Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

DISCIPLES, COMPANIONS, WITNESSES: Women in the gospels

One of the main arguments used to oppose women’s ordination is that Jesus only called men to be his disciples and he only commissioned male apostles. Surely Jesus would have included women in their ranks if he had wanted women to become pastors in the church.

To this it must be said that the twelve disciples do not represent the clergy in embryo and hence God’s design for a male clergy. They are first and foremost the new people of God, as the twelve tribes of Israel were God’s people of old. The call and commission of the disciples is the call and commission of the church, not the clergy. Secondly, not one word from Jesus’ lips could be read as excluding women from the public office or as a call to submit to male clergy. And thirdly, Jesus and the evangelists who record his ministry take great pains to portray an array of women disciples in a vastly more positive light than the twelve men, in what can be read only as a deliberate attempt to counteract the privileging of males at the time of Jesus. Their discipleship is practised at his direction, their exercise of apostleship at his behest, and their servanthood in imitation of their Lord.

Overview
It is generally acknowledged that Jesus accords women high regard during his earthly ministry. He shows inordinate compassion in the face of marginalisation and judgmentalism (eg Luke 7:36-50Luke 7:36-50
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36 One of the Pharisees invited him to eat with him. He entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at the table. 37 Behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that he was reclining in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 Standing behind at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” He said, “Teacher, say on.” 41 “A certain lender had two debtors. The one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?” 43 Simon answered, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.” He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” 48 He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Those who sat at the table with him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

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; John 8:1-11John 8:1-11
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8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the midst, 4 they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” 6 They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of. But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground. 9 They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. 10 Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”

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). Women are privileged to hear the most profound revelations of Jesus’ person and work. No man is present when the woman at the well hears Jesus say he is the source of the water of eternal life (John 4:13,14John 4:13,14
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13 Jesus answered her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

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), or that he is the Messiah, in fact God incarnate (4:25,26). Martha is alone when Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection and the life (11:25). And these women respond to what they hear. Martha makes a triple confession of Jesus, as ‘the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’ (11:27). Unlike Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (Mark 8:29Mark 8:29
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29 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

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) and Son of the living God (Matt 16:16Matt 16:16
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16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

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), Martha’s more complete confession requires no correction and no addition. From her lips comes the profound acknowledgment that God has entered this world’s history by becoming a human being in the person of Jesus, the confession that calls into question the docetism of John’s audience. John’s gospel shows no male disciple leading people to faith in Jesus through their witness to the word of life, as Jesus prays his disciples would do (John 17:20,21John 17:20,21
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20 Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me.

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); but the testimony of the Samaritan woman leads a large number of Sychar villagers to Christian faith (4:28-30,39). The annunciation (Luke 1:26-38Luke 1:26-38
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26 Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 Having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” 29 But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus.’ 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. 36 Behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For everything spoken by God is possible.” 38 Mary said, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word.” The angel departed from her.

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) could well be understood as a call narrative, the call of Mary to bear God’s Son for the world, and to name him Jesus so the world may acknowledge him as saviour (Luke 1:31Luke 1:31
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31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus.’

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). Nobody has ever been called to a more exalted office, nobody has ever borne Jesus’ body and blood more intimately, nobody has named him more decisively.

With the exception of the beloved disciple (John 19:26John 19:26
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26 Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!”

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), women were the only followers of Jesus who accompanied him through the agony of the crucifixion (John 19:25John 19:25
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25 But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

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; Matt 27:55Matt 27:55
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55 Many women were there watching from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, serving him.

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; Mark 15:40Mark 15:40
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40 There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;

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), and then lovingly attended his burial (Matt 27:61Matt 27:61
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61 Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb.

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; Mark 15:47Mark 15:47
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47 Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, saw where he was laid.

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). The risen Jesus appeared first to Mary of Magdala, and then commissioned her to bring the news of the resurrection to the other disciples (John 20:11-18John 20:11-18
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11 But Mary was standing outside at the tomb weeping. So, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb, 12 and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13 They told her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, and didn’t know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rhabbouni!” which is to say, “Teacher!” 17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t touch me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers, and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had said these things to her.

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; see also Matt 28:7Matt 28:7
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7 Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead, and behold, he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”

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; Luke 24:10Luke 24:10
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10 Now they were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them told these things to the apostles.

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). Junia may have been prominent among the apostles (Rom 16:7Rom 16:7
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7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives and my fellow prisoners, who are notable among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

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), but from the outset Mary of Magdala has been known as the apostle of the apostles. She is usually the first one named in lists of Jesus’ female followers (eg Mark 15:40Mark 15:40
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40 There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;

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; 16:1); she is the first lamb named by the risen Lord Jesus and counted as a member of his flock (John 20:16John 20:16
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16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rhabbouni!” which is to say, “Teacher!”

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). No elaboration is required of the numerous gospel stories where women are held up as examples of faith and fervent prayer, hope and sacrificial love. Let two accounts suffice, however, of attempts to degrade gospel women in the church’s history. Typically Mary of Magdalene has been called a prostitute and the Samaritan woman a person of dubious morality, despite there being not one shred of evidence in support. And to this day bibles title the story at John 8:1-11John 8:1-11
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8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the midst, 4 they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” 6 They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of. But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground. 9 They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest, even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle. 10 Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”

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, the woman caught in adultery, when it is a story of scribes, Pharisees and elders caught in their hypocrisy.

Reservations
Honoured, exemplary, privileged, called to fill vital roles in Jesus’ ministry, so the women of the gospels; but the church has never felt comfortable. At Sychar the disciples ‘were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ (John 4:27John 4:27
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27 At this, his disciples came. They marveled that he was speaking with a woman; yet no one said, “What are you looking for?” or, “Why do you speak with her?”

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). Embarrassed silence accompanies Jesus’ engagement with women. Alternatively, their testimony is dismissed as inauthentic; their right to preach the gospel is abrogated. ‘These words seemed to [the male disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe them’ (Luke 24:11Luke 24:11
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11 These words seemed to them to be nonsense, and they didn’t believe them.

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). As then, so today, it is hard to handle Jesus’ handling of women; and we quickly grasp at Paul’s reference to a command of the Lord supposedly forbidding their public speaking (1 Cor 14:371 Cor 14:37
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37 If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord.

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).

Discipleship in Mark
Each facet of Jesus’ relationship with women mentioned above provides basis for an extended demonstration that Jesus could not and would not exclude women from the public ministry as we practise it today. But here I shall look at one aspect only of one gospel only, discipleship in Mark. To be a disciple, according to Mark, is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus all the way to the cross, footsteps marked by self-denial and giving one’s life (8:34-38). On the way the true follower will be made into a fisher for people (1:17). This can be done only as one fully understands Jesus’ person and work: messianic king, suffering servant, giving his life as a ransom for many (1:11; 10:45). In the gospel according to Mark, only women get discipleship right.

Male disciples
Those called to follow are twelve men (3:13-19). They make poor followers. They constantly misunderstand his parables (4:13), and their eyes fail to see, their ears to hear, and their hearts to understand the miraculous feedings (8:14-21). Finally Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah (8:29), but together with James and John and the others he thinks only of a victorious king who will confer on his followers positions of power and prominence (8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-45).

King yes, suffering servant no. Theology of glory yes, theology of the cross no. Bartimaeus is given his sight and follows Jesus on the way (10:52), but the disciples lack what it takes to endure to the end (13:13). One betrays him (14:10,11,43-46). Another denies him (14:26-31; 14:66-72). They sleep and sleep again instead of staying awake and watching with him during his anguish in the garden of Gethsemane (14:32-42). And after Jesus’ arrest the disciples with one accord desert him and flee (14:50), rather than following him to the cross during his dread night of greatest need.

Female disciples
One could be forgiven for thinking that Mark does not think of the twelve with pride. Who then does measure up to Jesus’ high standards, if his true ambassadors are to serve in imitation of their Lord? A typical Markan device is to tell two matching stories separated by significant material, or to separate the beginning and the end of a story by means of additional narrative that helps interpret the story. A central feature of Mark’s passion narrative is Jesus’ eschatological discourse in chapter 13, where he describes the signs of his coming and speaks of the hardships to be endured by his followers before his return in glory. Among other things Jesus says that ‘the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations’ (13:10) and ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (13:13). These are key words, key expressions. The discourse is bracketed by stories of two women, the poor widow who spends everything she has when she makes her offering at the temple (12:41-44) and the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (14:3-9). Numerous parallels indicate that the stories are paired, such as the references to poverty and abundance, extravagant giving, and the bewilderment and criticism of the onlookers.

More significantly, however, both stories connect intimately with Jesus’ descriptions of true discipleship. The poor widow spends her whole livelihood (12:44); she gives her life, which is precisely what Jesus calls his disciples to do (8:35) in imitation of himself (10:45). Here is the self-sacrificing commitment of discipleship.

What about the understanding of Jesus’ person and work? That is reflected in the anointing at Bethany. The woman acts as an Old Testament prophet, anointing the designated king upon the head before his enthronement (eg 1 Sam 10:1; 16:131 Sam 10:1; 16:13
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10 1 Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it on his head, and kissed him, and said, Isn’t it that Yahweh has anointed you to be prince over his inheritance? 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers: and the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.

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). But she goes beyond the crown and also looks to the cross. Unlike Peter she understands Jesus’ messianic authority also in terms of suffering and death. The broken jar is a symbol of death (Eccl 12:6Eccl 12:6
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6 Before the silver cord is severed, Or the golden bowl is broken, Or the pitcher is broken at the spring, Or the wheel broken at the cistern,

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; Jer 13:12-14Jer 13:12-14
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12 Therefore you shall speak to them this word: Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, Every bottle shall be filled with wine: and they shall tell you, Do we not certainly know that every bottle shall be filled with wine? 13 Then shall you tell them, Thus says Yahweh, Behold, I will fill all the inhabitants of this land, even the kings who sit on David’s throne, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with drunkenness. 14 I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, says Yahweh: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have compassion, that I should not destroy them.

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). Bodies were anointed for burial. And Jesus himself tells the woman’s male critics that the woman ‘has anointed my body beforehand for its burial’ (14:8). The disciples, who were called to lose their lives in service (8:35), sharply criticise the woman for the wastage (literally: the loss) of the ointment (14:4). She has spent everything she has for Jesus. The irony is not to be overlooked. The woman has done what the disciples are called to do, and they criticise her for doing so. The woman’s understanding of Jesus’ person and work is perfect, embracing as it does both crown and cross; and her commitment to him is complete. Here we have discipleship that takes the disciple all the way to the foot of the cross. Under the cross stand the women who replace the men as Jesus’ disciples, an inner three consisting of Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Salome, and many other women in addition (15:40,41). Mark carefully notes that they followed him all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, not forsaking him before the end like the men.

Female servants

In serving him, the women serve as Jesus served (Mark 10:45; 1:31; 15:41Mark 10:45; 1:31; 15:41
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45 For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 31 He came and took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them. 41 who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and served him; and many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

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). Not once is the reader told that the twelve disciples served. But a specific connection is made between Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, the eucharist, and the table service rendered by the women. Christ’s service offered on the cross is reflected in the table service rendered by the women, where bread is offered, and the table service of the eucharist, where the bread of life is offered. It is no accident that women alone are described as serving. Mark has depicted them as true ‘servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries’ (1 Cor 4:11 Cor 4:1
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4 1 So let a man think of us as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries.

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). They alone are shown doing what disciples are called by Christ to do (15:41).

Female witnesses
The final dimension of discipleship according to Mark is proclamation of the good news of Jesus to all the nations (13:10). Proclamation consists of clear and living evidence that Jesus’ followers are willing to give themselves in total self-sacrifice; this lived proclamation results in the acclamation of Jesus as Son of God and messianic king. In the discourse about final things Jesus speaks in rapid succession of proclaiming the gospel to all the nations (13:10) and enduring to the end (13:13). Before and after the discourse the reader is shown two women who are willing to give their all, to spend their life, and to endure to the end. The manner in which discipleship is manifest is the most important ingredient in gospel proclamation, according to Mark. Good news, proclamation, and the whole wide world are then brought together delightfully in the final verse of the story of the woman at Bethany. ‘Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her’ (14:9). Just as their life of costly service is the women’s greatest sermon, the death of Jesus is also his greatest witness to the good news. One representative of the nations of the world, the centurion at the foot of the cross, acclaims Jesus as Son of God simply because the way that Jesus dies prompts him to do so (15:39).

Lest we think of the women exclusively as silent witnesses, however, Mark tells us that after the women have seen Jesus on the cross and have seen the tomb where his body is laid, they also see in the tomb a young man clothed in white who tells them to proclaim to the disciples the resurrection of Jesus who will be seen in Galilee (15:40,47; 16:4,5,7). They are commissioned witnesses of the resurrection. Their voice is to be heard, now as much as then.

A final word
Then again, lest we think of women too highly, at the expense of men, Mark ends his gospel with delightful irony: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (16:8). Balance is restored. Women are no less fallible than men, but also no less called to serve at table and to proclaim the good news by self-denying discipleship and public proclamation.

Peter Lockwood

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