Lenten Devotional Series: The Women Who First Followed Jesus

Breaking Down Barriers | LENTEN DEVOTIONAL 3.25.21

Read and pray through Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30.

Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.

Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But several women also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.

Each week, we will look more closely at one of these women to better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. On Thursday, a female member of our staff will offer their thoughts. Each Saturday, I will provide a Lectio Divina prayer exercise so that we can reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.

Reflection | One of the main goals of this devotional series is to reflect on and acknowledge the significant ways in which women participated in Jesus’ ministry. Implicit in this goal is the recognition that women have often been left on the sidelines of our Biblical engagement. Hopefully, these devotionals have helped to illuminate the important roles these women in the Gospels played and help us to learn from their examples in our own walks of faith.
I can’t help but notice though, that even in a series designed to highlight Biblical women who have often been overlooked, there are two women in our lineup who are even more prone to slip our minds–the woman at the well, and (our focus for this week) the Syrophoenician woman.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has several encounters with unnamed women, and I think that these various passages have a habit of running together in our brains; it can be tricky to remember which of these women is which. In instances when the Gospel writers record no name for the woman in their accounts, we have taken to labeling them by some attribute of theirs: the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the hemorrhaging woman, the Syrophoenician woman, etc.
Notice, the attribute we use to identify each of these women is the very thing that distinguishes them all as outsiders. In other words, these Biblical women are defined, in our minds, by their otherness. This strikes me as an odd situation, particularly in light of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. As her conversation with Jesus demonstrates, this was a person who was used to being “othered”–as a woman, and as a Gentile among the Jewish people. Even so, this woman is persistent in her pursuit of Jesus and relentless in her faith that there is room enough in God’s kingdom for someone like her and her daughter.
But let us ask ourselves, why is she forced to be so persistent? Why is getting to sit at Jesus’ feet such a struggle for her? The answer is, of course, that social customs and ethnic stereotypes formed obstacles holding her back. Where others, like Nicodemus, or like Martha and Mary, were able to come right up to Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman is reduced to shouting out like a beggar in the street.
We see the effects of these barriers played out more fully in the response of the disciples. So enmeshed are they in social codes and racial prejudices that they view this woman as an annoyance to be ignored, not a fellow child of God to be helped. Remember, the disciples were traveling with Jesus; they have seen the way He engages social outcasts (Matthew himself was a former tax collector!)–they have heard Him teach on loving one’s neighbor. Based on the example continually set by Jesus, could they really think that the proper response to this woman’s pleading was to turn her away?
Pastor Chris posited that Jesus, in His initial silence, was in fact testing the disciples to see how they would respond to this woman. It is when they let the opportunity to intervene–to help–go by that Jesus invites her to Him.
As we reflect on this passage, let us ask ourselves what barriers have been constructed–barriers of gender, of race, of sexuality, of political ideology–that inhibit others from getting to Jesus? In what ways have we internalized these barriers–societal customs and prejudices? Beloved, are we drawing people in or turning them away?
The good news–and may we truly thank God for it!–is that there is no barrier we could construct that will keep Jesus away from us. Time and again, Jesus makes it clear that he desires all to come to Him; His mercy and grace are for all the world. As representatives of the Gospel–as members of the Body of Christ–we ought to be crossing dividing lines; we ought to be tearing down obstacles impeding people from getting to Jesus. May we see those around us as fellow human beings created in the image of God, not simply define them by what sets them apart from ourselves. As we walk with Jesus, let us truly learn from His example and from His teachings.

Consider & Discuss | What obstacles and prejudices do you see in your own life? What makes it difficult for you to love someone? Are there any people that you struggle to view as part of God’s family? What can we do to challenge prejudices, stereotypes, and stigmas and make room in the Church for “othered” people?

What barriers do you see churches contributing to today? How can we work to deconstruct these barriers and make our communities more accessible to people who might be excluded or treated differently?

Prayer Focus |  Gracious God, thank you for being relentless in your pursuit of each and every one of us. Help us to dismantle systems of oppression and injustice and to view our fellow human beings through your eyes. Lord Jesus, we lay our prejudices at your feet and repent the ways in which we have missed opportunities to show your mercy and grace to the world. May we continue to grow and be transformed by your Word and example. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Emma Tweitmann