“Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them.” (Luke 7:38)
Yes, always, thanks Mom. I forever love and miss you. But this isn’t about my mother.
Or my two sisters, one older, one younger, and both have given me trust I value and memories I cherish. The women I’m talking about also don’t include my wife, who has shared love and friendship and encouragement beyond explaining.
I am who I am because of women in the Bible.
I am who I am because of women who ignored the Bible. More fairly, the women who ignored the way the Bible, until just recently, until only in the last few generations, has been misused.
First, let’s journey back to near the end of World War II.
My father-in-law was a Moravian pastor. He died in 2003, almost ten years into well-deserved retirement after a lifetime of ministry. I remember looking through his black and white photos, the snapshots of his life. His wedding. Churches he served. The cute pictures of his kids, which—of course—included my adorable future spouse.
And his seminary days. During World War II, my father-in-law joined other students for an accelerated course of study for the ministry. The world, after all, was torn asunder. Get those clergy out there . . . now! In those old photographs the men had skinny dark ties, starched white shirts, and awkward smiles. And, without exception, they were all men.
About thirty years after my father-in-law graduated, I entered seminary, and entered a different world. Women comprised half of my fellow students. They were colleagues in formal classrooms and in informal gatherings where we schemed (as every generation does) to transform the world.
The first district superintendent—a regional pastor to the pastors in United Methodist hierarchy—that influenced my ministry was a woman. The pastor who invited me to say “I do” to my wife was a woman. In the last congregation I served, a multi-staff setting, all the other clergy during my nine-year tenure were women.
My doctor is a woman. My current boss at hospice is a woman. I’ve done too many sessions of physical therapy after various surgeries and most of my therapists have been women. During a bout of depression a few years ago—not so much clinical, but certainly a time of emptiness—my counselor was a woman.
Now let’s journey back further to the Bible. To those women.
Today I read about Jezebel, who killed the prophets and conspired against God. Her name lives on as a curse: You Jezebel! And then later I spent time with an unnamed woman from Luke. Unnamed and gracious, unnamed and down on her knees, using her tears and hair to moisten, cleanse, and dry Jesus’ dusty feet. Jezebel—one of the nastiest women tromping through holy scripture—and the anonymous woman who tenderly comforted Jesus seem to have little in common.
And yet much in common.
From my twenty-first century perspective I know that every woman mentioned in the Bible’s 2,000-3,000 year ago history were the property of men. Second-class citizens. A hardscrabble plot of land or the most pathetic herd of sheep held more value than a girl. Jezebel, for all her power and cruelty, was property. Luke’s nameless woman, for all her kindness toward Jesus, was property.
How radical that there are any women in the Bible who matter. I suspect, as the Biblical story became created and recreated, told and retold, blended together and passed along, always trying to depict the Holy at work on the human, women couldn’t be avoided in the sacred story. Not the nasty ones like Jezebel. Not the peculiar, inspiring “foreigners” like Ruth with her dreams of inclusion. Would Pilate’s tale of Roman treachery be as compelling without his nightmare-burdened wife and her warnings? Wouldn’t Jesus’ ministry be less interesting if we didn’t know that named women—Mary, Joanna and Susanna—provided financial support? How much would the radical, inclusive and unexpected nature of Jesus’ message be different if two-faced Peter lingered at the tomb imagining Jesus the gardener rather than the woman from Magdala?
The Bible can’t deny that women schemed, dreamed, cleaned . . . and inspired, or conspired against, belief. Women, like men, were involved in the worst and the best of faith. And yet every women mentioned in the Bible was a second-class citizen. Church traditions kept them that way for nearly two millennia.
I recall my father-in-law’s black snapshots. All men. Nervous smiles. Ready to face the world and to serve God.
Serving God changed. Not soon enough and perhaps just in time.
Women made me who I am today.
[Image is The Anointing of Christ (2009) by Julia Stankova of Bulgaria.]