The church is called to embody a culture where women are no longer silenced, invisible or subjugated, and all people are called into community. (Listen.)
Every now and then, I get a letter addressed to Mrs Paul Holdway; and I reel. Once I’ve stopped reeling, I wonder who on earth this woman is. She sounds like a shadow, a cipher. She’s probably maternal, almost certainly matronly. I’m sure she’s a great supporter of her husband and good at housework. She probably darns other people’s socks, and I’m sure she makes things for cake stalls and fetes. I have no idea what she herself is like, or what she herself is really interested in, but I do know this: There’s something extraordinarily silencing about having my name obliterated in a letter which is ostensibly addressed to me.
It may seem a little thing, but it’s big: because it’s the polite face of a culture which so often renders women voiceless, expendable, invisible, and subjugates their lives to men.
The Jesus we meet in the gospel works and teaches in a world like this: a world where women have no identity apart from their fathers, husbands or sons. It’s a world where women are beaten to death by family members every day of the week; where women are blamed for violence against them; where women have no authority; where women are banned from public speech; and where men set all the rules, especially around reproduction. A world, in fact, quite a lot like ours.
For when I get letters addressed to Mrs Paul Holdway, it tells me I have no identity apart from my husband. Much more seriously, on our great cloud of witnesses, you can see Sally’s name. She is a woman who was murdered by her partner, just as a woman is murdered by her partner every week in Australia. Like Jesus, we live in a world where victims of violence are blamed: for what they were wearing, what they were drinking, who they were with, or where they were walking. We live in a world where, based on a couple of verses which contradict the very letter they are in, most denominations will not ordain women, and too many women are taught never to speak in church.
In our world, men continue to monitor and control many women’s bodies. The Catholic church forbids contraception, then turns a blind eye to the terrible impacts on the poor and vulnerable. The Director of Health and Senior Services in Missouri tracks the menstrual cycles of women who visit Planned Parenthood to work out who is having an abortion. Corporations give employees financial incentives to use health apps, then secretly access female employees’ fertility cycles to make management decisions. Women in Jordan are jailed for defying their male guardian. All these things and far worse are happening to women around our world, right now. In Jesus’ time and in ours, many women are voiceless, expendable, invisible; and women’s bodies are not their own.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: which is why we keep paying attention to the gospel. In tonight’s story, we meet some Sadducees. They are wealthy and powerful religious authorities: the aristocrats of the Temple. They challenge Jesus by telling a mocking tale, in which a woman is widowed seven times. As was the custom, since she bore no sons, each time she was widowed she was handed down to the next brother. ‘When she dies,’ they ask, ‘whose wife will she be?’
They really don’t care. The Sadducees had already examined and rejected the idea of resurrection. This isn’t a real question; they aren’t interested in dialogue; their minds are made up. Instead, they tell this story about a marginalized woman to try and make Jesus look ridiculous.*
But Jesus uses their little conundrum to turn the world on its head. To the powerful religious authorities telling the story, the widow is a nameless faceless voiceless piece of property; but to Jesus, she is a person, and a child of the resurrection. In the age to come, she will not be excluded from the respect which is denied her now. Instead, Jesus speaks of her in the same breath as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: in his eyes, she, too, is worthy. Marriage will be no more, and so she will no longer be defined by the men in her life; nor will she be defined by her fertility or sex appeal. Instead, she will be known, cherished and loved simply as a precious child of God.
This teaching is explosive. It implies that, in God’s new age, men have no more status than women; religious authorities have no more status than other people; and even the most vulnerable, powerless and dehumanized person in this world will be raised up and honoured. In other words, in God’s new age, the patriarchy is dead, capitalism is dead, and no one belongs to anybody else.
No wonder women flock to Jesus! No wonder he is good news! No wonder people get excited about resurrection life!
And we, too, can experience this life. For the church is the body of Christ, called to be a sign and a witness to God’s new age. Through the Spirit of the Risen Christ, present when we gather in Christ’s name, we form a new community; and this community is tasked with embodying resurrection life here and now.
In our context, we do this when women and girls are known and cherished, not for their fathers or husbands or sex appeal or sons, but simply for themselves. Like Jesus, we will not value women for their marital status or fertility or appearance, but instead will pay attention to their stories. We will take seriously the trauma, fear and suffering which impact so many lives, learn what it means to be a victim-survivor, and structure our common life to care for the vulnerable as we walk together towards wholeness.
We embody resurrection life when women preach, and lead, and sit around talking after the service, while men prepare food and wash dishes. From the outset, women journeyed with and ministered to Jesus; and the letters of Paul name many women as ministers, co-workers, church planters or church leaders. In the same way, we honour the gifts of all people, regardless of gender, because, in God’s new age, women do not just listen and serve, but are also called to lead and speak and rest; and men do not just lead and speak and rest, but, like Jesus, are also called to listen and serve.
We embody resurrection life when we interrogate the social structures and expectations which uphold privilege, and when we confess the ways we participate in these structures. Any honest questioning will challenge our arrangements around work, leisure and family life, and how we allocate time, energy, money and capacity for relationship and demand them from others; and those of us in power might find ourselves questioning how we got there, who was overlooked, and who should be raised up now.
We embody resurrection life when we welcome, befriend and eat with everyone. In this world, it is relatively easy for women to be friends with women, and men with men. Yet Jesus Christ demolished the boundaries which keep people apart. Male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, rich, poor, gay, straight, and so on and so forth: all are one in Christ; all are united around Christ’s table; all are called to build new relationships which transcend human social boundaries. So we, too, must work together and become friends and listen and create understanding across gender and other lines.
And we embody resurrection life when we insist on this life of freedom and dignity and connection for everyone. Not just straight white middle class people, but people of colour, and gay people, and poor people, and trans people, and all who are pushed to the world’s margins in this life now.
This is what it means to serve the God of the living: the one who makes all things new. For, two thousand years after Jesus first walked the earth, male violence is still rampant; women are still sidelined, marginalised, and silenced; young girls are still sexualised and sold; and church, state and family still seek to control women’s bodies. So again and again and again, we must find and model new ways of being, new ways of relating, and new ways of ordering this world now. The call to embody resurrection life continues, and our work will never end.
Negotiating gender, challenging culture, trying to live differently, and no end to the work: it’s certainly daunting. We’ll be awkward in our marriages; we’ll get flak from our families; we’ll wrestle with internalised biases; we’ll feel confused and guilty and defiant at times. We’ll make mistakes and lose our tempers and hurt each other’s feelings and be disappointed; we will fail and be forgiven and be asked to try again.
But it’s good work. I’ve been at it for years, and I can tell you this: every year, I feel more alive. That’s what trying to embody this resurrection life does: the very struggle fills us with life. We will no longer be shadows or ciphers, voiceless, silenced, invisible, subjugated. For we are alive to God: and seeking to embody God’s resurrection life guarantees one thing: that the living only become more connected, and more alive. Thanks be to God. Amen. Ω
*It is fascinating to me that many male commentators continue in this vein, using the story to contest the nature of resurrection; whereas it tends to be women commentators who notice the widow, and who observe how religious authorities and theologians continue to abstract human suffering for the sake of argument and point-scoring.
PRAYER: Go now, embodying resurrection life in everything you say and do. And may you walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. Amen.
A reflection on Luke 20:27-40 given to Sanctuary, 10 November 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Image credit: Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash.
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