Three incidents with women should cement in our minds Christ’s heart toward this group of marginalized, disregarded and belittled people. On was with the woman caught in adultery, one with his friends Mary and Martha, and the last with Mary Magdalene.
John 8:1-11 tells the story of the adulterer. In an effort to trap Jesus some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman before him who was caught in the very act of adultery. Jesus responded by bending down and writing in the dirt with His finger. Numerous preachers, teachers, scholars and commentators have speculated on just what Jesus wrote. I have heard it suggested Jesus listed the sins of all those accusing her. Others have compared the accusations against the woman to writing in the dust and contrasted that with the letter of the law which was written in stone. Whatever He wrote, the words He spoke were life:
When they kept on questioning Him, He straightened up and said to them, :If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you, ” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
“If any of you is without sin…” Oh, that we could live our lives in that way. With those words Jesus guaranteed this woman life. “Has no one condemned you?” He asked. Yes. Yes, a thousand times–with looks or sneers. Some had probably even spat at her. This woman lived a life of condemnation. That is, until the moment she stood beside Jesus. He, who had the power and authority to do so, did not condemn her. Like the story of the rich young ruler, it simply ends and we are left to speculate.
I suspect this woman’s life–in the physical–actually got worse. The animosity of those who brought her before Jesus was obvious if you consider their public humiliation of her. And, having their scheme thwarted would surly not improve their hearts toward her nor their subsequent treatment of her. Still, she stood before Jesus, the High Priest and the King of kings, and He did not condemn her. Unthinkable, contrary to every experience she had had up to that point. He entire framework had shifted. Someone, Jesus, had found her worthy.
Mary and Martha are two other women whose lives were turned around because of Jesus. Obviously having their brother brought back to life impacted their world. Yet another incident involving these two women has been the subject of just about as many sermons. I hesitate to include this story because over the years Martha had gotten the short end of the stick while Mary has been promoted as making the better choice. (Ironic when you take into account traditional attitudes toward women–ahem.). After all Jesus tells Martha, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” That is pretty blunt. And yet, here He was, disciples and all, at Mary’s and Martha’s house to eat. How could He be telling Martha she was making a bad choice; He was depending on her to feed them. This may be a stretch for some but Jesus was not telling Martha she was choosing poorly. Instead, in this brief little exchange Jesus was telling Martha, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. You need no longer worry over whether Mary will adhere to the political, social, and religious restraints of her day (or be chastised by less forgiving authorities then you and me). She is free, free to be who her Creator has made her to be. Just as you are, Martha. You are a wonderful cook and a generous hostess–that is why I come here–you honor me by your servant-hood. Let Mary honor me with hers.” Jesus is not, as is so often assumed, telling Martha she should be like Mary. He is telling her to let Mary be herself.
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, Mary again breaks free from the restraints that bound women when she anoints Christ’s feet with expensive perfume while He is reclining with His disciples. And, she is chastised. Yet, once again Jesus comes to her defense telling the disciples that she is actually fulfilling a role often left to women (because touching the dead made a person unclean) by preparing his body for burial (John 12:1-8).
The last interaction Jesus has with a woman is reported in slightly differing versions in both Matthew 28: 1-10 and John 20:1-18. In Matthew Mary Magdalene is with another Mary and in John she is by herself. In Matthew an angel told the women Jesus had risen and would meet them in Galilee. As they ran to tell the disciples Jesus himself appeared to them. They fell at his feet and He said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell the brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The John version has not only the women but Peter and John witnessing the empty tomb. Mary alone, however, stayed by the tomb weeping. When an angel asked her why she was crying she confessed that she did not know where they (presumably the Roman guards) had taken Jesus. Even when she first saw Jesus she mistook Him for the gardener. Her rational mind could not grasp that He had risen until, that is, He spoke her name. Like Matthew, John reports that Jesus instructed Mary to, “Go and tell the brothers…”
For some making a big deal over Jesus sending a woman to go tell the brothers something is like making a mountain out of a molehill. Yet, something about this story affirms the status of women in the heart of Jesus in a way none of the other stories do. In the John version Jesus even has the opportunity to talk to Peter and John but waits until Mary is alone. I find that curious. Here, right after He has risen from the dead, Jesus trust Mary, a woman, to deliver the Good News to the circle of Jesus’ closest followers. “He is risen. He is coming back. We will find Him in Galilee. In the end this proves nothing except that Jesus did not have a problem with allowing a woman to teach men.