I come from the populous and volatile Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, where polygamy is a norm of the society. In this region, the practice of polygamy is associated with power, wealth, fame and influence. Generally, women are considered less important than men, and are confined to domestic duties. The Highlands are not alone.
In contemporary Papua New Guinea, rates of violence against women, gender discrimination and abuse are alarming. Rape, sexual assault, discrimination and inequality are the hallmarks of a society racing with time and ignorance. The mistreatment of half our population is a national disaster! Given this crisis, a lone female politician in our male-dominated national parliament recently proposed legislation that would reserve 22 seats for women. The reason for her radical proposal is that it is necessary to ensure women are involved in national decision-making and nation building. The proposed bill attracted stiff opposition from all sectors of society but it finally became law in November 2011, to great rejoicing among women and their male supporters in PNG.
Rape, sexual assault, discrimination and inequality are the hallmarks of a society racing with time and ignorance.
The issues of gender inequality, violence, abuse, prejudice and intolerance not only challenge society, but also the Church, and they not only challenge PNG but the entire world. Personally, I was influenced by cultural presuppositions and ignorance of feminine importance in the Scripture, and held reservations of promoting the idea of gender equality and tolerance in my community and the Church.But recently my perception has been challenged by the way Jesus treated women. In fact, I’ve discovered in Scripture that Jesus did not embrace anti-women views. Especially, in the five narratives in the Gospel of John, He underscored their significance, not only in the plan of salvation but also to the society in which they belonged. Let me explain.
Woman of Samaria
Jesus overlooked the cultural prejudice and marginalisation of the Samaritan woman and respected her status and worth (John 4:4-25). The setting of the encounter was the popular Jacob’s well. Here He met a woman who had a questionable reputation, who came to the well at midday to fetch water. This is in contrast to Nicodemus who came by night in the previous chapter to converse with Jesus (3:1,2). The middle of the day in very hot regions of the world is not generally when hard work is undertaken. Hence both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman appeared at an inappropriate time, probably to avoid ridicule and judgement.
Immediately, Jesus asked the woman for a drink. Having realised that He was a Jew, she instantly resisted His request. Arguably, however, her reluctance was deeply imbedded in her cultural world view. As one theologian notices, three major differences between Jews and Samaritans are echoed in the narrative. Firstly, the Jews and the Samaritans were ethnic enemies who made worship claims based on their geographic location. Secondly, religiously, the Samaritans only acknowledged the five books of Moses as Scripture while the Jews included the writings of the prophets. Thirdly, morally, Jesus was the Son of God while the woman was a fallen human being.
However, against all these barriers, Jesus proceeded to engage her in a serious theological discussion. The issue at stake was the misconstrued notion of salvation held by both the Jews and the Samaritans. According to Jesus, the proper places of worship are not necessarily important but rather those who worship in truth and in Spirit are God’s children. The reason is because God is a Spirit and His existence is not bound by geography and ethnicity.
Meanwhile, Jesus addressed the Samaritan woman gu,nai (verse 21) in a vocative feminine noun, a significant term used by the author to express favourability of her worth and dignity. By the usage of gu,nai He explicably demonstrated the love and grace of God filtered through the barriers of ethnicity, religion and gender, and touched her perplexed soul.
Furthermore, He politely appealed to her misguided world view and personal background for the need of God’s acceptance, forgiveness and salvation. She accepted the gift of salvation and became a missionary to her own people. Thus, women of questionable integrity, different ethnicity and religious affiliation are still the object of God’s grace and love. Despite their background, they are of value in the kingdom of God.
The woman in adultery
The grace and respect Christ showed to the Samaritan woman was not an exception. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and offered her salvation (John 8:2-24). Instead of uttering judgement on her, Christ stooped down and wrote on the sand. The reason was to show her value in spite of the judgement passed against her. Just like the Samaritan woman, Christ used the same vocative feminine noun, gu,nai, to show God’s mercy and inspire hope to her battered soul.
Mary and Martha of Bethany
The word hvga,pa appears five times in the Gospel of John (11:5, 13:23, 19:26, 21:7 and 21:20). Four of the five occurrences relate to John’s intimate relationship with Jesus. However, one occurrence of the verb hvga,pa—in an indicative imperfect active form in this context—implies an ongoing affection, intimacy and love between Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Thus, Jesus’ relationship with these sisters encompasses the true value of friendship with the opposite gender. There is no demonstration of exploitation and abuse, in spite of the spirit of exploitation evident in the disciples, notably Judas Iscariot (John 12:4-6). In fact, divine love underscores the importance of tolerance of feminine relationships and discourages abuse and exploitation of women. Besides, in spite of the prejudices, Jesus demonstrated that meaningful and positive relationships can be developed with the opposite gender for the glory of God.
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Finally, Jesus demonstrated that His mother was important in many ways. He treated her with a great deal of attention and respect. Christ’s first miracle was performed to honour her trust and to strengthen the faith of His disciples. Even at His most agonising point, Christ did not neglect His mother. On the cross, Jesus leaves both His mother and the second generation of Christians in the care of the beloved disciple, the only one who has seen and fully understood His glory. He used gu,nai (John 2:4; 19:26) to indicate the significance of her maternal role. Thus, divine love does not undermine the value of women but rather elevates their significance in society.
From the perspective of the Gospel of John, women take centre stage in the mission of Christ on earth. They are the object of God’s redemptive love. They are created in the image of God. It is central to Christianity that women be treated with dignity and respect.
I lament my ignorance of the importance of women in Scripture and my cultural perception of women in society at large. As a Christian, I see the treatment given by Jesus to women as a solid argument and testimony for respect and equality for women in our societies. Therefore, I encourage Christian men to support and promote respect and equality for women. I see the invaluable lessons of the importance of women in John’s narratives as a source of inspiration and guidance for all men.
Peter Barnabas Pamula is currently studying his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Religion, majoring in Biblical Studies in the AIIAS Seminary. Before that he served the PNGUM.