The Voice of Women and Inclusion

These two passages  – Mary and Martha and The Canaanite Woman,  upset many women.

In both they have Jesus speaking in the way we don’t expect  – without  graciousness and respect.

We must be aware that the gospels were not written at the time of Jesus. Mk in 70CE,  Luke and Mt around 80 – 85. They both had Mark in front of them.  Mt has nearly all of Mk, Lk has half.

The gospels are not historical but are reflections on the life of Jesus passed on over time by oral transmission. So the gospels are constructed by the writer for his particular audience.

Matthew’s gospel for a community who were mainly Jewish – Luke’s community mainly gentile.

There was conflict in the early Church. Historically Jesus ministry and message was really only for House of Israel – to the Jews.

Paul after his conversion believed that he was sent to preach to Gentiles and brought many of them into the communities he founded. He believed that living in the presence of the Risen Lord there was no  male/female, gentile or Jew, slave /free

But the leaders of the church in Jerusalem wanted all new converts to be circumcised.  So a Council was held and it was decided that Gentiles did not have to take on the Jewish laws.

Paul’s view on the equality of women was idealistic,  as when they returned home, Roman Household codes mandated that husbands had control over their wives.  Later epistles, not written by Paul but his disciples show us that the faith community couldn’t live out the ideals Paul set as they said that women are not to speak in the assembly.

Let us look at the Canaanite woman. In earlier chapters Matthew has  Jesus breaking the Jewish law by mixing with and touching unclean people. In these cases he was inclusive. .

Here we have a gentile woman. 

The women had heard of this Jewish healer and approached him with titles of honour – Lord, Son of David. Jews didn’t speak to gentile women.  She shouted out to him to for mercy.

Jesus did not answer her.  The disciples begged him to send her away as she is shouting after us.

Jesus answered that he was sent only to lost sheep of Israel. Who was his answer directed to? The disciples or to the woman. She probably heard it.

But she came and knelt before him Lord help me asking a second time.  

This time Jesus answered with a law-based answer – It is not fair to give the children’s ie the Jew’s food to the dogs, Gentiles were called dogs by the Jews.

But she answered with respectful language Lord. –  BUT even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.   

Jesus was moved and praised her faith. Great is your faith.  Her child was cured.

This is a teaching story – to tell Mt audience that gentiles were welcome in the Kingdom of God  – they could have faith. The Kingdom of God – God’s plan for the world was for all.

Mary Burke FMM has written a lovely book – “My cry to all that live – Voices and earth in the gospels. Each chapter begins with an icon, followed by the passage, a commentary    and then interesting reflections from characters associated with the story.  Extract from P 117

 Here the Canaanite women is telling her sister about her encounter with Jesus-

As my words hit him I could see a change happening. He looked at me directly now and recognised in my desperation something that connected us beyond the barriers – the many barriers – that would normally separate us. He crossed a boundary in himself at that moment. By giving myself a voice, I challenged the limits he was putting on the generosity of his God. He caught my drift. And with a graciousness that moved us both, he healed my daughter.

The Martha Mary story raises questions about Jesus’ view of the role of women .

Lk 8 named women disciples.

This story is out of character and scholars do not think it goes back to Jesus . Instead it reflects concerns that women were taking too active a role in the local communities and that they should be silent.

Martha was the owner of the house so a woman of standing.  Hospitality was a very important virtue in Jewish society so Martha was doing what she thought Mary should also be involved in.

Mary Burke has a reflection spoken by a friend when she speaks of Mary’s behaviour. p91

Mary’s friend Salome expresses he frustration –

How do you make a woman see clearly!  Mary is so happy to sit at the feet of the teacher in silence as though she is a disciple or a student!  But that’s just being a sponge! To be a disciple means asking questions, engaging in dialogue, grappling with the teacher and his teaching. But she just sits there in silence! No, this isn’t being a disciple. It’s just being an audience……. and even a chook can do that! Who knows what she picks up as she sits there. It remains private, unshared and so does not build up the community! There is more to her that that, but how dl I get her to see.?

So what does the story say to us?

When we say “the word of the Lord” after a reading we are not saying that the words on the page are God’s words to me today. No, what touches me in my heart are God’s communication to me.
 Mary Burke related the courage of the Canaanite woman to the way the US Women religious leaders behaved  in their dealing with the bishops. They held their positions with voice and agency.  While being respectful to authority, they did not take a subservient position but one of equality and adult mutual respect.

We have a Church community where men predominantly are involved in decision making.

The gospel invites us to see the importance for women,  and for men of the church, to seek opportunities to have a voice that will enable the bishops to cross the boundaries of tradition and canon law and listen to our claims.

In both these stories the women speak directly to Jesus. We can’t speak with our leaders.

They often don’t answer letters.

Many Catholics are involved in social action as “Martha’s”  but where are their insights heard in the institutional Church.? Perhaps some of our leaders prefer sponges!!

I think that the requests of the ACCCR to the bishop to have 2 more women added to the  Instrumentum Laboris panel,  and also for a woman to be appointed as either Co Chair or Deputy Chair of the P/C are important.  But if these requests go unheeded, maybe we need to go to the media. 

I think that the parish discussion groups preparing for the P/C gave some people the courage and opportunity to share what they really thought about faith and the church.

Maybe we start with own local communities by respectfully speaking our truth and seeking to be heard.


  • Rose-Marie Prosser

    Dr Rose-Marie Prosser Rose Marie studied science and obtained a PhD in Chemistry before her journey into theological study. She has been a lecturer at the Yarra Theological Union, teaching the units “Faith, Religion and Spirituality in Contemporary Society" and "Scripture for RE teachers”. She works with teachers throughout Victoria.