On Being an Outcast

Has it ever occurred to you how many of the women mentioned in the Gospels are outcasts — people who do not conform to the norms of polite Jewish society but are, in some sense, rule-breakers? Even the Lord’s own mother came dangerously close to being ‘put away’ for the sin, as it might appear, of unchastity. The household at Bethany was unusual, to say the least, with Mary daring to sit at the feet of Jesus among the men, and Martha taking charge of rather more than the dinner arrangements. Then there is Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out; Joanna and the other women who broke with the usual social norms to follow Jesus and his disciples and provided for them out of their own resources; the woman with the issue of blood, who broke the rules of cultic purity; the notorious sinner who washed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee; the woman taken in adultery; the Syro-Phoenician who dared to ask a favour of a Jewish rabbi; and the Samaritan of today’s gospel, who has done more for our faith than many who led lives of blameless orthodoxy.

One could argue that the presentation of women in the Gospels merely reflects the prejudices of the men who wrote them, but I find it interesting that so many of the women are portrayed as courageous, insightful and much more attuned to Jesus’ message than many of his male disciples. There is a challenge here for the whole Church. It has nothing to do with questions of ordination or non-ordination; nothing to do with power or ecclesiastical politics, but everything to do with discipleship, how we follow Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to go to Jesus ‘outside the camp’. I think we could all usefully reflect on what going outside the camp might mean for us today. To be an outcast, to be outside the conventionally respectable limits of society or Church, may not be what we thought discipleship would mean. Reading through the gospel passages where these women feature would be a very good way of asking ourselves how we measure up to the Lord’s command, ‘Follow me!’ For isn’t following Jesus what Lent is all about?