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Women are the vilest of creatures. To be a woman is to be deformed, a monstrosity. To be born a woman is a divine punishment. A woman is half man and half animal.

These words come from the ancient philosophers Aristotle, Aristophanes and Socrates.

Even 1st century religious leaders spoke ill of women: Bury the scriptures in the ground rather than instruct a woman. It is better to walk in front of a hungry lion than behind a woman.

Into this world entered Jesus.

On one occasion Jesus sat in a woman’s house doing what he often did. Education. Martha, the owner, went out of her way to take care of her guests, sorting out the dinner details in an act of service.

His sister, Mary, perhaps a younger sister, relaxed, sat down with big eyes and a wide heart and absorbed the lesson.

Jesus said that Mary chose better.

Some women are very troubled by this story. She is detail-oriented, service-minded, task-oriented, taking care of everything, even if it means doing all the work herself. It becomes a role she must and is expected to fulfill as a woman.

Mary, on the other hand, sat to listen as a student, a position of honor.

Martha was upset. Why?

Women at the time had a very low status.

Before Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, women were treated very badly. Women could not leave the house without being accompanied by a man. They could not interact with male guests in their own homes. It was common practice for husbands to have mistresses, as well as young boys for similar purposes. There were no educational opportunities for girls and women were not allowed to speak in public.

Women were not to be taught.

Girls had very little social value, often killed at birth, and were married off to much older men and were often simply sex slaves.

Women could not testify in court. They could easily divorce and be sold as slaves on a whim. In cases of adultery, the prevailing thought was that the woman should be punished, but the man could do whatever he wanted.

Then came Jesus.

Then Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen better. He allowed a woman to sit as a student – in a place of honor, a place to be served, not to serve, to be educated, accepted as a follower, a person to be trusted with wisdom and who should share that wisdom with others.

It was one of the many revolutionary things Jesus did.

Jesus allowed women to travel with him and work with him. He treated women with dignity and kindness.

Once he struck up a conversation at a popular well. It was scandalous, because the other was a woman. It was also outrageous because she was a Samaritan (outrageous in a very racist and bigoted society). And he showed her kindness and love, despite the scandal surrounding her sinful past. He chose her as the first person to whom he publicly revealed he was the messiah. Then he sent her as an ambassador.

And Jesus turned society upside down.

In Christianity, both men and women are created in the image of God and are of equal worth. With this revolutionary idea, women flocked to the early Christian church. Looking back, the Romans actually complained that Christianity was a religion for women. In Iran today, a great Christian movement is sweeping the country and is often led by women, by women who have nothing to lose.

Christianity has radically changed the lives of both sexes. Men were told to have a wife, to love and to give their life in the service of their wife. Male promiscuity was blocked. It was great for women. Ideal for families. Ideal for children. Ideal for society.

Women were elevated to a place of equality and given positions of leadership and respect.

What about Paul, the Jewish Pharisee, Roman citizen and persecutor of Christians? Did he respect women? Long after his dramatic conversion to Christianity, he wrote letters that were distributed and eventually became the majority of the New Testament. He mentioned how he appreciated certain women who collaborated with him as leaders and teachers.

(As for a controversial phrase about women keeping silence in churches, it needs a longer discussion. A few pages before this comment, Paul was encouraging women to speak out, so to understand this we need to look at the context , situation and textual problems).

Even to Martha, Jesus entrusted great spiritual truths. I think she got the message and was a devout follower of Jesus afterwards and was even present as one of those who first witnessed the empty tomb and went to spread the news of Christ resurrected.

Phil Cook can be contacted at [email protected]

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