Ever since I was a little kid, I have thought about the one question I would ask you if I could see you face to face. For a long time it was, “What is really the highest number?” And then, because life happens, it was “Do pets really go to heaven?” and these days it’s often, “Do you still believe in us?” though admittedly at some moments I get distracted and just want to know, “Were you ever as awkward as I am?”
But this week, I’ve been wrestling with a different question. I’m going to dare to name it, even though I’m scared to. Here it is: “Jesus, were you sexist?”
See, I am struggling. I am preaching this Sunday morning and I am preaching on the parable of the ten bridesmaids because as a Christian minister it seems important to at least occasionally preach on the Gospel, but I am struggling.
I am struggling because I know that there is a good, important message in this parable about patience and faith and Christian hope and I want to share that message with the people who will hear me preach on Sunday morning and who might need to hear about those things. But as a 21st century young woman, feminist, and pastor, I have a hard time reading this story and seeing anything beyond its deeply sexist framework.
You didn’t create the sexist framework, I know. You were born into a world where the value of a woman was rooted in her virginity and purity (I can relate… I was born into a world like this too). You preached and taught at a time where wedding customs meant that young women were expected to defer to men always even if it meant staying up all night and wasting precious oil to wait for an exceptionally tardy bridegroom. And I know that in your time it was seen as customary rather than cruel that said bridegroom might coldly dismiss those bridesmaids who [surely risked their safety and] ventured out into the darkness of night to buy more oil when they ran out.
I get it. I’ve both heard and said that you were merely speaking to your time, using the language of the era, preaching to your audience with metaphors that they could understand and relate to. And I have both heard and said that we know how much you valued women because you stopped that woman from being stoned and you let that other woman touch your cloak and you hung out with women a lot. And I have both heard and said that it is really just that the authors of these books were trapped in a sexist paradigm and so naturally they translated your teachings in sexist ways.
But here’s the thing: I have both heard and said all of those things in my attempt to answer/fix/solve/dismiss this deeply unsettling question that I am nevertheless still asking, “Jesus, were you sexist?”
Because it’s true that you didn’t create the framework, but how often did you cry out in your teachings against other destructive frameworks that defined your time? How often did you challenge paradigms of wealth and class and righteousness? Why wasn’t this paradigm worth shattering?
And I know that the authors of these books were trapped in a sexist paradigm, but if you were fully human then weren’t you trapped in that paradigm too? And though I know that you hung out with women and advocated for them (sometimes), I wonder if it was even possible in your fully divine/fully human mind to conceive of the possibility that we (women, that is) are equal to men. Or was that beyond the realm of imagining, even for you?
Listen, I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m not asking because I want to be subversive or radical or disrespectful. I’m asking because it’s a long wait in the darkness for you and this world you call us to work for. And I’m wondering how to keep my lamp lit and how to help others keep their lamps lit. And I find energy and oil so much in the world you preached about—a world where the walls of hostility are torn down and the evils of our brokenness like racism, classism, and sexism give way to an endless mutual perichoretic love for one another in all our miraculous God-sculpted humanness. But it precisely because I believe so deeply in these things that I cannot rest easily with passages like this one being spoken in your voice.
Because for all that your teachings have brought us so far in moves toward justice and equality and a better world, paradigms like this one that go unchallenged as the word of God have at least something to do with why, 2000 years after you lived and died and lived again—we can occupy a world where women have to fight for the right to control our own bodies, to have the healthcare we need, to have justice when we are violated by men who see us as somehow worth less.
And I am sitting here. I am here in my office in a big important church where for more than a century people of all genders have come to hear about the better world you promise and challenge us with. And I am a woman pastor on a staff of mostly women pastors with a woman as head of staff in this big, powerful, historic church and week after week we step into the pulpit and lead this church of people and dare to speak your words and this question lives inside me in the midst of all of that. This question of whether the Son of God could even imagine us preaching his word. And if the Son of God himself could not imagine a world where women like me are truly worth the same as men, does that mean I am actually worth less?
Maybe “Jesus, were you sexist?” isn’t really the question I want to ask. It’s certainly not the one whose answer will carry me through the night. Maybe what I really want to know is:
Does the fact that I even have to ask these things break your heart as much as it breaks mine?
(I hope so.)
Write back soon.