The "Nameless" Women in Mark as the Embodiment of God's "Upside-Down" Kingdom

One of the podcasts I love listening to as it pertains to Scripture is The Bible For Normal People. I’ve said this a few times before, but it’s true, I’m a huge Bible nerd. Sure, I love talking about women and race and all sorts of (unnecessarily) controversial topics when it comes to religion, but I always make sure to do that from the lens of Scripture. Why? Well, besides it being The Bible, I think it’s a truly incredible book that has been taken hostage by so many fundamentalists and biblicists and all kinds of folks that not only offer weak and lazy exegesis, but that do so to silence and to oppress, and to you know...

So yea, I’m just passionate about knowing it—decolonizing, deconstructing, and reconstructing harmful views and ideas and theologies that have been taught without thorough care and scholarship. Of course, I don’t expect to get it right every time (and surely, I don’t), but that’s part of the reason why it’s a life-long process, one that I’ve 100% committed to.  

Ok, enough of that tangent.

Back to the podcast.

On a recent episode, the hosts interviewed New Testament scholar, Daniel Kirk about his work regarding the book of Mark. It so happens that I’m going through Mark with one of my groups of high school girls, so I’ve been obsessively combing through commentaries and such lately. Because I really enjoyed this episode, and because I’m on a Mark-trip, I thought I’d summarize it (and highlight some of my favorite things).

First off, Kirk starts by setting the tone of Mark: the theme of redefining Messiah. According to Kirk, the whole gospel is about redefining the nature of Jesus as Messiah. Scholars use the term “messianic secret” when it comes to Jesus not wanting people to know he’s the Messiah. In Mark 7, for example, we see Jesus healing folks and then telling them not to say a word to anyone. Scholars argue this is because people were waiting for a Messiah, and hearing about Jesus would give them the wrong idea of what kind of Messiah Jesus was. You see, contrary to what they were expecting, Jesus would be a suffering Messiah, a servant that would give his life.

Part of this redefining messiahship also has to do with what Kirk calls the “upside-down kingdom.” The first time Jesus’s death comes up, he says the ever-famous line, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” This is “upside-down” because Jesus is saying that greatness and “finding your life” really comes in giving it up, in “bearing your cross”—a true paradox to greatness.

We see another kind of “upside-down” paradox in the feeding of the 5,000. The paradox in this story is that a lot of food—enough to feed thousands—comes from what looks like nothing, a few fish and loaves. This is the same idea with the parable of the mustard seed. Here we learn that the kingdom of God comes from small, unassuming things.

As the story goes, the disciples have a hard time getting this whole “upside-down” paradox. I mean, c’mon, Jesus is constantly talking about “giving up your life” and they’re consistently arguing about who is greatest in the kingdom and who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand! But didn’t Jesus say if you want to be great you have to be least of all? In fact, he drives this point home by immediately taking a child after he says this and continuing by explaining that if you receive a child like this, you receive him, and if you receive him, you receive the father who sent him. As Kirk says, Jesus is telling the disciples that the way to God is not an upward escalation toward heavenly power, but it’s a reorientation—a downward slope in power. You see, we might think of children as innocent and cute and when Jesus says this, we think of a Sunday school “awwww” moment, but in antiquity, children were at the bottom of the society’s patriarchal pecking order—even under women and slaves. This is critical to understanding that there is a potentially massive social upheaval that’s seeded in the Gospel—it doesn’t explode and come from above, but it’s like a small seed, and if you enact it, everything changes.

What’s happening in the person of Jesus is an inversion of social power structures—and it’s creating a community that is entrusting itself to God in cross-shaped ways by refusing to play the power games in the way that has been taught. This is demonstrated beautifully in that Jesus goes to dinner with people who aren’t normally invited to the table.

This reorientation of the people of God is peculiar and may I add, pretty darn offensive (beautiful and offensive, now there’s a paradox).

Ok, so after all of this, Kirk makes a really, really amazing point. He maintains that if you read the book of Mark with this “upside-down” power dynamics grid—which elevates those otherwise pushed to the margins—one thing that becomes clear is that the “nameless women” in the gospel come off as “ideal disciples” in a way that the Twelve never end up living up to (remember how the disciples kept fighting about who’d be the greatest?) 

As Kirk says: If you want to know the best people in this gospel other than Jesus to look to as an example for the life that we should live, you need to look to the nameless women.

So who are these “nameless women”?

1) Peter’s mother in law

Mark tells us that Peter’s mother in law was sick in bed. Jesus went to her, healed her, and immediately after, she got up and started serving them. Kirk points out that Peter’s mother in law does the very thing the disciples refuse to do, and exactly what Jesus kept calling them to as they continued calling greatness unto themselves.

2) The bleeding woman  

We learn of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years who came to Jesus in a crowd and touched his clothes at the thought that this might heal her. After he felt someone touch him, Jesus asked “who touched my clothes?” The woman, came forward, terrified, to which Jesus replied, “your faith has healed you” (Mark 5:34).

Kirk contrasts this episode with the scene of the disciples being in the boat during the storm (a couple episodes before this) and Jesus rebuking them for being of little faith (Mark 4:40).

3) The Syrophoenician woman

Right in between the first feeding of the 5,000 where Mark says “they were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves” (Mark 6:51), and the second feeding of the 4,000, we find the story of the desperate woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. This is by far one of Jesus’s strangest remarks to someone asking him for help. He told her that he can’t take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs, to which she responded “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” As Kirk puts it, she “mic-drops,” wins the only argument with Jesus in the whole Gospel by somehow having eyes to see that there is not only enough bread for the children at the table, but for whoever else is seeking.

When read in context of the feeding narratives, isn’t that just incredible? She understands what the disciples didn’t: all are welcome at the table and there certainly is enough food to go around.

4) The poor widow

In Mark 12 we learn of a poor widow who put in two small copper coins into the collection box for the temple treasury. Upon seeing her do this, Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

Jesus lets the disciples know that in giving up her whole life, she is embodying costly, life-taking discipleship, the kind of life-taking discipleship Jesus himself engages in and asks of his followers.

5) The woman who anoints Jesus

In Mark 14 we learn of a woman who pours “very expensive perfume” on Jesus’s head. Scholars argues that this gesture is one of messianic anointing, an act that seems to confess Jesus as Messiah. What’s interesting about this is that when Jesus interprets the act, he says “she anointed my body ahead of time for burial.” This is the action that Jesus says, “wherever in the whole world the gospel is proclaimed, what she’s done will be told in memory of her.”

In this action, she was able to hold together Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as someone who is about to be buried—something the disciples just didn’t get—the reorientation of what Messiah means. As Kirk says, “the whole message that Mark is trying to get across is embodied in this action.”

It’s easy for the unnamed women in Mark to be ignored because they’re on the margins, or they don’t have names, or they’re “not important” because they weren’t part of the Twelve, but if we think the disciples are more important than these women for those reasons, then, as Kirk suggests, “we’re reading Mark with the same posture that Mark is seeking to overturn.”