A girl doesn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a prostitute, it’s generally a profession born of necessity and driven by an insatiable market demand. In the ancient world when Jesus was around, women who were prostitutes were just called “sinners,” a blanket term that covered a multitude of necessary survival traits. Since a woman was considered property, if she was banished or turned out of a home or a marriage, likely with no marketable skills, prostitution became a way of feeding herself, it was survival.
So it is no surprise that, more than once, Jesus found himself in a position where a woman who was a “sinner” hunted him down to kiss his feet and wipe her tears away there with her hair, often pouring out some kind of expensive perfume as a gesture that she was laying it all on the line in hope of a new life. Confident that she would get a fair hearing at this man’s feet, even if she had to crash a formal “for males only” dinner and parade herself past a table full of men, perhaps even one or two of her former clients. We find out in Luke chapter 7 that Jesus had a cadre of female disciples such as this, former “sinners.” As it turns out, these very women whom he had freed from a life of “sin,” what we might call sex trafficking today, and also the accompanying demons and infirmities, ended up providing financial support for his ministry out of their new jobs and their newfound lives as freed women.
Jesus had a group of women funding his mission, women, the story clearly tells us, whom he had set free. Which indicates by the nature of the word “free” that prior to their falling at his feet like a refugee of war or someone seeking asylum from an oppressive regime, they had been in a kind of captivity known as sin. Ironically, it wasn’t the system that forced a woman into such circumstances or the pimp that ran the prostitution ring that was labeled as “sinful,” rather, it was the woman herself. But Jesus saw the matter differently, instead of blaming the woman for her predicament, he simply set her free, not only from her internal demons and infirmities, but from the system, too, he gave her the ability to build a new life. Perhaps Jesus was the first feminist.
When Jesus says at the beginning of his ministry that he has come to set the captives free, this is what he’s talking about, human beings who are enslaved to systems and ways of being that force them to live apart from the joy and dignity of their very soul, which is, by the way, a God given right for every human being. The guiding energy of any movement such as feminism or liberation is to reconnect human beings with their own dignity, to enable them to live a life of soul.
St. Iraeneus said, “the glory of God is a person fully alive.” I’m sure these women of the ancient world became dangerously independent when Jesus set them free, independent enough to make their own living and give themselves to a worthy cause in the world without selling their souls. Perhaps the greatest gift he gave them, besides the connection to their soul’s Divine joy, was the permission to believe in themselves without apology. Quite a feat in a world in which women were considered the property of another person, subversive, in fact, to believe in something that doesn’t technically belong to you. This is often the first step to the recovery of the soul, believing, against the odds, that you can claim your soul from any kind of wreckage that may have been hoisted upon you in this life.
As the ancient poet Hafiz has stated: “we have not come here to be taken prisoner, but to surrender ever more deeply to freedom and joy.”