Luke 1:41-48 NIV
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed:“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed…”
Recently I saw a TV interview with the English author, Ken Follett, on the release of the third novel of his trilogy (The Century Trilogy) that tells the stories of five families living through the dramatic events of the twentieth century. He was asked what he thought was the most significant event or change the last hundred years. I imagined he would say something about communism or nazism, about the two world wars, or perhaps about technology, but without hesitation he replied that it was the feminist movement. As I have reflected on this I have to agree. For thousands of years women have occupied a somewhat lesser place in human society than men, but in the last hundred years this half of the human population of the world has emerged from the shadows of repression and taken its place as equal to the other half of the population, the male half.
Feminism is a response to the reality that for the whole of recorded history women have been treated badly by men. They have been regarded as inferior, weaker, of less value. They have been exploited, used and abused. The reasons for this have been endlessly debated, but the reality of the observation is not contested. Even when women have been treated well by men it has not always been because they have been regarded as equal, but rather a reflection of the benevolence of the other party, the male. The feminist movement has gone a long way to correcting this imbalance, but even in the most enlightened societies there appear to still be problems to be addressed. In the country in which I live, Sweden, which is arguably the most feministic country in the world, there is a political party which has feminism as the cornerstone of its identity. This party sees many of the ills of society as having their roots in the gender inequality of a male dominated world.
In Israel two thousand years ago there was no feminist movement and women were often treated as inferior. But not by God. The first chapter of Luke makes it clear that God regards women highly. The contrast between the description of Zechariah’s response to the angel Gabriel and Mary’s makes it clear that even in the early church, the first readers of this document, there was an understanding that spiritual understanding and maturity, not to mention openness to the extraordinary acts of God were not the prerogative of men. Mary, a young, uneducated women was clearly more receptive to God than Zechariah, displayed greater faith despite the fact that she was in a far more vulnerable position and had much more to lose.
The many stories of women of faith which appear in the pages of the Bible clearly show a God that clearly sees men and women as equal. Feminism, the desire for equality of the sexes, has its roots in the nature and character of God. God does not discriminate between the sexes as we do. His values are different to ours and his acts involve women as readily as men. Women are not an appendage to men, they have value in their own right. In many cases, including the story in Luke’s first chapter, women show themselves superior to men. Here in the lead up to the birth of Jesus, Zechariah the priest has retreated into the background, while Mary and Elizabeth are instrumental in God’s purposes, becoming spokespersons for the nature and character of God. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the proclamation of Mary in response to Elizabeth’s words is so theologically extraordinary that we can only assume that the young newly pregnant Mary was also filled with the Holy Spirit. Since Luke penned this biography two thousand years ago these two women have proclaimed God to the world in a way that few men have equalled. It is true that the two sons they would bear became extraordinary men, but their mothers were extraordinary women.
Luke was a doctor and would have had much to do with women over the years, in view of the fact that pregnancy and childbirth caused so much illness, suffering and death in the ancient world. In contrast perhaps to the culture surrounding him he was happy to portray women as of equal value to men, in this case superior. He was reflecting God’s heart. God loves his daughters as much as his sons. He does not prefer one to the other, unlike many people in many cultures. He sees us as being of equal value and is as likely to choose a women to bear his good tidings to the world as he is to choose a man.