Three Women, pt.2

Below you will find part two of the transcript from the message I brought in Lithia Springs a few weeks ago. The transcript doesn’t match the spoken message (found here) word for word, but it’s close. Part three will come in the next post.

THE SECOND WOMAN: MARY OF BETHANY

Let’s leave Adam and Eve for a minute and move on to our next woman. But before I can tell you what I want to tell you about her, I have to talk first about Jesus. When Jesus called people into a relationship with him, he had a consistent way of calling people into that relationship. What did he say to them? He said “Come and follow me.” We have come to use that phrase figuratively to mean all kinds of things. We say things like “I’ve been following so-and-so’s career for a long time,” or “I’ve been following the Braves for a long time.” We use the word in a figurative sense when we say we follow Jesus. But when Jesus originally called people to follow him, He really was telling them to follow him. It was actually a call to get up and walk around wherever he went. It was a very literal following him. He was a man who did not sit still. He kept moving, so to be in a relationship with Him required that you get up and follow Him and go around with Him. It was a very active relationship. Knowing Jesus in the first century meant actively following him around wherever he went, going where he was going, and doing whatever he was doing. In fact, after knowing him for a pretty short time, many of them were sent out by Jesus, 72 of them in fact, to do what he had been doing. All of that was a part of following him. It was an active relationship. Just like Adam’s relationship with God was a very active relationship. So it was with the followers of Jesus.

Come to think of it, Jesus would always say that his relationship with His Father was an active relationship. He told us that his Father was working even up until that day. He said that for that same reason he was always working, because he lived by just doing what he saw his Father doing. For him, knowing his Father involved doing the same things that his Father did. I would point out that this is true of any relationship. If you would know someone well, you will have to do some of the things that they do. You do things with them. You don’t get to know someone by just sitting with them, or just looking at them. You get to know them by talking with them, listening to them, spending time with them and doing things with them, by having some of the same interests that they have. That’s how a relationship works. Jesus’ relationship with his Father was no different. And Jesus’ relationship with his followers was no different. So he called them to follow him.

Now there was a precedent, an established role in Jewish society in Jesus’ day which fit this very well. It was that of a Rabbi and his disciples. The New Testament calls Jesus’ followers just that: disciples. Disciples are people who follow a rabbi around. So it should catch our notice that they called Jesus “Rabbi,” teacher. In the first century, a Rabbi wasn’t a person who sat in a room and lectured for hours on end dispensing knowledge and information. A Rabbi was up on his feet, moving around all the time. And his followers, his disciples, were people who would follow him around, doing the same things he did. When their time with him was finished, they were meant to become like their teacher. They would do the same things he did and understand things the same way he understood them.

Whenever a Rabbi did sit down, they would sit at his feet. They would gather around him and sit near him so they could hear anything he had to say. That’s what it meant to sit at a Rabbi’s feet. It was part of a larger relationship that involved following him around wherever he went, learning to do whatever he did, and learning to listen to what he said and understand what he was talking about. If you wanted to tell someone that you were a follower, a disciple, of a person, you would say that you were sitting at his feet. When Paul was introduced to the Roman world (and the Christian world), they explained that he was well known because he had sat at the feet of Gamaliel. That meant he was one of Gamaliel’s disciples, one of his followers. For years, he was taught by Gamaliel, followed him around. That made Paul a distinguished person because Gamaliel was a famous Rabbi. That’s what it meant to sit at the feet of someone. It meant declaring that you were that person’s follower.

Jesus had many disciples. You know there were more than just twelve. Many people were referred to as his disciples. At one point there were 72, and later there were up to 120. And besides his faithful followers, there were scores of people who were around him at any given point. One time he had to provide food for as many as 5,000 people because that’s how many were pressing in to see him and hear him. But I’m sure you know there were really more than 5,000. That was just the men being counted. There were also women and children present, but they had a funny way of not counting women or children back then. For example, have you ever noticed that the birth of women is never recorded in the Bible? The birth of the boys is chronicled for us, but not the girls. That’s just ancient Jewish culture for you. Even the New Testament refers to women like they were a separate group from Jesus’ disciples. It would refer to the disciples and also the women who traveled with them. That’s a pretty fascinating detail.

In their culture, women just didn’t have the same social roles as men. Now these women traveled around with the rest of Jesus’ disciples, and they went wherever the disciples went. They were always there, helping to tend to the practical needs of all these people, because somebody had to cook the food and take care of the material needs of the group while they traveled. They probably cleaned house, washed clothes, prepared food, all that kind of stuff. To the first century Jewish followers of Jesus, that was just the role of women. Maybe that sounds foreign at first, because we’ve always thought of the early church as treating men and women very equally, but I don’t think that was always the case. In fact, I suspect that the early believers were really slow figuring out certain things.

Take the issue of the Law of Moses, for example. The earliest disciples seemed to think that the gospel was only going to be for the Jews. They had a major crisis about whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised in order to get in, to become followers of Jesus. Of course we know that they later decided that was not going to be the case but they had to really debate it for a while. They seemed to be originally under the impression that the only way to be a Christian was to also be a good Jew. In fact, the earliest apostles only went to Jews.

Years later God told Peter to go to a gentile named Cornelius to share the gospel with him, but Peter was reluctant to do it because he thought the gospel was only for the Jews. The only way he could imagine a Gentile being a part of this is if he became a good Jew first. You may also remember that God had to take Peter by the hand and give him a vision of a sheet coming down out of heaven with all kinds of clean and unclean animals on it. He told him to kill and eat but Peter said he couldn’t. The Lord replied “Don’t call unclean what I have called clean.” So even years later Peter had to be taught by the Lord that the gospel was not just for the Jews. Even more amazing than this is that, years after the incident with Cornelius, we find Peter going to a Gentile town called Antioch and refusing to sit with Gentiles. For Paul that was a complete denial of the gospel. My point in all this is that the early believers were slow learners about certain things. I think the equality of women as followers of Jesus was one of those things that came too slowly for many segments of the church.

Incidentally, there was one other group of people who the twelve were slow to accept: the children. The children were always coming to Jesus, and the men were always pushing them away because they didn’t want them getting in Jesus’ way. But Jesus said “don’t make these kids go away.” They’re a part of these things, too. But maybe that’s something to talk about another time. Let’s return to the women.
Reading the gospels, you find the disciples, the followers of Jesus, and “the women.” Well, good ol’ Luke, who’s always the first to tell these kinds of things, tells a story in Luke 10 about how Jesus came to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. And I want to paint a picture for you first, before I finish this story. You understand that wherever Jesus went he was always surrounded by crowds of people. The only way he could get any time alone was when he intentionally sent the crowds away. On at least a couple of occasions he found himself stuck with finding a way to feed thousands of people. There were throngs of people following him around, hoping to see the next miracle.

I think a good comparison for today would be if you imagine a celebrity passing through town, like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. They wouldn’t be on the street long before hordes of people would be around them, snapping photos and asking for autographs. They probably need handlers or bodyguards to ensure that they have the space they need. Well, it was kind of like that for Jesus. Wherever he went, crowds of people would end up following him. And when he would stop to teach in a house, you couldn’t fit everyone inside the house.

More than likely, that’s what it was like when he went to Bethany. When he entered the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, there were at least 12 men who followed him around everywhere. Beyond that, there were up to 72 people, or maybe even as many as 120 who were almost always with him. And then beyond that, there were crowds of people who would turn out to see him heal or hear him speak. So when he entered a house, he typically packed it out. So when we turn to this story, we shouldn’t picture a house that is empty except for Mary, Martha, and Jesus. We should be picturing a house that’s full of shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee people squeezed together on the floor, standing around the edges against the walls, hanging through widows and standing in doorways, and even more standing outside the house, straining to hear what Jesus is saying inside. At any given destination, there were dozens, scores of people sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him talking.

We all know what Martha was doing at this time. She was busy with preparations for all of the people who just crashed her house. Suddenly this new picture makes so much more sense doesn’t it? We learn to poke fun at Martha for freaking out about things to do for Jesus. It always seemed pitiful how worked up she was getting over one single visitor, didn’t it? Even if it was Jesus! But she wasn’t just serving Jesus, was she? She was serving everybody! Maybe a hundred or more people! Think of how much food it would take!

She was merely fulfilling the role of a woman that she was given. Now she may have been that way naturally—she may have been an oldest child. She may have naturally been the one to make sure the dishes were washed, food had been prepared, feet had been washed, all those kinds of practical things. But then again, there’s nothing that says Mary wasn’t normally responsible, too. What we do know is that on this particular day, Mary chose to make a statement. She made a gesture, and you know what it was. She went and sat down at his feet with all of his other followers. That made a major statement, and Martha didn’t agree with her statement. The way Martha saw it, there was work to be done, mouths to feed, and Mary’s place was in the kitchen (so to speak…there probably wasn’t a kitchen the way we would imagine it, but you get the point). She was dropping the ball here.

But Mary had a different role to fulfill. She was numbering herself among Jesus’ disciples. She wasn’t content to be in a category called “the women.” She was saying that she was both a woman and also a follower of Jesus’. Not just a maid, or a waitress, but a disciple. That was a very liberated thing to do, wasn’t it? And Jesus took the time to draw attention to what she had done. Martha came in, told Jesus to tell Mary to help her, and Jesus said, “You know what? Mary has figured something out, and I’m not going to take that away from her.”

I have to stop and tell you that I first heard this story a looong time ago, as a new Christian. And the way I heard this story was very different from what I just told you. I had always pictured Mary and Jesus sitting together in a quiet, empty room, just sitting and spending time with each other, talking intimately with one another, or maybe with Mary just sitting and gazing at him as he spoke. Very passive. Very contemplative. Very still and intimate. Meanwhile Martha’s running herself ragged trying to get things perfect for Jesus. Which of course looks even sillier when you imagine an empty house and just Martha and Mary entertaining their single guest. Just how high maintenance did Martha really think Jesus was, anyway? Well, that’s just the point. He wasn’t alone, he had probably packed the house and there was a noisy crowd of people squeezing in to listen to Jesus, with Mary situated right smack dab in the middle of it all. Just who did she think she was, anyway? And why didn’t she know her place? There were so many mouths to feed and she was getting distracted by the delusion that she could do whatever the men were doing in there.

I don’t think Jesus was criticizing Martha’s determination to meet everyone’s needs. He was just drawing attention to something new, something Mary had discovered. She had figured out that, for this particular Rabbi, being a woman didn’t mean she was any less of a disciple. She had equal access. From now on she wasn’t going to accept a lower status because of her gender. And Jesus only reinforced it!

Whether the rest of those men understood what was happening or not, Luke made sure that story got included, right after telling us how obsolete our national and ethnic distinctions are, too (story of the Good Samaritan). Neither did Luke pass up the opportunity to tell us that it was a couple of women who first witnessed the resurrected Christ, and that it was those two women who were the first apostles to the apostles! They were charged with the responsibility of breaking the news to the men, who were hiding somewhere afraid for their lives.

Now I’m ready to make my main point here. Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet was not a display of contemplation, or passivity. It wasn’t about sitting in silence or being still. It wasn’t about resting versus work, either. It ultimately wasn’t about ceasing to do certain things. On the contrary, it was a startlingly active role to choose. Sitting at his feet demonstrated that she was to be his active follower, just like the men filling that room. She was way ahead of her time. And once again, we’ve got an active relationship with a person who is quite active himself. This One will only be known by being willing to move around quite a bit, keeping you on your toes.

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