Watching from a Distance
When Mark paints the scene of Jesus’ death, this is what he shows us: soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes; rebels crucified, one on each side of this man called “the king of the Jews;” passersby shouting out insults. A sudden darkness. An offering of wine vinegar to the dying messiah. A loud cry and then silence. The temple curtain torn in two. A worshipping centurion.
And then this: “Some women were watching from a distance” (Mark 15:40, NIV).
Some women were watching from a distance, the story says.
But look more intently at the picture: they are not so distant as to be out of the frame. When Mark paints the scene, these women are present. The apostles have scattered, gone into hiding (all but one, we find out in John’s gospel.) But the women stay as close as they can to Jesus—to the bitter end.
Not so distant after all, then.
This is consistent with the whole of Jesus’ story. In the gospels, women do not watch from a distance. They are right in the middle of things.
Mary starts it off by believing the outrageous promise of God to her, delivered by an angel.
The woman with an issue of blood sneaks through the crowd incognito, touches the very tip of Jesus’ cloak, finds healing. But Jesus does not allow her to go unseen. He stops everything—stops his rush to the synagogue ruler’s house!—to call her out. She spills her story to the entire community and Jesus calls her daughter in front of the crowd.
The twelve disciples travel with Jesus, but so do many women. And these women help support the group with their own funds.
Martha of Bethany is close enough to Jesus to let her anger fly in his face. Her sister, Mary, dares to sit at Jesus’ feet, claiming the posture of disciple. And Jesus applauds Mary’s choice, refuses to send her back to the kitchen.
This is his pattern: Jesus refuses to distance himself from women. When a “sinful woman” interrupts a dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair, Jesus ignores his host’s inclination to send her away. Rather, he makes of her a positive role model for his religious tablemates. When a woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet, Jesus protects her from her accusers. When a Syrophoenician woman begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus engages her in a verbal sparring match—and grants her request.
Jesus sits at a well and has an extended theological conversation with a woman—a Samaritan woman at that. Just the two of them, alone. When Jesus’ disciples return, they are surprised, but don’t dare question it. Meanwhile, the woman heads into town, tells her story, and many become believers because of her.
Even here, in the passage where we started, Mark describes the women who watch from a distance as people who “had followed him and cared for his needs.” (Mark 15:41).
Even here, as the women watch from a distance, they do so only until they can get close again. They watch to see the body taken down from the cross, to see where it will be placed. They watch so they can go and anoint Jesus’ body with spices, once the sabbath is over.
And when they show up on Sunday morning, they will find the stone rolled away; they will see angels; they will crash into resurrection—not from a distance, but close up. First on the scene. These women.
And when Mary Magdalene tackles the risen Jesus with an exuberant embrace, he sends her away. Not to distance himself from her, but to entrust her with this first preaching of the core message of our faith: He is risen.
Why, then, would anyone be surprised to look around and see women traveling with Jesus, sitting at Jesus’ feet, having theological conversations, raising our voices to praise and to preach? We do what we have done—what Jesus has entrusted us to do—since the beginning.