[IMAGE: “The women return from the grave, after Jesus’ resurrection,” Jan van‘t Hoff]
Regularly, Jesus added people to the narrative of his life that seemed out of place based on the standards of the day, the definitions of righteousness, and cultural appropriateness.
It was the shepherds, a lowly occupation despised by the Pharisees, that first heard the news of the Messiah’s birth. John the Baptist, with an unusual diet and wardrobe—eclectic, even eccentric—became the first proclaimer of the arrival of the King, and then there was Peter and the other “ignorant and unlearned men” who formed the first company of followers. To this we could add that Matthew was a tax collector—scandalous.
The repetition of such events cannot be an accident. Jesus was modeling something—saying something about the values of his kingdom. He was introducing a new way of looking at something.
In this category were the women who followed, served, ministered to, and were ultimately on the stage when Jesus rose from the dead. It was they who were the first to tell others that he was risen. Amazing.
Jesus Showed That Women Belong
Women in the ancient world were not much more than property, with limited rights and a low ceiling of mobility. Yet Jesus seemed to go out of his way to communicate just how much they belonged in the story.
Stories of the woman caught in adultery; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman with the issue of blood; the woman who had sinned much, entering a home uninvited to weep on Jesus’ feet; Mary, his mother; and of course, Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast seven demons, abound. This last Mary is mentioned twelve times and in all four Gospels.
So when, in Mark 16 and Luke 24, we read that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome and Joanne and “other women,” were the first human players in the drama of the resurrection and were the first to tell others the news, we sit up and take notice. This is not by accident.
In the movie 42, based on the life of the first black major league baseball player Jackie Robinson, he is taking a lot of insults from the crowds, and then the Dodgers play in Cincinnati. Perhaps the event is only apocryphal, but it makes a point. With family and friends from Kentucky in the stands to see the game, shortstop Pee Wee Reese walks to second base and puts his arm across Robinson’s shoulder and says of his racist family and fans, “I need them to know who I am.”
An apparently off-handed gesture that was packed with meaning. As we read the narratives, we realize it wasn’t just accidental that the women came to the tomb and were the first to hear of his resurrection and the first to tell others. Jesus was making a point.
Showing Respect Through Access, Affirmation, and Attention
Whatever else he was doing, he was showing respect, and this respect was defined by three behaviors that we might learn from. The first was access, illustrated by Jesus going to them and by inviting them to come to him. He went to the Samaritan woman and allowed the woman who had sinned much to come to him. Here at the tomb, in the greatest moment of recorded history, the women came to him and he to them.
The second is affirmation. They were chosen for these parts. Remember our Lord saying to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you,” or the way he calls the disciples over as the widow gives her mite, and says in effect, “watch this.” Jesus affirms those he calls.
Third, he gives them attention. They knew he saw them—really saw them. Looking down from the cross he saw his mother and instructed John to care for her. He called the woman who had touched his garment to come to him. And then there was Mary Magdalene, a woman mentally ill with seven demons, but Jesus saw her and cared for her.
These three elements show up again in the resurrection narratives—access, affirmation, attention. They were not extras with no speaking parts. Their presence shouted a new way, his kingdom way, of understanding the imago dei.
No wonder they came on that Easter morning to care for the body of the one who had respected them so. But there, they discovered that the story was not over, and their story was not over either.
Respect is a powerful emotion. When the disenfranchised laborers of 18th century England realized that John Wesley really cared for them, enough even to preach outdoors—unheard of—so they could hear the Gospel, they came by the thousands.
The image is sustained in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, when the black people in the balcony of the courtroom, watching Atticus Finch unsuccessfully but diligently defend a black man, stand as he walks out. Though he lost his case, they saw respect and they gave it.
A few years ago as I prepared to go to my 50th high school reunion, I reflected on my high school experience and had to own that there were some students who were not treated with respect, were not treated as persons of value, were not given a seat at the table. One young man came to mind and I asked the Lord for the opportunity, however small, to treat him with respect during the weekend. Most of our small class of twelve and spouses were sitting around a table at a larger event when this former student and his wife entered. I realized that there were no chairs left at the table, and though the crowd was large I jumped up to locate two chairs so they could sit at the table without hunting down their own chairs. Small, I know. But I wanted to show respect and in showing it, acknowledge the shift in my own spirit; a recognition of value, even if late.
We are often blind. But Jesus was not. He gave access, affirmation, and attention. And the women knew it. And then, beyond any expectation, there was the resurrection event and they were in the middle of it. 2,000 years later, we are still reading their names. Powerful!!