The gospel lesson today is Luke 8:1-8
First, I want to acknowledge that this week has been a particularly difficult one to be a woman (or a girl) in this country. And if you are feeling extra vulnerable or extra-triggery or anxious or angry…you have every right to be. The words we have heard in public spaces about what is acceptable to do to us or the justification of the upholding of masculine power over us have been extra prevalent this week.
We have heard recorded conversations which would attempt to justify sexual assault by a man who is running for president of this nation. We have witnessed the support of and justifications of his words by those who would claim to speak for God…too many pastors who are part of the religious right (religious wrong most of the time, in my opinion) are quick to insist that the words spoken by this man hold no real public consequence. Or that they are an acceptable price to pay for his potential leadership in the executive office.
According to the Maine Counsel on Sexual Assault, “one in five women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Nearly 1 in 2 women have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.” So know that you are not alone. If you need to talk with someone about something that has happened to you, I know Pastor Randy is available to listen, but I am available, too. If you need my contact information, let me know after worship or contact the church office. They’ll get it for you.
The truth is, violence against women happens not just in the context of sexual assault. This week, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan condemned (rightly so) the video in which Mr. Trump bragged about sexual assault in part by saying "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified." In response, my friend Pastor Terry Kyllo said, “The last word (objectified) is certainly appropriate. Women are not objects but human beings. But really the rest of the sentence is quite horrible. First the sentence structure still implies that women are the passive recipients of the actions of others - "women are to be...." Second, the things that women are to have done to them are to be "revered and championed." I would hope that all human beings, made in the image of God, are to be revered. It is telling that women, instead of being of equal power, worth and human agency need to be "championed." While his (Ryan’s) condemnation of Trump's taped comments from 2005 is a good thing, it reveals that he and many other men, and indeed much of our whole society, live in a world of white male privilege. His wording suggests that women have less power and agency than men and that this is the natural order of things. The only difference is that Speaker Ryan's words suggest that men (should) treat women well while still maintaining power over them.”
And this week, I heard more than one man say something like “as a father to two daughters, I condemn this language” or “it is unacceptable to talk this way about our mothers and our wives”. Do you hear the possessive pronouns? Language does matter and to speak like this denies the humanity and dignity of all women. It should not be that we are concerned with glorification of sexual assault because we have a particular relationship with a particular woman. We should be concerned with the way women are treated in both public and private spheres because women are made in the image of God. We, too, bear Christ in our bodies (Galatians 6:17) so that violence against our bodies—made in the image of God—is violence against the One who created us and called us “good” (Genesis 1&2). Women hold inherent value as created by God and called “good”. Women are worthy of respect and voice and the total control of our own bodies—not because a particular man has a particular kind of relationship with us—but because God does. The only one to hold claim over us is God.
Now, the gospel lesson this week is a parable. Jesus is telling truth by shining light through narrative. We are a people of story, after all. And Jesus tells us about a widow and an unjust judge. The widow comes to the judge over and over asking for justice and eventually the judge consents because he has grown weary of her pleas.
One way, perhaps the most common way, to interpret this parable is to focus on the power of prayer. And this is valuable because it is true, prayer is powerful…although to paraphrase C.S. Lewis…not because it changes God but because it changes us. However, the idea that God is an unjust judge or that God will only grant justice if we relentlessly beg for it is repugnant. Over and over and over again in the gospel accounts we learn that that is precisely not the way God functions. God is ever present to the marginalized and the poor. And this widow is certainly both.
Widows in the ancient world were particularly vulnerable. They are listed time and again in the Bible as those who need special protection along with orphans and immigrants. In those days, widows were not allowed to hold property. Her belongings and her wealth—whatever there was of it—was handed to the closest living male relative. If there was no relative, her property was held in state, but we can be sure that those holding it had little to no regard for a widow.
Their culture, too, was one of male dominance. Patriarchy on steroids. Jesus uses a widow in his parable on purpose…she would have things done to her and for her…but Jesus reveals her determination, her power, her agency. The judge grants her justice against her opponent because of her persistence, her courage, her determination.
This widow approaches a judge who, by his own admission, neither fears God nor respects people. Because this phrase is repeated twice in the lesson, we can assume it holds special relevance. I agree with my beloved professor David Lose that this might just be Luke’s shorthand for the definition of justice. “The beginning of justice, according to Jesus, is when we show our awe for God by respecting those around us, by granting them a measure of dignity, by being willing to view them as fellow children of God who are worthy of our respect and fair treatment.”
The widow approaches this judge…a self-admittedly unjust person…and begs him for justice. And by his own admission, the judge’s motivation for settling the woman’s claim is that she is wearing him out. A fair and kind description of her actions and her qualities might be persistent, assertive, strong. But the words we would most likely hear to describe her were she to live today, this week especially, are annoying, bossy, bitch. A more literal translation for the reason behind the judge’s “giving in” to the widow is not that “she is wearing me out” but that the widow “is giving me a black eye”
My professor says, “Like all black eyes, the one the widow's complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress.” The judge is concerned that the widow’s persistence causes him physical harm and public embarrassment. She’s shrill and annoying. She talks too much. The judge relents not because he has changed his mind but to rid himself of potential public humiliation. Who wants a socially weak and outcast woman hanging around demanding things? She is a danger to his reputation. She’s an embarrassment. He relents simply to shut her up.
When we look at the parable this way, it is a tale of encouragement for those of us who are suffering injustice to continue to fight for the in-breaking of the Kingdom here on earth. To fight for justice for ourselves and for our neighbors. It is a reminder that sometimes it takes persistence and assertion and strength to effect change in this world. Sit-ins and boycotts and interstate closures are sometimes necessary to embarrass the powers and principalities that exist in this world in order to bring change. And we will be called annoying, bossy, uppity …fill in your favorite demeaning-to-a-marginalized-community noun here…bitch, fag, savage, n*****.
For Jesus, prayer is an act of human agency in the midst of injustice. For Jesus, true prayer is prayer for justice. So hear the Good News: God is present in our struggles. God is present in our hurt and in our suffering. God meets us there with empathy because God knows intimately what it means to be human, to be outcast, called names, despised, and rejected. God lives in the margins. God is queer. God is Black. God is Native. And this week especially, God is a woman.