Last year, at one of the sessions in the RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) program, we were discussing the role of women in the church and sharing our thoughts on why Jesus hadn’t perhaps more formally defined their role; opting instead for an all male contingent of apostles even though there were women with whom He had strong friendships and who played major roles in the gospels. While I’m sure scholars have offered many views over the last two thousand years, one of the participants in the program, Dominique, offered what I thought was both a humorous but also insightful perspective. She said (with a big smile) that having many brothers herself, the answer was quite obvious: men need more structure than women and that’s why Jesus had to give them more defined roles. No offense to all males out there, but what a great answer! And while it’s certainly not my intent to wade into the various gender debates, what I do think the gospels offer us is two different models of discipleship regardless of gender.
The apostles display a model of discipleship during Jesus ministry that sort of mirrors how many of us live our faith: good intentions but lots of stumbles. For example, while the apostles gave up everything to follow Him, in Luke 9, despite Jesus teaching of love, we see James and John ask Jesus if “they should call down fire from heaven” on a Samaritan village that refuses to welcome them. (I can imagine even Jesus rolled His eyes at that one.) And while Peter gets tagged with denying Jesus, all of the apostles at the last supper claimed they would stick by Jesus no matter what, but scattered pretty quickly when push came to shove. While I can skip over Judas as we all know his story. (By the way, still not a popular name for newborns!) Later of course after Jesus rose from the dead, there was “doubting Thomas”. All in all, not an auspicious start to the church.
The women however, come across much better, starting with the ultimate model of discipleship, the Blessed Virgin. When the angel Gabriel appears, telling her she is going to bear a child, Mary’s response isn’t hey, um, could this wait until after the wedding? Or let me talk to Joseph and get his reaction. Instead she immediately recognizes the will of God and famously says “let it be done”. Then there is Mary Magdalene, who is with Jesus mother at the foot of the cross. And appears in each of the 4 gospels on Easter Sunday at the tomb. Her faithfulness is rewarded being the first person to see the risen Christ, and Mary then goes on to convey the “Good News” to the apostles.
Of the two models of discipleship shown above, I suspect most of us, regardless of gender, fall into first group. We want to be faithful, patient, prayerful, generous, loving, but like Peter in Matthew 14, trying to walk across the water to Jesus but losing faith and sinking, we struggle in the course of our daily lives; and perhaps not as often as we should, need to reach out to God for a helping hand. But I suspect this is all part of God’s plan.
Yes, we come into this world with gifts, talents, energies and so forth, all meant to help us create God’s kingdom here on earth and to realize our potential. But if we’re not careful, we can end up believing that the accolades or status we sometimes receive are indicative of our specialness. However, as both of the Marys show us, there is also a need for us to be strong through our humility, fidelity and service to others, even though the world may not always recognize or value the importance of that role.