“When the Anonymous Disciple Is a Man:” An Excerpt from “Nice Churchy Patriarchy: Reclaiming Women’s Humanity from Evangelicalism”
When I took my first preaching class in seminary, one of our main tasks for the quarter was to prepare and preach three sermons. The first two were preached in the classroom; the third could either be preached in the classroom or in an actual, real-life church service—in the wild, if you will.
I swallowed my OMG-this-feels-so-presumptuous anxieties and asked my pastor if I might complete my third assignment at our church. He said yes.
He assigned me a Bible passage to preach on. The text was Luke 8:1-15—a story Jesus tells about a farmer who scatters seed in four different kinds of soil. Initially, I was less than excited. Anyone who has been going to church for a while has probably heard a million sermons on this parable.
But I studied, and wrestled, and let the passage marinate. And I found myself struck by how powerful and amazing the seeds are. Unlike normal seeds, which are limited in quantity, this seed is unlimited. There is a never-ending source of it and planting it does not deplete its supply.
According to Jesus’ parable, God’s words are like that. God just keeps speaking. If God speaks to one person or group of people in one way, it does not deplete the supply of love from which God is able to speak to another person or group in a different way.
And, unlike normal seeds—which would often bear a crop of maybe fifteen-fold in a good year—this seed, when it hit good soil, bore a crop of up to one hundred-fold. That’s more than 6x the normal return on investment, for anyone who’s into that sort of thing. The power of God’s words to heal, transform, and bear fruit—fruit like love, generosity, kindness, patience, peace, and joy (Gal 5:22-3)—in our lives and our communities is very strong.
To explore these kinds of thoughts—and to perhaps help longtime churchgoers hear a familiar story with fresh ears—I spent a large chunk of the sermon speaking imaginatively from the perspective of a disciple. Not one of the twelve named apostles, but just a random anonymous member of the big, unruly group of people who were following Jesus around from town to town.
I gave a little background on what I meant when I used the word “disciple” in this context. I mentioned that the disciples were a group of learners who followed Jesus around, and that they included the twelve (male) apostles but were far from limited to them. These disciples included both men and women. I pointed out that Luke even names a few of Jesus’ female disciples in Luke 8:2-3, right before he tells the four soils story: Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene.
Then I got into the character of an Anonymous Disciple. I talked, in the first person, about what it was like for me to hear Jesus teach. I reflected on some of the reasons I decided to leave my hometown and follow this rabbi around the Judean countryside. I mentioned some of the things I really liked about his teaching so far, and some of the things I found difficult.
I asked questions, still in character, about what Jesus’ story might mean. I pointed out the parts I found confusing. I talked about the reactions I saw as I looked around, and how these reactions changed as he went on with his story. I shared why I was one of the ones who surrounded Jesus afterward and pressed in on him, asking more questions, trying so hard to understand.
Once I wrapped up the sermon, our usual Q&A time began. A woman raised her hand and shared some thoughtful reflections on the Anonymous Disciple character. As she spoke, I noticed that she referred to the Anonymous Disciple as a “he” several times. I appreciated her reflections, but the pronouns caught me off guard.
In my mind, the Anonymous Disciple was a woman. I’m a woman, after all. I didn’t try to lower my voice or act particularly masculine when I spoke in character. There was nothing particularly gendered, one way or the other, about the words I had spoken. I had even pointed out specifically that Jesus had both male and female disciples.
I almost felt like I was making a feminist statement, of sorts, by speaking so much of the sermon in the voice of a female disciple—that is, an anonymous disciple, who in my mind was female. But, despite all this, some portion of the congregation—including some women in the congregation—heard it as a male voice.
I don’t blame the woman who shared these reflections. But I do think it’s interesting. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, most of us who have been involved in (male-led) churches for a while have heard so many sermons about male Bible characters and hardly any about female Bible characters. As a result, most of us have come to associate important people in the Bible with maleness by default.
What does it do to us, when all the stories we hear preached from our pulpits are about men? Men are the protagonists. Men are the apostles. Men are the disciples. Men follow Jesus. Men make adult human choices about how to respond to Jesus. They grow in their understanding of Jesus. They say goofy things that make Jesus rebuke them. They are sent out to do the kinds of things Jesus is doing.
Women do appear in the text of the Bible, but they hardly take up any space in most sermons. And when Bible women do get some airtime, if you were to hear many (male) preachers talk, these women exist primarily as objects. The subject is the man, and the issue is how he treats a woman. A male preacher might say, Look how Jesus showed grace toward a prostitute. Wow, isn’t he merciful. Let’s be merciful too. Or, he might preach, See how Jesus took pity on a woman and healed her daughter. We, too, should be agents of healing in our world. Or, perhaps, Listen to Jesus talk about how men shouldn’t look at women lustfully. We, too, ought to be sexually pure in our thoughts and actions.
By default, the preacher and hearers are both assumed to be men. We are taught to identify with Jesus, not with the women in these stories. We are taught to hear Jesus talking to men, about women.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for men hearing that they should follow Jesus’ example in honoring women. The world would be a much better place for everybody if more men actually interacted with women like Jesus did.
But it isn’t enough. It assumes a male perspective and uses women as object lessons to teach men how to be more holy. It perpetuates (usually white) men’s tendency to see themselves as protagonists of a movie, while the rest of us are accessories, bit actors, assistants, or extras—or, sometimes, in the case of women, distractions and temptations. Villains, really, but minor ones.
Can we learn—in our pulpits and our Bible studies, our small groups and our personal Bible reading—to really see women in scripture? What would it look like to stop ignoring them? And can we learn to see them not as object lessons for men but as full humans—people who learn from and follow Jesus, just like their male counterparts? Can we see them as active participants with Jesus in the kingdom of God? Can we see them in the gospel stories among Jesus’ many unnamed disciples—learners who were learning so that one day they could teach?
I want to see and honor these female disciples—the women who show up, however quietly, in just about every story about Jesus. They are there. We are there.
Nobody really benefits from a masculinist reading of scripture. But this is the way it’s been done—so often, for so long. Women need to hear scripture preached in ways that affirm our presence and importance; men need to hear this too, lest they miss the strong, equal partners we could be. People of all genders need to hear and know that women matter.
This might feel uncomfortable for some men; it might feel like they stand to lose something from a more balanced reading of scripture. But valuing women more does not need to mean that we value men less.
Remember the seeds: God’s words are so powerful and abundant that a farmer can strew them carelessly all over a field; likewise, freedom and power and full humanness is not diminished for one group when attained by another. There is more than enough to go around. Abundantly. One hundred-fold.