In Luke 8:2-3, we read a very little bit about the women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their own resources, including Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.”
The gospel writer makes a point of naming these three women and identifies one of them even more specifically: Joanna. She’s identified not only by her own name, but by the name of her husband—and her husband’s role in Herod’s court. The fact that Luke goes into such detail tells us that Joanna and Chuza were important to the gospel story and to Luke. Why? Let’s take a look.
First, about that phrase Herod’s steward. That might mean more to us if we read it as “finance minister on the staff of Herod Antipas,” the Roman-backed ruler in Galilee. There are a couple of Herods in the gospels, so which one is this? This is the wily youngest son of the ferocious King Herod the Great who met the Magi. Although this younger Herod wasn’t officially called a king, he had royal roots and lived in royal style—in Roman style. He even named the luxurious lakeshore city he built for his capital Tiberias, to flatter his patron, the Roman emperor Tiberius.
Chuza and Joanna
Chuza was an aristocrat, a foreigner, and probably a proselyte—a convert to Judaism. He was a Nabatean, like Herod’s first wife, the daughter of the powerful and prickly king of Nabatea, a neighboring (and fabulously wealthy) desert kingdom. Chuza, the Nabatean nobleman on the staff of the ruler of the Jewish people, might have converted when he came to Herod’s court in the retinue of his princess, or he might have converted when he married the daughter of an aristocratic Jewish family in Galilee—Joanna.
Some time before we meet Joanna and Chuza, Herod had divorced the Nabatean princess to marry his own sister-in-law Herodias, much to the disgust of John the Baptist (Luke 3:19), among others—including the king of Nabatea, who raised an army to march on Herod for the insult.
What did Chuza think about Herod’s insult to his homeland of Nabatea? Would Herod even care what his finance minister thought? Maybe. Herod was disgusting, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that it would be a bad idea to let a disgruntled finance minister stay disgruntled, and one good way to soothe any hurt feelings would be to pay him very well indeed.
And maybe Herod, in hopes of keeping Chuza sweet, elevated Chuza’s wife to a place in the palace, too. Maybe Joanna was made a lady-in-waiting to Herodias. In any event, we can understand that Joanna and Chuza were well placed to see and hear everything that went on in the palace.
Now that we’ve set the stage around Joanna, let’s take a closer look at her.
Joanna is desperate and faithful
Luke names Joanna near the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as one of the women who have been healed of “evil spirits and infirmities.” Imagine poor Joanna suffering from some mysterious and persistent illness. She and Chuza have probably been consulting the best physicians for miles around in hopes of a cure, with money no object, but with no results. All the talk about miraculous healings in the surrounding towns and villages certainly caught their attention. Who cares if people call this obscure carpenter’s son a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34)? They’re desperate. Joanna goes out to see if this mysterious faith healer can help her—and he does.
So here’s this elegant, aristocratic, and deeply grateful woman among the dusty crowds that gather around Jesus. Simon the Zealot, one of the Twelve, would have scorned her as a tool of the hated Herod, and Peter and the fishermen might have felt clumsy and awkward in her presence. But she and the other grateful women Luke names alongside her are undaunted. They stick with Jesus through thick and thin, using their wealth, their connections, and their influence to smooth the way for his ministry wherever they can.
Luke brings up Joanna again near the end of the gospel. In chapter 23, Luke points out “the women who had followed [Jesus] from Galilee” among those watching as Jesus is crucified and buried, after which they go to prepare spices and ointments (23:49-56). Then, at the beginning of chapter 24, Luke tells us that the women return to the tomb the next morning, carrying their spices and ointments, but the tomb is empty. The angels tell the women that Jesus has risen and remind them of what Jesus had told them back in Galilee (24:6-7).
I like how Luke tells us that the women stop to think about all this before they do anything else—”they remembered his words” (24:8). Can you imagine their conversation there in front of the empty tomb? And then they go back to tell the others. In 24:10, Luke names the women who were there, starting with Mary Magdalene and Joanna.
Was Joanna ‘a source’?
So now we have a picture of Joanna: She was a wealthy, elegant, sophisticated woman, an aristocrat like her husband, who paid attention to what went on in and around the palace. She had heard all the talk about John the Baptist (Herod was fascinated by that strange man) and then about Jesus. Someone—or a couple of someones—in the palace later told Luke about Herod’s interactions with John the Baptist and then with Jesus. That source was clearly observant, intelligent, sympathetic to both John and Jesus, and close enough to see and hear what went on. And that source might have been Joanna, who served Jesus so faithfully in every way she could, all the way from Galilee to the empty tomb—and even beyond, if the scholars’ educated guesses are right.
Scholars say that biblical people in places influenced by Roman or Greek cultures often used two names—the Hebrew or Hebrew-derived name their parents gave them and a similar-sounding Latin or Greek nickname used in public. Saul/Paul is only one example of that. (We see the same thing even today: For example, international students in the United States often adopt an “American” nickname.)
Joanna, living with Herod’s Roman-influenced court as she did, would have had a Latin nickname that sounded close enough to “Joanna.” Could that nickname have been Junia? Some scholars suggest that the Junia named in Romans 16:7 is our Joanna. Paul sends greetings to her and Andronicus (Chuza? someone else?) in Rome as people who “were in Christ before I was.” Not many people fit that description—but our Joanna does.
And as an upper-class woman who understood Roman words and ways, she could have continued the work of gratitude she started way back at the beginning of the road to Jerusalem with Jesus: using her wealth, her connections, and her influence to keep on smoothing the way for his ministry wherever she could.
- No one would ever call Joanna “lowly.” What do you imagine the many very poor people of the Galilean countryside thought about aristocrats like her who served the hated Herod in his Romanized palace?
- She was a wealthy, well-connected woman in Herod’s court, but God chose her to help forward Jesus’ ministry. What does that suggest to you about how God sees people and how God chooses people?
- Joanna/Junia, like Saul/Paul, used what she knew and what she had to help forward Jesus’ ministry among people of different cultures and languages all the way from Galilee to Rome. What are some of the things—tangible or not—that she knew and that she had?
- Do you use what you know and what you have to forward Jesus’ ministry? How? Do you use what you know and what you have to encourage other women of faith to do the same? How?
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA. This faith reflection is made available to you for free by Women of the ELCA, which has been offering free online reflections and resources like this at welca.org since 1995. Please give generously to support Women of the ELCA and its communications ministries.
Feature photo of National Quilting Day by Elizabeth McBride
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