On Jesus’ Choosing Twelve Males

I know that many of you wake up on Fridays eager for the weekly Karl Barth post. I hate to put you off another day, but today I have something a bit more pressing to take care of.

Yesterday, I posted the first of two responses I wanted to make to John Piper’s description of Christianity as a “masculine” religion. Rachel Held Evans has issued the summons for replies, and I think this is an important moment to inject a more biblically sound reading of gender issues in the church. Thanks, Rachel, for stirring us to positive response.

Today’s issue has to do with the significance of Jesus’ choosing of twelve men to be his disciples. This is one of several issues I take up in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The story within which this selection of the twelve is embedded leads us to draw a very different point from Piper’s.

Jesus chooses twelve men. These twelve Jesus specially commissions. Jesus came preaching, casting out demons, and healing. The disciples are sent to preach and heal and cast out demons.

Jesus comes proclaiming and inaugurating the reign of God, and these men are sent out to participate in that coming. When Jesus feeds the 5,000, he hands the bread to them. They are the chosen. They are the insiders.

In contrast (let’s stick to Mark’s Gospel here), the women in the story are marginal. There are small handfuls of nameless women. They touch Jesus’ robe, they ask for healing for their daughters, they throw a few coins in a box in the temple, they anoint Jesus’ head with oil.

So while the women are coming in and going out, acting on faith and finding praise for their faith, it’s the boys who are getting it done!

Getting it done, that is, right up until the great, transitional moment in the story.

“Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ.” Ok, so far so good. Then, Jesus begins to tell them what this title entails: “The Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die. Then he’ll be raised.”

Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me Satan.”

What happens then?

Move on to ch. 9, and the disciples who had been empowered to exorcise are unable to cast out a demon. The disciples who had been given the charge to proclaim cannot overcome the mute-making spirit.

Later that same chapter Jesus again predicts his death. The disciples’ reaction? They walk along debating with each other about who is going to be greatest in God’s coming kingdom.

We begin to see what they don’t get about Jesus’ ministry: the cross turns the economy of the world on its head. They have a standard of greatness that entails a certain kind of leadership and power, but Jesus wants to transform their ideas. He wants them to see greatness in the cross and the child.

As if Mark, or Jesus, thought we might miss the point, we get the whole thing a third time.

Jesus predicts his death, and this time the subsequent response of the disciples is James’ and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand. Again, Jesus has to combat not merely the request, but the wrongheaded assumption about what greatness in the kingdom of God looks like:

Jesus called them over and said, “ You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Mark 10:42-44, CEB)

In the story, the disciples do not understand what is entailed in leading the people of God. They think it is about greatness and power rather than service and death.

And so, we have the group represented by Peter. The rock. Is being “the rock” a good thing? In Mark, the rocky soil indicates plants that spring up well, but fall away when danger or persecution arise on account of the word. Mark repeats the language of “falling away” when the disciples scatter, leaving Jesus to die alone.

The Twelve were committed to Jesus, and happy with him–but only as one who came with power. They had no faith in their calling to participate in his way of death. They did not have eyes to see that the ministry of Jesus turned the economy of the world on its head.

Shall we return to the women now?

How are we to assess these women who, in the narrative world, are outsiders, on the margins?

Unlike the disciples who are rebuked for being of little faith, Jesus commends these women as having great faith: “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

Moreover, there is one episode where Jesus ties a human inseparably to the gospel story. It is the episode of the woman who pours out oil over Jesus’ head. This looks to be a royal anointing! But when Jesus defends her he says, “Leave her alone, she has prepared my body beforehand for burial.”

The act of anointing prepares Jesus for burial: Messiahship and death are held together, and here is the only person in the whole story to get it. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

What does it mean to live at the margins, to be unnamed? How does this compare with being the twelve, the dudes, the insiders?

According to the economy of the world, with its measures of greatness, to be the twelve is to be exemplary, in the place to lead, to exclude others from leadership, to stand close to Jesus and guard the gates of who else can draw near.

And to the extent that we look to Jesus’ selection of them, and the apparent marginalization of the women, as paradigmatic for male leadership in the church, we show ourselves to be people whose minds have not yet been transformed by the very story to which we are appealing.

It is only by agreeing with the disciples’ way of assessing the world that we can see their “insider status” as a true insider status, to be replicated by other men in church history.

Jesus offers another way: You guys don’t get it! It’s the rulers of the Gentiles who lord authority over people. It shall not be so among you.

There is another way. It is the way of the cross.

There is another way. It is the way of the “marginalized” in the worlds eyes lying closest to Jesus in faith and understanding.

Are we really supposed to hold up as our model the “Satan” who denied the gospel of the crucified Christ, and claim that Peter is paradigmatic of the place of men as insiders and faithful leaders in the church?

Or should we not seek out the one who did the good deed for Jesus, holding together Messiah and death from her place at the margins? Should we not seek out the one who sought out Jesus merely to touch the fringe of his garment and learn from her what it means to walk in faith?

The irony of appealing to the boys as insiders is that in so doing we show ourselves to be adopting the boys’ understanding of power, privilege, and leadership in the kingdom.

And this view is roundly rebuked by Jesus in words of dissuasion and the work of the cross.

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