Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.‘ (Luke 1:18-20)
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name’. (Luke 1:41b-49)
What you find in the Bible utterly depends on what lens you read it through. At the beginning of this year, I resolved that I would read just the Bible itself, not filtered through anyone else’s view distilled in Bible reading notes. I decided to start with Luke, my favourite Gospel, a chapter at a time, which means that after Christmas I re-read the so familiar Christmas, or rather pre-Christmas, stories.
Now when I read the Bible I often do so with my feminist spectacles on, and it’s sometimes surprising what I find. Reading these narratives whole, rather than in short extracts, made me notice something I’m quite embarrassed not to have noticed before. This is a story in which the voice of the male religious leader, Zechariah the priest, is silenced; while the voices of the women, unheard in the official space of the Temple, are released into prophecy. And what prophecy! If Mary’s speech were a political manifesto (and essentially, it is) she would almost certainly be accused of Marxist idealism. If John the Baptist is in some ways the last Old Testament prophet, then Mary is perhaps the first New Testament one. And when in chapter 4 we hear Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto’, there is no need to guess where he learned his radicalism. His mother was his first teacher.
Link this up with the little-noticed fact that Anna, in the following chapter, is called a prophet, while Simeon is not (perhaps because we have a record of his prophetic words, so there is no need to point it out), and we have a major theme of Luke’s story. Throughout his Gospel, almost every parable focused on a man, often representing God, is paired with one focused on a woman (see for instance the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in chapter 13, or the lost sheep and the lost coin in chapter 15). Even when Jesus speaks of ‘the sign of Jonah’ (11:29ff) Luke pairs this with a reference to ‘the Queen of the South’ coming from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon (I’m indebted to Trisha Dale for this insight on the pairing of parables in Luke.)
Surely this is a foretaste of the new age proclaimed by Peter in Luke’s second book, Acts, when he quotes Joel in declaring that:
‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.’ (Joel 2:28-9)
I have a little test I apply to historic and current ‘renewal’ or ‘revival’ movements in the church. If the movement enhances the status of women and makes them equal to men in ministry and authority, it is probably a genuine move of God’s Spirit. If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t. It’s not infallible, but I do think it is biblical, based on Joel’s prophecy and what we see here in Luke. And there is a warning here as well as a promise: if we are to hear the voices of women telling God’s truth, if we are to hear the voice of God mediated through women, the men, however official and authoritative their position, however much status we have given them, may indeed need to be silenced for a while.