Women’s Work

Luke 8:1-3 (Unsung Sheroes: part 1)

This morning we are starting a new series that I’m calling “Unsung Sheroes.” Although we’ve already spent three months studying the gospel of Luke, there’s a lot that we missed. So before we move on to something else for the summer, we are going to spend a few weeks going back into the book of Luke to pick out some of the stories about women. Luke has more stories about women than any of the other gospels. Luke goes out of his way to include women, often balancing a story about a man with a story about a woman. For example, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to dedicate him, there are two prophets about speak about him, Simeon (a man) and Anna (a woman). Jesus tells a parable of a found sheep with a male main character and a parable about a found coin with female main character. Those are only two examples. Since this much material about women is rare, I thought it would be fun for us to take a closer look at some of it.

But I’ll be honest, it’s a mixed bag. You may have noticed that often with the Bible, you find what you come looking for. If you want to find support for slavery, it’s there. If you want to find support for liberation, it’s there. If you want to find stories about the subjugation of women, it’s there. And if you want to find women in leadership, it’s there too. By and large, the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about women. Not nearly as much, not even close, to what it has to say about men. In fact some of the best work that has been done by feminist and womanist biblical scholars is done by reading against the text, by arguing with the Bible, by pushing back on it and looking for what it doesn’t say. In seminary I had a class called “Women in the Biblical World” and frankly by the time we were halfway through, a lot of us were feeling pretty annoyed with the Bible, because a lot of what the Bible does say about women is not good. So what should we do with that?

Well, I personally try to keep a few things in mind. The first is that if we come to the Bible looking for our modern values, we will very often be disappointed. The world of the Old and New Testament is not our world. This is not just about women. Slavery, patriarchal rule, social hierarchy, violence— it’s all there. And the fact that it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean that we have to approve of it. In fact, there’s a lot in the Bible that teaches us what NOT to do in the world. So first, I just don’t expect to approve of or agree with all that I read. 

Second, I look for progress. A friend of mine calls it “the click forward.” Where do we see the people of God moving forward in their understanding? Some of what we find in the Bible is more generous and more liberating than what we know about other cultures in that time. Not as radical as we want it to be, but better than it was. Progress matters, and we have to recognize it when we find it.

Finally, I look past the main stories. I look for overlooked details. Many of the big obvious stories about women are not great by our standards. The women aren’t treated as we want them to be treated and the story isn’t really about the woman; it’s about what the men around her. But sometimes there are these details that slip through. There’s one verse in First Chronicles 7:24 that says a woman named Sheerah built three cities. What?! Can somebody please tell me THAT story?! At the end of the book of Romans, Saint Paul is rattling off a list of people to whom he sends greetings and thanks and he mentions a woman named Junia and calls her an apostle, which is a title that is only otherwise given to men. There’s really great liberating stuff for women in the Bible, but sometimes we have to look hard for it.

OK, so, with all that in mind, what about the book of Luke? Well, frankly it’s a mixed bag. Like I said it includes much more about women than the other gospels, but the majority of it casts women in roles where they are quiet or serving men. But the women are there! Unfortunately, Luke didn’t any additional commentary about why he wrote what he wrote, so we can’t say for sure what he was trying to communicate. So as we study these stories, I’m going to interpret them as generously as possible. But we aren’t going to use rose-colored glasses or ignore the hard stuff.

The way I want to start this morning is with three verses that come about a third of the way through the book. Jesus kicks off his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth and then spends a good amount of time preaching, teaching, and healing in the region of Galilee. This little snippet comes in the middle of his ministry in Galilee, before he sets out on his final journey to Jerusalem. Let’s read together Luke chapter 8 verses 1 through 3. I’m reading from the Common English Bible.

“Soon afterward, {as in, after the story right before this which we will talk about another week, remember Luke’s goal is to give an “orderly account” so he often uses this phrases to designate the order of things} Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. The Twelve were with him, {that’s his twelve male apostles who were named in chapter 6} along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out), Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.”

Luke 8:1-3

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

That’s it. That’s what I wanted you to see today. That’s how I want to start this series. You’ve heard the phrase behind every good man is a good woman. Well apparently behind the good man Jesus there were at least a dozen women! Jesus’ ministry of preaching and good news-ing people, declaring the release available in God’s Kingdom, all of that would have been impossible without a group of women taking care of logistics. And no other gospel bothers to tell us that. 

Now, I’ll be honest, I would rather these verses say that these women were also apostles who participated in the preaching and the good-newsing, like the 12 male apostles do other places. That’s what I want. But that’s not what it says. Although I think it’s possible based on things we read other places. But we don’t know.

Here’s what we do know. These are some fierce women. First of all they have enough resources, enough money, enough stuff, that they can support at least 13 men on a regional speaking tour. Secondly, they don’t need the permission or blessing of any man to be part of this tour. In a society where women were usually defined by the men to whom they were related, these women are not. It’s possible that Joanna even left her husband behind to join the tour. Finally, at least three of these women go on to be well known in the Jesus movement because Luke gives us their names, most likely because his readers would know other things about those women. Most definitely Mary Magdalene was present at the empty tomb and these others may have been as well. In fact, it may have been the same group of women. It’s possible that these are the women followed Jesus all the way from Galilee to the cross, to the tomb, and finally to the upper room to be filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s pretty cool.

What can we learn from this little bit that we have about them?

First, they were generous. And their generosity flowed from gratitude. At least some of these women had by Jesus been cured of diseases and/or released from demonic oppression. He had seen them, really seen them, cared about their suffering, and released them from it. And they were so grateful that, like Simon Peter at his fishing boat, they left everything to follow Jesus. 

Generosity is the natural result of gratitude. When we recognize what Jesus has done for us, the ways we have been released, encouraged, healed, forgiven, restored, we are so grateful. And we want to give back. We want to be generous to God as God has been generous to us. 

There are many ways to be generous. These women are obviously generous with their time, because they leave whatever else they were doing to travel with Jesus, to handle the details of the itinerary, the lodging and the food and the schedule. They are also generous with their finances. Luke has some pretty radical stuff about what followers of Christ should do with our money. If we have surplus, if we have excess, Luke expects that we will spend it in support of God’s Kingdom. The best thing we can do with our money is use it to make sure that all people everywhere experience the release that God promises us: physical healing, forgiveness, restoration of relationships, spiritual freedom. That’s what Jesus came to do; that’s the job he left to us; and that’s a mission worthy of our money.

The other thing that strikes me about these women is that they were providing for Jesus. That word providing is also translated serving. Which initially feels a little … ick. Like I said before, I don’t want them serving; I want them leading. But guess what? In this gospel and throughout the rest of the New Testament, serving is not servile. The Greek word translated as “serving” is diakonéo, which is where we get our word “deacon.” To be a deacon in the early church and in many churches today is a leadership role. Guess who else served? Jesus himself.

At the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples, his 12 male apostles get in an argument about which of them is the GOAT, the greatest of all time, the most important. Jesus gives them a pretty stern rebuke. In chapter 22 verses 25 through 27 he says to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” 

Jesus is among us as one who serves. These women are doing what Jesus came to do. They aren’t arguing about which one of them is the greatest. They are doing what needs to be done, the non-glamourous stuff, the behind-the-scenes stuff, the stuff nobody notices until it doesn’t get done. They aren’t in it for the glory. They are in it for the mission. They are serving. And that doesn’t make them weaker or unimportant. Far from it. Serving Jesus makes them exactly like Jesus himself. Or maybe, it makes Jesus like them. Jesus came among us to do “women’s work.” Amen. 

Next: “Unsung Sheroes, part 2: Emancipated Women”

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