June 12, 2016
You know, friends, I have to admit to a certain amount of reluctance to step in the pulpit this morning and speak to you about liberated women. You need but look around to notice that the majority of the congregants here this morning are women. And, I am about to embark for Annual Conference where the majority of those being ordained will be women. And shall we include the fact that, for the first time in history, a woman will be a leading candidate for President of the United States? But I am a brave soul. And I will take a stab at being an authority on liberated women.
Barbara Walters, formerly of television’s 20/20, did a story on gender roles in Kabul, Afghanistan, several years ago before the current Afghan war. She noted that women customarily walked five paces behind their husband.
She recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands. From Barbara’s vantage point, despite the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women now seem to walk even further back behind their husbands, and are happy to maintain the old custom.
Barbara Walters approached one of the Afghani women and asked, “Why do you now seem happy with an old custom that you once tried so desperately to change?”
The woman looked Ms. Walters straight in the eyes, and without hesitation said, “Land mines.”
The moral of the story is, says Timothy Anger, no matter what language you speak and where you go: Behind every man, there is a smart woman.
This morning I want to draw your attention to the eighth chapter of Luke, the first three verses: “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: Mary, called Magdealene, from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
That is quite a remarkable passage of Scripture. Most of us think of Jesus traveling around the countryside with his 12 male companions. We do not give much thought to the fact that there were also women traveling with them. I wonder if this group included the wives of some of the disciples? I’ve often wondered whatever happened to Simon Peter’s wife. You know the impetuous fisherman was married. After all, we have the story of Jesus healing his mother-in-law. Maybe his wife was part of the company.
These women that Luke mentions were liberated women before liberated women became fashionable. These women probably traveled together not only to maintain a sense of respectability, but also for security and support. Women have always known there is strength in mutual support, both physically and emotionally. But these were liberated women.
In Mary Magdalena’s case the liberation was literal. Jesus had liberated her from “seven demons.” We don’t know what that means–seven demons. Perhaps Mary suffered from what is known in the modern vernacular as Multiple Personality Disorder. History has labeled Mary as a woman of ill repute before she encountered Jesus. That is just speculation. Nowhere does the New Testament say that about her. All we know for certain is that Mary had some serious problems before she met Jesus. And Jesus healed her. Jesus can do that. He can take broken people and help them build new lives. Thank God for that. At some time in life, all of us will need to be put back together again.
Mary Magdalena is liberated, to be sure. But notice the second woman listed–Joanna. Luke describes her as “the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household.” This woman evidently held significant social and political standing. Her husband was a manager for King Herod himself. Do you remember what King Herod Antipas was like ? History tells us he was a cruel and licentious man. If Joanna’s husband was like his boss, he wasn’t a very nice man. And yet here is Joanna with the group of women following Jesus. I wonder how her husband felt about that?
Remember, Luke describes these women as “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.” Maybe Joanna suffered a dread disease. Maybe Cuza watched helplessly as his beloved wife wasted away. But then Jesus happened by. And Jesus healed her. And now she traveled with the company of women supporting his ministry. Perhaps Cuza approved. Perhaps he, too, had fallen under Jesus’ spell. I hope so. I truly do. But perhaps he didn’t approve. That’s entirely possible still, there she was.
Then there was Susanna and “many others.” Luke tells us “these women were helping to support out of their own means.” This is really quite remarkable. Remember this was in a culture in which women had no legal rights. They were regarded not as persons but as things. They were merely the possession of their father or of their husband. Whoever the significant man was in their life, they were at his disposal to do with as he liked. Remember that the observant Jew thanked God “that he was not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” And yet these women supported Jesus out of their own means.
I ran across a little tidbit out of American history recently that I thought was interesting. Do you remember the name Eli Whitney? Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, patented in 1793, was recognized as the single most important American invention up to that time. It revolutionized American agriculture and made Whitney a legend. However, we’re told it wasn’t his idea . Catherine Lidfield Greene, mistress of a Georgia plantation, was the first to theorize a machine capable of stripping seeds from bolls of cotton. Whitney was a guest at Catherine Greene’s home; she supported him for six months and added final touches to the model he eventually made famous. Although Whitney never became a rich man as a result of his invention, he did become famous, which is more than can be said for Ms. Greene. She proposed the idea, financed it, and made final alterations on it; nevertheless, it was under Whitney’s name that the cotton gin was registered.
That’s the way the world operates sometimes. Hopefully such injustices are becoming rarer. The women who follow Jesus were prevented by the culture in which they lived from taking a lead role. None of the Gospels were attributed to Mary Magdalena, Joanna or Susanna–though I suppose they could have been written under a pseudonym. But they served where they could, and we are grateful they did. I’m sure Jesus never took their service for granted.
Undoubtedly Jesus liberated these women from feelings of inferiority and servitude, as well as healing them of demon possession and various diseases, and now they help maintain his ministry. Women, of course, have always played a strong supporting role in the life of the church. More and more they are playing a leadership role as well, a move that is long overdue.
The women who followed Jesus did so out of an enormous sense of gratitude. These were no groupies. They were not crowding in to be near a rock star. It would be easy to misunderstand. These women were in Christ’s debt. They had suffered emotionally and physically before they met Jesus and he had set them free. Now they wanted to help him set others free. In today’s vernacular, he had liberated them.
That is why many of us are in this room today. Christ has done something wonderful in our lives. He has liberated us from the power of sin. He has liberated us from pride and self righteousness. He has liberated us from feelings of unworthiness. And we have come to show our love and support so that he can touch other lives through us.
It is probably no accident that the story of these women follows right on the heels of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. That is also part of our lesson for the day.
You remember the story. A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to have dinner with him. It will be helpful in imagining this scene if we remember that the mid- Eastern table was quite low. There were no chairs. Guests reclined to eat on the floor. A woman, Luke tells us, who had lived “a sinful life” learned that Jesus was at the Pharisee’s house. She somehow gained entrance and she stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping. She wept so profusely she wet his feet with her tears. Lovingly she knelt down and wiped his feet with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them from a jar that she had brought with her.
When Simon the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.”
Jesus knew what Simon was thinking. “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” Simon said.
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender,” Jesus said. “One owed him 500 denarii, and the other 50. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which one of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You didn’t give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
People who are most fervent about their Christian faith are motivated by a sense of gratitude. The woman was a known sinner. She had many sins to forgive. Simon thought of himself as being righteous. Therefore he felt he had little to forgive. By definition, then, Simon could never love Jesus in the same way this poor woman did.
But let’s examine their situations a little more closely.
How did this woman come to this place in life where she was known throughout her community as a sinner? Was it out of desperation? Did some man abandon her? There were few legitimate ways a woman could support herself in those days if she were totally abandoned. Perhaps she made a mistake as a youth and her family disowned her. Such things happen. Maybe if we got to know her, we would find she was a kind and loving person who had simply let her life get out of control.
On the other hand, how did Simon become a righteous Pharisee? Perhaps he was simply living out a family script. Perhaps his family had been a socially correct family for generations. He was simply living as he had been carefully taught. Perhaps, if we had gotten to know him, we would discover that his heart was blacker than the woman’s–that his sins were pride, envy, greed, distrust, prejudice toward those of other classes in society. These are sins that society overlooks, perhaps even rewards. Perhaps we should feel pity for Simon. Because he was blind to his own sinfulness, he would never have the joy or the love for Jesus that this poor woman attained.
But, how about us? We sing, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” What is the resounding theme of that hymn? It’s gratitude for the gift of God’s grace. I fear there are many people who have their names on the roll books of churches who have no concept of the meaning of such gratitude. Can it be that most of us can identify with Simon and not the woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears? For many of us faith is synonymous with tradition, or respectability, or “it’s good for the children,” or a host of other motivations for being in church. It’s part of our family script. And that’s fine. It’s better to be on the inside than on the outside. But what joy is there in such motivations? What peace? How can we be on fire for faith that is merely handed down or acted out?
We need to recognize how much we need God’s amazing grace. Don’t be misled by the world’s false dichotomy. None of us is too bad to be saved nor too good to need saving. Jesus looks at us as individuals. He says to us that, whoever we may be, we need to be washed clean of our sins–whatever their nature, whatever their degree.
James Hewett once told a story about a pastor who saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge, the very judge who had sent the burglar to jail for seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict, neither seemed to be aware of the other.
After the service, the judge was walking home with the pastor. The judge asked, “Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the communion rail this morning?”
The pastor replied, “Yes, but I didn’t know that you noticed.”
The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, “What a miracle of grace.”
The pastor nodded in agreement. “Yes, what a marvelous miracle of grace.”
Then the judge asked, “But to whom do you refer?”
And the pastor said, “Why, to the conversion of that convict.”
The judge said, “I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself.”
The pastor, surprised, replied: “You were thinking of yourself? I don’t understand.”
“Yes,” the judge replied, “it didn’t cost the burglar that much to get converted when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Savior he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me. I was taught from the earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could’ve caused me to admit that I was a sinner on level with the burglar. It took much grace to forgive me for all my pride and self deception, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict that I sent to prison.”
Friends, do you understand that all of us need the faith that healed Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Susanna, and the sinful woman in Simon’s house that day? All of us need it. None of us deserve it. It is the free gift of a loving God. God sees our hearts. God knows what brought us to this place in our lives. God wants to forgive us and give us eternal life. Won’t you be liberated today?