Meditation In A Time Of Social Isolation: Women and the Word

On the day of the resurrection, two disciples are walking to Emmaeus. Famously, Jesus appears to them – though they do not recognize him – and asks them what they are talking about. They are flabbergasted: “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened here?” they say. And they tell Jesus all about Jesus, “a prophet mighty in word and deed” who has been crucified. “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say, forlornly (Luke 24:18-21).

One of these disciples is Kleopas. The other, some say, is a woman. She is Kleopas’s wife, NT Wright suggests, Kleopas and Mrs. Kleopas going home together now that Jesus their leader is dead. It’s an attractive idea, at first glance. Why not, after all? We know that there were women among Jesus’ disciples. Women followed Jesus from Galilee, Luke says, and they stood watching at the cross (23:49). Afterwards they stayed together with “the eleven and all the rest” (24:9) in Jerusalem; it was “some women of our group”, Kleopas says, who went to the tomb (24:22). To say that one of the disciples on the road to Emmaeus could have been a woman is to pay attention to the fact that women were among the disciples.

But the two on the road to Emmaeus, I think, are men. I say this because a close reading of Luke’s text points this way. But I say it also because the women, in Luke, overwhelmingly believe; from the beginning they sing their faith. Yet these two disciples – until Jesus makes himself known to them in the breaking of the bread – do not. The gospel has a striking word to say about the role of women in the economy of God.

First, Luke’s text.

At 23:49, Luke tells us particularly that the women are there at the cross. “All who knew him stood afar off, and the women who followed him from Galilee stood watching these things” (23:49).

And there’s more. The word “watching” is feminine (a participle). That means it applies only to the women (because in Greek, as in many inflected languages, if women and men are represented together by a word the gender markers must be masculine). Either this is emphatic – nota bene, the women too were there watching – or Luke is making a distinction. The women were watching. Of the rest, “all who knew him,” Luke says only that “they stood afar off.”

Luke’s emphasis on the women continues. These women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and stood watching at the cross follow him also to the tomb (23:55). They see where his body is laid, and they go buy spices and myrrh. When the Sabbath is over, early on the first day of the week, these women go to the tomb with the spices: “they went,” Luke says, “taking the spices which they had prepared” (24:1). Only the women go to the tomb – we know that because the words are feminine – and all the women go to the tomb. Luke does not say “some” of the women who followed him from Galilee go to the tomb, but “the women” who followed him from Galilee go to the tomb (23:55; 24:1).

It is the women who watch at the cross. It is the women who see Jesus buried. And it is the women who see the angels and the empty tomb.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the men in shining raiment say to the women. “He is not here! He is risen.” Then the angels say, “Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee: that the son of man must be handed over into the hands of sinners and be crucified on the third day rise again” (24:5-7).

And the women remembered his words, the gospel says (24:8).

The women follow, and see, and believe.

And immediately they go and announce all this to the eleven and all the rest (24:9). The women are the first evangelists. The word of resurrection goes out into the world first on their lips. At the resurrection, the women are given the gospel word. It is theirs to speak.

Why do I think the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaeus is not a woman? Because the women saw the cross and the empty tomb. Because the women remembered Jesus’ words and believed. The two on the way to Emmaeus, however, do not.

“Oh how foolish you are!” Jesus says to them. “How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets said” (24:25). “We had hoped,” the two disciples say to the stranger as they tell him about Jesus of Nazareth mighty in word and deed, and his cross. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). We used to hope, they say, but Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified, and we hope no longer.

Even though “some women of our group astounded us,” they say in the very next breath (24:22), we hope no longer. Oh yes, they have heard the women’s good news. “They told us they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive,” the two disciples say to Jesus (24:23). But the disciples do not remember what Jesus said, and they do not remember the words of the prophets, and they do not believe.

Luke has already told us they do not believe.

The women announced these things to the eleven and all the rest. Now the women were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the rest of the women with them. They tried to tell these things to the apostles but these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them (24:9-11).

The disciples on the road to Emmaeus – in striking contrast to Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the rest of the women with them – do not remember and do not believe.

I do not know why the women believe at the resurrection, while the rest of the disciples do not. Women do not seem to me any more or less faithful or perceptive than men, in the general run of things. It is, Luke seems to say, an act of grace. These women, absorbed in the ancient texts into the masculine pronoun, are now by the cross of Christ and at his empty tomb lifted up, distinguished, honoured.

These women without a word are given by God’s grace the first word of the new day.

“The tomb is empty! Come and see!” Jesus lives, they say. In the day of the resurrection, the women are given the Word.

It is thus from the beginning of the gospel. Zechariah does not believe the angel’s word, but Elizabeth – Elizabeth says to Mary her cousin as the child leaps in her womb, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42).

“My soul magnifies the Lord!” Mary says,

And my spirit rejoices in God my saviour For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden (1:46-48).

At the beginning of our gospel, Mary sings the good news. From the beginning of Luke’s gospel down through the centuries Mary’s word sounds, and at the gospel’s end the women at the tomb join their word to hers. Our good news is Mary’s song, and it is Joanna’s word and Mary Magdalene’s. We sing Mary’s song still at every Evensong; we repeat the women’s proclamation at every feast of Christ’s rising, today. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He has shown strength with his arm.

The women are given the word. The gospel about Jesus Christ is theirs – is ours – to proclaim, in song, in word, and in mission, then and now.

The women are given the word. It is a fact of the gospel.

Thanks be to God.

Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge of St. Matthew's Riverdale, and Professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek (part-time) at Wycliffe College. She has served also as Chaplain at Havergal College and Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill and St. John the Baptist, Norway (Toronto). She enjoys singing around the piano with her kids, her husband's Indian food, all things Italian -- and above all her two little grandchildren. Catherine and David live in Greektown. She blogs occasionally on feasts and fasts at feastfastferia.wordpress.com.