What does it mean to be silenced?
The Gospel of Luke, from which we read about the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, includes more stories about women than any other gospel. Luke tells us the stories of Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and sisters Mary and Martha. There is the woman who searches for a lost coin, the widow of Nain, a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her own hair, and the women of Jerusalem who lament as Jesus makes his way to the cross.
In Acts, also by Luke, we hear about women disciples in the upper room and Sapphira, Tabitha, Lydia, Damaris, Priscilla, and Philip’s four daughters--who were all prophets.
By including so many of these stories of women, Luke, it seems, is the most woman-friendly of the four gospel writers.
Not so, says Scripture scholar Barbara Reid, a Dominican sister, and the person who taught me everything that ever stuck with me about the Bible. She says that in Luke’s gospel, “women are beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry, and engage in charitable works, but are seen to have ‘chosen the better part’ when they remain silent and receptive.”
“Choosing the Better Part?” is in fact the name of Reid’s book on the Gospel of Luke. It’s a reference to what Jesus tells Mary when she chooses to sit at his knees to listen to him, while her sister chooses the harried work of hosting their guests.
Reid says that as readers and hearers--and preachers--of Scripture, in order to get at the good news of Luke’s gospel, we also have to choose the better part, and approach Luke with a careful eye toward what is actually happening to the women in the stories he tells. And from the Women’s Bible Commentary: “Once the negative side of this ambivalent tradition is recognized and worked with, the reader is freed in relation to the text. What is positive and promising in Luke's gospel can be explored with enthusiasm and even respect."
So with that in mind, I’d like to consider Anna in today’s gospel reading.
Luke gives us an elevator introduction to Anna. Right away, we learn that she is a prophet and the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. She’s old, a woman “of great age,” and was only married to her husband for 7 years before she was widowed. She’s devout. She spends her days and nights praying and fasting in the Temple.
Details matter when telling a story. And Luke, a masterful storyteller, chooses his details wisely in order to make a point. He gives Anna a lineage that references one of the dispersed or “lost” tribes of Israel. As a widow, she’s a woman of special status. And she practically lives in the Temple where she meets the child Jesus.
These details all help to make Luke’s case for who Jesus is: the Lord’s messiah, who Simeon was promised to see before his life ended. The child Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promise to all of Israel. Jesus is what God’s people had been hoping for.
Anna’s presence in the temple and acknowledgement of the child Jesus is essential to this story.
As I read and reflected on the Presentation this week, I found myself thinking a lot about silence.
I know that many of us are able experience God in silence, particularly the introverts among us, myself included. When I am able to sit in a quiet, peaceful space and turn down the internal monologue that has a tendency to drone on and on, I am more able to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and notice the presence of God. In silence, I feel a little more like Mary, sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus, choosing the better part, rather than occupying myself with the to do items of my harried schedule.
But Anna was not silent when she saw Mary and Joseph bring their firstborn into the Temple. Luke tells us, “At that moment, she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
But while we are graced with the beautiful song of Simeon when he sees the child Jesus, Luke only tells us that Anna spoke, not what she spoke. He even gives Simeon an audience--Mary and Joseph--who react in amazement at what Simeon has to say. Luke doesn’t tell us how anyone responds to Anna.
Anna is not silent. Anna is silenced.
What does it mean to be silenced?
A particular story comes to mind. 156 stories actually. That’s how many women testified in front of Judge Rosemary Aquilina about the abuses they’d suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the USA women’s gymnastics team doctor.
Judge Aquilina might have a thing or two to say to Luke about the importance of allowing women to use their own words.
World-class competitive athletes, celebrated not simply in the United States, but on the world stage, as they competed in championships across the globe. My whole life, the members of the women’s Olympic gymnastics team have been household names for me and my family.
Like the prophet Anna to the Jews, these women are recognizable, celebrated. And like Anna, these women were silenced.
That is, until Judge Aquilina, in an act of what one Atlantic article called “transformative justice,” gave these powerful young women an opportunity to testify. And testify they did. One by one, for four days. All 156 of them.
“You are so strong and brave and you are not broken,” the judge said. “Your voice means everything.”
“Leave your pain here,” she said. “Go out and do your magnificent things.”
It is hard not to think of Judge Aquilina as a prophet herself. Her transformative justice offered these women a promise of hope.
But why had Larry Nassar been able to go on abusing so many women for so long, so many of us, having finally heard these stories, want to know. Why, for every 1,000 instances of rape are only 13 referred to a prosecutor? Why is sexual assault the least reported crime to law enforcement, with only about a quarter of crimes brought to the police?
Friends, I think that we have a lot of reflecting to do on who we, as a church, have silenced. In our theology, in our sacred Scripture, in our traditions, whose stories have we suppressed? Whose words have we ignored? What are the long-term repercussions of keeping some members of the Body of Christ on the margins because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or ability?
And what do we do with Luke, as a denomination that acknowledges how God welcomes everybody, everybody, everybody to the banquet? As a denomination that has said officially that women should not be silenced in church? That public ministry belongs to everyone?
There’s a little irony to Luke’s marginalization of women’s gifts. Because Luke writes for a Gentile, not Jewish, audience. His message is universalist: that the messiah has come as a fulfillment of a promise to the Jews, but that Jesus is also for the Gentiles. Simeon sings: “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
So while Luke’s is the most inclusive of the gospels, he is far from egalitarian.
Is this oversight of Luke’s something we can brush off as a thing of the past, as Luke simply writing as a Greco-Roman to a Greco-Roman audience, and thus espousing those social norms for women and men?
I think that’s a tricky, even dangerous endeavor. Because while in some respects, it’s true. But it also is an easy way to dismiss our own current reality, to ignore the fact that we continue to swim in water that is not so unlike Luke’s world and that people continue to be silenced for their gender--and their race, their sexual orientation, their age, their ability.
I believe that reading Luke with an eye toward women is an opportunity. Luke, after all, is the gospel that we rely on heavily to learn what Jesus has to say about economic justice in the reign of God. Luke writes of God’s promise, not just to his Greco-Roman audience, but to us as well. Luke’s gospel begins with the story of the incarnation and ends with Jesus’ ascension. Luke tells us of Jesus’ ministry on earth, of his message and miracles, and how his preaching of the reign of God ultimately led to his suffering and death on the cross--a sentence meant to silence Jesus.
But Jesus, being the fulfillment of God’s promise of hope, of God’s promise of liberation and flourishing, was resurrected. In Jesus’ resurrection, we hear a resounding “NO” from God to the silence of death.
So, while Luke may have silenced the women in his telling of our Christian story, he offers us an opportunity to think outside of the water we swim in today. He gives us reason to imagine what the reign of God might look like here and now. He shows us how we might consider our own societal norms and ask, “Who is being marginalized? Who is being silenced? Who aren’t we hearing from?”
When we openly acknowledge the place of women in our church’s sacred stories--whether they have been suppressed or celebrated--we have the opportunity to truly allow the good news of Jesus Christ to liberate the silenced among us so they may join fully and sing loudly in our songs of prophecy and praise.