Mary, Joanna, & Great Reversals by Sara Barton

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m travelling this week, so posting will be a little spotty. The upside is that I get to feature one of my favorite women of valor, Sara Barton, in a guest post today.

Sara teaches in the Religion Department at Rochester College in Michigan. She is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry in Missional and Spiritual Formation at David Lipscomb University.  Her book, A Woman Called, is one of my favorite books on women in the Church, and she blogs at Sara and her family have stayed connected with Ugandans since serving as missionaries, and you can learn more about ongoing creative partnerships and sustainable solutions in East Africa at  

Enjoy this fantastic reflection on Mary and Joanna--women of valor! 



I did a double take as I passed the collection basket.  Was that an egg I saw wobbling about among the coins? As a missionary in Uganda, there was little that surprised me after a while of living cross-culturally, but it took me a moment to realize that the fresh, brown egg (there are ways of deducing that an unwashed egg is fresh) was indeed a purposeful offering. 

Later in the service, the worship leader held the egg high above his head, and it was sold to the highest bidder, bringing far more than an egg would cost at the local market.  The egg-giver, a widow who sees less than $100 go in and out of her household in a year, had no coins for the collection, so she brought what God had given her that very morning.  And instead of shaming her poverty, the church called attention to her generosity, and worship turned into a bidding war for her gift.  All three of her teeth gleamed as she laughed and clapped over the hoopla her gift had created.  Eventually, I would bid for eggs myself, and mangos, and papayas.  Folks brought what they had – and God was glorified.  I often heard Jesus whispering the words from Luke 21 in my ear:

 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

I wrote about the egg experience in our missionary newsletter, and the next time I was home on furlough, I was reminded that sometimes people actually read the newsletter.  I was visiting a friend of mine, a well-to-do widow with a gorgeous home and a beautiful smile, and she told me that the story of the widow’s egg had so deeply touched her that she used it as a daily reminder of the importance of generosity. In response to my egg story, she had purchased a beautiful decorative egg and placed it on her nightstand, right beside her Bible. 

She rushed to her bedroom and came back to show me this thing, this elaborate egg with flowery golden designs perched upon a matching bejeweled stand.  My first reaction was judgment, a sentiment that often flowed freely through my veins on furlough trips to opulent America.  That egg probably cost as much as the real egg-giver saw in an entire year, said my inner voice, as I faked a smile. 

Luke’s Gospel backs me up here.  With his theme of a great reversal, Luke teaches that “the rich” (1:53; 4:18; 6:20-24; 7:22, 14:13, 21; 16:19-31) already have their comfort, and because of it, they miss recognizing the Son of God when he’s right there in front of them.  So, with a reversal of what’s expected in this world, the brightly-scrubbed and well-dressed are rejected. The poor, however, those who have no worldly comfort or prestige, accept Jesus and are accepted in return.  Jesus explicitly teaches the great reversal when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, and woe to you who are rich.” 

Mary perhaps best epitomizes this reversal.  An adolescent from nowhere-Nazareth, with zero social capital in her patriarchal world, is lifted up to receive and proclaim the great reversal. The way of God, she sings, is to fill hungry people with good things while the rich are sent away empty. The way of God, she sings, is to dethrone powerful rulers and empower humble servants.

Luke parades great reversals through his Gospel and Acts, as those who are often in last place - the blind and deaf, the lame, the sexually mutilated, Samaritans, Gentiles, sinners, children, and women are given first-place status in Jesus’ upside-down, reversed kingdom.

Luke’s reversal is clear:  God exalts the poor and humbles the rich.

But then, into Luke’s story walks a rich woman and her symbolic fancy egg.  Apparently, Luke likes this great reversal thing so much that just when we think we have it down, he forces our hearts to do it again. 

Joanna, a woman mentioned in the Gospels, isn’t one of those leading lady characters from Scripture, like Rachel or Sarah.  Luke makes two short references to her in chapters 8 and 24, but both brief references notably place her square in the middle of Jesus’ ministry.

I find Joanna terribly intriguing.  Let’s get her story straight (See Luke 8:1-4 and Luke 24): 

Joanna, wife of Chuza, is healed of evil spirits and/or disease. Chuza is Herod’s household manager (today we might call him a CFO), a position with high responsibility and good pay. This Herod may have been the same sly fox who ordered the death of John the Baptist. Managing his household would have been lucrative, so Joanna was a well-to-do woman who could have returned to a life of leisure after her healing. 

Instead, she joined the ragtag group traveling with Jesus and the Twelve, witnessing first-hand his proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.  Not only did Joanna witness his ministry, she financially supported Jesus out of her own means.  Eventually, courageously following Jesus out of Galilee to Jerusalem, Joanna was one of the first people entrusted with the message that Jesus was not dead but miraculously alive! And with the other witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, she waited in Jerusalem to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

It only takes a couple brief verses to determine that Joanna had chutzpah.  She left a life of ease and generously gave her resources to an itinerant preacher who taught her about loving the poor and outcast. When Jesus was arrested, sentenced to death for treason, and killed through violent capital punishment, Joanna could have quietly slipped back home.

But she did not leave Jesus. She did not turn away.  She prepared spices for his dead body instead, and she went to his tomb while his male followers were in hiding. 

She was a woman of valor. 

A rich woman of valor. 

Luke and his great reversals:  Jesus, Luke illustrates, makes it frustratingly difficult to label people.  Just when you think you’ve determined who’s in and who’s out, Jesus calls a rich tax collector, Levi, to join his inner group, or he invites himself to dine at the home of Zachaeus, whose riches came through deceit and fraud.

As we deeply contemplate the great reversal in Luke, a rich woman, Joanna, forces us to widen our definition of Jesus’ teaching about “the rich” and “the poor.” 

Jesus calls us to enter a topsy-turvy world in which the heart is examined for poverty and wealth, not just the pocketbook.

So, a proper understanding of Luke’s great reversal condemns me for sitting on my missionary judgment seat about the golden egg.  It chastises me for resting in the comfort of my missionary sacrifice when there’s no doubt I’m a rich, privileged, educated American who must constantly allow God to take my comfort and redefine it. 

May we simultaneously remember both Mary’s poverty and Joanna’s wealth.  May we remain open to the surprise and newness that come when we redefine our preconceptions of people according to the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God.

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