Differences between men and women have always been fertile ground for jokes! Some of them good, others less so. Some jokes considered good and funny in the past can be perceived nowadays as embarrassing at best, or insulting or sexist at worst. There also exists a much darker side regarding differences between men and women. In many cultures over the millennia, women have often been treated unequally, unfairly or harshly. Sometimes women have been effectively reduced to chattels, expendable possessions, inferior even to property or domesticated animals. In 2018, one hundred years after some women in the United Kingdom were allowed the Vote, one of the topical subjects in the public sphere is ‘pay inequality’ or ‘the gender gap’ where men are earning more than women for doing the same job. In Saudi Arabia, women are practically imprisoned in their houses unless an adult male member of the family chaperones them outside. Until only recently, women in Saudi Arabia weren’t even allowed to drive their own cars. Arranged marriages, where girls on reaching a certain age are forced to marry much older men, are still common in many parts of the world. What saddens me is that religious tradition is commonly employed to justify such degrading treatment of, and attitudes towards, women.
Thankfully, despite some dodgy interpretations conveniently favouring men over women, the Christian faith offers a genuine message of respect towards women. However strange it may sound, today’s gospel – seemingly heroically demanding – conveys such a message. How’s that? To understand Jesus’ teaching correctly, it is essential to put it into context. In ancient Israel a man could divorce his wife on a whim. Without any social care or benefit system in place, without any effective legal protection, the woman was simply abandoned and left to her fate. So, the ban on divorce as pronounced by Jesus offered women protection from whimsical dismissal. Jesus backs up his argument by recalling the story of the Creation of the first people, commonly identified as Adam and Eve. Part of that story we heard in today’s first reading, and I’d like to invite you to take a closer look.
First things first. The creation of man out of dust, and the woman out of his rib, in a scientific, historical and biological sense is non-sense. But this story is true in a spiritual and metaphorical sense; it conveys a wonderful message that never goes out of date. The creation of man out of dust is a pointed recognition by the biblical author that we belong to this world, that we are part of it and that we share our lot with other living creatures. Such a realisation, made some 2500 years ago, was confirmed by the discovery and subsequent sequencing of DNA in the 20th century. So, biologically we are indeed animals. But the biblical author was fully aware that we possess something much greater than any animal. He called it ‘the breath of life’, a spiritual component gifted by God that makes us fully human. Then we have the search for the man’s helpmate. That’s a rather wonderful translation that already hints at the final outcome of this drama. No animal, having been brought to the man, meets the criterion of a helpmate. Translating this metaphor, nothing can really fulfil man’s need of love. So, God creates a woman out of the man’s rib. His reaction to that new creature is really moving: ‘This at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!’ Or, in another, much less poetic) way, he recognises her as his equal: someone he can love, and someone who can respond to him with love.
So, where do today’s biblical readings leave us? If we go for a narrowly focused, literal interpretation, we can have an academic and potentially divisive discussion on marriage, divorce and canonical legislation. That would be well above my pay grade. But taking the wider view and aiming to achieve – I believe – a more accurate interpretation, we can see that Jesus cares about those who are powerless, vulnerable, susceptible to exploitation or abuse. The lesson of today’s readings is that we ought to dig beyond external appearances to recognise a fellow human being in absolutely everyone, because ‘this is bone from my bones and flesh my flesh!’