Saturday, 4 May 2019

A woman it would be nice to know

After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. Luke 8:1-3

Jesus had many prominent female disciples.

It’s easy for us to overlook that fact, given that the world in which he lived was entirely male-dominated, and that this was bound to be reflected in the ministry he exercised.

But it’s true. In this tiny passage we read the names of three such women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna. But Luke also mentions “many others”. He tells us two significant things about them: first, they “were with him”, along with the apostles; and second, they “were helping to support” Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means”.

Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again by Luke in 24:10 as part of a wider group who stood at the foot of the cross as he died, and then, on Easter Day, as being the first to bring to the twelve the news of his rising.

These women obviously mattered to Jesus; they mattered very much. (To them, after all, was entrusted the greatest news the world has ever heard!) The obvious implication is that godly woman should matter very much to the church today as well. What this implies for questions of female leadership and ministry is a big topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

No, I want to think in particular about just one of these women: Joanna, who is described as “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household”. (Far too much has already been written about Mary Magdalene, much of it nonsense which has no basis in the Bible.)

When you think about Jesus’ early followers, do you tend to have in mind the poor people - the “ordinary people” - from the villages and small towns: the sort of people who flocked in large crowds to “listen to him with delight” (Mark 12:37)? I must admit I do.

But, wonderful though that is, it isn’t the whole picture, for Joanna and her companions were obviously pretty well-to-do, and probably quite cultured and educated: how else could they support him “out of their own means”?

Joanna’s wealthy status probably arose from the fact that her husband Chuza was a prominent official, “the manager of Herod’s household”, no less.

Who was Herod?

The Herod family was a dynasty of Jewish rulers who came after Herod the Great, the man responsible for building the temple that we read about in the Gospels. (They ruled totally under the thumb of the Romans, of course.)

The Herod we meet here was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who governed the region of Galilee. It was he who reluctantly and stupidly killed John the Baptist, probably while he was full of drink (Mark 6:14-29) - and it was he to whom Jesus once referred as “that fox” (Luke 13:31-32)!

It is striking that Joanna’s husband should be in the employment of this powerful man. No doubt the couple had a very nice house in the region of Galilee (Capernaum perhaps?), complete with plenty of slaves and all mod cons.

It raises interesting questions: did Chuza know that his wife was a follower of Jesus? Or did she have to keep it secret because it might get him into difficulty with his boss?

Or was Chuza perhaps a follower of Jesus himself? It has been suggested that he might be the “certain royal official” mentioned in John 4:46-54, whose son was healed by Jesus. John tells us that “he and his whole household believed”, and also that they lived in Capernaum. True, the only healing that Luke mentions is that of Joanna herself, not of any son; but it’s an intriguing possibility.

We can only speculate. But, true or not, it’s clear that there were people from the higher ranks of society who believed in Jesus. And this puts a new light on his ministry.

I don’t imagine that Joanna and her friends travelled around with Jesus anything like as much as the apostles; perhaps they simply made a point of turning out when he was in their vicinity. But the fact is that he was obviously glad to welcome their presence and their support, even at risk of causing scandal among the strict rabbis - who would never so much as dream of having female disciples in their entourage!

Joanna is certainly a woman I would like to have met. If nothing else, what little we know about her prompts important questions for us today.

First, are women in our churches recognised and valued for the roles they play? Second, are their gifts and talents fully used? And third, do we aim to build churches that are thoroughly mixed in terms of sex, social status and educational background?

Happy is that church which is “multi-generational”, both male and female, and a genuine cross-section of its local community!

Lord, thank you for unsung heroes like Joanna. Thank you for all those who love and serve Jesus in quiet and unobtrusive ways. And if that is my role in the life of the church, help me to fulfil it cheerfully and reliably. Amen.

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