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Published Date: November 2, 2022


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The Gospel According to Zeffirelli

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Top 5 Winner!

Pak Loki and Joko smiled as I emerged into the arrivals hall at Jakarta airport in Indonesia. I was just off a night flight from Amsterdam and would be speaking in the morning service at their church a few hours later. “How about some breakfast?” Joko asked, once we had finished the customary greetings and reached their car. “Indonesian food or international? There’s a McDonalds not too far from the airport.”

Never one to miss out on a culinary adventure, “Local,” I replied with a smile.

“Great,” said Joko, “let’s get Padang.”

I soon found myself sitting at a table with two friends and some twenty or so dishes spread out in front of us. “That one’s nasi goreng, fried rice,” said Pak Loki, “then kapal selam, opor ayam, bakso, gado-gado, rawon . . .” pointing to dish after dish. To this day I have no idea what they all were. But more to the point, I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do next. Did they really expect me to eat all this and still speak at the 9:30 a.m. service?

This was Padang cuisine. Highly amused by the growing disbelief on my face as the dishes kept coming, Joko explained that we were only to eat—and pay for—what we wanted. “Batagor’s my favourite. I’ll get my mother to make you some of hers when we reach Semarang,” Joko added, happily choosing for me which dish I was to try next. Now that was some breakfast!

The Interplay of Language and Context in Culture

When we face an unknown culture, we are confronted with two separate but related difficulties—in reality, two sides of the same coin.

Heads: language. How can I possibly understand what’s going on if I don’t know the language? It was useful to know that opor ayam is coconut chicken, but that didn’t help me navigate the twenty steaming dishes before me.

Tails: cultural context. Even if we do know the language, we may still misinterpret actions, make unwarranted assumptions, or misuse the language that we do know. An example from closer to home might help here. When a smiling Walmart greeter sends a “Hey, how are you?” in our direction, they don’t want a full recital of our medical history or even that day’s particular woes. But how did we know that asking this is just another way to say, “Hello”? Context is everything.

(I hope you’re following me so far, though you may, rightly, be wondering what on earth this has to do with the Bible, the church, and the place of women—or with Franco Zeffirelli for that matter. Stay with me, we’ll be joining the dots soon!)

Language just doesn’t make sense without context. And for most of us, that context is the one that we acquired growing up in our home culture. It conditions our understanding of language, often providing the backstory to what would otherwise be unintelligible. Every Indonesian knew what to expect with Padang, just as “McDonalds” needs no explanation for anyone living near the golden arches. And when we talk with people from our own culture, to make communication flow better we tend to leave out so much that is obvious—obvious, that is, to people who share our culture. This is where the challenge lies, for biblical culture is anything but obvious to us.

Turning a Deaf Ear to the Bible’s Cultures

Yes, language and context go hand in hand with culture. We can never learn a language well without understanding the culture of the people who use it, and we will never understand the culture without sufficient language and contextual understanding to communicate freely with those people.

But when it comes to the Bible, because someone has done the work for us and provided us with a translation into our language, we think we can ignore the cultural-contextual dimension, presuming that understanding the words equates with understanding the meaning.

We could not be more wrong.

As we approach the Bible, we assume that we understand their world because our translations let us understand their words. As a result, in our retelling of its narratives, we find ourselves reading back into the Bible the values and assumptions of our own culture, imposing these over the unwritten but ever-present values and assumptions of their cultures, those of the world in which the Bible was written. With centuries of Gentile Christian interpretation behind us, we have become disconnected from the Bible’s culturally transmitted message, and our Made in Hollywood images have become the filter through which we visualise and claim to understand God’s Word.

How the Women in Jesus’s Ministry Disappeared

Let’s look at one place where the burden of this extra-biblical imagery manufactured by our own cultural assumptions colours how we read the Bible. We have learned to picture Jesus with the twelve disciples as some kind of static and permanent unit. All the best movies—including Zeffirelli’s 1977 classic, Jesus of Nazareth—depict Jesus striding across the Judean desert with twelve men at his side, no more, no less, all men. Yes, there are crowds, always the crowds, and Mary Magdalene might make an occasional guest appearance. But that’s it. Like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, Jesus and his twelve male apostles are centre stage. The rest is peripheral.

And so we fail to appreciate the significance of Luke’s words:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases . . . (Luke 8:1–2a)

We learn the names of three of these women: “Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others” (8:2–3). But it was never just about these three. Luke carefully points out that these three were “among” the women who accompanied Jesus, along with “many others.”

It was never just the twelve. There were always others, both women and men. Here is Jesus—a travelling rabbi, prophet, teacher, exorcist, and miracle worker—accompanied by quite a group, including women, many women. Unheard of. Counter-cultural. Radical. But true! It’s vital that we stop and take this in so we can appreciate the place of women within the Jesus movement at that time, and the place Jesus would have women in today too.

“You Have Eyes—Can’t You See?”

(heading quote from Mark 8:18 NLT)

Why is it that whenever we read “disciples” in the remainder of Luke’s narrative, we picture a group of twelve men? Why are we unable to see what is staring us in the face on the pages of Scripture? Are we so blinded by the layers of presumption we have imposed over the sacred text? And how do we miss what happens to these women after this episode?

Fast forward to Luke 23. As Jesus is crucified and his male apostles all but desert him, we read that “all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:49).

The women who had followed him from Galilee . . .” It was way back in Luke 9:51 that we read: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” The rest of the Luke’s Gospel has Jesus accompanied by this mixed group of disciples, teaching and healing his way towards Jerusalem, and sending messengers ahead to prepare the way (9:52). Why, in our mind’s eye, are women excluded from this? And why, when Jesus then sends out the seventy-two “others” (Luke 10), do we presume they are all male?

We need to move beyond our own cultural readings of the Bible and the imagery we create that masks its message. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. His counter-cultural inclusion of women among his disciples, followers, and messengers paints a clear picture of the place God intends women to have in the church and world today—a place based on grace, faith, passion, gifting, and anointing, not gender. For it’s not Zeffirelli’s Jesus who should inform our understanding of women in the service of the gospel, but Luke’s.

Photo by Small Group Network on Unsplash.

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