Isabelle Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797 near Rifton, New York. Her exact birth date was never known, as was typical of children born into slavery. Belle, as she was called, was sold at the age of 9 at auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Two years later she was sold to a Bar owner for $105. Two years after that, at the age of 13, she was sold again to a farmer named John Dumont.
At the age of 18, she fell in love with another slave, named Robert, who worked at a neighboring farm. She became pregnant but sadly the child died during birth. To punish her, her owner raped her. Again, Belle became pregnant and had a son with him she named Peter. Robert, on the other hand, was brutally beaten and he died a few years later.
In 1817, New York passed an Emancipation act that would free slaves born before 1799, but it was not set to take effect until 1827. When Dumont told Belle he would not set her free, inspite of the law, she escaped during the night from his farm with her infant daughter.
Belle later learned that Dumont had illegally sold their son, Peter, to an owner in Alabama. So she took the new owner to court to get her son back. In 1828, Belle became one of the first black women to win in court against a white man and get her son back.
From 1828-1843, Belle led a very messy life with little hope. But everything changed that year, when she learned about Jesus and on June 1st, she became a Methodist. At that time she also changed her name to Sojourner Truth. (That name should ring a few bells)
In 1843, Truth became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying to the new hope that was in her”. She went on to preach about abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and she testified brilliantly to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment.
Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883 but her legacy of love in the face of hate lives on. In 2014, Sojourner Truth was included in the Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”.
Sojourner Truth was a voice that could not be stifled. She was a slave, a woman, and an African American (all of which should have kept her quiet) and yet, as a child of God, that trumped everything else. You see, God doesn’t choose people because they are male or female, black or white or any other race, He looks at the heart.
This is also clearly the case in the life of Jesus. While it is true that Jesus choose 12 men to be his disciples, it would take a long time until they came into their own. They were arrogant; fighting over who could set on Jesus’ right side. They were argumentative; willing to challenge Jesus’ own words.
They were rash; they wanted to bring fire down from heaven on their enemies. They didn’t listen well; often missing the meaning of what Jesus said. They were undisciplined; falling asleep when they were supposed to stay awake. And they were timid; running away when Jesus was arrested.
On more than one occasion, Jesus told his disciples to watch and pray. He warned them that it was easy to be tempted because the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. One of the 12, Judas, would betray Jesus yet none of the other disciples saw it coming.
What we often miss in the scriptures; is what was going on in the background; the ones who really spent their time watching and praying, where the women. They were the ones who stood be Jesus through thick and thin. And in the first century, that was not the norm.
In Jesus’ day, women were considered, by many, unremarkable, ordinary and even considered an annoyance. Often, they were treated more like property than equal partners. Women rarely owned property; it was usually in their husbands or father’s name.
Women were considered unreliable witnesses and could not testify in court. They were considered weak-minded and were not taught the Word of God like young men were. In fact, in the Jewish Talmud it says ‘that it is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman’.
In their morning prayers, Rabbi’s and Pharisees would pray, “I thank God, that I was not born a Gentile, a dog, or a woman.” (Do you notice the order? Women come after man’s best friend – SICK!) Men were required to pray daily, women were not. And women were never allowed to interrupt a man while he was speaking or teaching.
Men were not supposed to greet or talk to women in public and never to be caught alone with one! Touching a woman resulted in a beating. And get this, if a man passed a woman on the street, he was to avert his eyes or close them altogether!
And Philo, a Jewish Philosopher, taught that women should never leave the home unless it was to go to the Temple. And as we know, while they were there, they were to sit in the outer courts, separate from the men. Women were generally married off young and had no legal standing to go to court or file for divorce.
Yet Jesus did something remarkable in his teaching, leading and general practice; he made women a central part of all of it. Let’s take a deeper look…
First, when Jesus told parables or stories, he often made women the central character; this was unheard of in his day. He was constantly elevating their worth and status. For example,
In Matthew 13:33, Jesus tells this parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 60 pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Luke 15:8-10 tells the parable of The Lost Coin. In it, a woman losses 1 of 10 silver coins and carefully searches with a lamp until she finds it. She is resourceful and thorough.
Luke 18:1-9 is almost unbelievable; it is the story of The Persistent Widow. A woman, who is not even allowed in court, keeps going before a judge seeking justice. And she doesn’t give up until the judge gives in.
Finally, In Mark 12:41-44 we have the story of the Poor Widow’s Offering (also called the Widow’s Mite). A widow put into the Temple Treasury two very small copper coins, less than a penny to us, and Jesus praises her for giving more than all others.
These are just a few examples. Scholars tell us that over a third of Jesus’ lessons included women.
Second, Jesus was sensitive to women’s needs and feelings. In Luke 7:12, we find Jesus and his Disciples traveling near the town of Nain. There is a funeral procession going by. And a woman who has already lost her husband, has now lost her only son. Jesus sees her and he is moved to comfort her. “Don’t cry,” he said. And then he raised her son back to life.
In Luke 13:10-14, Jesus heals a woman who is crippled and bent over on the Sabbath. Also, in Mark 5:24-34, Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue ruler, when someone touched the hem of his cloak. What does Jesus do? He stops to talk to the woman who has had a bleeding issue for 12 long years.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When the woman falls at his feet, I think Jesus smiled at her when he said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
In John 8:3-11, the Teachers of the Law and Pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery before Jesus. According to the law, she should be stoned. They ask, “What do you say we should do with her?”
Jesus bent down and wrote in the dirt, then said, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.” Eventually, they all walk away and Jesus chose not to condemn her either. “Go and leave your life of sin,” he responds. I could go on but you get the point.
Third, Jesus supported and affirmed women when he taught them and allowed them to follow and become disciples. Who can forget Luke 10:38-42, when Mary was sitting listening to Jesus and Martha was rushing around. Jesus states, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Or Jesus talking and teaching the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. Many only focus on Jesus confronting her about her past affairs – but if you miss him teaching her; you miss the truth of the story. Jesus is explaining to her about worshiping ‘in spirit and truth’.
When the woman leaves the well and goes back to her hometown, where she becomes an evangelist. She shares about Jesus and his Good News and many believe because of her testimony! Don’t miss that Jesus sat with her alone and his disciples were shocked!
Many women supported his ministry financially and with hard work. They were an active and vital part of his life and ministry.
Finally, fourth, Jesus had a way of honoring and respecting women. His own mother had a greater voice than Joseph, his adopted father, in the scriptures. Later, when Mary informed Jesus that there was no more wine at the wedding, Jesus listened and turned water to wine.
While Jesus told his male disciples to watch and pray, it was the women who remained faithful to him. Mark 15:40-41 reminds us that while the men ran off, the women watched from a distance. “Among them, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs.”
While there were 7 or more women followers mentioned by name, scripture says many others also followed. When many men left because Jesus’ teaching was too tough, the women remained. And in the end, they stood by him on the cross – and went to anoint his body in the tomb.
Is it any wonder he honored them by allowing them to be the first to witness and share the Good News that He was alive and that the grave could not hold him? All along, they watched and they prayed. They took action and they believed!
Throughout the Bible and history, women have taken prominent rolls; teaching, leading, proclaiming; they were apostles, prophets and evangelists. Acts 2:17 reaffirms the Prophet Joel’s words that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”
And in Acts 21:9 it’s recorded that Philip had 4 unmarried daughters that prophesied.
Here is my final thought; God is calling us, all of us, to watch, pray and proclaim the Gospel to the world and if we fail, he will find another way. He will do it through our kids, through those who we may believe have no voice, or even through the stones if we fail to stand up and speak out.
So be alert (Watch), take your concerns to the Lord (Pray) and the last part is to respond (Go). We all still have a lot to learn from the women of the Bible.
Your assignment is…to read, in preparation for Holy Week, the stories of the women who followed Jesus during his last days. What can we learn from them about compassion, love and service? Then, let us live like true disciples of Jesus Christ, modeling them.