Let me describe for you the powerful influences that women have had on my life. I have already told you about Maria of Nazareth (Luke 1:26-27). She gave me half my genes. Most important of all, in addition to what other mothers teach their children, she told me about the work of the Holy Spirit in her life (Luke 1:35). Rather than forcing me to obey a set of rules, she encouraged me to look for "the wisdom from above" (James 3:17, see also 1:5-7, 3:13-16).
When I got hit by the pull of strong instincts in my teens, she explained that our natural drives like hunger, thirst, self-protection, comfort, curiosity, sex, are built into us. Which means that our instincts cannot be sinful until we let them run our lives (James 1:14, Hebrews 4:15). As I learned to make that distinction, I was able to teach it clearly to my disciples when they despaired of making much progress in the way of love that I was offering as good news to the world.
As I began my ministry I soon discovered that the wisdom of the Spirit very quickly conflicts with the received wisdom of tradition. The first five persons I baptized were men. But when I began baptizing in the area of Capernaum I had a very major decision to make. A well dressed woman of Bethsaida came forward and knelt in the water before me with her head bowed. I asked her what she wanted. "I long to understand the Torah, and I believe you can teach me what God has in mind for my family and my business dealings with the Romans."
The received wisdom of our Jewish tradition was that women were not allowed to look into the five scrolls of Moses, let alone discuss them. This was reserved for men only. Baptizing this woman would overturn that ancient tradition. As I turned to the Spirit for guidance, I knew immediately that our tradition could not be right. Women as well as men were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). How could women grasp what that meant without being able to study the Word of God?
I hardly missed a beat, and I immediately baptized Susanna of Bethsaida (Luke 8:3 ?) in the name of the Father, myself as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit who would lead her into all truth. There was a gasp of astonishment among the men. And I think I heard a "Hallelujah" from the women who were there. That was to have tremendous implications. As my disciples began doing the baptisms (John 4:1), they followed my example and welcomed women as well as men without question (Acts 5:14, 16:15). Soon over a third of my disciples were female. Others were prevented by their husbands, or the synagogue leaders, who thought all hell would be let loose.
Mary of Magdala was a bit of shock. She came to sit on the edge of my teaching sessions on the mountain near her home. Everybody knew her. They said she had seven devils (Luke 8:2), and it certainly showed. She would disturb us, get rip roaring angry if anyone crossed her, and gave people a piece of her mind in the most inappropriate way. I need not describe to you what her other faults were.
But one day she walked over to Capernaum, where I was teaching on the beach. I knew she had come to be baptized, and I asked the Spirit "Is there anyone too outrageous for you to take in hand?" So I was ready when she came indecently dressed, and knelt in the water before me. I scooped up a handful of Jordan water, and as I splashed it on her head I said "Mary Magdalena, I baptize you to learn from the Father who loves you, and from me and my disciples who will teach you, and from the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit."
She came to the next teaching session, and sat down among my disciples. I was proud of them when not one of them said a word or tried to edge away from her. They could see she was drinking up the teaching. And nobody could deny the incredible changes which were beginning in her life. Soon my disciples were happy to let her teach the women who came for baptism.
That stood me in good stead when I found myself talking to a woman of Samaria outside the town of Sychar (John 4:4-5). I sat on the well while my disciples went in to buy food. She came alone about noon to draw water (a sure sign she was excluded as a pariah among the other women who normally came to draw water and share their news early in the morning). I was tired and thirsty so I asked her for a drink (John 4:6-8).
Her first response was "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" As you know, Jews normally had nothing to do with Samaritans, let alone their women. I told her who I was and suggested I could give her the living water of the Spirit. She seemed interested, and I told her to call her husband. It turned out she was in a disaster situation. She had already lived with five different men, and presently she was committing adultery with a married man who was cheating on his wife (John 4:9-18).
She tried to raise the usual Samaritan question of whether God was to be worshiped in their temple or in our temple in Jerusalem. But I explained that "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). She said the Messiah would soon come and clarify all those theological questions. So I told her I was the Messiah. Just then my disciples arrived back, very surprised that their Rabbi was chatting alone with a woman and a Samaritan at that (John 4:25-27).
She took off, and persuaded the people in the town that I was the expected Messiah. As a result many of the Samaritans came out wanting to become my disciples. I baptized her first, and she kept drawing water for the others, including some of the women who had previously shunned her. It was strangely symbolic, because it was the very well that Jacob had drunk from in that area (John 4:12). So with my team of disciples I stayed on for two more days and taught them how to gather as a synagogue of the Messiah. They had some scrolls and knew the Psalms. The previously despised woman at the well led them in a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving, and asked the Holy Spirit to give them the wisdom they needed. As we left, we were pleased to see that another woman and her husband had been given a gift of teaching (John 4:28-30, 39-42). It seemed like a very fragile beginning, but to our astonishment it grew like a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32).
The influence of this woman convinced me that our neighboring Samaritans, who were hardly half Jewish were just as open to the good news as those who considered themselves the pure Jews of Jerusalem.
A few weeks later I took my closest disciples for a two week holiday (as in Mark 6:31). They were burned out from constantly teaching the crowds of people, and I remembered a marvelous walk up Mount Lebanon with two of my brothers. So I planned to take the coast road north to Sidon, then cut across the snow covered Lebanon mountains, see the source of the Jordan, and come back south around Lake Huleh to our base in Capernaum.
On our way through the historical city of Tyre (2 Samuel 5:11, 1 Kings 5:1-11, 16:31. Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26:2-28:23 Amos 1:9-10) we found a lodging and intended to keep our visit secret. We felt our mission was primarily to the people of Israel (Mark 7:24, 27-28, see Matthew 15:24). But a Canaanite woman began shouting "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon" (Matthew 15:22). My disciples reminded me we were on holiday, and urged me to tell her to leave and stop screaming at us. But she wouldn't take no for an answer. What could I do when she came and knelt in front of me, and pleaded "Lord, help me" (Matthew 15:25). I tried to explain my mission was to my own Jewish people. But she floored me with "You are right, but remember that puppies get to eat the crumbs that drop from the family table" (Matthew 15:27). All she was asking for was a crumb.
I took her by the hand, and prayed to the Holy Spirit for her daughter to be freed from those demonic forces. Even the disciples wept when they saw the girl healed, and her mother ecstatic with joy (Matthew 15:15-28). This all happened during one hour of the second day of our holiday. But it changed for ever my perception of what was needed. There were millions of mothers with children in similar distress in every country of the world.
A few days later as we looked out across the nations from the top of Mount Lebanon I told Peter I had to build a church not only to the south in Israel, but to the east into Arabia and India, and to the west as far as Rome and beyond, and to the northern countries of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38:2, 39:2). In each place the disciples would meet in the power of the Spirit, as they had done in Samaria, and they would pray for every family in need in the area. It would be Peter's task to organize this (Matthew 16:17-19).
I wish I could tell you the story of each of the women who played an important part in making the good news known. But enrolling women also had its problems in that patriarchal world. Mary of Magdala teamed up with Susanna, the business woman from Bethsaida, and Joanna of Tiberias whose husband was a senior executive in the court of Herod Antipas. In addition to being excellent teachers for the new disciples, they undertook to finance and cater for our evangelistic tours. They also loved to accompany us when they could (Luke 8:1-3). But you can imagine the gossip that dirty-minded people spread around. I was accused of running a traveling harem. And these faithful hard working women were called all sorts of terrible names. But happily not one of my closest disciples ever failed me by lapsing back into immorality. The Pharisee lawyers watched us like hawks, and even one case of impropriety would have been sufficient for the Pharisee lawyers to nail us, and the work would have ended right there.
I should also mention two sisters in the village of Bethany just the other side of the Mount of Olives. They did not travel around with us, but they provided a home for us whenever we came to Jerusalem. Martha of Bethany's father Simon was one of the lepers who was healed during our first preaching tour in northern Judea (based on Matthew 26:6). I told him to go to the priests and get a certificate that he was healed (see Luke 17:11-14). But they would not let him go home for several months, and Martha had to take care of all the arrangements in their big home. So there were many comings and goings, and her marvelous gift of hospitality kept her very busy and perhaps a bit too demanding. (Luke 10:40-41).
On one occasion all I needed was a simple meal, but she insisted on demonstrating her hospitality by preparing more dainties than we could possibly eat. Martha complained that, instead of helping with all this cooking, her sister Mary was sitting listening to me and asking questions (Luke 10:38-42). I will tell you more about Mary of Bethany in a later chapter, but both of them made a very big contribution to our mission.
There were of course other women in Nazareth and Capernaum and Tiberias who had a very different spirit. It was bad enough when Herodias dumped her husband to marry his half brother Herod Antipas, who reigned in nearby Tiberias (Mark 6:17). But I was horrified at the news of what happened at a state banquet. When her daughter danced beautifully for the guests, the King offered the girl half his kingdom as a reward. But the one thing Herodias wanted was the head of the prophet who had rebuked her adultery. . Imagine that young girl having to give her mother the severed head of John the Baptist on a silver tray (Mark 6:19-28). It upset me terribly. But it also steeled me for what I was inevitably going to face in the days ahead (Matthew 23:34-36).
Chapter 9 .....