22 Pentecost C—11/10/19
Job 19:23-27a; Luke 20:27-38
Pr. Scott Kramer
Susan Goldberg is the tenth editor of National Geographic magazine and the first woman to hold the post. It’s good timing. Next year marks 100 years since the United States Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
The November issue of the magazine is titled “Women: A Century of Change,” and reflects the struggles and successes of women around the world. All articles in this issue are written by women.
On the face of things, today’s reading from Luke doesn’t seem to have much to do with all that. In Jesus’ day, there was a group of religious leaders called the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a life after death. In today’s story they try to trap Jesus with a “what-if” story, hoping to undermine his authority and power.
Once upon a time there were seven brothers. One brother married but died childless. According to custom, the man’s brother married the widow, hoping to produce children. He also died, and the next brother married her. This pattern continued until all the brothers married the widow but died without producing any children. In the supposed life-after-death, the Sadducees ask, whose wife will she be?
The Sadducees in this story were distracted by theological questions. They were distracted by customs and traditions. They were distracted even by the life to come. In other words, they were distracted by the very things we modern-day Christians sometimes allow to become distractions.
But, if theology, tradition and the life to come are not the point of this story, what is?
Notice who the characters are in today’s reading: Moses is a man. The Sadducees are all men. The story they tell is about seven men. Jesus himself, of course, is a man. Only one person in this whole story is…a woman.
According to the laws of the time, women were property. In this story, the woman is handed off from one brother to the next like a piece of real estate. In telling the story, the Sadducees are not interested in her rights or dignity as a person, only the rights and dignity of her dead husband and his brothers.
But Jesus is interested. “Those judged worthy of a place in the age to come and of the resurrection from the dead don’t take husbands or wives. They can no longer die, like the angels—they are children of God, since they are children of the resurrection…God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. All are alive to God.”
Do you see what he’s done? He’s taken a story about theology and theory, property and power, customs and control, and shifted the focus to where it belongs: on dignity and justice for all people in this life. In fact, today’s psalm could be heard as a prayer by the woman in the story:
1Hear a just cause,
O Lord; give heed to my cry;
listen to my prayer, which does not come from lying lips.
2Let my vindication come forth from your presence;
let your eyes be fixed on justice.
Should we Christians think about the life to come? Yes! (We can hardly help it.) But, not as a distraction from our work in this life. Instead, the life to come holds before us a vision for how to live our lives now. In the life to come, Jesus says, there will be no husbands or wives. There will be no property, and nobody will be better than anyone else. All, he says, are children of God, and will live as the just society that we are entrusted to begin building now.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are charged with the hard work of identifying that which distracts us. Christ is not merely in some far-off heaven waiting to embrace us when we die. Christ is alive!–and we are that living Christ, the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the one whose life and teaching mold and shape us for the work to which we are called.
Every day, you and I are subjected to the same distractions and temptations that God’s people have faced in every generation. In this recent election cycle, for example, we were told that the election was about candidates and issues and laws and policies. But, if you think about it, we were being told stories, just as the Sadducees told stories. Our job is the work that Jesus faced, to listen to the stories and sort through the distractions, to discern where God is at work, and to embrace our work as the Body of Christ.
In the story the Sadducees told, the woman was virtually invisible. In the stories told through candidates and political parties and the media, we might ask: Who is invisible? Who is being ignored? Who has no voice or power? Who is treated as something less than human?
The distractions are usually loud and prominent. They tend to be the headline-makers: Amazon, Boeing, millionaires and billionaires. But often more difficult to overcome are the distractions closer to home, including my personal fears and self-interest!
The opening essay in this month’s National Geographic is titled, “Why the Future Should Be Female.” African-American writer Michele Norris begins with her own story:
When I headed off to college, my mother gave me a piece of folded-up paper with a message she thought I would need…It said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” My mother gave me that slip of paper because she never wanted me to accept subordinate status. I had two sisters, and the mantra in our house was: “You are not better than anyone else, but, no one is better than you.”
She concludes her essay with these words:
People invested in the status quo will always be looking for people who can be made to feel inferior. It’s the wobbly floor they stand on. But in this moment, where there’s so much promise and so much at stake, let’s make sure that it’s no longer easy to find women and girls who can be made to feel inferior. Let’s make sure they know their power and their place—as equals.
Not everyone is blessed from an early age to receive the love, wisdom and encouragement that Michele Norris enjoyed. But, what are the stories we are being told? Who is being ignored or left out, voiceless and invisible? Where are we in the stories, and to what extent are we the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Christ and his love in the world, cutting through our fears and distractions of this life…to do the gospel work of justice?