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Mary Learns at Jesus' Feet
The difficulty that confronted me from the outset in my search to find a great woman theologian was that I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for. I found myself in the same predicament as people in airports who hold placards bearing the names of individuals they've never met. They scan the sea of faces streaming off the plane, looking for the passenger who with a single look will identify themselves as the owner of the name. In the meantime, expectations run unchecked and hope and dread alternate until one traveler steps forward to end all speculation.
At first I had all sorts of mental images of what a great woman theologian would be like, images drawn from my misconceptions of what it means to be a theologian. For starters, I confined my search to the realm of the professional academic. Undoubtedly, a great woman theologian would be a scholar, intelligent, highly educated, and slightly intimidating with her deep knowledge. Although she would probably never be shortlisted for the Ten Most Admired Women of the Year award, she would nevertheless be admired-not because women would ever want to be like her but because of her impressive academic pedigree. My hope was that in time, theology, just like other fields now open to women, would see women rise to the top and stand shoulder to shoulder with theological giants like John Calvin and Martin Luther. What I didn't realize was that it had already happened, not just once but countless times, and that far from being nonexistent, great women theologians were actually quite common.
The women I was about to discover would change my view of what it means to be a theologian. Contrary to my expectations, they would not be academics or scholars but ordinary women-wives, mothers, singles, young and old, and from every walk of life. Their legacies are not bound in thick volumes of systematic theologies or hidden in the tattered remains of lecture notes they have left behind but are wrapped in the simple stories of their lives.
These women taught me what true theology is all about. They fearlessly employed their minds to pursue a deeper understanding of God's character and ways. The results of their efforts were visible in both the everyday and extraordinary moments of their lives. Their hearts were strong for God, and they drew courage, wisdom, and determination in the face of overwhelming adversity from the certainty that God is on his throne and that he is good. Most of their words have been lost or long forgotten. But among the few that survive are some of the most eloquent and profound statements ever spoken concerning God's unfailing love for his people. Their stories supply convincing evidence that there have always been and still are great women theologians. What is more, these women not only measured up to the high standard set by great male theologians; many times they surpassed it.
But for me one woman stands out from all the rest. I have learned more about what it means to be a theologian from her than from any other theologian, male or female. For those of us who are visual learners, her story is particularly useful because she shows us how theology looks in a woman's life from the earliest stages to the moment when she emerges as a mature theologian. She was a thinking woman, to be sure, who hungered for God and didn't give up even when knowing him wasn't all that easy. The effect of theology on her life raised a stir back then and still has people talking about it today. For me, her story demonstrated, in terms I could understand, how knowing God benefits a woman's life and opened my eyes to new possibilities of ministry. Somehow our need for theology makes more sense when we see the difference it makes for someone else. What is more, the physical presence of Jesus in her story exposes us to his perspective on the subject of women and theology and underscores the seriousness of the matter for all of us. But to be honest, what intrigued me most about her and influenced my preference for her over all the others was the fact that she was not simply one of many great women theologians. As I studied her life to understand what kind of theologian she was, I was stunned and not a little gratified to realize I had not simply discovered yet another great woman theologian. She was, I am firmly convinced, also the first great New Testament theologian. We know her as Mary of Bethany.
No matter how many times we hear Mary's story, we never seem to tire of it. Its universal appeal to women enables it to withstand the familiarity that causes other stories to wear thin. Even women who do not identify with Mary, feeling more akin to her sister, Martha, are drawn to her and admire her pluck for seizing the opportunity to sit and listen to Jesus. At that one moment in her life, any of us would happily trade places with her. Although she was far from perfect, Mary was a good listener, a thinker, a learner, and above all, a friend of Jesus. We remember her best for skipping out on kitchen duty and getting away with it. We relish the sweet moment of vindication when Jesus refused to send her back to the kitchen, where Martha insisted she belonged. In many ways we are the direct beneficiaries of her actions. When Mary stepped forward to sit at Jesus' feet and later knelt to anoint him, a barrier crumbled, freeing us to join her at his feet to listen and learn without fear of rebuke or the suggestion that we are out of place.
Her story, which gospel writers capture in three emotionally charged scenes, is the stuff of life-high drama in which every episode is marked by controversy centering on the interaction between Jesus and Mary. Each scene works as a stand-alone story-compact, complete, and meaningful. But when I placed the three events side by side and examined them in sequence, a single story emerged, revealing a depth in Mary's relationship to Christ I had never noticed before. Also, I saw striking similarities among the three and a powerful momentum that builds from one episode to the next.
Each time, Mary is at the feet of Jesus: first to listen, learn, and reflect; second, in grief and confusion over her brother's premature death; and in the last, to anoint him for his burial. Always she is in trouble, twice for actions which others judge irresponsible and inappropriate, and once because she is disappointed with Jesus. Although her words are few, she is always thinking. She struggles to understand his teachings and to grasp who he is. She tries to connect the dots between his words and his bewildering actions. Ultimately she searches for ways to live out what she has learned.
Onlookers (her sister, neighbors and friends, and finally Judas and the other disciples) are drawn into the action by their growing sense of disapproval as they observe Jesus and Mary. When they can no longer contain their frustration, they blurt out words of criticism and disappointment aimed primarily at Jesus.
Their words make us uncomfortable, but Jesus remains unflappable. On the surface, he appears to react to the awkward situations their words create instead of initiating the action. But he is fully in charge and carefully employs each situation to help his followers know him better. No one is ever prepared for what Jesus will do. His words and actions invariably inject a surprise element and unsettle onlookers as he staunchly defends Mary's unorthodox actions and releases her brother from the terrible clutches of death.
In every case, Jesus, in his refusal to be governed by onlookers' expectations or limited by their false sense of propriety, steers a firm course in keeping with his mission. With each successive encounter, Jesus draws Mary (and others if they will come) deeper into relationship with himself. In the process, Mary's understanding of Jesus-her theology-is challenged, refined, deepened, and lived out. Her faith grows stronger as she learns more about him. Though Mary's story applies to every Christian, it contains a clear message for women concerning our most pressing need-the need to know God better. Mary's story is the perfect place for us to begin our pursuit of a deeper relationship with God.
Just a Beginner
Luke gives us our first glimpse of Mary in the small Judean village of Bethany, where she is at home with her sister, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. It is a bustling scene. Jesus and his disciples have just arrived in town and received a hearty welcome at the home of the three beloved siblings. Hospitality is the all-consuming order of business, and Martha, along with Mary, has thrown herself into the rare privilege of hosting Jesus and his disciples for a meal. In the face of such a daunting challenge, not even Martha Stewart could outdo her ancient counterpart, who has spared no effort to honor Jesus and ensure his comfort while he remains a guest under her roof. In his coming, Martha sees an extraordinary opportunity to minister to her Lord. Mary sees something quite different.
Somewhere in the flurry of activity, an unexpected change occurs that momentarily escapes Martha's notice. Her dependable assistant quietly retreats from the hubbub of the kitchen and exchanges her apron for the opportunity to hear and learn from Jesus. This is where we find her-listening quietly at his feet, deeply absorbed in thought. The clatter and aromas from the kitchen where her sister is industriously preparing dinner are powerless to distract her from Jesus. Mary is unaware of the gathering storm.
Of the three snapshots we possess of Mary, this is the frame in which most people spot the theologian in her. Here is the quintessential thinking woman. So much is going on inside her head, and after all, isn't that what theology is all about? What we often fail to realize is that if taken alone, this episode leaves a stunted impression of what it means to be a theologian-all head and no heart. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Mary will soon show us. Not a word Jesus speaks will be wasted, but everything she learns will prove useful, indeed indispensable, when the conversation is over and she resumes her ordinary activities. Furthermore, we do Mary a terrible injustice if we conclude she appears as a thinking woman only in this scene. To the contrary, every time she surfaces in the Gospels she is a thinking woman, a true theologian in action.
But she is not a full-fledged theologian here. This encounter with Jesus marks only the beginning. We have caught Mary at the earliest stage of her development, at the moment when she begins to take this relationship seriously and to pursue a greater understanding of Jesus. She will gain much from this first meeting. But she will not reach maturity until she has had plenty of time to wrestle with what she hears now, has put his words to the test through the fires of personal tragedy, and has learned he is worthy of her trust. For now, though, it is enough to lay aside other pressing matters and listen thoughtfully to him.
Theology Is a Relationship
Some may think it is going too far to claim Jesus is teaching Mary "theology." Surely nothing quite so dull and heavy as theology is being discussed here. Our mental images of Mary eagerly drinking in every word and seeming to enjoy the process argue against such a notion. Besides, she was just a woman. She would never rise to the level of an apostle or a great teacher, so why on earth would she need theology? To answer this question, we must turn to the central figure in the story.
Although we are not told what Jesus said to Mary, no one mistakes this for ordinary conversation or small talk. Jesus was a rabbi, a religious teacher. Seated at his feet, Mary assumed the posture of a disciple, a student, ready to receive his teachings and to learn. But Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. He was God in the flesh. He embodied the message he presented. He was God's last and best word to the world. When Mary sat down, she came face to face with her Creator, the giver and definer of life, the only true link between God and herself. Apart from Jesus she would never know or understand God, nor could she truly know herself. Furthermore, when we look at other conversations in which Jesus' words are recorded, we quickly discover that Jesus always talked theology. More than anything, he wanted his followers to know his Father, and by far the shortest route to knowing the Father is to know his Son.
Strange as it sounds, Jesus was talking about himself. Jesus was the subject of his teaching. Just as he taught his male disciples, he was teaching Mary who he was, what he had come to do, and about the one who had sent him. She listened, not simply to become informed on the latest hot topics being bandied about Judea but to know Jesus. He already knew her fully, better than she knew herself. This was a golden opportunity for her to know him. Their conversation signaled the beginning of a relationship, which Jesus welcomed and Mary desperately needed. It reminds us of the often forgotten fact that theology is a relationship-our relationship with God.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten who theology is all about. From Mary's vantage point, this was harder to do, for she had a face to associate with the words. It was impossible for her to detach the ideas from the person. For Christians today, it is easier to forget that the focus of all theology is a person. If we are not careful, God can easily become eclipsed by the mountain of ponderous ideas and heady concepts we call theology. Technical definitions, which describe theology as "the study of God," "the science of God," or the "queen of sciences," can contribute to this problem. Sometimes these lifeless definitions make God seem like information to store in a database or an object to inspect under a microscope. In contrast the picture of theology that Mary and Jesus give us is taken from life itself and reflects the compelling warmth of a relationship.
Interestingly enough, the word often used for theology in the Bible is the relational word know. Moses used it to express his longing for an intimate relationship with God when he prayed, "If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you" (Ex. 33:13, emphasis added). David described the benefits of such a relationship when he sang, "Those who know your name [or your character] will trust in you" (Ps. 9:10a, emphasis added). The Hebrew word used in each case is the same word used elsewhere to describe the tender intimate relationship between a husband and wife. For example, Adam was said to know his wife Eve, implying both knowledge and intimacy.
Excerpted from When Life and Beliefs Collide by Carolyn Custis James Copyright © 2001 by Carolyn Custis James. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 17, 2002
Should be a part of all women's study groups. Not your typical theology book for women, but a woman's voice on what is essential for all Christians. She uses real life examples to show how Biblical theology reveals a gracious and glorious God. She's not "preachy" nor is she an "all sugar and spice type of fluff." Her chapter about a wife being the "intimate ally" of her husband is a refreshing perspective of the husband/wife relationship that should be read by all men and women. The author is not a "feminist" nor a "fundamentalist" but a feminine Christian, just like Mary & Martha. With endorsements from J.I. Packer, Joni Eareckson Tada, and R.C. Sproul, this book should be in every home or church library. I read a copy from my local library and am now purchasing copies as gifts for friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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