Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Because our study of the gospel of Luke this year has been more of a survey than a deep dive, we’ve been considering whole categories of people for whom the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims is particularly good news. Today’s category is the biggest yet. In fact, it represents half the human race.
Admittedly it’s a little absurd to devote just one Sunday to women in the gospel of Luke. So, let’s name that absurdity right up front. My mom would have teased me about a sermon like this. We were always equal parts amused and horrified when we remembered the story of my high school English teacher, so proud of himself for inviting her, an English lit professor, to speak to us about women authors. She could even use a whole 40-minute class period if she chose.
Believe me, she chose. In fact she chose to make abundantly clear to my classmates – and my teacher – that even if she were simply to list names for the entire 40 minutes, she’d not be able to cover all the authors they should know. She was also quite direct, as I recall, in explaining she’d accepted the invitation to speak not because she could do those authors justice, but because they were so clearly being left out of the rest of his curriculum. Mom was one of a number of scholars rediscovering women authors of the English Renaissance at the time and that alone was more than enough work for a 40-year career.
But if she were to rib me a little bit about designating a single sermon to address how much good news there is for women in Luke’s gospel, here’s what we’d both know about why it’s still important: it could so easily have been otherwise.
In the historical & cultural setting in which Jesus lived, women were simply not valued as highly as men. They were generally unable to inherit property. They could be divorced easily, cast out without a home for no reason if their husband so chose. Being widowed, and particularly being widowed without an adult son, often brought poverty as well, for women generally could not earn an income on their own. In that context, for a widow to be passed from man to man as the wife of one brother after another in the same family was considered not only acceptable but helpful; it ensured she could feed herself and her children. As distasteful as the practice sounds to us, there were few alternatives at the time. Women in Jesus’ day were second class citizens at best.
In such a context, for Jesus to be known as a dear friend to two sisters named Mary and Martha, and to be invited into a home identified as belonging to Martha (not to her father or brother or husband) is noteworthy (Luke 10:38-42). In such a context, for Luke to devote as much ink as he does to Jesus’ healing a hemorrhaging woman and a terminally ill 12-year-old girl is a really big deal (Luke 8:40-56). In such a context, to read about women like Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and others providing for Jesus and his male disciples out of their own resources, is nothing short of remarkable. (Luke 8:1-3)
And these stories Cheri read for us today are far from the only times when women’s stories are highlighted in Luke. In chapter 1, before John the Baptist’s father Zechariah is allowed his major speaking part, his wife Elizabeth and her cousin Mary speak up and sing out. In chapter 2, the prophet Anna is mentioned right along with Simeon as being present in the temple when the baby Jesus is presented; Anna immediately begins praising God and speaking publicly about the child. (Luke 2:38) Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is one of the first people to be healed by Jesus, according to Luke (Luke 4:38-39) Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead in chapter 7 – remember how serious was the plight of widows without sons – and he heals a crippled woman in chapter 13. And we already noted last week his indictment of rich people putting their gifts into the temple treasury – a tiny fraction of what they possess – while another impoverished widow contributes all she has to live on (Luke 21:1-4). Jesus receives with compassion and appreciation the scandalous attention of a woman bathing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with a costly ointment, and he offers her forgiveness for her sins (Luke 7:36-50) It was women who prepared spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body for burial (Luke 23:55-56). And in what could be argued is the single most important chapter in the entire gospel, the story of Jesus’ resurrection in chapter 24, three named women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James – are the first to hear and share the good news of Easter.
Jesus even uses women’s lives as illustrations in his parables. Like the one I told the children today about the woman with the lost coin who turns her whole house upside down to find it (Luke 15:8-10). And the parable of the kingdom of God that features a woman taking yeast and mixing it with flour to demonstrate growth (Luke 13:20-21). And the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, a reminder “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8).
If we’re not particularly surprised or impressed by any of this…If it seems obvious that women would be included in everything from Jesus’ travel itinerary to his teaching stories to his healing miracles…If we expect women to feature prominently in the most important events of his birth, death, and resurrection, remember it’s in large part our own historical-cultural context that leads us to expect these things. It could have been otherwise.
But like the shepherd making sure to gather in the lost sheep, like the householder making sure to locate every single coin, Jesus makes clear that without these women, God’s kingdom would be incomplete. And thank goodness gospel writer Luke understood that representation matters in storytelling too. He could have blamed a lack of parchment space and edited things down and not worried about including quite so many female characters in his book even if Jesus did make them a priority. But Luke’s story would have been poorer for it. Instead, as we’ve seen throughout his gospel, he focuses precisely on those his readers might have been tempted to omit.
Those others might have erased from their narratives, Luke highlights. He might as well have peppered his gospel with hashtags to showcase the importance to Jesus of those too often overlooked, undervalued, or oppressed by others. #Poor Lives Matter. #Samaritan Lives Matter. #Lepers’ Lives Matter. And in all of the texts we read today and more: #Women’s Lives Matter. In a context in which this would not normally have been the case, Luke makes sure we notice how often Jesus made them the focus of his attention.
It makes me wonder whose lives Jesus would center if he were walking around among us now, and which of those stories Luke would showcase in a modern-day sequel to his gospel. In keeping with the many ways Jesus subverted society’s expectations of who mattered most, where would he spend his time today?
At the very least in a context where white lives are too often privileged simply for being white, it should be abundantly clear that Black Lives Matter to Jesus, along with Latinx lives and Asian lives and Indigenous Lives. And where wealth and political power draw outsized attention and those with limited access to either can too easily be ignored, devalued, even abused, it should also be clear, for instance, that refugee lives matter to Jesus, as do both documented and undocumented immigrant lives, and prisoners’ lives, and the lives of those suffering from homelessness and chronic food insecurity. And in a world where straight lives are the norm against which others are judged, let’s be clear that LGTBQ lives matter to Jesus too.
Without any one of them, any one of you, any one of us, something is missing. Every sheep, every coin, every child of God is needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
Meanwhile for whom did today’s texts remind us the good news Jesus proclaimed was especially welcome? For those whose gender had been used to push them down or hold them back - for souls like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” (Luke 8:2-3). Luke’s gospel makes clear just how important they were to Jesus.
And if that was already obvious to you before I began this sermon, Mom and I both say: thank God for that! For it could have been otherwise.