Women and Parables- Luke 8:1-21

20 Feb

(NOVEMBER, 1887- ROME, ITALY) Thérèse Martin reflected on the plight of women of her time while retuning from the audience to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Pope Leo XIII. Eight years later, Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, OCD, would record her thoughts in her autobiography thus:

 

“I still cannot understand why women are so easily excommunicated in Italy, for every minute someone was saying: ‘Don’t enter here…Don’t enter there, you will be excommunicated! Ah! Poor women, how they are misunderstood!…

 

And yet they love God in much larger numbers than men do, and during the Passion of Our Lord, women had more courage than the Apostles since they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to wipe the adorable face of Jesus…It is undoubtedly because of this that He allows misunderstanding to be their lot on earth, since He chose it for Himself. In Heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men’s thoughts, for the last will be the first…

 

More than once during the trip, I hadn’t the patience to wait for Heaven to be the first…” (Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Autobiographical Manuscript A, 66vo)

 

(FEBRUARY, 2008- CALI, COLOMBIA) The seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel ends with an account of Jesus’ forgiveness of a sinful woman. For three reasons found in Scripture, this woman was particularly bold in coming to Jesus for forgiveness. Firstly, she knew that Jesus was dining in the house of a Pharisee who was not alone in his knowledge of her reputation.(1) Secondly, it was not recommended in Jesus’ time for women to associate with men in public, especially with teachers of the Jewish faith.(2) Thirdly, the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with the contents of an expensive alabaster jar, and then wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.(3)

 

Jesus responded to the woman’s dramatic yet genuine plea for forgiveness with even more extravagant mercy, such that Simon the Pharisee was dumbfounded. Christ reminds us then: “Her sins, which were many, are forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little loves little.”(4) Our Lord’s loving forgiveness moves us to love in turn, and the more we are forgiven, the more we experience the presence of God, and the more love is effected.

 

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, women are often the first to understand Jesus’ message. In St. Luke’s opening chapter, God sends the Archangel Gabriel to Elizabeth and then to Mary, both of whom conceive miraculously. While Zechariah, a righteous priest, and St. Joseph are confounded, the former being silenced for his lack of faith and the latter requiring the presence of “an angel of the Lord” in a dream to reassure him that the child of the Virgin had been conceived “through the Holy Spirit”(5), Elizabeth and Mary realize more quickly that “with God nothing will be impossible.”(6) Mary takes another step forward, pondering in her heart the words of the shepherds, and then of her Son after He is found in the temple.(7)

 

Following St. Luke’s infancy and childhood narratives, women nearly disappear from the Gospel story. Between chapters 3 and 7, the only woman mentioned by name is Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas’ brother Philip.(8 ) This near-lack of mention of women for four chapters is noteworthy because Luke, of the four evangelists, is foremost in his inclusion of women, as well as other people who were marginalized in first-century Palestinian society for a variety of reasons, in his telling of the Good News.

 

Where women are written about in chapters 3 to 7 of the Gospel of Luke, they tend to be afflicted with other problems, such as physical illness,(9) bereavement,(10) and sin.(11) While none of these women are named, Jesus heals them without exception, no matter the infirmity that necessitated Jesus’ presence among them.

 

Jesus and the twelve Apostles are kept busy in ministry, as St. Luke points out again in the first sentence of Chapter 8. In traveling from one town or village to another, Jesus cannot be burdened with tasks that are extraneous to His main purpose- “proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.”(12) Therefore, many women travel with Him and with the Twelve, “(providing) for them out of their resources.”(13)

 

In addition to mentioning the economic contribution of the women to Christ’s itinerant ministry, the Gospel includes details of the former spiritual sicknesses of some of them.(14) Three women are named: “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, (and) Susanna.”(15) Two of these women become especially important later in St. Luke’s account, during the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The Galilean women are identified in general as being present at Jesus’ death and burial,(16) and Mary Magdalene and Joanna, along with Mary, the mother of James, are named in Luke as the first witnesses to the Resurrection.(17)

 

Other parallels involving women are also integral to St. Luke’s Gospel. For example, the aged prophetess Anna is described in the story of Jesus’ presentation as having “never left the temple…(worshipping) night and day with fasting and prayer.”(18 ) After the presentation of Jesus, Anna breaks forth from her pious secrecy, “(giving) thanks to God and (speaking) about the Child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”(19) Then Anna is not mentioned again. However, in St. Luke’s account of the burial of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who also “was awaiting the kingdom of God”(20) as a secret follower of Jesus, picks up where Anna had left off. Anna’s patient and prayerful wait for the Messiah is related to and necessarily precedes the next step whereby Joseph of Arimathea audaciously asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body.(21)

 

Joseph received the Body of Christ from the Cross and then buried Him in a yet-unused tomb, to where the Galilean women would later return with perfumed oils and spices.(22) Likewise we, the Church, receive the Body of Christ fully present in the Eucharist. The Church boldly asks for Christ’s Body as Jesus Himself taught us:

 

“Give us this day our daily bread…”(23)

 

Upon receiving Our Lord’s Glorious Body, hidden in the Communion host as it was by the burial linens, the Church, like Mary after finding the Child in the temple, and like the Galilean women after encountering the Risen Lord, “remembers His words.”(24)

 

One might easily dedicate an entire article to the short passage in Luke 8 about the Galilean women and to the parallels related to those verses elsewhere in the Gospels. However, the Lucan Gospel’s inclusion of the women relates especially to the parables of the Sower and of the Lamp in the same chapter. Women, in the Gospel as well as throughout the history and tradition of the Church, are a kind of parable in and of themselves. The Church herself, designated often by feminine pronouns and metaphors such as the Bride of Christ,(25) is in the same way a parable or a collection of parables. A parable can be defined as a story that “either reveals or conceals divine mysteries, depending upon one’s faith and disposition.” (S. Hahn and C. Mitch, Ignatius Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke, Notes on Luke 8:4) Such has been the story and such is one main function of the Church.

 

Of the two parables in Luke 8, that of the sower is arguably best-known. The Gospel reads thus:

 

“‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.’ After saying this, He called out, ‘Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.’”(26)

 

As Jesus explains later to His disciples, ‘to hear’ has more than only one meaning. Those on the path, according to the parable of the sower, receive the Word of God, but Satan hastens to take it away as quickly as it is heard.(27) Some hear the Word and indeed it produces a short-lived response of joy, but these people on rocky ground easily lose their faith “in time of trial.”(28 ) The thorns in the parable represent the material, worldly desires which prevent a deeper understanding of the Word of God.(29) Therefore, the faith of these people is also short-lived. However, when the seed that is the Word(30) is sown in rich soil- in “generous and good hearts”, faith grows and spreads “through perseverance.”(31)

 

Jesus speaks of perseverance as an essential aspect of allowing the Word of God to take root within us. This theme reappears later in the Gospel of Luke, especially in the Parable of the widow and of the unjust judge, and in Jesus’ teachings on persistence in prayer.(32) Following the parable of the sower, Our Lord continues in this mode of teaching with the parable of the lamp. Again, the main purpose of the parables- to reveal or to conceal divine mysteries, depending upon the quality of the approach of the faithful-is emphasized. Jesus reminds us:

 

“There is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light. Take care, then, on how you hear.”(33)

 

Christ thus challenges us again on the quality of our ‘hearing’. As in the last verse of His parable of the sower, Jesus asks us to hear, not purely sensorily, but also to interiorize and then to act upon the Gospel message with generosity and with goodness from the heart. Therefore, ‘to hear’, in this sense, is nearly synonymous with the great commandment ‘to love’.(34)

 

Hearing, thus loving, involves three steps: the first is to hear with our ears- the strict definition of hearing. The second is to contemplate, and the third is to act. It is possible to join the latter two steps into a single concept; St. Ignatius Loyola once spoke of “contemplation in action”. Nonetheless, Jesus warns us not to stop at the initial, entirely sensory, stage. Otherwise, Satan will remove the word of God from those who think they have heard it but have neither contemplated it nor acted upon it.

 

Jesus’ caution toward us, “To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away”,(35) is ominous, especially after having heard the Beatitudes, wherein Jesus blesses those who have little and promises a reversal of their fortunes in Heaven.(36) However, in the concluding verse of the parable of the lamp, Jesus refers not to material possessions, but to our faith. His exhortation is recalled later in Scripture. For example, St. Peter writes:

 

“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.”(37)

 

Faithful resistance to the power of Satan, that is, proper hearing of the Word of God, must begin in the home. Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Sec. 2204) cites the family as “the domestic Church.” After the two parables of Chapter 8, St. Luke then pertinently records Jesus’ discourse on the family. Herein, Jesus extends the family unit beyond simple heredity. When the crowds approach Our Lord and tell Him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you,”(38 ), they are speaking not only of His immediate family, but of His extended relatives also. In Jesus’ time, ‘brothers’, translated from several Semitic languages, meant male children of the same parents as well as nephews, cousins, half-brothers, and occasionally close friends.(39)

 

Questions related to this passage as to who is included in Jesus’ family arise mainly as a challenge to the traditional Catholic insistence on the perpetual virginity of Mary. These questions merely distract one from the key message delivered by the Lord here: His family includes all “those who hear the word of God and act on it.”(40) Thus, this teaching relates back to Jesus’ earlier instructions on hearing the word, which were discussed earlier in this article.

 

Particularly, though, St. Luke is less clear than St. Mark in portraying Jesus as the “son of Mary”(41), perhaps because of the earlier Lucan presentation of Mary as the one chosen and purified by God in order to bear His Son:

 

“For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on all ages (will) call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”(42)

 

The Gospels of Mark and of Luke, in different ways, both present the mother as the foremost religious teaching figure in the family. In Jewish society at the time, family descent and inheritance was traced back according to the father and his male predecessors. In faith, St. Mark breaks most radically from this tradition by identifying Jesus as the “son of Mary”(43), implying that Jesus’ inheritance, and indeed His very being, is that of God the Father.

 

Women in first-century Palestine were responsible for teaching their faith to their children in the home, mainly through oral tradition. Furthermore, regardless of the father’s religious background, the religion adopted by the children was generally that of the mother, whose role was therefore of great dignity, although it was largely hidden and often misunderstood.

 

Little has changed since then in much of the world regarding the position of women, who are frequently the most disadvantaged and socially neglected. Women are the heads of single-parent households more often than men, and are more deeply affected worldwide by poverty, war, hunger, and disease. This is especially true in less-developed countries such as Colombia. Here, governments do little to protect the poor, the sick, and the dying, and formal education, taken for granted in richer countries, is unavailable to many. About two weeks ago, I was speaking with the psychologist, who practices her English while I learn Spanish, in the school where I teach French and English. During one such conversation, a woman entered the room with her two children, who are students at the school. Later, I discovered that their mother was HIV-positive. Sadly, the children will eventually be left without a mother. On another occasion, I accompanied two Basilian priests on a visit to a barrio served by our parish named La Playa, on the bank of the Rio Cali, which is so poor and forgotten that it does not appear on most maps of the city. There, men sift the mud on the riverbed, earning nearly nothing for hard labour, while families live in shacks that fail to keep out contaminated rainwater during storms.

 

There is hope nevertheless amid so much suffering. The woman with HIV is able to provide her children with an education while she is still living, and the people in La Playa smile and greet visitors in their rutted, garbage-strewn dirt streets. This is the hope and courage that Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux spoke about just over 110 years ago. Women and families suffer most, just as they did in Thérèse’s time, and in Jesus’ time. Their suffering is hidden, but must not be forgotten. Just as the heart tirelessly pumps blood through the body, sustaining life though it is hidden by flesh and bone, women sustain and give life to the family and to the Church. When women and families suffer, so does the entire Church, but amid suffering and misunderstanding, a quiet but active life-force sustains the body of Christ. This militant courage of women- that, as Ste. Thérèse writes, which drove St. Veronica “to wipe the adorable face of Jesus” on the Way of the Cross- is the militant courage of Mother Church.

 

Finally, Ste. Thérèse cites Christ’s teaching to His disciples: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”(44) Then she humourously observes, “I hadn’t the patience to wait for Heaven to be the first…”

 

As women and families suffer, the entire Church suffers, yet her Saviour takes her Cross upon Himself. As the Church, we courageously approach Jesus to wipe His face amid the insults and the indifference of the soldiers of this world, and He gives us His image of authentic humanity and divinity to guide us toward the triumph of Heaven. Christ shows us the road to salvation by means of women and of the family. Like women and families, the Church is a kind of parable; if, both in contemplation and in action, the Church acts as a united body both suffering and militant, she will, in Christ’s name, be triumphant.

 

We pray that Christ will continue to help His Church to offer her hidden and public trials, and to act with courage in a world that often fails to hear the Gospel. Jesus, guide us toward the triumph you have prepared for those whom you love. Amen.

 

I conclude with a prayer for the intercession of St. Mary, Blessed Virgin Mother of God, first among women, and first disciple of Jesus. In Latin, this prayer is known as the Sub Tuum, and is prayed in the Basilian community where I am currently living in Cali following the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours or after other meetings in the house. Thus I wish to end this article with this beautiful petition in Latin, in English, in French, and then in Spanish:

 

Sub Tuum praesidium confugimus,

Sancta Dei Genitrix,

Nostras deprecaciones ne despicias in necessitabus nostris,

Sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,

Virgo Gloriosa et Benedicta.

 

We fly to your protection,

O Holy Mother of God.

Despise not our prayers and our necessities,

But deliver us from all danger,

O Ever-Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

 

Sous l’abri de ta miséricorde, nous nous réfugions,

Sainte Mère de Dieu.

Ne méprise pas nos prières quand nous sommes dans l’épreuve,

mais de tous les dangers délivre-nous toujours,

Vierge Glorieuse et Bienheureuse.

 

Bajo tu amparo nos acogemos,

Santa Madre de Dios.

No desprecias las suplicas que te dirigimos en nuestras necesidades;

Antes bien líbranos de todo peligro,

Oh Virgen Gloriosa y Bendita.

 

Amen.

 

WRS

 


BIBLICAL NOTES:

 

(1) cf. Luke 7:37, 39

(2) cf. John 4:27

(3) cf. Luke 7:44

(4) Luke 7:48

(5) Matthew 1:20

(6) Luke 1:37

(7) cf. Luke 2:19, 51.

(8 ) cf. Luke 3:19

(9) cf. Luke 4:38-39

(10) cf. Luke 7:11-17

(11) cf. Luke 7:36-50

(12) Luke 8:1

(13) Luke 8:3

(14) cf. Luke 8:2

(15) Luke 8:2-3

(16) cf. Luke 23:49, 55

(17) cf. Luke 24:10

(18 ) Luke 2:37

(19) Luke 2:38

(20) Luke 23:51

(21) cf. Luke 23:52

(22) cf. Luke 23:53-55.

(23) Matthew 6:11, Luke 11:3

(24) Luke 24:8

(25) cf. Ephesians 5:25-32, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and Revelation 19:7

(26) Luke 8:5-8

(27) cf. Luke 8:12

(28 ) Luke 8:13

(29) cf. Luke 8:14

(30) cf. Luke 8:11

(31) Luke 8:15

(32) cf. Luke 18:1-8; Luke 11:1-13.

(33) Luke 8:17-18

(34) cf. Mark 12:30-31

(35) Luke 8:18

(36) cf. Luke 6:20-23

(37) 1 Peter 5:8-9

(38 ) Luke 8:20

(39) cf. Mark 6:3 and related notes, New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970.

(40) Luke 8:21

(41) Mark 6:3

(42) Luke 1:48-49

(43) Mark 6:3

(44) Mark 9:35

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