Romans 16 – Women in the Bible: Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

The importance of the messenger

Paul greets a number of women in this chapter in addition to presenting Phoebe, the messenger delivering his letter.  In fact, Paul is reported (and reports himself) working closely with many women in the early church.  Phoebe caught my attention because, having read about how these letters were distributed and presented, I knew Paul must have held her in very high esteem for such an important task.

You see, these letters were not merely handed over by an impartial messenger.  The messengers, including Phoebe, read the letter to its recipients, and expounded upon it aloud, answering questions from the recipients and clarifying Paul’s words when needed.  The reading was often dramatic.  I think it was N.T. Wright who theorized Paul and his messengers standing in view of a crucified body for dramatic effect when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.  If not that extreme, they certainly were impassioned public speakers who would have to know scripture inside and out – perhaps almost as well as Paul did – in order to fully deliver the message of the letter.  I’ve also seen it said that the spoken word was, in fact, the primary message.  The letter was a secondary or supporting document.  So whoever is doing the speaking has a very important role.

Phoebe’s background

So who was Phoebe?  The only concrete thing we know about her is that she comes from Cenchreae.  Cenchreae was a small but prosperous port town not far from the larger Corinth.  It had a deep, protected harbor that made it important for trade.  It was thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and is still inhabited today.  If lifestyle magazines had existed in ancient Rome, Cenchreae might have been included in a list “Top ten small towns in the Empire” for it’s array of temples, historic attractions, strong economy, and proximity to Corinth.

We can assume that Phoebe was wealthy, and probably single (widowed or never married is harder to guess).  The Greek word, sometimes translated “servant” or “helper” can also be translated as “benefactor” or “protector,” which the NIV translation above uses. She was in a role similar to Lydia, the wealthy female dye merchant of Thyatira we meet in Acts, then.  Given her freedom to move about society, I think she was also Roman, or at least part of a very Roman-ized social class, as many contemporary cultures, particularly Greek and Jewish, were a little more restrictive for women.

The Roman Empire was not a bad place for a woman of means.  Rich Roman women could often keep their finances, particularly their inheritance, out of their husband’s hands.  A Roman woman who had borne a certain number of children could also legally request that her finances be her own affair (in payment for producing so many little Roman citizens).  Aside from politics, Roman women were visible and active participants in society: attending functions with their husbands, hosting mixed company in their own homes, donating to social, theological, and civic groups. As we’ve seen in the example of Lydia, they could even run their own business ventures.

A woman with a ready heart

The picture we develop of Phoebe is this: a wealthy, independent woman with a bright, creative mind (I doubt Paul would have entrusted her with this important letter otherwise) who is not afraid of adventure (traveling to Rome was no small undertaking).  Most importantly, she is a shining example of an open heart.  I don’t know what may have troubled Phoebe in her lifetime – because we all have troubles.  But overall, it sounds like she was doing just fine before finding Jesus.  She had enough money. She lived in a lovely little town.  She probably had friends and family – community – before joining the early church.  Honestly, she could have picked anything to attach herself or put effort (and money) into.  But Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation with the one true God was the one that caught her attention, the one she wanted to help bring to the world.

Perhaps she saw the plight of women with less means than her, and saw Jesus as a way to uplift them.  Or, perhaps it was the other way around, and Jesus opened her eyes to the plight of her sisters.  It’s just a suggestion, but speaking more broadly, I think concern for others led her to a love for Jesus, or, through the love she developed for Jesus a concern for others developed, also. Either way, caring and love went (and continue to go) hand in hand.  Phoebe, in short, is a woman who used what privilege she had – status and money to be sure, but also time and intellect – in service to  this fledgling movement of Jesus-followers.  Remember what I said last post, about how it’s the responsibility of the strong to bring justice and love to the weak?  Phoebe did that when she became a benefactress, helper, servant, or whatever other translation you want to use.

Listen, if being a churchy-church person isn’t for you, that’s fine. I think donating money to a worthwhile church and volunteering for church-based events that you believe in is great, but we can see Phoebe’s service to the young church as an example of service in the broader sense of the word.  I think God sees and approves of any work being done to fight inequality and hate, whether it is led by a church group or not.  The important thing is that Phoebe had an open heart, was willing to listen to this strange new message of Jesus dying and being resurrected, and hear God at work in it.  She let that message of love and reconciliation guide her to service and to action.  God bless Pheobe, and may she be an example to the rest of us.

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Hosea 03 – Women in the Bible: Gomer

The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

I wanted to talk a little more about Gomer, because this is the last time she is mentioned in the Book of Hosea.  The metaphor of Hosea’s personal marriage is abandoned for direct charges against Israel and Ephraim after this chapter.

There is no way to know whether Gomer was real or not.  Some scholars argue that Hosea’s whole relationship to Gomer was simply a religious vision, an allegory either dreamed up or divinely inspired (or both) to make a point. Whether she was real or not, Gomer does serve as a metaphor for many things.  The most apparent and universally accepted metaphor is that Gomer, and her infidelity, are the embodiment of an unfaithful Israel.

There are two other metaphors we can see in Gomer to which I want to draw your attention.  First is a theme we unfortunately see throughout the Bible:  (male) authors trying to establish male dominance over female sexuality and fertility.  It is an idea not my own, but I first introduced it on this blog when writing about Sarai and Hagar. Again, the overarching theme of Hosea is God’s relationship with Israel, but it is not only God speaking of Israel but also Hosea speaking of Gomer in 2:3 when he says “I will make her like desert, I will turn her into a parched land,” and in 2:12 when he says “I will ruin her vines and her fig trees.” Deserts are a symbol of infertility, vines and fig trees a symbol of fertility.  I’m not exactly sure how Hosea would make Gomer infertile (as God could make Israel infertile), but the imagery is very clear:  the female character, whether it is Gomer or Israel, is not the one in control of her own fertility, her own sexuality.

Conversely, only when the male character (again, God – as God was considered masculine at the time – or Hosea) decides to reconcile with the female character, is any sexual expression allowed.  As mentioned in my first post about Hosea, the “door of hope” in chapter two is a euphemism for vagina, and “sing as in the days of her youth” means orgasm.  These sexual references are only allowed under the full control of the male character.  Indeed, Gomer is mute and nameless in the short chapter of today’s blogpost.  She is bought, as a slave, and told how to conduct herself sexually.  I’m a big fan of monogamous relationships, and again, it’s important to remember that this whole marriage is an allegory. But even given those constraints, it is telling that Hosea, a man, is the one who decides when Gomer will be monogamous or not.  She doesn’t even get to answer, even in meek agreement, in this chapter.  Hosea’s domination of her sexuality is complete.

Secondly, I see Gomer as a necessary metaphorical stop on our journey to a redemptive God.  I read a handful of articles on Gomer in preparation for this post, and the one that most informed this idea was this article by Pulitzer prize winning author and religious scholar Jack Miles.  To paraphrase, Miles says that there is a journey in the Old Testament from “God as Master” to “God as Father.” That transition to “God as Father” is even more fully completed in the New Testament.  In a nutshell, I think it was a theologically murky time when these prophets were writing – not much different than today, in that respect.  They were trying to figure out their relationship, indeed, humankind’s relationship, with God.  And the journey to that understanding almost always goes from a punitive God to a redemptive God – or from that of a master to a father.

We can find metaphorical aspects of a loving God in any loving and intimate relationship.  I think we see an early, and therefore a little wonky, attempt at creating a metaphor for a loving relationship between God and humanity in Hosea’s marriage to Gomer.  Hosea was burdened by the biases of his time, which again, at their base aren’t all that different than many biases we may encounter today: sexism, xenophobia, probably a rigid belief that his truth was the only truth in God.  As such, his marriage to Gomer, real or visionary, comes across to the modern reader as unequal, controlling, and quite frankly unenviable, especially if you’re on the Gomer side of it.  But there is strong possibility here, and that is why I think Hosea chose the metaphor of marriage as a metaphor for Israel’s, and our, relationship with God.  You don’t have to dig very deep to say that, while imperfect, Hosea and Gomer’s marriage is also a relationship with aspects of forgiveness, acceptance, and mutual enjoyment.  I know I just used this as a metaphor for sexual control, but Hosea does give Gomer that metaphorical orgasm in the desert, people.  Not all husbands – then or now – are that in tune to female pleasure.  That verse could have just as easily read something about only Hosea’s own sexual fulfillment.  He also redeems her from slavery and gives her the protection of his house, two things that may not be as necessary and valuable to the female population at large in modern, first-world countries, but back then was a big deal.

I think Hosea and Gomer illustrate something really beautiful about the Bible and it’s authors:  our fallibility.  Yes, I think the Bible is divinely inspired, but it was recorded (and re-recorded, and re-recorded, untold number of times), by imperfect people.  It is easy for past generations to cast judgment on Gomer the prostitute.  It is easy for more recent generations to cast judgement on Hosea the male chauvinist.  But who are we to do so?  Who are we to cast the first stone? I certainly hope that I have benefited from some collective spiritual growth in the past twenty-some centuries since Hosea was prophesying, but I’m not perfect. What is important is that we also see God’s working in the Bible, indeed, in all things.  It wasn’t God who made the marriage between Hosea and Gomer an unequal one.  That, again, was how society functioned at the time.  What God did do was open the door to all those positive aspects: forgiveness, acceptance, mutual enjoyment.  What we can do is continue to act in and promote the qualities we so desire in our own relationship with God.  And that, above all, is love.  Will we get it wrong from time to time? Of course.  Scholars of future centuries will probably look back at our own religious leaders, even the forward-thinking ones, with raised eyebrows.  But if we keep God, and love, in our hearts, we are already on the right path.  We may have far to go, just like Hosea and Gomer, but we’re getting there, one step at a time.

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Matthew 28 – The Great Commission and More

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Hallelujah he is risen!  Happy Easter everyone! I hope you have a joyful day on this day of commemorating Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus is always with us – to the very end of the age, as he says, but in Lent (and Advent) we recognize our “apartness,” if you will, from Christ, and it is always a good spiritual feeling to reconnect.  I have a few short, disparate thoughts that don’t really form a cohesive blog post, but I wanted to share them with you anyway because I believe they’re all worth mentioning.

First, let’s talk about the Marys.  Jesus had his disciples, but there were also women in his life, and I just want to take a moment to recognize all the wives, mothers, daughters,  sisters, and girlfriends who do the hard emotional and physical work of caring for someone.  It isn’t just women’s work – I know some incredibly caring men, but it seems that more often than not the role of caretaker falls to women.  I watched my mother-in-law take care of her mother for five years, when she broke her hip at 99 to her death at 104.  Her mother had been living with her before she broke her hip, but was then incapacitated to the point of my mother in law having to help her dress, bathe, make all her meals, and truly care for her mother’s every need.  She did this with such grace and love, and it really left an impression on me.  Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses suffered one of the hardest ordeals someone can go through: standing helplessly by while someone you love dies – not only dies, but suffers and dies.  But they did not turn away.  They stood by, offering their presence, their witness, as whatever small comfort they could to Jesus on the cross.  Then, as soon as it was possible for them to do so – dawn of the day after the Sabbath – they went to sit vigil at Jesus’ tomb.  It was very possible the guards there would have harassed them – they had been posted to make sure none of Jesus’ followers messed with the body.  But risking abuse they went anyway.  To all the women out there tending to hard needs of others – the needs of an ailing child or spouse or parent, making funeral arrangements for someone recently passed, dealing with a loved one’s addiction, or whatever your personal challenge may be, I offer you a heart-felt blessing on this Easter Sunday.

Second I want to point out vv. 11-15 as another example of Matthew’s careful, legalistic writing style.  This account of the guard’s report only occurs in Matthew.  I think he was sure to include it as a way to refute any evidence or rumors a contemporary reader might bring against Jesus’ resurrection.  Matthew, once again, is making sure to cover all bases here.

The last bit of Matthew, v. 16-20, are called the Great Commission, and I like this ending best out of all the gospels.  It is succinct and forthright-mostly.  I’m afraid “go and make disciples out of all nations” may have been perverted throughout history to forcibly convert people, such as in the Crusades.  But, if we remember what Jesus said in John 13:34,35: “Love one another. As I have loved you…by this all men will know that you are my disciples,” then really, the Great Commission is a simple request.  As the oldest child, my mother always taught me that I had a great responsibility to lead by example for my younger siblings.  Well, we all have the great responsibility to lead by example.  And if we lead a life filled with love, guided by love, then not only will we positively impact those with whom we come into contact, we set a shining example for those watching us: our children, our neighbors, our coworkers and friends.  So, dear friends, on this Easter Sunday I remind you of our Great Commission: our duty to obey everything Jesus commanded us, and our duty to teach – by example – of God’s love.  Jesus is with us until the end of the age, let’s make sure everyone else knows.

***

I’ll be taking a quick break for the rest of the week, and returning next Sunday.  We’ve read about a third of Matthew already, so I’m going to spend the next few weeks finishing the other chapters, starting with chapter 4.  Happy Easter, see you next week!