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September 18, 2013

Towards healing and repenting of the historic patriarchy of the Christian faith

by Admin

Miranda N. Pillay, senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, offers a re-reading of Luke 4:39-9:51 and through an exploration of the silent narratives in the text offers a response to the call to  call “to repent of the historic patriarchy of our faith”.


How do we repent of the “historic patriarchy of our faith” – a history that, in many ways, has been shaped and sustained by texts from the Christian Bible?  There is no argument that any attempt to interpret New Testament texts requires confronting the reality that New Testament texts are foreign to present-day literature, society, economics, politics and culture (cf. Robbins, 1992:xxi; Gowler, 1994:2-3; Mouton 2002:178).  New Testament texts reflect the varied contexts in which they were written centuries ago and thus demand responsible hermeneutical engagement (Mouton 2007:44-47).  The author of Luke’s gospel for example, states that the gospel is written to give readers “certainty” about the things they had been instructed in (Lk 1:4), but it is difficult for modern readers to know exactly what these “things” were.  One could argue that, on the one hand, the many ways in which the Gospel of Luke had been used by the Christian church throughout history are indicative rather of the uncertainty of what it was that Luke communicated to those first Christians in the Mediterranean world.  However, on the other hand, an overview of historical paradigms in Lukan research reveals a common thread – that the various interpretations of Luke had been responses to the contemporary societal needs of particular communities, in particular periods of time (see Pillay 2008a:86-92). Moreover, it reflects the multi-vocal nature of Lukan discourse and thus responds to the question, “What are the reasons/motives for interpreting biblical texts in a particular way in a particular time?”

Whether the reasons for interpretation were to counteract heretics within the early church or critics outside the early church, to prove that Christianity was a true religion by showing that it complied with the notion of “reason” as truth during the enlightenment, or to prove the authenticity of one gospel over another, it appears that for the Bible to have remained relevant throughout the ages, it had to address what was relevant at that time.  The way the Bible had been used in South Africa’s history – first to legitimise and sustain apartheid ideology and then again to challenge it – serves as a more recent example.  This “ambiguous presence” (cf. West 2005:5) of the Bible has been the reality of many Christian communities throughout the ages and served both to legitimise and challenge societal issues relating to racism, classism and sexism.  It also appears that the “methodological impulses” during particular times in history were determined by how texts were interpreted in a particular socio-historical context (Pillay 2008a:86-92).  Thus, for the Bible to remain relevant and meaningful for Christians, it has to address their real life experiences.

These observations raise two questions, viz., What particular social issue poses the most pressing challenge to the Christian church as a community of faith today? Secondly, given that the Bible is a primary resource for the church to shape and sharpen its response to societal challenges, what theoretical framework will best serve exploring appropriate responses to such a challenge?  I will now explore these two questions.

Skewed Gender-Power Relations:

An urgent challenge to the Christian Church

Gender-power relations impact all spheres of social life.  This includes the spheres of politics, economics, health, culture and religion.  It has long been recognised that sexism and patriarchy perpetuate and sustain skewed gender-power relations in these spheres of social life, and have impacted negatively on how women and men see themselves in relation to the other.  Bell Hooks sums it up well when she argues that,

When women first organized in groups to talk together about the issue of sexism and male domination, they were clear that females were socialized to believe sexist thinking and values as males, the difference being simply that males benefited from sexism more than females and were as a consequence less likely to surrender patriarchal privilege. (Hooks 2000:7)

Patriarchal privilege is what perpetuates and sustains skewed gender relations in society and the church.  Over the centuries, the church has used the Bible as a primary resource for justifying patriarchal privilege, which upholds male domination and female subjugation in marriage relationships, family relationship and church organizations.  This practice has also shaped gender roles in broader society by limiting (or denying) women access to education and employment.  Recent scholarship has emphasised the fact that gender intersects all social justice issues – locally and globally – which makes gender-power relations one of the most urgent challenges for society and the church in the 21st century.  This is particularly true in the contexts of poverty, domestic violence, human trafficking, rape, sexual harassment, and HIV/AIDS.

Some churches have recognised that exploring ways of responding to these societal issues necessitates addressing the issue of gender-power relations.  For example, a report on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s 31st Provincial Synod (Daily News, 7 July 2005:2) stated that then Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Ndungane, in his charge to Synod said:

We must repent of the historic patriarchy of our faith which so often colludes with discriminatory attitudes in our cultures.  We must expose and oppose gender violence and all forms of inequality in our midst. We must build girls’ and women’s self esteem, assertiveness and     interpersonal and leadership skills.  We must declare and demonstrate the dignity, respect and honour of all, regardless of gender.

In response to this call the Anglican Church of Southern Africa had four years later (2009) put institutional structures in place by establishing a Provincial Gender Desk Ministry.  But how do we “repent of the historic patriarchy of our faith”?  While the institutional church has made a move in the right direction, namely to put in place organisational structures (such as a Gender Desk), the organisational structure itself will not do it!  I want to suggest that the Church has no choice but to turn to the Bible, which is the very basis of the historic patriarchy of the Christian faith.

This brings me to the second question raised earlier: The question of how to respond to the Bible’s patriarchal language and to the traditions that called it sacred alongside the emergence of feminist consciousness amongst biblical scholars, both women and men.

Feminist Theology: 

An interpretive framework for gender justice

As mentioned earlier, methods of interpretation are chosen (or developed in situ) in order to answer the questions which emerge from within the community of the interpreters, or the social context of the interpreter in response to contemporary societal needs.  Thus, the “ideological texture” of both text and interpreter has a pivotal impact on the reading (and interpretive) process (see Robbins 1996; cf Pillay 2008a).  Letty Russell reminds us that “every time we come to see our world in a new way and struggle to change it, we bring new questions and insights to our interpretation.”

Many feminist biblical scholars have, for some time now, come to see the need to challenge the historic patriarchy of our faith which is rooted in Scripture.  A number of feminists have experienced the Bible as a major contributor to the oppression and subjugation of women throughout the ages.  This has resulted in some women leaving the (Christian) church in the belief that the Bible and Christian traditions are irredeemably patriarchal.  McKay (1996:59) believes that women in biblical texts are suppressed by various literary devices in a context of patriarchy.  However, despite the very real problems that the Bible presents to many women in general and feminist biblicalbiblical scholars in particular, some continue to find the Bible to be a source of life and liberation (Lancaster, 2002:11).  Others suggest that it is our (Christian) responsibility to search for ways of reading the Bible that are transformative and liberative (see for example, Mouton 2007: 44-47; Ackermann 2007:200-219; Pillay 2005:448-452; Nadar 2004: 63-67; Pui-lan 1995:96-98; Claassens 2009:200-201).  The point of departure for reformist Christian feminists lies at this intersection – between the life-affirming and life-degrading power the Bible has for women (Lancaster 2002:1).

There is no univocal feminist theology.  There was a time when those who called themselves ‘feminist’ sought to speak for all women, but it soon became apparent that how, why, and what women experience in their struggles for gender equality is considerably and markedly influenced by race, class, culture in general and the question of access to resources (in areas of economic, education, politics, etc.) in particular.  For example, womanist, mujerista and African-woman theologies all have different accents in the struggle for the recognition of full humanity and human dignity of women compared to their white western sisters.

As Renate Cochrane so eloquently states, “While their western sisters enjoy the luxury of indulging in academic research, African women respond from the onerous experience of their triple oppression” (1991:25).  Despite these different accents, the use of women’s experience within the broad context of feminist theology interrupts as a critical force to expose classical theology, including its codified traditions, as based on male experience.  Moreover, the appeal to diverse women’s experiences continues to contribute to the shaping of feminist critical consciousness.  One side of this consciousness is the awareness of oppression in society at large and of women in particular.  The other side is that “women and men are fully human and fully equal” (Lancaster 2002:16).

Feminist theology not only involves deconstructing patriarchal values in a text, but of necessity demands a reconstructing of the narrative from the perspectives of women.  If the text is chosen, shaped, translated and transmitted through androcentric lenses, the task of the feminist theologian or biblical scholar cannot just be to expose how the text is patriarchal, but to re-imagine what it might mean to tell the story from a depatriarchalising point of view.  This, says African-woman feminist theologian, Musimbi Kanyoro (2002:35) would mean that, “We must stretch our theological imaginations, our reading of Holy Scripture”.  This is the point of departure for the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians:

In their theological reflections, women of the Circle proceed from the narrating of the story to analyzing it to show how the various actors in the story see themselves, how they interact with others, and how they view their own agency in life as a whole.

Generally, the efforts of African-women theologians challenge the traditional male, individualistic, hierarchical and often competitive approach to biblical interpretation. The interpretive efforts of African-women theologians have the distinctive characteristic of inclusiveness, calling for the recognition of the full humanity of both women and men (Ackermann 2001:105).  This notion of inclusivity acknowledges that both men and women must (re)read and (re)discover the liberative potential of biblical texts for all people.  Teresa Okure (1993:77) states that African women’s approach to biblical interpretation “describes the efforts of women and men to interpret the scriptures as they relate to women, in a common search for new inclusive meanings.”

In the search for new meanings, Ruether reminds us that:

We do not do so in a cultural and historical vacuum.  We may recall the dominant memories of our ancestors and also uncover repressed ones, the ones that came from women and marginalised men.  But we must also reconstruct meaning for ourselves today, not only in intellectual systems but in the sparking of primal stories that spring up from our own experience, drawing upon a storehouse of cultural symbols and images (1993:xiv).

I also understand Ruether to be saying that by analysing the patterns of gender construction which serve to ratify patriarchy in the dominant tradition, and by constructing alternative patterns that might be transformative and healing, creative (re)reading is more than just an “exercise”.  Thus, creative (re)reading could serve as a particular “methodological impulse” in the absence of an established methodological model for creative (re)reading of biblical texts (cf. West 2005:4).

While some biblical scholars might be of the opinion that creative (re)readings of biblical texts are (historically and literarily) unfounded, I want to argue that it is the creativity which the reader brings to the text that makes the Bible (as revelation) continually relevant.  This, says Lancaster (2002:36), is because the text continually allows readers to “fill in the gaps about characters’ backgrounds and unrecorded actions”.  Thus, the meaning that the readers make extends beyond the text itself into the readers’ lives, as they try to live in accordance with what they take the text to say.  Lancaster (2002:37) notes the important theological meaning in this literary approach to the Bible when she says that, “It encourages us to think about God as working with all, as persuading rather than forcing understanding, and as influencing our lives far beyond the act of reading itself”.  It is with this in mind that I will offer a creative (re)reading of a Lukan text, filling in the gaps about characters’ backgrounds and unrecorded experiences and actions.  But before doing so it seems appropriate to first give a brief overview of what I observe Luke to be saying about women, and also then to note what some other scholars have to say about the women in Luke’s gospel.

Luke on the Women in Jesus’ Life

Right at the beginning Luke tells of Elizabeth, who was shamed into silence by a society that sanctioned motherhood as the primary source of honour for her.

Luke however, gives Elizabeth a public voice through the “shame” of her husband, Zechariah’s disbelief.  Then Luke “moves” Elizabeth into the public sphere by silencing the priest and father of their child – whom she gets to name (Lk. 1:59).  A practice which, according to Botha (2000:65), was unheard of since it was the duty of the father to name a boy child.  Thus, the family and neighbours wanted to know from Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah “what he would like to name the child” (Lk1:62).  The husband’s voice returns only after he acknowledges publicly that he is in agreement with his wife’s decision (Lk1:63-64).

Again, unlike Matthew for whom the male figure (of consent) in Joseph takes centre stage during the visit of “an angel of the Lord” (Matt. 1:20), Luke has the angel visit Mary – not only as a (unwed) woman who has to deal with pregnancy and birth, but also as a woman who consents to the event (Lk. 1:38).  The young, pregnant Mary ignores the social conventions of her time and travels alone to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in “a Judean town in the hill country” (Lk. 1:39). And it is Elizabeth, who like her husband, was also of a descendent, who pronounces a blessing on Mary (Lk 1:42).

Then there’s Mary Magdalene and Joanna, Susanna and many other women who followed Jesus (Lk. 8:2-3). In Luke (10:38-42) we read about Martha and her sister Mary who joined the other disciples in learning from Jesus – in a culture that did not permit women to study with men.  Luke also mentions women whom he does not name:  Simon’s mother-in-law (Lk. 4:38-39); the widow of Nain (Lk. 7:11-17); the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (Lk.7:36-50); a woman whose bleeding stopped after twelve years of suffering physically and socially (Lk. 8:44).  She, who is considered to be “unclean”, dared to touch Jesus (Lk. 8:47), who calls her ‘daughter’ (Lk. 8:48); the daughter of Jairus is raised in a culture that valued boy children more (Lk. 8:54); the crippled woman whom Jesus healed on a Sabbath, much to the dismay of the synagogue ruler (Lk. 13:10-17); the significant contribution of the poor widow valued (Lk. 21:1-4); the parable of a woman who invites neighbours to celebrate her finding the lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10);  the persistent widow who moves the unjust judge to action (Lk. 18:1-5).  Luke acknowledges the presence of women among those who mourn for Jesus on His way to the cross (Lk. 23:27).  Luke chooses women to bear witness to Jesus’ dead body (Lk. 23:55) and also to witness the empty tomb (Lk. 24:1-3).  The women who told the “eleven and to all the rest” are named (Lk. 24:9-10).  Luke shows how the apostles (eleven men?) doubt the women (Lk. 24:11).

Luke: Friendly or Hostile to Women?

While many scholars have noted Luke’s affinity for parallel references to men and women (Powell, 1989:94; Schaberg, 1992:278; Seim, 1994) there are different views regarding the theme “Women in the Gospel of Luke.”  Over the last three decades or so there has been a shift toward a more critical view of the role of women in Luke. Back in 1984 Jacob Jervell argued against the notion that Luke was a friend of women.  Instead, Jervell says Luke was merely interested in women as faithful “daughters of Abraham”.  He refers to Luke’s interest in women as ‘Jewesses’, representative of the revitalised people of Israel gathered by Jesus.  Turid Seim (1994) disagrees with Jervell, stating that “it is a preposterous simplification to ask whether Luke’s writings are friendly or hostile towards women.”  The writings, argues Seim, “cannot be reduced either to a feminist treasure chamber or to a chamber of horrors for women’s theology.”  While detecting a strong element of male priority in the areas of proclamation and leadership in Luke’s work, Seim is also adamant that women possess some kind of positive, independent status (1994:249).  Cochrane (1991: 26-27) also observes the possibility of either siding with Luke as being friendly or hostile to women when, on the one hand, she points out that discipleship takes priority over motherhood in Luke 11:27-28 while, on the other hand, Luke differentiates between “the women” accompanying Jesus and his twelve disciples.

In the same vein Spencer (2004:144) notes that, while women in Luke-Acts have the right and ability to speak and rule within the believing community, men will not hear or follow them.  This, some might argue, is a fact of social life that Luke may lament on some level, but which he “is not eager to change”, says Spencer (2004:144).  However, he argues that such a “hyper-suspicious hermeneutic” can result in the reader missing some “genuinely gynocentric bright spots” in biblical texts (Spencer 2004:10). In this respect I agree that while references to the author of Luke’s gospel or women in Lukan texts may not be critical of patriarchal structures, these texts do provide gynocentric interruptions of the dominant androcentricity of Scripture. Thus, these texts have the potential to “interrupt” patriarchal hierarchy and male dominance in both New Testament texts and 21st century contexts, and serve as a resource for Christians to address contemporary societal issues relating to gender-power relations.

Aware of the fact that as 21st century readers, we approach first-century texts from different social, cultural, and ideological angles than the implied (first) readers of the text would have, I offer a creative (re)reading of a section of the Gospel of Luke.  This (re)reading takes into account that one’s social location concerns not only one’s relationships to others, but also that such relationships are expressed in the (explicit and implicit) discourses of the text.  This is not just (re)reading according to the “already established interpretations both in dominant Euro-centric male biblical scholarship” or “cherished interpretations coming out of African religious and cultural tradition” but an attempt to “re-imagine the Bible” in the light of contemporary societal challenges (cf. Russell 2004:202-203).  Contemporary (unprecedented) societal challenges necessitate such “re-imaging” biblical texts.  Russell (2004:204) in a Postscript to Grant me Justice! HIV/AIDS & Gender Readings of the Bible (Dube & Kanyoro 2004) identifies three areas of re-imagining and interpretation employed by African women when they “re-imagine” the Bible in an AIDS era.  The first area of interpretation, says Russell, is “addressing ‘texts of terror’ that are to be found both in the Bible and in their own cultural contexts” (Russell 2004:204).  “The second area of interpretation is texts about women and healing that counteract the negative views of women in the Bible and culture” and the third for “re-imagining and interpretation is to emphasise the liberating aspects of a text that reveals God’s love […]” (Russell 2004:204).

What follows is an interpretation and re-imagining of Luke 4:39-9:51 which exhibits all three of these areas.  Firstly, by giving voice to a woman in the text, the (terrifying) idea that women’s primary duty (and function) is to serve men (namelessly and in silence) is challenged by this (re)reading.  Secondly, this (re)reading “re-images” cultural attitudes that stigmatise both women and healing and thus counteracts the negative views of women in the Bible and culture.  And, thirdly, this re-imagining and interpretation emphasise the liberating aspects of a text and reveals God’s love which could serve as a resource for the church as it seeks ways to repent of the historic patriarchy.

Re-imagining Luke 4:39-9:51

The woman senses a familiar warm feeling rushing from her breast, up her neck, onto her cheeks.  It’s been years since she has experienced these flushes.  But it lingers longer than what she had been used to.  Then she feels cold and starts shivering.  She certainly is not experiencing ordinary hot flushes.  She really feels sick, but she has to stay on her feet to welcome the visitors.  She is expecting her son-in-law, Simon, his brother Andrew, his fishing partners, James and John (sons of Zebedee) and Jesus (the new teacher) for lunch.

She had been thinking about this man, Jesus.  Many people are talking about the miracles he had performed when he visited this town before.  And just a while ago she heard people passing by the house say that Jesus had driven out the evil spirit that had possessed old Shaman for many years.  Over the years she has witnessed how desperate people were to be healed.  Right now, she also feels anxious and desperate, as the fever overwhelms her.  She nearly collapses as she puts the water-jug next to the foot-basin.  She tries to splash some cold water onto her face, but she’s shivering uncontrollably.

She must have fainted because now she is lying down.  She becomes aware of someone bending over her and she feels the fever disappearing.  She manages a whisper: “Jesus?” He brushes away the grey curl that clings to her damp face.  She still feels wobbly when he helps her up.  Finding her balance, she clasps his strong hand between both her ageing hands and looks at him.  She hesitates and he gently pushes her forward saying, “Go inside”.  She enters the room and Simon hurriedly pulls a chair closer for her to sit but she has to keep moving – has to be active, lest her body fails her.  She insists on serving them lunch.

As evening falls, many people are arriving at the house.  They must have heard what happened at the synagogue and at the house earlier that day.  Now they are bringing to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness.  Each one is healed as Jesus touches them.

The next morning she gets up early to prepare breakfast for the guests.  She hears her son-in-law say to the others, “He’s not here! Has he left without us?”  She takes the warm bread to them.  Everyone is there, except Jesus.  “He’s gone to pray,” says Andrew, “let’s go find him”.  She walks out after them.  It’s just about daybreak and already there are people outside waiting to see Jesus.  The early morning walk is good for her ageing limbs.  She stops for a while to catch her breath and considers turning back – but then she sees him.  The first rays of the morning sun fall on his dark hair.  She watches as he slowly turns around and walks towards them.  Only now does she realize that a crowd has gathered around them.  They want him to stay, but he says that he has to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why he was sent.  “Whatever does that mean?” she wonders.  When he reaches her, he puts his hand on her shoulder, looks into her face before continuing down the hill.  By the time she gets home they are ready to leave – her son-in-law too.

Now, a few weeks later they are back – more of them this time.  Earlier today Simon had brought some fish and she prepared it for them.  She listens as they discuss what had happened during their visits to synagogues in other town and villages. Andrew says how surprised he was to see a leper in one of the towns.  Lepers are not allowed contact with other people – it is against the law!  “But there the man was,” explains Andrew, “with his face near Jesus’ feet”.  Then John continues the story: “We all stood back, except for Jesus who bent down towards the leper. We heard the leper say, ‘Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean’.”  John carries on eating and she looks at Simon with questioning eyes.  Then Simon continues, “Jesus reached out and touched the man.  Immediately the leprosy left him.”  He explains that the man wanted to show himself off to everybody around, but Jesus told him to go show himself to the priests.

By now the house is full of people who have come to be healed.  She hears something on the roof and looks up.  Then she notices the hole in the roof.  She wants to go outside to see what is happening when her son-in-law tugs on her shawl and points to the man being lowered into the middle of the crowd – right in front of Jesus.  Jesus reaches out to help steady the mat.

Having tied ropes to the mat of the paralysed man, his friends on the roof have found a way to get him to Jesus.  She cannot see what is happening, but she hears Jesus say something about “forgiveness of sins”.  Then she hears him clearly, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”  Everyone is amazed when the paralytic immediately stands up in front of them, takes what he has been lying on and goes home praising God.  She doesn’t know his name, but Jesus had called him “friend”.

Her son-in-law is now one of the twelve apostles.  They had been gone for a long time, but this morning she received word that Jesus and his disciples are on their way.  She goes down to the lake to meet them.  Simon spots her.  She moves closer, but just then a man approaches Jesus.  She recognises Jarius, the ruler of the synagogue.  He pleads with Jesus to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of twelve, was dying.

They all follow Jesus to Jarius’ house.  Along the way her son-in-law introduces her to Mary Magdalene, one of the women disciples who had arrived with them.  She listens with great awe as Mary Magdalene tells her about their visits to the synagogues in other towns and villages.  She hears how the Pharisees had accused Jesus of doing what is unlawful on a Sabbath.  Mary is telling her how Jesus healed a man whose right hand was deformed and shrivelled when Jesus suddenly stops and asks, “Who touched me?”  She wonders why he would be concerned about someone touching him.  There are so many people walking close to him.  Besides, he always touches people.  “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me”, says Jesus to her amazement.  Now everyone slowly backs away from Jesus, except for the woman who falls at his feet.  The woman says, “I touched you. I touched the hem of your cloak and I’m healed.  I have been bleeding for twelve years and no one could heal me.  But the moment I touched you I was instantly healed.”  By now Jesus had bent down and is helping the woman to her feet. “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”, he says.

She was still wondering why Jesus would call a woman older than him “daughter” when someone shouted at Jarius, “Your daughter is dead.  Don’t bother the teacher anymore.”  Jesus says to Jarius, “Don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.”  She turns to Mary Magdalene saying, “No one can argue with that.  That woman who had been bleeding for twelve years believed and she was healed.  And did you hear about the man who had built our synagogue?” she asks Mary. “He believed that Jesus could heal his servant by just saying the word, and it happened!”

She struggles to keep up with the group, because Jarius is now running ahead.  Mary Magdalene hooks her arm into hers and helps her along.  When they arrive at the house, Jarius joins his wife inside.  Jesus tells Peter, John and James to go inside the house with him.  She and Mary move closer to her Simon and the others. After a while they come out and Simon asks, “What happened”?  James says, “Jesus took the girl by the hand and told her to get up.  Her spirit returned and she stood up.”  Mary Magdalene asks, “And how is she?”  James replies, “Well, she’s eating now.”  Mary Magdalene is not surprised by what had happened.  She tells the older woman how Jesus had raised the only son of a widow when they had visited a town called Nain.

Soon afterwards, Jesus and the disciples left again.  She really enjoyed Mary Magdalene’s company.  From time to time she hears news from the other towns and villages about Jesus and the disciples.  She hears many stories of how Jesus heals the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame and releases people from evil spirits.  People are talking about what he teaches.  Sometimes they do not understand his teaching, especially the parables.  Some are questioning his teaching.  It is different.  He urges people to love their enemies; to be merciful and not to judge and condemn others.  He forgives sins and speaks about the Kingdom of God.  He blesses the poor and the hungry and now everyone is talking about him feeding so many people with five loaves of bread and two fish.  They had only counted the men – five thousand!  She does not know when they’ll be back again.  Last she heard they were near a Samaritan village on their way to Jerusalem – to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.


In the foreword to To Remember and to Heal (Botmann and Petersen 1996), Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that storytelling is central to the many religions practised in South Africa.  Citing Ellen Kuzwayo, he states that, “Stories help us to understand, to forgive and see things through someone else’s eyes” (Tutu 1996:7).  It is true that stories relating to the lived realities of many South African helped them and others to “see” the injustice of apartheid (ideology and theology).  In this paper I choose to “see” a bible story through the eyes of an unnamed mother-in-law.  The re-imagining of this Lukan story gives voice to women in the text world and encourages women’s agency in contemporary society.  By hearing the voice (and experiences) of the “unnamed” mother-in-law of Simon, this imaginative (re)reading has the potential to turn gender hierarchy (sustained by androcentrism and patriarchy) on its side – by making the invisible (in the text) visible.  Being aware of the social and ideological inclinations, perceptions and practices which underpin all texts and recognising that God continues to inspire humankind through the reading of Scripture, (re)reading New Testament texts could serve as a Christian resource towards “repenting of the historic patriarchy of our faith”.  If not, the Bible would be obsolete – because it would not be relevant in the lives of many 21st century Christian women and men.  What then do we (theologians) have to offer – other than to prove the Bible’s irrelevance in contexts where many people continue to believe in the God of the Christian faith; and where Scripture continues to function in Christian discourse as a source of insight and hope?  Thus, I would argue that re-imagining biblical narratives with a focus on marginal characters (for example, women, the unnamed and the sick) could be a response to the (urgent) call “to repent of the historic patriarchy of our faith”.


1 Miranda Pillay is a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa and Lay Canon in the Diocese of Saldanha Bay, Western Cape.

2 The manifestations of these broad categories of oppression have also been identified in terms of slavery, apartheid, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and continue to be experienced by communities and individuals in terms of unfair labour practices, poverty, dispossession of land, human trafficking, homophobia, gender-based violence, etc.

3 West (2005:4) uses the term ‘methodological impulses’ to argue that methodological and theoretical frameworks of interpretation are often shaped by praxis and lived reality.

4 Here I, like Cochrane (2009: 186-187), refer to “those kinds of profound experiences that reveal the nature of our being, of our life together, and of the sources of life and spirit that promise the possibility of a redeemed people and a healed earth”.

5 More than three decades later, the words of Russell (1974:29) still ring true, “The oppression of women is the most universal form of exploitation which supports and perpetuates the other forms of exploitation in both church and society”.

6 See Ackermann 2003:184-186; Acckermann 2005:389; Pillay 2003a:116-118; Pillay 2003b: 153-157;  Pillay 2005:450-452;  Pillay 2008b:212-218;  Phiri 2004:60; Khumalo and Lenka Bula 2003:18-21; Dube 2004:12; Haddad 2009:14; Manda 2009:25-28.

7 As Ackermann (2003:186) notes, “Patriarchal practices and traditions are long in dying” and are still part of the problem where women’s equality and freedom of religion are concerned.


9 Mc Kay’s view is that women of the Hebrew Bible are maltreated literarily in the New Testament (1996:59).

10 Kwok Pui-lan (1995: 94-95) for example stresses the importance for Asian women theologians to reconnect with their Asian roots and spirituality. In order for this to happen, “Asian women theologians try to find new sources, symbols, images, stories that articulate our experiences”, says Pui-lan.

11 The implication for Christian women and men is that Christ is the common denominator through whom both men and women will experience such fullness. Thus a man and woman’s humanity and equality are co-determined by each other and is contra the ‘male standard’ idea.

12Mercy Oduyoye, 2001:16 

13 This is an important angle from which to explore Scripture, because in many instances it is still mainly male clergy who ‘ascend’ the pulpit to preach ‘the word of God’.

14 According to Botha (2000:49) women who could not become pregnant were despised. And, if a woman’s dignity was (culturally) determined by her womb (see Pillay 2009:??)  Luke (1:25) has Elizabeth reclaim her human dignity, “The Lord has done this for me”, she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace amongst the people”.

15 Of course there are those who regard this text as sexist hierarchy and insulting to women as Mary is seen to be ‘blessed amongst women’ only and not amongst men. But then, Elizabeth does not only bless Mary, but also the child she will bear – a boy-child who, not only grows up to a man  but who is God incarnate.

16 There are various possible reasons for the women not being named. To simply accord it to Luke’s disregard for women might be short-sighted.

17 This reference to “kin” is important – especially from the perspective that “family is a group to which one is irrevocably assigned” (Crossan, 1995:59). Also noteworthy is that Luke 8:19-21 extends family to “those who hears God’s word and put it into practice”, and again Luke 11:27-28. Crossan (1995:99) says that the latter text “declares Mary blessed because she mothered a famous son.” However, this Mediterranean perception, embossed in patriarchy, “is negated by Jesus in favour of a blessedness open to anyone who wants it, without distinction of sex, race, infertility or maternity.

18 This unnamed woman, known only in terms of her relationship to Simon, viz. “Simon’s mother-in-law” appears to have provided significant assistance about the house (The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, 2002:569).

19 For an explanation of “Shaman” as “spirit possessed” see Pilch (2002:106-108).


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Daily News, 7 July 2005:2

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