Let's drop the stereotypes of followers of Jesus. Let's appreciate and affirm the passionate Marys among us and the discerning Marthas also among us. We need both. Jesus elevates both. John advocates both. Together they make a formidable team of sisters.
Women: MVP of Faith
Are you a Martha? Are you watching the work of Jesus from the sidelines? Is that where you believe you belong? Do you feel marginalized in church? Do you feel relegated to second class status in terms of being a disciple of Jesus?
Have you experienced major disappointments as a Jesus’ follower and are content to ‘sit out life on the bench”? John has a word of encouragement for you to consider. So do I. Modern-day Martha, you have a place on his team, but it is not on the bench.
John may have had you in mind when he put the zoom lens on Martha in John 11. John considers Martha a key player, a heavy hitter in the Christian community. A MVP of faith. Marthas were not meant to be in the grandstands watching, but on the playing field where they can make a difference. So, where are you sitting today?
Elizabeth Elliot and Gracia Burnham
I have been encouraged by the discerning faith of Marthas, women of God in Jesus’ church. In my seminary days, I read Elizabeth Elliot’s, Through Gates of Splendor, the story of her missionary husband’s (Jim Elliot) death in the jungles of Ecuador, and her additional writings.
Recently, I have been inspired and encouraged by the teaching and discerning faith of Gracia Burnham, whose missionary husband (Martin Burnham) was killed by terrorists in the Philippine jungles.
Both women experienced tragedy and grief. Both experienced wounds and disappointments. But the disappointments and wounds of life failed to confine them to the sidelines. Those disappointments only served to awaken and stretch their faith in Jesus. Their discerning faith in Jesus brought hope and encouragement to many, including me.
Perhaps you can identify with similar disappointments and wounds. Perhaps you were abandoned by your father and were raised by a faithful mother. Perhaps you observed your father mistreat or abuse your mother. Perhaps as a young wife, you discovered that your “knight in shining armor” was little more than a self-focused man without armor. The career that seemed so promising to you has faded away. The children you had high hopes for might have brought you public embarrassment and even shame. Perhaps death claimed a loved one early in life. Disappointments, wounds, and Christian women are not strangers.
But those experiences, while sad, do not translate into bench sitting. Jesus has other plans for you. Martha’s case is one I think you can identify with. So, I ask for you to consider her as your role model.
Martha, sister to Lazarus and Mary, bore the burden of disadvantage. She was a marginalized woman in a male dominated society. She was single. She suffered the loss of the only male in her household (Lazarus). She had not witnessed any spectacular miracles performed by Jesus.
Yet in the Gospel of John, Martha emerges as the champion, the MVP of faith. You, can, too. Jesus elevates marginalized women.
We meet up with Martha in the midst of deep disappointment. When their brother Lazarus became critically ill, Mary and Martha sent an urgent message to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick”. They needed immediate help. They believed that Jesus, if only He would come, could work a miracle and heal their sick brother.
But Jesus chose not to answer their urgent request. He remained two additional days in the area across the Jordan River and when he finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was dead. He had been in the grave for four days. Jesus was too late. Too late to heal Lazarus.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (11:21) Martha clearly had faith in Jesus, even in her disappointment. Despite her brother’s death, she half expected that Jesus would still do something. But Jesus saw that her faith, though real, was under developed and inadequate. She didn’t yet recognize his full identity. She saw his power to heal, but didn’t realize that the one who loved her also had the power to give life, reverse death, with a simple word.
And so Jesus orchestrated a purposeful delay, motivated by His love. His delay provided an opportunity to push Martha’s faith in Him up to a new level, a major league level. Martha’s personal disappointment opened up a personal appointment with Jesus.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus tells her. “The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11: 25-26).
Rather than giving Martha assurance about the future resurrection, Jesus unveils to her—a marginalized woman--the most significant truth about himself in John’s entire Gospel. Those future expectations of resurrection from the dead are realized in the here and now--today.
Martha’s Home Run
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her. Martha’s response, her confession of faith, ranks her as the MVP of faith in John’s Gospel. Based entirely on Jesus’ words, without even a miracle performed, and her loved brother still dead in the tomb. Martha replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11:27) No hesitation on her part. Martha hit the first pitch into the seats.
In the Synoptic Gospels the place of honor is given to Peter to make the great confession about Jesus. Peter’s confession is the center pillar in the building. In response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt.16:16)
Martha Wins the Place of Honor
But, in the 4th Gospel, John replaces Peter’s pillar like confession with Martha’s confession. Her confession of faith in Jesus is the Center Pillar in John’s Gospel. Martha’s confession is World Series caliber. Martha wins the place of honor. She didn’t make that confession on the bench. She made it at home plate. That is the spot where you can be, too.
Faith in Jesus without Advantages
Martha’s confession of faith in Jesus’ identity, in my opinion, is superior to Nathaniel’s, Thomas’s and even to Peter’s in some respects. They all enjoyed advantages she lacked. She discerned Jesus’ true identity without the benefit of miracles or the resurrection.
Faith in Jesus Despite Grief and Sorrow
She made her confession in the throes of disappointment and grief. Martha was only four days removed from the death of her brother. But despite the grief, she believed the words of Jesus’ self-claim .Her faith was not based upon signs or miracles, but strictly in Jesus’ words alone. She listened to Jesus. She believed. She confessed. I’m impressed. Aren’t you? But her case was meant for you to consider. Are you a Martha, but still on the bench?
Faith Superior to Nathaniel and Thomas
When Nathaniel made a confession of faith in Jesus, Jesus spoke to him about his past history to persuade him that he was divine (1:47-50).
When Thomas made a significant confession of faith in Jesus (“My Lord and my God”; 20:28), he had seen the resurrected Christ, touched his side and fingered his nail--scarred hands.
But Martha’s discerning faith in Jesus, made without the advantage of witnessing miracles, made in the midst of grief and disappointment, is striking for its insight and strength.
Are you a Martha?
John installed Martha’s confession as the center pillar in his book for a reason. Women, disadvantaged Marthas, can have great faith in Jesus, even greater than Jesus’ disciples. Marginalized Marthas can exercise strong, robust, and discerning faith.
Does Martha’s portrait describe you? Does her case resonate with you? Do you identify with her discerning faith and yet feel marginalized? If so, consider my heart-felt plea to you.
Jesus’ church needs you and your discerning faith. There are men and women suffering grief and sorrow in his church who need to hear your discerning faith in Jesus. You can be used by Jesus to shore up their sagging hopes. You can be a strong pillar when the roof of their life is caving in with disappointment.
Jesus’ church needs you. Jesus wants you on his playing field. What are you doing sitting on the bench? I know. Some think that is where you belong. But John doesn’t. And so neither do I.
John included Martha’s story and faith for women like you to identify with. She was meant to be a role model for you. You don’t belong on the bench. You belong at the plate with a faith bat, able and ready for the next pitch.
John: Impressed by Martha
I’m impressed with Martha. But more importantly, John, under the Spirit’s inspiration, was impressed. That is precisely why he included Martha’s story in his Gospel. Is her story meant just for you? Consider it. Jesus may want you to be a modern-day Martha in your faith community.
But, Martha, you need an advocate. You need someone who believes in you when you’ve stopped believing in yourself, to make it happen.
I’m not quite finished with Martha. For you to become a twenty-first century Martha, and break free from a marginalized place on the bench, you need an advocate. Jesus advocated for Martha and elevated her. You also need a person who, like Jesus, can advocate for you. That issue, hopefully, will constitute part 3. Thank you for reading, Martha. J Hope to see you at home plate. I have a bat and uniform with your name on it.
Two Sisters, Two Giant Disciples
My past record—thankfully, my distant past record, reveals, I am sure, that I am guilty of stereotyping women. Mentally I put them into constraints created by the Christian culture, straightjackets unsupported by Scripture, handcuffs which failed to give them the respect and equality that God requires and the opportunities they deserve to enjoy. Those constraints were unfair, restrictive, and fostered unrealistic expectations of women. I naively thought that Scripture supported my prejudices. I was wrong. I hope to redress my failures.
I hope that God will forgive me for any damage—due to my biases--I may have done to the women in my life. My biases blurred my vision of the gifts, the abilities, and the potential Christian women possess as followers of the Savior.
I won’t identify what those self-made stereotypes were, but I am fairly certain that they might be similar to yours. In the same way that the Louisville Bat Company manufactures baseball bats (“Louisville Sluggers”) that look somewhat alike, so also the Christian culture produces similar stereotypes for women.
But close examination of Scripture clarified my vision. Examining the role of women from Genesis to Revelation, about how God views women and their strengths and capabilities, caused my stereotypes to unravel and the biases in my thinking began to show. I take the Scriptures seriously (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So, when my prejudices come under assault from the truth of Scripture, I am required to admit my errors, jettison the biases, and change the way I think. Are you with me on this issue?
Perhaps you can identify with me. As a man, perhaps you, too, have entertained unconscious but unjust and crippling attitudes towards the women in your life--your mother, your wife, your sister, or your women friends in Christ and co-workers. Perhaps a fresh examination of two women, two sisters in John’s Gospel, will reveal your own prejudices and persuade you to change the way you think about women. I am so glad my mind has embraced God’s point of view. Let me suggest that you will experience the same joy if you follow the path I took.
As a woman, a follower of Jesus, perhaps you can identify with my description. You, too, have experienced put-downs from Christian men simply because of your gender. Your theological views or thoughts about God have been dismissed by Christian brothers simply because you are a woman. You have not been invited to the discussion table to offer your expository thoughts or doctrinal opinions. Your gleanings from Scripture are denied or downplayed because you are a woman.
Perhaps there are men in your life who go out of their way to make you feel inferior to them, who communicate to you that you are not as intelligent as they are or are not as capable. The unspoken message you hear from attitudes and actions directed your way from men is that you are inferior or incapable of thinking deeply about Jesus or expressing major league faith in him.
I am confident that many intelligent women simply intimidate the males in their experiences because the men are insecure. The men, in retaliation, use pejorative language to express their disagreement.
Perhaps men talk down to you. They manipulate you with their sharp words or their uncontrolled emotions. After interaction with such bullies, you feel like you need a long, hot shower to wipe off the slime or a visit to the local clinic to treat the bloody wounds.
This attitude toward you as a woman might be understood if such only came from men without Jesus in their life. But it is often the case that Christian men are just as guilty as their unbelieving counterparts. To make it worse, they sometimes even appeal to Scripture to support their ill-mannered attitudes and actions. Is there anything worse than a Christian bully?
Perhaps you believed those views about yourself. Or, perhaps you remained quiet in order to keep the dragon from losing his temper and spitting balls of fire in your direction.
Jesus’ Attitude to Women
I admire so much the strength and patience of Christian women who have quietly endured such humiliation and pain. But they should not have to endure such behavior from followers of Jesus. Jesus’ attitudes and actions toward women set the standard for all of us, for men and women. And Jesus never put down women or treated them as inferior.
So, whether you identify with this as a woman or as a man, I wish to show you in a short series of blog posts from John’s Gospel that God created women not as inferior creatures, unable to make it to the World Series of biblical thinking. In some cases, their faith in Jesus is equal in strength and insight to the best of men, and in other cases, such as Martha and Mary, even superior to males in terms of their faith. The women receive World Series rings from John. The men struggle to get to the play offs.
Martha: Equal to Peter
John portrays Martha, sister to Mary and Lazarus, as equal in faith to Peter and even superior to Thomas and Nathaniel. Martha has a secure role in the World Series of faith. In fact, John chooses Martha as the literary replacement for Peter found in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mk, Lk). Her confession of faith in Jesus gives her the highest batting average for faith in John’s Gospel. I said highest, not lowest. John teaches us that if you need a clutch hit in the game, call for Martha. She swings a big stick. Martha is like Babe Ruth. She can hit the ball out of the ball park like no one else.
I think Martha might receive the MVF award in John’s Gospel for the most valuable faith in Jesus. The Samaritan woman (John 4) is the most effective missionary in John’s Gospel. Martha is one of the top-ranked theologians. Her faith in Jesus is nothing short of impressive. When I compared the circumstances of her faith with that of the male disciples of Jesus, Martha belongs on the all-star team. She deserves more than a nod when the Scriptural evidence is examined without prejudice.
But before I usher you into the grandstands to watch nine innings of Mary and Martha in John’s Gospel, let me show you how a simple, but careful examination of Scripture can reveal our biases and challenge us to rethink our attitudes toward women. But we must go to the start of Scripture for this example. In the next blog post, I plan on unpacking the passages in John’s Gospel that portray Martha and Mary, a Johannine double-header. Thanks for your patience. I will get to Martha and Mary soon.
Have you heard such a phrase bandied about in church as a way to describe a wife? I have. I am sure you have too. Wives are viewed as “helpmates.” How many times have you heard that phrase? Too many to remember.
Well, you might push back with, “Doesn’t Scripture use that term to describe Eve, Adam’s husband (Genesis 2:18)?” Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scripture does indeed use that phrase by virtue of the number of times you have heard it. It must have a good foundation somewhere in Scripture.
It has no such foundation. Scripture never uses that phrase to describe a wife. I said never. Wives are never designated as “helpmates.” God did not design women or wives as “helpmates.” “It is a term invented by the Christian culture. It is a cliché that has become part of the normal vocabulary of Christian husbands. It ranks up there in usage with “Amen” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Perhaps most men use the phrase without connotations of inferiority. But I would suggest, nevertheless, that, instead, we use the phrase that Scripture uses and mean what the Scriptures mean. After all, the Scriptures are inspired by God, and the traditions of the Christian culture are sometimes rooted in prejudice and bias. “Helpmate” is one of those rooted in prejudice. It needs a good funeral. I hope you’ll bury yours.
“Help Meet,” Not “Helpmate”
So, what does Genesis 2:18 actually say? Read the KJV carefully (this is probably where the phrase “helpmate” began; no fault of the translation; the translation was perfect for its time, 17th century) and we are in for a pleasant surprise.
In response to God’s declaration that it is not good (Hebrew word, tov, meaning, “beneficial” to mankind, “helpful” to the human race) for the man to be alone (as a general rule, it is not beneficial or helpful for the male to be in solitude; a man needs someone else with him to complete the image and likeness of God, to be fruitful and multiply, and to worship and serve God; by himself, he is incomplete; Genesis 1:26-28), we read Genesis 2:18:
“And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
I will make (not ‘create’) him an help meet for him.’”
Please observe: the Genesis text does not say, ‘helpmate.’ Rather it says, “help meet…” The differences in meaning are vast. Let’s examine the differences.
The word “meet” does not mean “mate.” “Meet” is a 17th century English word meaning, “corresponding to,” or “suitable to.” God determined to rectify the problem of man’s solitude by making a “help” for Adam; by design, she was to be “meet” for him, a human counterpart who was suitable to his makeup and who corresponded to him in every dimension. She needed to fit him to solve the problem of “not good.” If she fits, it will be “good,” beneficial to him.
The man and the woman were meant to “meet” each other; they fit each other by divine design, they are suitable for each other, and they correspond to each other. The male and the female fit together physically, spiritually, and emotionally. They are made on purpose for each other. They were designed to fit together like two halves of a giant jig saw puzzle. All the pieces of one side of the puzzle fit perfectly with the pieces on the opposite side of the puzzle. Once put together, they complete each other to make a beautiful composite. The man and the woman complement each other. Together they become “one flesh” (one new family unit; Genesis 2:24-25). So, the woman is not a mate; she is “meet.” The woman is a help who is “meet.”
But what about the word “help”? Doesn’t that sound rather inferior? Well, yes, in our culture, “help” does sound like a carpenter’s helper or a plumber’s helper. The “helper” is a lower-ranked person on the job. The carpenter’s helper is “the gopher,” the one assigned to fetch additional lumber or a box of ten-penny nails when the4 supply runs out. But the carpenter is the superior one, the important one, the one who gets the job done. The helper is just a lackey.
So, is the woman just the man’s helper in that sense of the word? Is the wife a “gopher”? Did God really design the wife to be the husband’s “gopher”? Nothing could be further from God’s truth. The very idea of a woman as “gopher” is an insult to God their maker and to all women. But while the idea is repugnant, I think it is fair to say that this idea has dominated the attitudes of many Christian men. Trade places for a moment, men. Would you enjoy being treated as a “gopher”?
The Woman is Like God
God had other ideas for the woman. When He designed the woman, He had himself in mind, not some inferior creature. He calls himself, “Israel’s helper.”
“I will destroy you, Israel; you have no help but Me.”
Hosea the prophet is teaching Israel that if God intends on destroying her as a nation, then she has no other hope of help or rescue. God is Israel’s only hope of rescue, her only hope of help. God is Israel’s only help. This is the same word “help” used in Genesis 2:18 of the woman. The woman is the creature God made to rescue man from the danger of his solitude, rescue him from the weakness of his incompleteness, the only one capable of helping him, the solitary man’s only hope. That idea of “help” is light years away from being a “gopher.”
The woman’s role relationship with the man is like God’s role relationship with Israel. When seen in this light, “help” doesn’t sound very inferior at all. Does “help” sound inferior to you if it is God who is identified as Israel’s help? Israel depends on God as her “help.” And the husband depends on the woman as his “help” in the same way. What he lacks, she supplies. What she supplies corresponds with his need. What she supplies suits him perfectly—a perfect match and, therefore, perfectly equal.
Scripture, when examined carefully and in context, reveals our prejudices, biases we might entertain toward women. Our well-digging experience with Genesis 2:18, I hope, has persuaded you to view women differently, to regard them as God designed them.
The next edition of this blog post will carefully examine the Johannine narratives, stories that put the zoom lens on major league sluggers like Martha and Mary. I prefer to watch these two sisters over anything the Cubs or the Indians have to offer. And I hope to give you the box seats in John’s grandstands. Two sisters in John’s World Series of faith.
Thank you for reading.