I used to think only men were capable of mowing the grass. Now, before you stop reading, or start typing (a spiteful email to yours truly), hear me out. In all my growing up years mom never got close to any of the yard tools that had engines attached. She planted, watered, fertilized (with a little help from the child labor), and took care of the millions of other tasks I never understood until my adult years, but handling a mower was not her thing. The same seemed to be true of all the other households I was familiar with as an adolescent; cutting the grass was always something the husband, son, or yard guys took care of. For these reasons I just assumed that some chores, such as operating a mower, were a man’s work.
And then somewhere along the line I realized I was wrong. A friend told me that it was his mom who cut the grass at their house, and that she even enjoyed doing it. I found it hard to believe, but he assured me it was true.
Since then, I have known many strong women who have taken on the yard-mowing responsibilities. And I have known many strong women who have chosen not to. The same is true for other roles. In Minnesota, I knew a man in his 80’s who never knew how to turn on the stove until his wife had to spend a few nights in the hospital. But then in Chicago I knew another man whose wife never cooked because he loved to and she didn’t.
Because of personal experience early on, I made assumptions about men and women – who was supposed to do certain chores, how responsibilities were to be handled, and even personal norms regarding being on time, making plans, and how to dress. Then of course I grew older, lived in different areas, and collected a wider range of experiences on which to lean. I also married and realized we were going to have to figure out some of these things for ourselves (read: I needed to change).
But through all of this I think the greatest lesson is that certain roles (cutting the grass, driving on long trips, cooking, cleaning etc.) are not a sign of strength or weakness, hierarchy or subordination, right or wrong, but rather personal preference. We have freedom to figure out how we are going to handle our roles, both within the household and within our culture.
In fact, Jesus and the gospel are concerned with this sort of thing as well. Jesus came at a time when gender roles and cultural norms were much more tightly drawn than they are today. Within the Roman system especially, it was assumed that men were in charge of the household and were more fit to lead both at home and in the public sphere. For example, take this quote from Aristotle’s Politics:
“For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
Because of these cultural assumptions the roles of men and women were clearly defined. There were certain tasks a Roman male would never have done because it would have been considered beneath him.
Into this world came Jesus, who, being the rebel that he was, challenged any norm which allowed certain people to lord over others. In contrast to quotes like the one above, Jesus said “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last and servant of all” (Mark 9:35), and “you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Jesus was not so much concerned with hierarchy as with humility, being served as serving.
Today, our system at large, and cultural expectations are still not perfect, the deck may still be stacked against certain people or people groups, but we have much more flexibility than at some points in history to determine our own roles, especially within the household. This freedom is a blessing, and something God desires for us. As Christians we have a responsibility to seek out and uphold human equality in every arena, and to always see Jesus as our model. We also have to guard ourselves from being judgmental toward others as they make these decisions for themselves – not everyone will do it our way.
It was wrong and silly of me to believe that women don’t mow yards, though I might still argue that no man could ever make chocolate pie, or butter rolls quite like grandma used to.