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Jesus’ use of power to restore honour PDF Print E-mail

Rev.Dr. Richard Howell

Women usually do not have the same social power in church circles or society as men do. Because social power is interpersonal, social interaction is the place where conflict between the sexes is most visible. It is here that women are regularly reminded what their "place" is and here that they are put back in their place, should they dare to move out?

Since the space of social interaction serves as the most common means of social control employed against women, the interactions in social space define who is seen and heard and valued, and who is not, who has power and who does not.

Power is constructed and communicated in social space through interactions. Our cultural practices repeatedly remind women of their inferior status in their interactions with others, and women are continually compelled to acknowledge that status in their own patterns of behaviour. The tragic story is that many women internalize the cultural Definitions of them as inferior so completely that they are often ignorant of what their status is.

Inferiority becomes habitual. For instance women contribute 62% of all hours worked and yet they receive 10% of the global income. In developed countries women working outside the home earn 40-70% of men's earnings.

1. Women own less than 1% of the world’s property. According to the Development Institute for Women, 70% of the world's absolute poor are women. As reported by Shari Kelly, "Poverty still wears a woman’s face."

2. 75% of the world’s illiterates are women. The Indian Medical Association estimates that five million female fetuses are aborted every year.

According to a UNICEF report in 2006, in India “an estimated 7,000 fewer girls are born every day because of the spread of cheap, prenatal sex determination technology." Access to medical care, food, and education is limited for poor women worldwide.

Because of prejudice or ignorance, the majority of women are excluded from the decision-making that impacts their lives, giving them a sense of worthlessness. The cultural stigma against women, often based on religious views of their lesser value, leads even to the genocide of women either through violence, abortion, or female infanticide. However, if the message and mission of Jesus Christ is "to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free," (Luke 4:18) then we have a responsibility to restore dignity and power to women. Jesus is our model.


Power is essential for life and leadership

Power is the capacity to cause or prevent change, without it leaders cannot lead. Power is like a tool wielded to make something happen and more like the water we drink to stay alive. Personal power for self definition and self-determination is essential to our health and well-being.

Since brahmanical caste hierarchy defined and destined Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to the status of a low caste untouchable, he converted. He chose to define himself, as he stated, I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu. Caste hierarchy views power as “power over” which creates a relationship of domination and subjugation. This is a practice bound up with social and cultural practices of everyday and entire society is caught up in it. Personal power leads to the freedom to exercise power in social settings, which is often denied particularly to women.


Power exercised in social space is dynamic

The gospels describe Jesus in social space. His teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance ministry happened in socially gathered space. Hospitality events, such as meals, were in particular important places for power dynamics between Jesus and others present. In social space people are relationally oriented, as participants, or as observers and interpreters. During Jesus’ time, power interactions in public and social settings mostly happened between males. The observers would decide who had authority and value and therefore, who would have the power to influence them, who would have honour.

Jesus exercised power in social settings

Jesus regularly exercised his power in social settings to challenge traditional group customs. One such case is recorded in Luke 7:36-50, which portrays Jesus' use of power to restore a woman to a position of honour! There are three vital characters in this story. The Lord Jesus, the woman and Simon, who was a Pharisee. It is from these characters and their relationship with each other that the message of the story is to be found.

Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee for a meal. It is possible, since Jesus had gained a reputation of a famous teacher, this may have led to the invitation by Simon. The open doors of the host’s house to such events gave opportunity to the uninvited to come in as they desired. Not like the invited guests who would recline at the banquet table, they would sit or stand around the room. The Pharisees knew that Jesus had sinners as followers and that he ate with tax collectors (Luke 15), yet still they invited him to a banquet. The woman who was an uninvited guest at the banquet was there long enough to observe Simon’s treatment of Jesus.

The "woman who had led a sinful life", came expecting to anoint Jesus as a sign of gratitude after the traditional social formalities were extended. The text says she brought the alabaster jar of perfume with her. She must have heard Jesus speak about God’s love for sinners and the forgiveness Jesus offers. And she wanted to show her gratitude. Besides her gender and sinner status in the town, nothing is known about her. Her lack of specific identity in that social space meant she had no power to influence. She was noticed, but not valued.

Simon, the Pharisee, is named and he had every type of social power. As a Pharisee he was considered an expert in holiness; he held fast to every aspect and interpretation of the Jewish purity laws and codes. His public adherence to the observances and laws of the Torah marked him as having honour and thus social status. As a male he had role power over the women, children, and slaves in the household. Simon took up a great deal of social space.

Jesus, like Simon, also had power in that social setting. He was watched by all. He was known for his knowledge of the scriptures and with his ability to confront his opponents with logic, parables, and returned questions. He was known for his righteousness. Persons flocked to hear his teachings and were touched by his miraculous powers. Wherever Jesus travelled, he used his power to catalyze a reformation of thinking about hospitality, outsiders, interpretation of the law, economic systems, and the practice of the religious system.

For whatever reason Simon may have invited Jesus for a meal, he visibly omitted the traditional hospitalities extended to a guest. Jesus should have been greeted with a kiss, his feet should have been washed, and his head anointed with oil. By withholding the hospitality rituals, he had challenged Jesus’ honour in public. He did not consider Jesus to be a prophet! Jesus reclined for meal without the ritual cleansing. The woman, who observed the omissions and who had come prepared to add the anointing of her perfume at the end of the hospitality rituals, moved to make up for Simon's neglect. The woman, not having water or towel, used her tears and hair to extend hospitality to Jesus. Standing behind Jesus, she risked more shame by uncovering her hair, and by touching the feet of a holy man. The woman offered wordless worship by her silent action. Jesus dignified her by allowing her to serve him. Jesus signalled an acceptance of her gesture of love and gratitude.

Jesus turned to Simon and told a parable, asked a question, and then turned to the woman, comparing the quality of her hospitality to Simon's. Jesus used her actions to shame Simon's lack of action. Jesus' use of her public actions also suggested that she became the righteous one, rather than Simon, as she was the one bestowing the hospitality. Simon, the righteous Pharisee, became the sinner, who acted to preserve his own status at the expense of Jesus and the woman. Jesus exercised his power and lost nothing. The audacity of the woman’s loving act illustrates the capacity of even the powerless to influence change in a social setting, if someone in power acknowledges the act. It's the bounded duty of the leader to involve those on the margins in decision making process, by making them active participants in the social space.


Jesus invited others to his personal space

Jesus used it in social settings to invite others into his personal space. Acknowledging the haemorrhaging woman who touched him, touching  the leper, calling the poor blind Bartimaeus over to him, demonstrate the ways Jesus invited the powerless, the outsider, and the desperate into the sacred personal space around him. By his doing so, the individual would be given status and would have access to what Jesus could offer. Physical nearness with Jesus had the power to heal and restore these persons to meaningful roles in the community.

In Church circles leaders exercise power in social and public space. The temptation is to use it to maintain current religious and social systems which ensure status and authority. Jesus' use of power led to public display of honour to the marginalized. Jesus used his power to invite others in by creating a spirit of hospitality which Jesus modelled. Power must not be used to promote a spirit of personal elitism, where others are excluded. As stated in the introduction, the most pronounced place of injustice in power dynamics is between men and women. These power dynamics have moral implications for gender relations, especially in the church, society and home. Males are usually iven more power than females. For instance, many churches value more male expertise and role power, for major decision making concerns. Women’s expertise is not as valued. Men can serve as pastors or elders and women often cannot. Women are considered too emotional or illogical to be trusted.

Cultures give more status to males than females, therefore, males are usually given more power to change and influence than females in social settings. However, Jesus used his considerable power to empower and subvert the status quo, not to maintain it. Preserving status and power is contrary to Jesus' use of power to restore. He used social space to subvert unequal power relations and injustices because of his great love. In the social space, it is critical for Church’s health and future to learn to use power well. The persons having a large amount of social power have the ability to bring the powerless into their space. Therefore, power is not to be shunned or hidden. Acquiring power is an important act of spiritual stewardship. In fact, a person cannot serve as a leader without the power and personal capacity to influence. Servant leadership comes not through the giving up of power, but through bringing the marginalized and shunned into one’s power circle for redemptive purposes. Jesus did not give up his authority. He gave up his right to exercise his authority for self-serving purposes. Men in the church who have personal power can use social space to bring women into leadership conversations, not as a token presence but as real contributors to the decision-making and influencing processes of the church. Women have a perspective and strength essential to the well-being of the community. Disregarding this puts the community and males and females at risk for failure.

Jesus approved a woman into his personal space as a gesture of his acceptance of her humanity, dignity and equal value to that of Simon a prominent male religious leader. Jesus reconstructed the identity and status of a woman in social space by naming her service and contribution. By adopting the model of Jesus, those with large amounts of social power have a primary responsibility to steward it for the benefit of the oppressed. If we as Bible believing Christians took seriously the plight of women in the world, as a response of love, we could also make as profound a difference as did Jesus Christ.


Footnotes
1. M. Vianello and E. Caramazza. Gender, Space, and Power (London: Free Association Books, 2005). 26-27.

2. Shari M. Kelly. “The Worldwide Suffering of Women,” Mutuality (Winter, 2002): 5

Mary Kate Morse, Jesus’ Use of Social Power in Honour–Shame Conflicts: A Model for Male–Female Interactions.