As Jesus said this (having cast out a demon that was dumb), “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’. But he said: ‘Blessed rather are those that hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Lk11:27-28).
An indispensable premise: what follows is a text that is neither exegetic nor theological but rather meditational.
This meeting and the exchange of words between a woman and Jesus is an absolute novelty. Together with other texts, scattered here and there in the Gospels and which I shall endeavour to mention, it can open our eyes to what is the greatest and the first revolution led by Jesus, that is, the recognition of the dignity and human equality of women.
Jesus dropped from the Holy Scriptures of Israel only what had the power to exclude and nothing else. “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice”: with these extraordinary words of Hosea it is God himself who gives his people the key to interpret the whole of Scripture. And this is the interpretation which Jesus makes his own and so for us it is completely binding. Jesus does not recognize in his God any desire for exclusion: neither of the sick, nor of the blind, nor of public sinners, nor of women, nor of foreigners – and hence, pagans. The Gospel is indeed good news for poor men, and even more so for poor women.
It was a marvellous encounter. However, it seems that we have not yet got ears to hear it and to understand the freedom to which the Lord Jesus calls us, and that for us women disciples he is the true the liberator, as has always been the God of Israel, who enabled us to know his people, liberating them from the house of slavery. He is a God who always calls the oppressed to freedom. May he instruct us with words of liberty and of love! Because he knows that love is always a free decision.
A woman in the crowd, fascinated by Jesus’ authority, by his power over demons and by his wisdom, enthusiastically expresses her joy and her recognition of him in the only way taught to the imagination of a woman: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”, not succeeding in imagining any possible relationship of blessedness with that man of God other than the maternal relationship.
And Jesus proved himself extraordinary by saying to her: No! You have no need to be a mother, my mother, in order to be blessed. It is enough for you to listen to the word of God which I recount and which I live. Listening to the word of God and observing it, putting it into practice, living it: this is the blessedness of a woman. Just as it is for a man. For both men and women disciples, blessedness is the same: “Blessed rather are those that hear the word of God and keep it!”. No one except Jesus had ever said such a thing to a woman!
Already in the episode of the Visitation – that symbolic tale full of the echoes of Scripture and of evangelical anticipation – Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is declared blessed for having listened to and believed the Lord’s words, and not because she had become his mother. Mary’s motherhood is the fruit and the eloquence of her listening, brimming with faith, and of the Spirit of the Lord. But blessedness comes to her from the word listened to and believed totally: body and spirit and soul.
There is a very important text (Mk 3:34-35), which confirms and comments on this text of ours: it is the episode in which the mother of Jesus and his brothers go and see him while he is preaching, surrounded by both men and women disciples and by the crowd. Since they do not succeed in approaching him, they send word to him saying: “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you”. And Jesus, turning his gaze to those who surrounded him, answers: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother”. “Whoever does the will of God” (whereas in Luke it says “Blessed rather are those that hear the word of God and keep it!”), “is my brother, and sister and mother”. The primacy is given to listening to the word of the Lord, a place of blessedness and of a relationship with Jesus. Motherhood is a great eloquence, extraordinary and ordinary at the same time, of a woman disciple, not her first and only happiness, not her obligatory destiny.
Only Jesus says this. After him, it is very soon forgotten and we shall see that this was not the only thing to be forgotten. In the other New Testament writings there are unfortunately various such examples. Thus in 1 Timothy it says: “Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (2:15). And unfortunately many passages in the apostolic letters ask women believers what the mentality and the culture, religious and non-religious, across the known earth asks of them, namely submission and silence first of all, and not the subjectivity and freedom which Jesus acknowledged belonged to them.
It would suffice to reflect on the impression that Jesus still inspires today when, in the Gospel, he addresses his mother calling her “woman” and not “mother”: it seems a humiliating reduction! An underestimation excusable in Jesus! Yet for Jesus “woman” means far more: she is not a mother with nothing more to be said!
That the greatest Gospel beatitude is not only for men disciples but also for women disciples is an extraordinary innovation. Jesus brings women out of the taboos of religious – and not only religious – impurity which confine and exclude women. It is a true exodus for us. Jesus goes back to the creative will of God in accordance with the narrative of Genesis according to the narrative in Genesis 1 and not that of Genesis 2: that is, it dates back to the human equality of man and woman, and not to the account of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. This is exactly the opposite of 1 Tim 2:11-15, and of other New Testament texts. In fact Jesus was to quote the account of the creation of man and woman of Genesis 1 in Mark10:6-8, when he explained why what was considered perfectly normal by men and women, and also by the disciples, was instead an injustice. And the Gospel, in Matthew’s parallel account of the prohibition of divorce, has recorded the disciples’ dismay at this innovation of Jesus; astounded, they say to him: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry!”, taking for granted that it is natural and right that this should only suit men.
The episode of Martha and Mary in Luke10:38-42, also confirms this innovation made by Jesus. Here too, the most important thing, the good or better portion for a woman who was a friend of Jesus, lies in the primacy given to listening to his word. From the account, since we are not told of Mary’s vocation, it almost seems that here it is she who precedes Jesus, placing herself in the disciple’s traditional position, namely, seated at the Teacher’s feet. And that Jesus, seeing Mary in this position of listening and recognizing justice, immediately helps Martha, who instead is radically contradicted by this, to understand and to learn from her sister to give priority, she too, to listening to the word of the Lord. All the rest, welcoming and service, like the generous hospitality that Martha reserves for Jesus, must come from this but must never overpower it. Jesus sets us free from the priority of looking after the house and the family environment, stating forcefully and without ambiguity that Mary has the best portion. This account might almost be called Martha’s vocation.
This most valuable text of Luke11:27-28 should be compared with the other texts in which Jesus relativizes the family institution. As we have already seen in Mark 3:34-35, Jesus’ family, in his adult life, has no importance, authority or bonds for him. And Jesus does not even make himself a new family. He chooses for himself – that is, he recognizes as his vocation – a different way of life, quite unusual in his religious tradition. He chooses fraternal life in a community, an itinerant life with both men and women followers. He invents the community. Jesus is entirely removed from familiar practices, customs and ways of associating with people, as had formerly been John the Baptist, his friend and teacher, but with two immediately visible differences: Jesus did not preach in the desert but in inhabited places, in order to meet people in their ordinary life, and he did not choose to clothe himself in any special way.
In his living, speaking and encountering, Jesus relativizes the primacy of the family. For him the family is no longer the one obligatory institution for fidelity to God, the indispensable place for the transmission of the faith, of the land and of belonging to Israel, in other words of being the elect from generation to generation. For Jesus came to call precisely those who were barred from this transmission of salvation through the family and the Temple: starting with lepers, the blind, the sick, public sinners, foreigners and women in their many aspects. In this way he ensured that all those excluded from Israel and from the Temple because they were impure had access to God’s promise and word. Even the fact that, in Mark 10:19, Jesus puts the fourth Commandment – Honour your father and mother – last in the list of Commandments, contributes to indicating that Jesus restructured the primacy of the family. When Jesus says that there is one Father and that we are all brothers (and sisters), he is inventing the fraternal community and not an enlarged family.
And now only a word to say that after his death and Resurrection the innovation introduced by Jesus reaches its apex. In the Gospels, which do not tell of any vocation addressed to a woman by Jesus – but we know from the angel’s words to the women beside the empty tomb in Luke 24:6 that they had always been with Jesus and the Twelve since Galilee; we know too that they were all healed, unlike the disciples in Luke 8:2 – it is recounted instead that the Risen Jesus does one more extraordinary thing: he entrusts to a woman, Mary Magdalene, the Paschal announcement and the responsibility for transmitting it to the Eleven. She is the first witness and evangelist of the Resurrection, on whose credibility is founded, at the wish of the Risen Jesus, the announcement to the Eleven disciples. All the other women who had gone to the tomb also receive from the angel and from Jesus himself the task of proclaiming the Resurrection to the Eleven.
In the Gospel, the first apostles are women apostles!
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