A couple of weeks ago I sat in the front row at University Bookstore with my friend Sara. She got there early to save seats for us; I got there just in time to thank her for being so on time and on top of it.
Soon, after conversations with each other and those around us, Rob Bell took the stage (which wasn’t really a stage at all, but the five foot space between us and the wall of books behind him). Then, in the heart of secular Seattle, Washington, he began to talk to the audience about an ancient collection of poems, letters and stories that still have the power to transform us today. He began to tell us about the Bible, including the God of inclusive love, and the Spirit of hope (as Paul, for example, connects hope to suffering in Romans), and Jesus, whose ministry was funded by a few forgotten women of the Bible.
That’s right: the Son of God had himself some lady pimps. The text, in case you’re still not convinced, is as follows:
“After this, Jesus traveled 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
Now’s here’s the deal: I’ve read, studied, and underlined the aforementioned passage before, but it wasn’t until this collision with Rob Bell that the significance of three verses made their way from head to heart to words on a page in front of me.
Chances are, if you’ve read any part of the Gospels, you’ve come face to face with Herod the Great. He was King of Israel for forty years, dominating landscapes with massive buttresses, killing people who didn’t agree with him. He’s the one who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, when all young male children were ordered (to be) murdered in the vicinity of Bethlehem – really, so his own throne wouldn’t be lost in the process. He’d heard the news of the King of the Jews by the Magi (Matthew 2:16-18); he’d felt threatened by the (then) boy-child, Jesus. Let’s just say he had quite the rap sheet in the history books of Jewish culture.
But, going back to the Lukan verses, if you’re king, you have money. And if you have money, you have households and servants and people who work for you, including managers of your estate. [I mean, I haven’t experienced this personally, but I imagine if I owned a 10,000-acre Downton Abbey-like estate, I too would have a handful of servants and a household manager or two.] Likewise, in Luke, we read that Jesus traveled from town to town with a handful of men and women – including a woman named Joanna, who was married to a man named Chuza, who happened to be the manager of Herod’s household.
“So Chuza would have been responsible for a massive amount of wealth,” Bell writes in his new book, What is the Bible? “[This] would have brought him a massive amount of wealth. He shares this wealth with his wife, who is traveling with an itinerant rabbi, paying the bills” (35).
Somehow, Joanna caught wind of Jesus’ teaching and message. Somehow, behind the shadows of Herod’s lavish estate (whose wealth and power she directly benefited from), she came to hear and know the message of this new kingdom, this kingdom-on-earth different from the one Herod the Great had dominated up until that point.
Somehow, Joanna came to understand the Son of God’s message about “a kingdom that isn’t built around the rich oppressing the poor and the powerful using their military might to keep the weak in submission. It’s a kingdom built on compassion and nonviolence and love and solidarity with those who suffer” (36). Somehow, Joanna may have even come to believe in this new and different kind of kingdom, so much so that she decided to put her money where her mouth was, and support the Christ’s kingdom financially.
“Herod, in other words, ends up indirectly funding the very resistance movement he’s trying to stamp out” (37).
So, you ask: did Jesus have lady pimps? In a word, yes. Absolutely. For as Luke reveals to his audience, three of the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna (the only three who are named in this account, mind you), funded his ministry as he traveled from town to town. They paid his bills. In fact, they were what some might call the earliest financial investors of Christianity. [Tell that to anyone who ever asks you for money, in the name of Jesus.]
Similarly, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, theologian Kenneth Bailey affirms Bell’s position: women held a prominent spot in Christ’s ministry. “Jesus not only talked to women,” Bailey writes, “he invited women into his band of disciples, was financed by them and some of them traveled with him” (203). As Bailey goes on to surmise, we cannot lose or ignore the significance of these three verses, and gives three main points as to why Luke 8:1-3 is so significant.
First, the story itself is surprising. I don’t know about you, but in the staunch evangelical culture I grew up in, women weren’t really a part of the picture. Jesus, I was taught, had his twelve – and his twelve were men. And then he had his top three – who were also men; they, according to the verses we studied, were the ones that really counted. (Later, in high school and college, this translated into ministerial purposes: just as Jesus had his twelve and his three, so we should have our twelve and our three). But women were never included in the conversation. Women were never mentioned. Even if I read the passage in Luke, which I’m guessing I did at that time in my life, I didn’t give it weight.
But here, Bailey (along with Bell, along with the Gospel writer himself) tells the reader that Jesus traveled from town to town with men and women. “This implies that they were spending night after night in strange villages,” Bailey states. “Yet in the contemporary Middle East, I know of no place in traditional society where the social scene presented in this text is possible” (193). Women could have traveled during the day with the men, but would have had to stay the night with relatives.
But this was not the case. Instead, Jesus’ lady pimps funded (all of) their stays in a handful of second century Motel 6’s along the way. This is huge – and defies much of what many of us have been taught of the Bible and therefore believed of patriarchal Christianity.
Second, the women were in charge of the money. For Bailey, who spent forty years teaching the New Testament in various parts of the Middle East, this assertion is no small claim. Women, in second century Jewish culture, were second-class citizens at best. But here we’re told that they held a role of financial leadership among their Jesus-following peers, even among men.
Again, this defies much of what women in the history of the Church have experienced as less-than, second-class citizens. And I am among them.
I’ve been thought of as less-than. I’ve been told my highest calling is as a help-meet, to marry and bear children. I’ve been called a Jezebel, and I’ve been told I have a rebellious spirit. I’ve been told that I’m dangerously stepping into man’s territory. I’ve been told that I cannot speak to men and women becauseI’m a woman, and I’ve been told that the gifts of God only apply to certain areas of my life. I’ve been talked over in seminary classes and in lectionary meetings alike; I’ve been told that if I “just use more sports analogies,” then perhaps I’ll better reach those with a penis in my audience. I’ve been passed over for promotions and for preaching opportunities. I’ve been told that if I could just learn how to play golf, I’d have a real shot at ministry.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been told it all, but when I read that it’s the women who funded Jesus and the other men and women who traveled with him, I have hope.
Lady pimps, man. It’s no joke.
But in all seriousness, this gives me hope that even if the Church has done a tragic disservice to women (as well as to people of color, to immigrants and to the LGBTQ community, to name a few), that this same Jesus did not and does not do a tragic disservice to us.
For Jesus was unabashedly, unashamedly, more-than-inclusively for women. So, even if the Church is still figuring it out today, all hope is not lost – at least not on me.
Third, the fact that Luke admits all of this in his writing is huge. This is Bailey’s final assertion: Luke, a male, a follower of Jesus, a Jewish man through and through, was seeped in the ways of Jewish religion and culture. To admit who paid for “the Jesus movement,” as Bailey writes, when it was small and vulnerable, is no small feat.
Because when information like this is acknowledged, readers then and now begin to understand the significance of following and walking and being in the ways of Jesus.
All are welcome.
All are invited in.
All are liberated from the chains of bondage, and given new, empowered, Spirit-filled lives. “The radical nature of the changes in the attitudes toward women that Jesus introduced are beyond description” (203). And this matters.
It mattered to the Jewish people more than two thousand years ago, and it mattered to early followers of Christ one thousand years ago, and it matters for us today. It matters for men, and it matters for women. It matters for those who have ever felt outside the walls of the Church, who have not been called part of the inner circle, for whatever reason. It matters for the outsiders and it matters for the insiders.
It matters because the radically inclusive Jesus calls us to a radical faith in him today.
And all of that is found through a couple of lady pimps?
If that’s the case, I’m in.
Author: Cara Meredith
Cara Meredith is a speaker and writer from Seattle, Washington. She is co-host of Shalom in the City’s monthly book club podcast, and holds a Master’s of Theology (Fuller Seminary). A Seven on the Enneagram, she can’t help but find Beauty in the most unlikely of places. You can connect with her on her blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.