July 2011

Jesus and African Women

The media’s portrayal of African women has admittedly improved over the years, but still remains largely discouraging.  The mothers, daughters and sisters on the continent of humanity’s birth are too often presented as AIDS-infested, malnourished, or poverty-stricken pariahs.  Too many images are those of gaunt figures, infant with distended belly in arms, scantily clad, woebegone eyes.  Humanitarian organizations, while doing a good work, continue to air commercials of African baby girls who seem to be without a capable mother figure, at the whim of destiny’s cruel caprice.  Most of today’s movies do not feature African women at all, but when they do they are often portrayed as gullible or over-sexualized.          

How did Jesus, our Lord, Savior, and the One whose life and thinking we strive to emulate, view African women?  Did the world’s greatest Teacher, God incarnate, ever mention them in His treasured and memorable talks?  

Jesus and Africa

When Jesus was a baby His parents fled to Egypt to escape infanticide at the hands of the jealous king Herod.  It is compelling that the omniscient God identified North Africa a safe place for His only begotten Son, assigning an angel to instruct Joseph to go there.  It is not known precisely how long Christ was in Egypt, but He was at least there from below age two to the time shortly after Herod died (Matthew 2:13-23). 

We also know that during Jesus’ ministry He came in contact with Africans.  Most famously, a man named Simon from present day Libya carried Christ’s cross (Matthew 27:31-33).  Simon, visiting Jerusalem with his sons, assisted the Messiah at His lowest point when even His closest disciples had abandoned Him. 

After Jesus ascended to heaven the Holy-Ghost filled apostles baptized Africans of various nationalities on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11).  Later, the Spirit directed Philip to an influential North African politician seeking the Savior.  After a Bible study, Philip promptly baptized him (Acts 8:26-40).  Also, an influential apostle of the early church named Apollos was from the storied African metropolis of Alexandria (Acts 18:24-28).

Jesus and Sheba

On one occasion, Jesus spoke directly of an African woman, Matthew 12 and Luke 11 recording the scene.  Continually causing ripples in the community, Christ’s controversial Sabbath keeping and His equally controversial pronouncements stoked the Pharisees to hatch a murder plot against Him.  Jesus knew of their plans and moved to a different location because He was not scheduled to die yet.

Next Jesus expelled a demon from a hearing impaired and non-verbal man.  Having stalked Him to His new location, this time the Pharisees charged Jesus with exorcising demons with Satan’s power.  Jesus warned them that speaking against the Holy Spirit was unforgivable.  A woman in the crowd then called out, “God bless your mother, for she gave birth to You and nurtured You.”  Jesus responded that those who heard God’s word and lived by it were really blessed.  The Pharisees didn’t deem Jesus’ words were adequate and so launched another attack against Him, urging Him to perform a miracle.  He responded by linking the Pharisaic attitude to their entire generation: faithless, only believing if they could see the supernatural with their own eyes.  Jesus then used two non-Hebrews to illustrate the faith that will meet God’s approval: the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba. 

Sheba was the ruler of a kingdom which most likely included parts of modern-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen.  She heard of Solomon wisdom, and along with a royal entourage weighed down with four million dollars worth of unique African treasures, travelled to Jerusalem to investigate for herself if the legend was accurate.  The two leaders conferenced for an extended period of time, Solomon answering Sheba’s probing queries and furnishing her a tour of the splendors of Israel.  Thoroughly impressed, the female sovereign admitted: “The half of the greatness of thy wisdom was not told me: for thou exceedest the fame that I heard.”  Blessing and glorifying God, she gave Solomon her presents.  Solomon in turn imparted to Sheba whatever she asked, her requests equaling the value of her gifts to him (2 Chronicles 9:1-12). 

What did Christ have to say about this African queen?  It is important to note before answering this that Christ was free of the prejudiced beliefs of His day, and as a result constantly butted heads with male chauvinists intent on degrading women (e.g., John 8:1-11). Since racial prejudice against Africans did not exist among first century Jews (there was no concept of “Africa” at the time, and black/white racial issues are largely a Western post-Columbus phenomenon), Jesus’ statement about a woman is most striking.   Observe His words in Luke 11:32:

“The queen of the South shall rise up in judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”

It is obvious that Jesus admired Queen Sheba.  Growing up, He had read about her from the scrolls of the Old Testament.  Picture a young Jesus marveling at this African woman, sensing her life as being so momentous that it deserved to be stored in His mind for later use in His ministry.  Sheba was, in Jesus’ estimation, a figure of admiration.

Indeed, Christ considered the African monarch an example of true faith.  In the words above, He used her to show how people should relate to Him, God’s only begotten Son, Who was to die for the sins of the world.  Sheba was the ultimate seeker of truth, traveling thousands of miles to visit Jerusalem solely from hearsay.  When she arrived, Solomon’s words were enough for her to believe in the God of Israel.  Yet the people of Jesus’ day had the Truth among them—right next to them, daily hearing His words and beholding His life—but still didn’t believe in Him.

Jesus presents this exceptional woman as saved in His kingdom.  But Sheba will not only be in heaven: she will have a prominent role in the judgment, her faith a standard which God uses to judge humanity.  This is perhaps the highest privilege bestowed upon a mortal.

Today’s media portrays African women as objects of pity and degradation—forsaken by God, hope extinguished, future bleak.  But Jesus presents an African woman of the highest kind of faith, accorded with honor and power while on earth, and an exalted position in heaven.  Yes, the time is coming when, instead of pity, a woman of Africa will summon awe and admiration from the countless number of humans confronted with Truth.

-Benjamin J. Baker