“The twelve were with him,as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Luke 8:1-3
A girl doesn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a prostitute, it’s generally a profession born of necessity and driven by an insatiable market demand. In the ancient world when Jesus was around, women who were prostitutes were just called “sinners,” a blanket term that covered a multitude of necessary survival traits. Since a woman was considered property, if she was banished or turned out of a home or a marriage, likely with no marketable skills, prostitution became a way of feeding herself—it was survival.
So it is no surprise that, more than once, Jesus found himself in a position where a woman who was a “sinner” hunted him down to kiss his feet and wipe away her tears with her hair, often pouring out some kind of expensive perfume as a gesture that she was laying it all on the line in hope of a new life. Confident that she would get a fair hearing at this man’s feet, even if she had to crash a formal “for males only” dinner and parade herself past a table full of men, perhaps even one or two of her former clients. We find in Luke 8:1-3 that Jesus had a cadre of female disciples such as this, former “sinners.” These very women he had freed from a life of “sin” (what we might call sex trafficking today), and the accompanying demons and infirmities, ended up providing financial support for his ministry out of their new jobs and their newfound lives as freed women.
Jesus had a group of women funding his mission—women he had set free—which indicates by the nature of the word “free” that prior to their falling at his feet like a refugee of war seeking asylum from an oppressive regime, they had been in a captivity known as sin. Ironically, the label of “sinner” wasn’t given to the system that forced a woman into such circumstances or the pimp that ran the prostitution ring rather, the one who bore the label “sinner” was the woman herself.
But Jesus saw the matter differently, instead of blaming the woman for her predicament, he simply set her free, not only from her internal demons and infirmities but from the system itself. He gave her the ability to build a new life. Perhaps Jesus was the first feminist.
At the beginning of his ministry when Jesus states that he has come to set the captives free, he’s talking about human beings, all those who are enslaved to systems that force them to live apart from the joy and dignity of their very soul, which is, by the way, a God-given right for every human being.
The guiding energy of any movement such as feminism or liberation is to free people to experience their souls, the God-given source of their true nature. This is what Jesus meant by “free.” Freedom to experience the place of connection with God that is often blocked by the psychological trauma that comes with physical, mental and spiritual types of oppression.
Oppressive forces that enslave people by treating them as property are also forces that threaten a person’s connection to their very own soul. For the women in these stories, and for so many people in the world today, Jesus becomes a force stronger than the oppressive forces in the world that enslave. Jesus represented God, not just in a building but in the heart, a force that can set the soul free to experience the joy, freedom, peace, and eternal nature of God here and now.
Saint Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” I’m sure these women of the ancient world became dangerously independent and fully alive when Jesus set them free. Independent enough to make their own living and give themselves to a worthy cause without selling body and soul. As the ancient poet Hafiz has stated, “We have not come here to be taken prisoner, but to surrender ever more deeply to freedom and joy.”
Quite a feat in a world in which women were considered the property of another person, subversive, in fact, to believe in something that doesn’t technically belong to you, your very self. This is often the first step to the recovery of the soul, believing, against the odds, that you can reclaim your soul from any kind of wreckage that may have been hoisted upon you in this life.
Perhaps the greatest gift Jesus gave women, besides the connection to their soul’s divine joy, was the permission to believe in themselves without apology.
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