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In this follow-up to his book The Thirteen Apostles, popular author J. Ellsworth Kalas focuses on several women of great faith who were crucial, in ways both obvious and understated, to the story of the New Testament. Kalas looks into the life and times of eleven different women. With his signature style, Kalas examines the Scriptures to see what we can learn about these women and what we can learn ...
In this follow-up to his book The Thirteen Apostles, popular author J. Ellsworth Kalas focuses on several women of great faith who were crucial, in ways both obvious and understated, to the story of the New Testament. Kalas looks into the life and times of eleven different women. With his signature style, Kalas examines the Scriptures to see what we can learn about these women and what we can learn from them, and how each woman fit into as well as shaped the New Testament story.
“Elizabeth: A Friend in Need”
“Anna: She Knew How to Wait”
“Martha, the Disciplined”
“Mary, the Extravagant”
“The Mighty Widow”
“The Anonymous Evangelist”
“Mary Magdalene: When Love Is Greater than Faith”
“Mary, the Mother of Mark”
“Dorcas: Worth a Miracle”
“Lydia, the Businesswoman
“Mary in Life and Legend”
This book also includes a discussion guide.
Elizabeth: A Friend in Need
Scripture Reading: Luke 1:39-45
Next to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth was the first woman to recognize and serve our Lord, and she began doing so before he was even born.
Many of the most notable Christians come to faith by dramatically negative paths: Paul as the premier persecutor of Christians; Augustine as a libertine; C. S. Lewis and many others as, at first, atheists. Elizabeth came by a path of virtue. From all we can know, she was an exemplary human being.
Her genealogy gave her a head start toward virtue. She came, not simply from good stock, but from great, enviable stock. When Luke introduces her to his readers in an early paragraph of his Gospel, he gives her ancestry before mentioning her name: After noting that there is a priest named Zechariah, Luke continues, "His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth" (Luke 1:5). This was to say not only that she "came over on the Mayflower," so to speak, but also that she traveled in a stateroom. Aaron was Moses' brother and Israel's first high priest. He made some egregious mistakes, but he was in a class altogether to himself. If Elizabeth had been a man, she would have been a priest by right of descent and potentially perhaps even a high priest.
Then she married well. Staying not only within the levitical clan, she married someone who was also a descendant of Aaron, "a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah" (Luke 1:5). This, as the saying goes, was a union made in heaven.
But the fairy-tale quality of their marriage stumbled there. Luke puts it without embellishment: "But they had no children" (Luke 1:7). He could have gone on to explain that in their time and place, for a marriage to be childless was both a tragedy and an embarrassment. Jewish rabbis said that seven people were excommunicated from God, and first on the list was "a Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child." That is, to be childless was far more than disappointment and personal heartbreak. There were theological implications; it was as if God had not really approved of the marriage.
But with all of this, Luke nevertheless tells us, "Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (Luke 1:6). "Righteous, blameless"—I'm struck by the fact that the book of Genesis uses the same words to describe Noah. I doubt that the times were quite as bad in Elizabeth's era as in Noah's, when "every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5), but the times were bad enough. There was peace, but it was the enforced peace of a powerful Roman military; slavery was a way of life and commerce; and moral corruption not only abounded, it was sanctioned in high places. At such a time, our planet needed some sort of redemptive visitation. These visits are not often by angels; mostly God intervenes in our planet through human beings—many kinds of humans, but especially when they are available, "righteous, blameless" humans. Elizabeth and Zechariah were such.
But who knew about this couple? True, Zechariah was a member of a rather large, if exclusive, company of priests, but they were important only to the somewhat despised sect of the Jewish people. For most of the then known world, what happened in a Jewish temple mattered little. If you were an intellectual, you cared about Athens or Alexandria; and if you wanted to get into real power, the world of politics, there was Rome. Only God and a few saintly souls cared about what was happening in Jerusalem. And if I know anything about human nature, some in Jerusalem weren't necessarily impressed by Zechariah and Elizabeth. After all, they couldn't have children, so there could always be gossip about what was wrong in their lives—why were they not favored by God? I venture there were women at the well in Zechariah and Elizabeth's village who said, "Elizabeth may have good ancestors, but I have babies."
Then special good fortune came Zechariah's way. It is estimated that at that time there were as many as twenty thousand priests, so the company was broken into sections to serve at particular seasons; and from those sections a priest was chosen by lot to offer a morning or evening sacrifice for the entire nation. A priest might go all his life without this holy chance. Now, the opportunity fell on Zechariah. As he ministered in this singular setting, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, to tell him that he and Elizabeth would have a son, whom they should call John. We will later know him as John the Baptist. But wonderful as this promise was, it was not simply a private blessing. It was appropriate that Zechariah should receive this revelation while he was in prayer for the spiritual welfare of his nation, because this child, the angel said, would be "great in the sight of the Lord," and would "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God" (Luke 1:15-16).
So Elizabeth did, indeed, conceive. When she was in the sixth month of her pregnancy (see Luke 1:26), something still more momentous happened. Gabriel, the same angel who had visited Zechariah, now came to a virgin named Mary, who was "engaged to a man whose name was Joseph," to tell her that she was to have a child by the Holy Spirit, who would "be called Son of God" (Luke 1:26-35).
Twenty centuries later, you and I read this story with the knowledge that millions now refer to this peasant girl as "the blessed Virgin Mary," but at that time she was more particularly the frightened Virgin Mary. Even after she was assured that she was God's "favored one," and that what was happening in her life was by God's action, she had to cope with the hard facts of a fiancé who almost surely would not understand, a family that would fear humiliation and censure, and a little town that might never stop gossiping. Gabriel might have been right when he announced that "nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37), but God was in heaven, and Mary had to live in her village.
So Mary needed a friend, and this is where Elizabeth—a woman of many virtues—demonstrated her most notable greatness: She was Mary's friend. We sometimes speak of a person being a "soul friend"; the title could have been born with Elizabeth. As Luke tells the story, it appears that after Mary's visit from Gabriel she wasted no time in seeking out Elizabeth. As the writer puts it, "In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country" (Luke 1:39). When she entered the house and called out her greeting to Elizabeth (was it the Aramaic equivalent of the "Yoo-hoo!" women neighbors used in my boyhood?), "the child leaped in [Elizabeth's] womb" (Luke 1:41).
I've already said that Elizabeth was a righteous woman. At this moment we know how righteous she was. "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed [to Mary] with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?'" (Luke 1:41-43, adapted). I am impressed that Elizabeth was so sensitive to the Holy Spirit that she was open to the revelation of what God was doing in the life of her young relative, Mary. I admit that I am very cautious when people speak too easily of God's voice and God's leading in their lives because I know how human all of us are, and therefore how susceptible we are to attributing to God what may be only our own emotional fervor. But I believe that God's Spirit is at work in our world, and I suspect we might hear from God more often if we were more open to the divine voice. As far as we know, without having received any information from Mary, Elizabeth knew that Mary was carrying a unique child in her womb.
Let me interrupt the holy, ecstatic quality of this moment to speak to a very human element in the story. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with a baby she has prayed for since the day she and Zechariah first were pledged to one another. Her baby is a miracle baby. If Elizabeth responds to life the way most of us do, her natural focus at this moment is not on her young relative and that relative's baby, but on her own exciting prospects. We will understand if Elizabeth begins telling Mary about her child-to-be, this miracle son with prophetic credentials: "Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God" (Luke 1:15-16). Elizabeth has been bursting with this excitement for six months and more, and probably has had few people, if any, with whom she could share it. Now her young relative is here, a person sensitive enough to appreciate Elizabeth's story.
But instead of telling her story, Elizabeth turns all her attention on Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:42-44). There would come a time in Jesus' ministry when he would challenge potential followers, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). This was the dramatic Middle Eastern way of saying that if one were to follow Jesus, one must prize him above all other human relationships. I submit that Elizabeth was the first to commit such allegiance to our Lord. At a time when no human relationship mattered more to her than that of the son soon to be born to her, Elizabeth chose to rejoice in Mary's son. So it was that this woman made an utterly unselfish step of apostolic discipleship. She had greeted Mary as "the mother of my Lord." In doing so, she was the first to hail Jesus as Lord. And in her act of putting aside her own natural family love to honor Mary's son, she proved that she meant it when she referred to Mary's son as "my Lord."
Let me add another word. Some thirty years later Elizabeth's son, John the Baptist, would be perhaps the most notable religious personality in Israel, with thousands flocking from all over Israel to visit John in the wilderness, many of them seeking baptism. The crowds would include numbers of religious leaders. At this pinnacle of public acclaim, John one day pointed to Jesus and said to some of his followers, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" (John 1:36). Immediately the two men to whom John was speaking left him to follow Jesus. Before long, most of the crowds had forsaken John. When someone reported to John that the crowds were now going after Jesus, John replied in what seems an almost matter-of-fact way that this was the way it was supposed to be. "He must increase," John said, "but I must decrease" (John 3:30). I dare to suggest that John caught this spirit of self-abnegation from his mother while he was still in her womb.
Think of Elizabeth as a woman with an uncommon gift for friendship. In truth, it was a divinely ordained gift. She spoke her loyalty to her cousin Mary as she was "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41). Theologians have written thou- sands of pages about what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I don't mean to oversimplify, but I'm very sure Elizabeth has given us an example that is worth a book or two. When one is filled with God's Spirit, one enters a sacred chamber of unselfishness. Elizabeth cared so much for Mary that she could forget her own admirable excitements; she believed so deeply in what the Holy Spirit was saying to her about Mary's son that she could declare him as Lord even before his birth, and she could subjugate her profound love for her own soon- to-be-born son in order to exalt Mary's son. This, surely, is the Holy Spirit in action. Elizabeth is speaking the language of a sanctified life, a life wholly given to God's purposes.
Mary needed just such a friend. It is one thing to experience God deeply in the private place of prayer; it is quite another to step out into the cold reality of an ordinary day. An angel had spoken to Mary, but then the angel disappeared. Mary needed someone who would be there tomorrow. The angelic visit was a brief ecstasy, but ecstasy is a kind of meringue on the daily pie of life; it's beautiful and gentle to the tongue, but the level of nourishment is low. Mary needed a friend.
And she needed a spiritual friend. I have been blessed by so many wonderful friends in my lifetime; I'm not being humble when I say that I've had far more friends than I could ever deserve. I've learned that friends come in a variety of styles, and I'm grateful for all of them: the friends who are great with a glass of iced tea, those with whom it is easy to laugh, and those who provide intellectually stimulating conversation. But there is nothing quite like the friend who has such a close relationship to God that in that person's presence you feel closer to God.
I remember what Mae A. Blackburn meant to my mother. She was a truly godly woman; not in a painfully pious fashion but quite naturally, because faith had become her native air. When my mother was deep-down lonely—something that as a boy I did not understand but could feel—she went to see Mrs. Blackburn. When the Blackburns moved a thousand miles away, Mother waited for her letters the way the people at Philippi waited for an epistle from Paul. When Mother needed prayer, she turned first to Mae Blackburn.
There is nothing quite like a friend who, when he or she says, "I will pray for you," you already begin to feel the tide of hell retreating. Others may listen kindly, some may offer lovely platitudes, but the spiritual friend transfuses strength. As you leave the spiritual friend's presence, you feel ready for the worst that life can bring your way.
This quality comes to those persons who, like Elizabeth, seek to be righteous and blameless before God; and who, like Elizabeth, are filled with the Holy Spirit; and who, like Elizabeth, demonstrate the Spirit's presence by the absolute unselfishness with which they give themselves to others.
Mary needed such a friend. She was embarking upon a journey no other woman before or since has known. She was to become the unique vessel for God's visit to our planet. Her path was set with peril on every side. The pious would say that she needed God; but in truth, what she needed was God visiting her in the magnificently human fashion of a friend. I can't imagine what might have happened to the sacred story if there hadn't been an Elizabeth.
That's why I place Elizabeth first in this story of the women who were crucial in the life and ministry of our Lord, not only because she comes so early in the story but also because I can't imagine what would have happened to the story without her. No wonder, then, that she has a particular quality of apostolic radiance.CHAPTER 2
Anna: She Knew How to Wait
Scripture Reading: Luke 2:36-38
I am about to enshrine as a virtue a quality that is very low on the popularity polls. Some would call it patience; I will resort to a euphemism, hoping thus to make it more palatable, but I know I can't fool you for long. I call it "knowing how to wait." We want our children to know how to wait (if they don't, how can we get done the things we just have to do?), but we don't give them much of an example. Nor does our daily culture. In this world where people honk at the car in front of them even before the light changes, and in which a slowdown in the computer is an Armageddon crisis, who wants to learn lessons from someone who knew how to wait? Or who finds virtue in such a person?
God does. That's why Anna is so significant. Anna knew how to wait; and that's why as a woman whose credentials might seem to fit on a pinhead, she has found an esteemed place in the sacred story. She wrote no books, performed no concerts, was elected to no office, but the church knows her as a saint. Of course, waiting is a prime character test for saints. Mind you, I don't think many saints begin with a gift for waiting; from what I've read, many saints begin their pilgrimage in a hurry, and they're often the kind of people who frequently fret along the way. But long before they're ready for canonizing, they became expert waiters.
But back to Anna. She is the third woman to come by name in Jesus' story, after Mary and Elizabeth. Her entrance is so unlikely that she should be an encouragement to any of us who feel we are unlikely to be major contributors to the eternal story. She seems, in fact, to back in to the story. Luke has just recounted the moving story of Simeon, whom God had told that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (see Luke 2:25-35), and Luke continues, "There was also a prophet, Anna" (Luke 2:36). You're familiar with the "also" feeling; you see it often in newspaper stories, as a concluding paragraph: "Also present were ..."
Excerpted from Strong Was Her Faith by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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