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The Big Question

Would Jesus approve of inclusive language?

By Janet Silman

Because Jesus spoke Aramaic and the New Testament was originally written in Greek, all but a few of his words come to us in translated form. Asking if he would approve of inclusive language is rather like asking what kind of car he drove. Nevertheless, we can muse on the question based on clues from particular stories in the four Gospels.

Being concerned about inclusive language arises from the awareness that some categories of people are excluded by the words we choose. The most obvious example is that women are not included when we use male language. Hence, we can look at how Jesus related to women, given that he lived in a patriarchal culture whose language reflected that male bias.

Women travelled with Jesus in his little band of disciples; indeed, women “provided for him,” literally “served” or “ministered to” him (Mark 15:41). This would have been scandalous in a world where a man was not even supposed to talk to a woman in public. Can you imagine the insinuations?

In the story of sisters Martha and Mary, Jesus includes Mary as one of his disciples who “sat and listened at his feet” (Luke 10:39). To “listen at the feet” was the common expression for students studying with a rabbi, and for a Jewish rabbi to teach a woman was to flout religious conventions. Jesus appears to be making the statement that women are entitled to the same respect and opportunities for education as men.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well illustrates how he crossed multiple lines to embrace the excluded (John 4:5-42). Jesus should not have spoken to the woman, according to social dictates: as a man because of her gender; as a Jew because she was not only Gentile but Samaritan, despised by his own people; and as a religious teacher because she had been divorced several times and was living common-law. Yet they carry out a long conversation on matters of faith, a discussion that results in Jesus telling her he’s the Messiah, and in the woman becoming an evangelist.

Imagine, too, the scene where he is sharing a meal in a home when a woman enters and anoints him with expensive perfumed ointment. This story is one of the few told in all four Gospels. Only in Luke’s account is the woman identified as a “sinner” (Luke 7:36-50). While her particular sin is not identified, her actions of kissing and washing Jesus’ feet with her hair, plus the other guests’ horror at the spectacle, leads to the assumption that she was a prostitute. Even today, most religious leaders don’t want to be associated with prostitutes for fear it would ruin their reputation. But whatever the woman’s profession, each version of the story demonstrates Jesus’ regard for women and his disregard for conventions that belittle or condemn them.

Indeed, he was not above learning something from a woman. In the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), a mother begs Jesus to cast “an unclean spirit” out of her daughter. Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus is saying, in a dismissive way, that his mission is to his own people, the Jews, and that her child, being a Gentile, is not eligible to receive his healing power. The woman is quick to argue, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus then replies, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”

This is a remarkable story because it shows that Jesus was swayed by the woman’s argument. He realizes that he is called to offer salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews, an absolutely momentous shift. Without the wisdom of the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus’ mission would have excluded most of us.

Finally, you could argue that Jesus called the Divine “Abba,” which means “father” or “papa,” hence God language needs to be masculine. But Jesus also referred to himself as a mother hen who “gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37). Consequently, I don’t think “Abba” necessarily excludes female imagery for the Divine.

Do all of these stories answer the question, “Would Jesus approve of inclusive language?” I think by induction they do. Jesus was so conscious of the tyranny and pain of exclusion, and so consistent in uplifting the excluded, that I cannot imagine him defending the use of exclusive language.

Rev. Janet Silman is a minister and writer who lives on Vancouver Island.

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