As a Roman Catholic woman called to ordained ministry, I have had to confront a question arising from hierarchical opposition to women’s ordination, “What gives you women the authority to preach and to administer the Sacraments?”
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They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ (Mk 1:21-27, NRSV)
When I seek internally for a sense of my own authority to teach, I find an empty space — a specific empty space. It resembles a corner of the narthex in my childhood church. Arriving there Sundays with my parents, brother, and sister, I heard the vestibule door close behind us; felt my feet crossing slippery tiles toward sanctuary door; inhaled amalgamated fragrances of candle wax, communion hosts, flowers, and newsprint misalettes; and saw ushers, priests, and acolytes preparing for mass. I prepared too — by casting out my girlness as though it were an unclean spirit.
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They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mk 1:21-22)
What can we learn from studying Mark’s comparison? Presuming “astounded” means a positive response to Jesus’ teaching, perhaps Mark tells us Jesus was a better teacher than the scribes of the Capernaum synagogue. Or maybe Mark illustrates the elevated nature of Jesus’ teaching by comparing it favorably against that of those with an established reputation for knowledge. Or, did the gospel writer have an ax to grind in regard to the scribes? Although these angles are worthy of exploration, there is another option I find more useful here.
“Astounded” can mean a notable and surprising difference without regard to positive or negative, better or worse. This leads me to ask what distinguished the authority of Jesus’ teaching from the authority of these scribes’ teaching. Scribes’ authority derived from their encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and tradition, which made them an invaluable resource to their religious communities. Probably a man became a scribe by studying under men who were scribes. It seems reasonable to imagine this might at times have been passed down in families from father to son or uncle to nephew.
Matthew 13:55 tells us Jesus was a “carpenter’s son.” Legend images Jesus as apprenticed to his father Joseph in carpentry. The gospels, however, do not depict Jesus as carpenter. In the gospels, Jesus teaches, heals, and gives people food. To whom was he apprenticed in these?
Why, to his mother of course . . .
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On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (Jn 2:1-5)
Although women of Jesus’ time were restricted from acting in the public sphere, the household was largely their domain. There they educated the children (and servants or slaves if any), tended the sick, and prepared and served food. The wedding in Cana story is compatible with Jesus having been apprenticed to Mary in these roles.
As far as we know, Jesus never married. Nonetheless, at someone else’s wedding, Mary pushes him out of the nest. The story begins, “On the third day,” meaning it is “the fullness of time;” it marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Note the unspoken yet mutually understood meanings in this telling exchange: Mary says, “They have no wine;” Jesus hears something like, “The wine has run out, so help everyone out by doing what I know you can do.” Jesus refuses, “My hour has not come.” Mary hears something like, “I don’t feel ready to grow up and leave home.” But she remains confident that Jesus will understand and follow through. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants. It is the confidence of a teacher who knows her disciple is ready for commencement.
Mary’s teaching is sacramental — “mediating the grace of God through the concrete stuff of creation for the sanctification of human communities and the well-being of all God’s creation” (Moore, 10). At the wedding in Cana she presides over the sacrament of Jesus’ marriage to public ministry. Mary is able to mediate God’s grace because she meditates on it: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She teaches in intimate connection with daily life: “They have no wine.” And her teaching has healing effect in human communities – as, in this case, the community is able to fully celebrate the wedding.
I believe these things account for the astoundingly different type of authority heard in Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. It is sacramental, and he learned it from his mom. Since women didn’t teach in the synagogue, people weren’t used to this type of teaching there. No wonder they were astounded.
So what gives me the authority to teach? I guess it could be Mary, taking a seat in the part of my heart that is a corner of the narthex of my childhood church (St. Mary of the Mills, by the way), saying, “They have no . . .” For if Mary was Jesus’ first role model of teaching, healing, and sharing meals as sacramental acts, then gender is no obstacle to effectively administering sacraments that pertain to any of these. But maybe we women should refrain from carpentry?
Moore, Mary Elizabeth. 2004. Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.