It breaks my heart to read about the renewed Taliban efforts to restrict Afghan girls from formal education. It is not only tragic for the young girls, I can’t imagine a more effective way to sabotage a nature’s future.
The tragic stories of Afghan girls shed important light on the biblical narrative of Mary of Bethany. We are well aware that the events in the New Testament took place within a full-fledged patriarchal culture much like that of the Taliban. We all have read or heard how the ancient rabbis believed it was a waste of time to educate girls. In the ancient patriarchal world any education available was primarily for men and boys.
Gospel writers don’t provide demographic details about Mary of Bethany, only that she was living in her sister Martha’s home. What we do know is that, in Martha’s home, Mary was seated at the feet of Rabbi Jesus in a room where he was teaching men (Luke 10:38-42). The expression Luke uses to describe Mary in his Gospel identifies her as a rabbinical student for she “sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said.” Luke uses the same language when he records Paul identifying himself as a student of Gamaliel (he was trained “at the feet of Gamaliel” Acts 22:3, NRSV).
Imagine the impact of this narrative on Afghan girls today. Imagine how they would be drawn to Jesus especially for his firm defense of Mary! What impact did that have on his male disciples?
The impact on Mary proved revolutionary. Her story—all three episodes—are the heart of my book When Life and Beliefs Collide where I make the case that Mary was the First Great New Testament Theologian. Her story begins, but does not end, at the feet of Rabbi Jesus and his emphatic defense of her right to be there when Martha raised objections. And the learning he advocated wasn’t just for learning’s sake. It would lead her to ministry—profound spiritual ministry to Jesus himself, which he would affirm in the most jaw-dropping statement, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10).
I thank God for the United Nations’ determination to call attention to the injustices and atrocities daily committed against women and girls in every country and to direct our attention to the ongoing battle for girls to be as valued, educated, and championed as boys. At the same time I grieve that the American evangelical church does not always share Jesus’ enthusiasm for educating women and girls, much less any interest in receiving spiritual ministry they might offer. What are we losing? Inside the American evangelical church, a slanted value system continues to exist. Boys return home from college and are questioned at church about their studies and future plans. Girls are asked “Have you met someone special?”
As followers of Jesus, God help us from allowing this day to be a mere annual observance. May we follow Jesus in becoming advocates for girls to learn and grow and minister as Mary did. If Jesus was such a determined advocate for Mary and other women who followed him, how can we do less?