Changing the Narrative

We are confronted with a difficult Gospel reading today. The Sadducees challenge Jesus on a question of how far marital authority extends under the law. Jesus points out to the Sadducees, and to us, how little we understand about the resurrection, if we think that the power structures we live under today will continue. Using the example handed to him, the example of a woman given in marriage to seven brothers, Jesus shows us the value God places on each one of us, our bodies as well as our souls – even those of us who are devalued or oppressed in our society. 

There is a long history of viewing women’s bodies as expendable. For millennia, the authority to determine what happens with a woman’s body has rested with men. When a woman could marry, who she could marry, how well-educated she could be, whether or when she got pregnant and what happened once she did, when she could be set aside, what sort of work she could do. All of these things – essentially, every aspect governing a woman’s life – was something men have had the authority to determine. 

Take our Gospel reading for today. The Sadducees tell Jesus a story of a woman who is married to a man who dies, leaving her childless. She is married to his brother, and the next brother, and on down the line, seven in all – all leaving her childless. The question the Sadducees seem to be concerned with is, who will she belong to in the resurrection? In other words, who will have authority over her?

This question is not out of left field. The whole twentieth chapter of Luke is concerned with the question of authority. In the early part of the chapter, the chief priests and the scribes are questioning Jesus’ authority to preach the good news. He denies that they have the authority to demand an answer to their question. They start spying on Jesus, pretending to be honest while looking for an opportunity to arrest him and hand him over to the government – an authority that they must have figured he would have to respect. 

Then, along come the Sadducees. Again, there is a question of authority. The Sadducees were essentially the noble class of Israel; they had the authority of their position, as well as the authority of the Temple. And they spoke from a place of authority. The practice of Levirate marriage, in which a childless widow marries the brother of her late husband so that she can bear sons, was a well-established practice under the law of Moses. The purpose, at least in theory, was so that widows who had no other source of income or support beyond their husbands and children would be supported. In practice, it didn’t always work this way. The story of Tamar in Genesis 38 is a prime example.

Tamar was widowed when she was childless. She was married to her husband’s brother, who was careful not to impregnate her, and eventually died. Her father-in-law did not want to marry her to his youngest son, having lost two sons already. She was left without hope, resources, or a future, until she tricked her father-in-law into providing for her.

What we see, over and over again in our world, is the reality that whoever controls the narrative holds the authority. Whoever has the power to get the most people to listen is able to control the narrative. 

And for the most part, in public discourse governing women’s bodies, the power resides with men. And they keep this power by talking in hypotheticals. Instead of talking about a specific woman in a specific circumstance, the conversation is broadened to encompass all women who may ever hypothetically be in that situation. It changes the narrative, and allows the person speaking in hypotheticals to try to claim the moral high ground, direct the conversation, and retain the power.

We see this in the debate that continues to rage over abortion, where the legislatures and courts that are making the legal decisions are made up mostly of men, debating the question of what women can do with their bodies without appearing to take into consideration actual practices or trends, painting a picture of a woman who has an abortion that may not be accurate. 

We see this in family leave policies, which frequently grant women maternity leave but seldom grant paternity leave to men, leaving families no choice about who will stay home with the baby, once the woman heals from childbirth, and not taking into consideration what the family’s preferences are or who the primary breadwinner might be. 

We see this when we judge women who choose to to be stay-at home moms and women who choose to be working moms, even though we don’t judge men who make similar decisions. 

And we see this – perhaps most dangerously of all – when we see women who are victims of violence, and blame the violence on them: “Why doesn’t she leave him?” “She shouldn’t have been dressed like that.” “If she hadn’t been drinking, she never would have put herself in that situation.” We do this, rather than blaming the violence on their abusers.The woman becomes the object – the thing on which actions are taken and the thing about which judgments are made. For women, the power to create our own narrative is diminished.

Consider when allegations are made against a powerful man – whether that man is Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Epstein or Bill Cosby. Until there is an overwhelming body of evidence against him (and sometimes not even then), our default societal position is that the woman must be lying, because she has something to gain – money, or notoriety, or a platform. Until recently, we have not considered as a society how power and authority emboldens men to be abusers, or how to tip the scales toward justice.

Most men are not violent towards women. In fact, most men condemn violence towards women. Many men even speak out against it. But I think many men are unaware of the narrative that places the power over what happens to women’s bodies in the hands of men.

If you read the story of Tamar in Genesis 38, you’ll discover that her father-in-law believed he had the right to determine what happened to Tamar’s body, leaving her in poverty and in limbo, until he was confronted with the truth. And the Sadducees hold a similar position – that it was their right to make decisions governing their women, because they held that authority.

When I read this passage in preparation for this sermon, the first thing I noticed is that the Sadducees did not give the woman a voice. If the law – the authority of God, upheld by men such as themselves – dictated who she would be married to during her lifetime, perhaps they thought that the same law – the same authority of God – would dictate who she would be married to in the resurrection. They assumed that she would be married to someone, but it did not occur to them that she should have any say in the matter at all. As it was in life, the choices governing what happened to her body would continue to belong to someone else. 

But Jesus’ reply is very much in keeping with how he has answered other questions of authority in this chapter and throughout Luke’s Gospel. He tells them they’re asking the wrong question. He denies their authority to speak in the hypothetical, and insists on talking specifics. He says that in the resurrection, people do not marry and are not given in marriage: the men do not take wives, and the women are not given as wives. In other words, in the resurrection, women are no longer chattel. Their bodies matter. It will not be up to the authority of men to determine what happens to them. 

And Jesus continues to be specific, reminding the Sadducees that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he points out that it was to Moses that God first claimed this name. God does not claim merely to be the God of those who are alive currently; God actively identifies Godself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, saying in effect, “Because I am still their God, they are alive in the resurrection.” The point Jesus is making is this: because God is the God of the living, and because God is still the God of those who have gone before, there is a resurrection – and those who have gone before are alive in the resurrection.But, Jesus says, the resurrection does not mean what you think it means. It is not merely a continuation of life here on earth! In the resurrection, the power and authority of this world will be subverted. 

Think back to the sermon on the plain that Jesus preached early in his ministry: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven….” This is the same word of hope that Jesus has preached to those who are oppressed, dehumanized, or subjugated by the power and authority of the world. The narrative is changing. The powers and authorities of this world, who cling so tightly to their authority by controlling the narrative, lose their grip in the Kingdom. The power to define others’ places in society by speaking in the hypothetical is lost; in the Kingdom, God demands that we speak in specifics. That we recognize that each of us has the authority to determine what happens with our bodies.

The writer of 2 Thessalonians addresses this same issue from a different direction. He reminds the people of Thessalonica that the power that the devil holds in the world is the power to control the narrative, clutching at authority that has not been granted to set himself up on the throne of God. And the devil is clever, co-opting the authority structures already in place in our world, and distracting us from the specific people in front of us, with hypotheticals and made-up situations. But the writer reminds the Thessalonians that they are Kingdom people, called and strengthened by Jesus so that they stand firm, not distracted by the devil into hypothetical narratives and the power structures of our world.

We are also called to be Kingdom people, to live as if the Kingdom were already here. We are called to not be distracted by the hypothetical narratives that uphold the power and authority in our world; instead, we are called to recognize and name the specificity of the people in front of us. We are called to recognize that in the Kingdom, there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage; neither dominance nor subjugation of women, or of any other group of people that is traditionally without power, objectified into submission by refusal to treat them as having authority over their own bodies. Instead, we are called to recognize that in God’s Kingdom, bodies matter, even – or perhaps especially – those bodies that do not matter in our world. All the resurrected people of God have the authority to live into the narrative God wants them to have, without fear or privilege. And we are called to live as if that is already our reality on earth.

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