I find myself unable to write much of anything right now. On Sunday at church, the sermon focused on Romans 8:26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Our pastor accompanied this lesson with a slideshow that could have come from within my own mind– Ebola, Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS, Robin Williams, Mike Brown, Ferguson. In a world that seems to have gone wrong, it’s hard to find the words to pray, the words to describe how we feel, the words to articulate what needs to be done. My last post was about dealing with darkness, but at times there just seems to be so much of it, not just in my own soul, but in the world.
I take some comfort in Romans 8:26. I also take comfort in the words of others who describe things outside of my experience in ways too powerful for me to ignore or deny, who break into my privileged world and open my eyes and leave me groaning for change. It feels silly to write my usual parenting stuff in the face of these last few weeks in the world. It feels silly to try and take on global issues on which I have no experience or expertise, either.
I saw a tweet about how today you can choose to celebrate the Earth OR you can choose to celebrate the One who made it. As if that were an either/or proposition. I’d like to suggest that in taking care of the Earth, we serve and indeed worship our Creator.
In the past few years, my faith has sort of shifted directions. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jesus better and been drawn closer to him. As this has been happening, my understanding of what is important about Jesus has shifted slightly. Rather than being focused solely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’ve broadened my focus to what Jesus said his mission was– to proclaim the gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand (that is, available to us right here and right now), a kingdom characterized by resurrection, renewal, and the return of all of creation to the way things were meant to be. This means the saving work of Jesus, which was his life, death, AND resurrection, is not just for my soul, but for all of the earth. And that’s where Earth Day comes in.
Part of the beauty of the Creation story* is that we were placed in a beautiful garden in order to enjoy and care for it. As I mentioned in a post about faith and food that was inspired while listening to a Rob Bell sermon, God told Adam that he was put in the garden to work and to take care of the Garden. Bell noted that the Hebrew words for “to work” and “to take care of” used to describe Adam’s (if I was going to get literary here I’d say that at this point Adam is a symbol for why all of us were created) role in the garden are usually used elsewhere to describe the act of serving and worshipping God. Basically, to worship God was to TAKE CARE OF what God created in the garden (aka the world).
I believe a great window into just how far we have fallen from the ideal to which we were created is to see just how warped our relationship with creation has become. A relationship that was supposed to be characterized by reverence and care has become a relationship characterized by exploitation, destruction, and abuse. This is also reflected in our relationships toward our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, and even in our relationship toward God. We cannot properly love the Creator while destroying the creation.
When Jesus put on human skin and lived with us, he preached the coming of the Kingdom. He modeled Kingdom life, a way of living characterized by right relationship: to God, to each other, and to creation. He taught us to live as children of God, that we might be a blessing to all of creation, as described in Romans 8:18:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
The saving work of Jesus, the liberating work of Jesus, is for us, and for creation itself.
So how does this tie in to Good Friday? On Good Friday, we remember a savior who came to teach us how to live as we were created to live, but who allowed us the freedom to refuse to live it out. He allowed us, rather than responding to him in the relationship that we should have, to reject him and subject him to violence. He modeled a love that, rather than lashing out against enemies, tells us to put away the sword and then reaches out to heal even the one who comes to kill us. He modeled a love that, even as it hung suffering and dying on the cross, was moved to forgiveness. He modeled a love that somehow is not destroyed by evil, violence, and death, but which submits to it, only to come back again. Through this love, we are enabled to transcend evil, violence, and death. Through this love, we become partners in first dying to the old ways, and then in rising to participate as partners in the resurrection and renewal of all things, which will culminate in the New Jerusalem, a place here on earth, in which everything works the way God planned it, and everything is made right.
So on Good Friday, we sit with the wrongness. We sit with the brokenness. We sit with the realization that we are fallen. Fallen so far that we would kill the one who came to save. And we marvel in the love that would let us. And this Sunday, we rejoice in the love that was not destroyed, but resurrected to bring renewal to us and to all things. The experience of Holy Week is very spiritual, but it should move us to very earthy action.
*I believe the creation stories in Genesis are less statements of fact than they are statements of purpose. They tell the “why” of creation rather than the “how.” Thus, I believe in evolution, even as I affirm a Creator God who made everything with divine purpose. As a literature student, I find the language-centered aspect of the story, that God literally spoke things into being, particularly fascinating, but that’s not particularly important for the scope of this post.
This is part III of a series of posts on the Beatitudes. Check out parts I and II if you missed them.
We’ve now reached “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I have traditionally heard this preached as “God loves the goody two shoes,” as if it says “Blessed are those who want to be good little Christians all of the time.” The problem with this reading is that this is not a light yoke or an easy burden. Those who want to be good little Jews all the time would be the Pharisees. This is not our Jesus. He didn’t go around recruiting the goody-two-shoes. He picked the folks who don’t have it all together. It would not be good news. So there must be another way to read this.
To me, righteousness is when things go the way God planned and designed them to. When we exist in right relationship to God, to each other, and to all of creation. Some folks call this right relationship God’s “shalom” which means peace.
To hunger and thirst are downright visceral feelings. To me, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is like that sick at your stomach feeling you get when you encounter something that is just so not right with the world. Something that is so clearly not God’s plan for the world. To experience the tension between what God created the world to be, and what it is like right now. But in that tension, in that lack, in that fallenness, in our frustration, and heartbreak, and longing for things to be made right, God is with us. God’s sick at God’s stomach too. God’s heart is broken too. God longs for things to be made right too.
This verse in some ways reminded me of the Japanese earthquake. Though some like John Piper might claim that God caused the earthquakes in order to teach us a lesson or send us a message, ours is a God who hungers and thirsts for a world in which these things don’t happen. Not a God who causes these things to happen. God is with us when horrible things about the world break our hearts. Not when we get them all fixed, but when we struggle, when we wonder, when we question, when we feel the disconnect between the way things are and the way they should be. This is great news, because it’s easy for bleeding hearts like me to get overwhelmed and feel hopeless and powerless because we can’t fix it all or even do something about it all. But God is with us in that place.
God can handle it when we feel like Habakkuk (Ch. 1): “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” God can handle our anger, can handle our sorrow, can handle our concern. In fact, God is with us in that feeling. To me, that is good news.
God is also with us when we move from tension, anger, and sorrow into action. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” To me, this is where the Beatitudes begin to move from conditions (mourning, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst) to action. To be merciful is to have compassion for another and to be moved to action to change that situation or express love and care. I don’t have much to say about this particular Beatitude, because it seems fairly straightforward, but I will point out that it seems rather interesting that Jesus seems to be advocating a salvation based on works if we look at this line alone. Do mercy, get mercy.
In case you missed it, I’m doing a blog series this week on the Beatitudes, based on a talk I gave at my church on Sunday. If you missed Part I, check it out, because it’s crucial to understanding how I’m going to look at the rest of this text.
I’m skipping “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” because Ryan covered that in a different talk.
So, moving on to “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This one immediately made me wonder if my being asked to cover these verses was some kind of joke. I am so NOT meek, as it is usually defined, and everyone who has known me for even 5 minutes can attest. But, I was asked to speak on this text, and all I can think is, well, I guess they probably realized I wasn’t just going to say meek is being shy and pitiful and unobtrusive and that Jesus is telling us to be this way.
So I immediately set out to look for other places where the Bible uses the word “meek.” One clue as to what “meek” means can be found in Numbers 12:3, talking about Moses. My TNIV says “Now moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Many other translations use “meek” here instead of humble. So perhaps meek can be understood as humble. I mean, Moses stood up to Pharaoh and liberated the Israelites. Obviously he wasn’t “meek and mild” as we usually think of it. But he was humble.
Another clue can be found in who Jesus is talking to. At this time, the world had been conquered by Rome. THEY had carved up the earth. They seemed to be the ones who inherited the earth– the ones with big swords and military might. And here Jesus is saying the MEEK are the ones who are blessed. The down and out. The oppressed. The have-nots. And while some might say, well, the powerful can have the earth, because we’ll have heaven, Jesus is saying, No. The EARTH. It goes to these folks. Because ooh, baby, heaven is a place on earth (more on that in a second). And, as with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” this blessing tells us more about the one doing the blessing than the one receiving it. And what that tells us is: God is not on the side of the powerful. God is not on the side of the oppressor. God is not on the side of the one with the giant army. God is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the oppressed, the slave, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the hungry, and the downtrodden.
Now that we’ve sort of clarified that “meek” can perhaps better be understood as “humble,” and that we’ve also connected it to the fact that he was speaking to a group of people whose land was occupied by a great military empire that already seemed to have inherited the earth, we can look at the fact that by even using the phrase “inherit the earth,” Jesus is referencing a long tradition, a concept with a context.
Giving Abraham and his descendents a land to inherit, possess, and own, was part of God’s covenant with Abraham. What at first was meant as possessing the land of Israel becomes expanded and enlarged through Jesus to mean possessing the kingdom of heaven, which will literally be on the earth. You see this in prophecy in other books of the Old Testament:
Isaiah 57:13 “Whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”
Isaiah 60:21 “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever.”
Psalm 25:8 “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant. For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great. Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose. They will spend their days in prosperity, and their descendants will inherit the land.”
And Psalm 37 is especially full of references to inheriting the earth:
“For those who do evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” (v. 9)
“But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity” (v. 11)
“The blameless will spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever.” (v. 18)
“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.” (v. 27)
“The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” (v. 29)
Then there’s Psalm 69:35: “God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there.”
There are other references in Ezekiel 33 and Romans 4:13, but I think you get the point. Inheriting the earth is a big part of God’s covenant with God’s people in the Old Testament, a big part of the Old Testament prophecy about what God would later do, and now, in the Beatitudes, reappears as part of Jesus’ promise/announcement to the people who will be part of God’s kingdom on earth.
“Inheriting the earth” is about a future time and place in which heaven and earth, the place of God and the place of people, become one. A place in which everything works according to the Way of Christ and everything broken is made whole, and things are as God always intended them to be. The Bible calls this the New Jerusalem. It is not a place we fly away to when we die, but a reality that we can participate in during this life, on this earth. It is a place that we can live in now, and that we can participate in bringing about. Greed, exploitation of the environment, violence, oppression, betrayal will not be part of this New Jerusalem. This is why Jesus refers to Psalm 27. Some things will wither away. Others will survive. When we focus on the things that survive, things characterized first and foremost by love, we participate in eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now, a way of living that will last forever.
My church, Eikon, is in the middle of a series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (starts in Matthew 5). We just got started, so it’s a great time to join us if you’re interested. This week, I was asked to speak on the Beatitudes, and I figured I’d turn my talk into a series of blog posts to share with folks who didn’t/couldn’t attend (or just folks who didn’t catch a word I said because I’m such a fast talker). I will say that I am not a pastor or theologian. I’m just an English literature scholar/grad student who likes Jesus.
Anyway, consider this Part I on the Beatitudes!
To start, I think the way I’ve often heard the Beatitudes preached makes them out to be some sort of checklist of things we must do to be blessed by God. I’m not sure that a checklist of to-dos in order to earn God’s favor would have been considered radical, crazy good news to a group of Jews and Gentiles, so I’m pretty sure this is not how Jesus intended us to take this text. Instead, I think the Beatitudes are a sort of radical manifesto about the nature of the kingdom of God.
This reading is greatly informed by the very first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Right away, you can’t read this as some sort of “to-do.” Why would you want to be poor in spirit? To be poor in spirit is to not get it, to doubt, to question, to feel far from God, to be, as The Message puts it “at the end of your rope.” This is not a desirable condition. Instead, this is a statement less about the one who is poor in spirit, and more a statement about the one handing out the blessing: God. It’s not a statement about earning or deserving God’s blessing, but a statement about a God of extravagant love who pours out blessings on even, and perhaps especially, those who do not deserve it. There is no why to the pouring out of God’s blessing. Ours is a God who likes to bless, choose, and use the people that we think don’t deserve it. This is good news. Our God loves to bless all the people who don’t deserve it, who screw up, who doubt, who don’t believe all the right things, who don’t do all the right things.
In this light, all the rest of these Beatitudes are not about what we must do to earn God’s blessing. The focus is not on the condition of the one being blessed, but on the nature of the one doing the blessing, and, by extension, the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus repeatedly announces is at hand. This might make us look at the rest of the list in a different way, and I’ll be going through all of them step by step, every day this week.
Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series. If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.
As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters. I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life. But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!
Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death. From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.
But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest. My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again. Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?
After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)
Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria. This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.
Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.
And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia. Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99). Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia. He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)
Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks. A church meets in “their” house. Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry. In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)
This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was acommon name for Roman women at the time of Paul. Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia. My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia. Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)
Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.
I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!
Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today. I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church. I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna. I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche. And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach. I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.
*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen. He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads. As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.
**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.
Today is day 4 of my series on Jesus and Gender. Make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed those posts! We’ve discussed how Jesus treated women with radical dignity and kindness, we’ve talked about his close female friends, and today we’re going to look at the women who were his disciples.
Although we are most familiar with The Twelve Disciples, all of whom are men, Jesus had more than just 12 disciples, and these disciples included women. (Also, from Woman in the World of Jesus: “The logic from which the male composition of the Twelve would exclude women from high office or role in the church would likewise exclude the writers and most of the readers of this book, for there were no non-Jews among the Twelve. Unless one would argue that “apostolic succession” is for Jews only, it cannot be for men only.” (125))
Jesus had a large group of followers who went with him all over Israel, learning from him and following in his ways. According to Luke 8:1-3: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town 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: 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. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
While women at this time were permitted to travel in the company of men, they were required to spend the night only with their relatives—here it is obvious that as they travel from city to city, the women are traveling along with the men, breaking social custom in a very progressive and scandalous way. Secondly, these women had resources under their own control at a time in which women were generally not permitted to inherit property or control money. So not only did Jesus have women among his disciples, but they were transgressing social norms and acting as the bankers of the whole operation!
And these women weren’t just hangers on; they were actually ministering with Jesus! According to Frank and Evelyn Stagg in Woman in the World of Jesus: “It is significant that women did have an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke’s word for their ‘ministering’ is widely used in the New Testament, including by Paul in reference to his own ministry. Its noun cognate, diakonos may be rendered ‘minister,’ ‘servant,’ or ‘deacon.’” (123)
One of these women was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere in scripture is she identified as a prostitute or even a great sinner. Mark says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her—today we might say that he healed her mental illness. From Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus: “We may imagine that this cure took a similar course to other healings: Jesus touched her, perhaps embraced her, made her get up, like Peter’s feverish mother-in-law or the person possessed by demons. He spoke to her and she had a tangible feeling of nearness and contact. As he spoke, the spell left her. She again became herself, free to feel and decide, free once again to experience the world around her, free to enjoy herself and to learn to live again. But she did not return to her old ways. She left her rich hometown of Magdala, even though she would always bear its name. For her, being healed of her illness became salvation.” (68)
Another woman mentioned among these disciples is worth considering: Joanna, wife of Chuza, who was an officer in King Herod’s court. She is described here having been healed by Jesus, after which she began traveling with and supporting Jesus financially, and she is later present at his crucifixion, and, in at least one gospel, at his resurrection. Jesus was seen as a political enemy of the political establishment, a revolutionary threatening to overthrow the government, and here, the wife of a government official is hanging around with and supporting this revolutionary and traitor of the state, helping to support him financially. It’s possible that Joanna’s husband had died and left her widowed and in control of his estate, but it’s also possible that she had left him, with or without his blessing, to follow Jesus.
These women disciples were with Jesus to the end, present at the crucifixion, in some cases acting with more bravery and loyalty than The Twelve, who fled and feared for their own lives. From Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” –In Mark’s account, the oldest of the four gospels, the disciples are not present at the crucifixion—they run away after Jesus’ arrest and are not said to have returned. Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the disciples have run away and only the women are present at Jesus’ death. From Luke 23:49: “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” John 19:25-27: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time, this disciple took her into his home.” Even as he suffers pain and death, Jesus is surrounded by the women who followed him, and he is exhibiting concern for their welfare.
And these women weren’t just there at Jesus’ death, but played a very special role in the events of the Resurrection. In Matthew,after his resurrection, Jesus chooses to appear first to two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (possibly Mary of Bethany)” Jesus trusts them to go and tell the men that he is risen, even though at this time, women were considered so unreliable that they couldn’t even testify in court. Still Jesus trusts them with this important news. In Mark’s account and in Luke’s account (which also names Joanna), the disciples do not even believe Mary Magdalene/the women. In John, Jesus only appears to Mary Magdalene, and she calls him “Rabboni” which suggests her status as one of his students. According to The Women Around Jesus: “Mary Magdalene may be regarded as the first apostle. She was the first to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.” She was considered an apostle, someone commissioned by Jesus with a special mission or message, up to the Middle Ages.
So, not only was Jesus radically inclusive of women in even his most passing encounters, not only did he have close personal friendships with women, but he had women among his disciples and even accorded them the honor of being the first people in the Bible to preach what we know as the gospel, the good news of his resurrection. Tomorrow we’ll look at the women who were apostles, deacons, and prophets–leaders in the early church.
The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel
Woman in the World of Jesus by Frank and Evelyn Stagg.
Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.
Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet. I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:
The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)
I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha. I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK. Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.
The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.
One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha. Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.
From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:
In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself. She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith. Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She carries on a vigorous debate. She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in. She struggles with God as Job did. She charges Jesus with failure. She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)
Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:
Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16. Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature. This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter. For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle. The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)
I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly. Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.
However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene. I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!
I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist. Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality. She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table. She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance. The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere. This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself. All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend. And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them. That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair. Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today. She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality. It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)
Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die. To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.
Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!
One of the most exiting things for me in the past year has been that Jon and I have both been excited by and interested in some new (for us) thinking, particularly around the issues of sustainable food (mostly thanks to Michael Pollan) and the emerging church movement (mostly thanks to Rob Bell and Brian McLaren). We’ve been reading books passed back and forth, and talking about new ideas, and bouncing thoughts off of each other, and it’s just been really fun. Maybe that’s one of the cool things about getting to live with my best friend: we can geek out over the same things.
All of this to say that I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s The Story We Find Ourselves In. It’s the sequel to his book A New Kind of Christian and I highly recommend both. They’re sort of fictionalized dialogues between characters, and through their conversations, McLaren introduces a whole lot of just mind-blowing stuff. I just wanted to share one small snippet that struck me while I was reading yesterday, made me wonder why I’d never thought of it before.
There’s one other surprising thing that the second creation story in Genesis suggests to me. It’s something shocking, maybe put best when it’s put in a way that borders on heresy: God is not enough, the story says. That has nothing to do with any deficiency in God; it has to do with the storyline God had in mind for us. God doesn’t want to be the only reality in our lives, the only relationship in our network, the only message on our screen…This is the story we find ourselves in, isn’t it? Caught between two dangers: a hyperspiritual danger that says ‘It is good enough for human beings to be alone, so all they need is God,’ and a hypersecular danger that says, ‘It is good enough for human beings to be with the other created beings; forget about the Supreme Being from whom all being and blessing flow.’ Neither of those options is good enough. The only viable option in our story is for us human beings to enjoy the company both of our Creator and of our fellow creatures: our brother sun and sister moon, our brother fox and sister fruit bat, and especially of our mates–either sexual mates or mates in the Australian sense of the term, our friends–in whom we find a lost part of ourselves restored to us again.
I’ve heard well-meaning people, even myself, say things like “God is all I need.” But even in Eden, God saw that there was something “not good” in paradise, something that needed fixing: the human being was alone. The human being NEEDED more than just God and nature. The human being needed companionship. And God creates a companion, and then everything is good.
Today, two of my favorite thinkers seem to be in a weird synchronicity, so I thought I’d share.
First, Colin aka No Impact Man asks, what fills you with awe? Colin is not, as far as I know, a Christian, but he’s a very spiritual person, and often in his writing I find things that resonate with what I think and feel and believe as a person of faith. Today he has a video of whales and writes:
Once in a while, even though it’s trendy, these days, not to talk about other species when we talk about environmentalism, I like to reconnect with that about our planet that fills me with wonder. And for me, one of those things is whales….Meanwhile, what about our planet fills you with awe?
Second, Rob Bell, a pastor from Michigan whose sermons I often listen to via podcast and whose book Velvet Elvis recently changed my life, has his latest Nooma film availble for free viewing online today, until midnight. You can check it out here. This video is about the story of Job, and how God speaks to a man who is in the midst of unspeakable suffering and despair and reminds him that the story is so much bigger than he is, and that his suffering is not the final word in the middle of the grand story of our creative Creator God. Bell says
We want to know why we suffer like we do…and there are times when the only honest, healthy, human thing to do is to shout your question and shake your fist and rage against the heavens and demand an explanation. But true wisdom, the kind we find here with Job, the kind that endures…that kind of wisdom knows when to speak and when to be silent. Because your story is not over. The last word has not been spoken. And there may be way more going on here than any of us realize. So may you be released from always having to understand why things happen they way it does…May you have the wisdom to know when to say ‘I spoke once but now I will say no more.’
What is it that God says to Job that inspires him to be silent? That changes the way he feels about his suffering? It’s the thing that ties in with Colin’s question above. What God says to Job is truly awe inspiring:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?
Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?…
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.
What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings? Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle? What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass? Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up [God’s] dominion over the earth?
Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who gives the ibis wisdom [about the flooding of the Nile], or gives the rooster understanding [of when to crow]?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? Do you count the months till they bear? Do you know the time they give birth? They crouch down and bring forth their young; their labor pains are ended. Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds; they leave and do not return.
Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied its ropes? I gave it the wasteland as its home, the salt flats as its habitat. It laughs at the commotion in the town; it does not hear a driver’s shout. It ranges the hills for its pasture and searches for any green thing.
Will the wild ox consent to serve you? Will it stay by your manger at night? Can you hold it to the furrow with a harness? Will it till the valleys behind you? Will you rely on it for its great strength? Will you leave your heavy work to it? Can you trust it to haul in your grain and bring it to your threshing floor?
The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, though they cannot compare with the wings and feathers of the stork. She lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them. She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers; she cares not that her labor was in vain, for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.
Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray. It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds. At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’ It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? It dwells on a cliff and stays there at night; a rocky crag is its stronghold. From there it looks for food; its eyes detect it from afar. Its young ones feast on blood, and where the slain are, there it is. (Job 38:4-39:30)
So I will answer Colin’s question. One thing that has always filled me with awe is the stars. Perhaps I inherited this from my father, who was always calling us outside, sometimes even after bedtime, to point out Mars and Venus in the night sky, to trace the lines of Orion or the Pleiades in their constellations (just like the part I bolded above). Who calls me from 1000 miles away, even now, to tell me to go outside and look at the moon, or Jupiter, or some other stellar thing. When I would go to camp in the summer at Mo-Ranch in Texas, my favorite thing was after vespers, when we’d all go lie on the tennis courts in the dark, their concrete still warm from a day’s baking in the sun, and stare up at the sky, so far from any city that even the Milky Way was visible. And more than any sermon ever could, this would fill me with awe and wonder and a deep awareness of the presence of God. The sight was so overwhelming and beautiful and humbling that tears would well up in my eyes and in the back of my throat.
And my love of seeing the stars is one thing that inspires me to take better care of the environment. To keep the air clean so we can even see the stars. To be mindful of light pollution and its effects on ecosystems. As Rob Bell says, “How we treat creation reveals how we feel about its Creator.” (my paraphrase)
So. I answered Colin’s question. What fills YOU with awe?