedness as the goal we should strive for.
Deep human desire is not to merely survive, but to thrive. Compassionate action will get us closer to liberation than superiority and pity ever will. Compassionate action in the form of mercy can lift us above mere pity to work toward the transformation of our society.
Matthew uses the term teleios usually translated as “perfect.” Teleios is the Greek word from which we get our modern word telos. A telos is an ultimate goal or aim. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains that he had come not to abolish the Torah but to bring it to completeness (pleroo). He is in agreement with Hillel in seeing the Torah as the beginning of a trajectory that is not complete until it ends in love, compassion, and safety for all. We follow Jesus by relating to those around us through the lens of a compassion we would want to receive. For Jesus, the reign of God is people taking care of people. And that was the aim that the Torah pointed to.
In this, we come back to our original points. The Jesus story is part of that Jewish trajectory that ends with no one dominates or subjugates another. We have a world where we learn to serve one another rather than create more efficient means of controlling others. In that world, we choose the way of compassion for everyone, a compassion as indiscriminate as the shining sun and falling rain. We choose the path of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate home for us all.
“Be full of compassionate action, just as your Divine Mother-Father is also full of compassionate action.” (Personal Paraphrase)