Acts 3:1-10; Luke 7:11-17

2nd Sunday before Lent

St Barbara’s 24.02.19

Rev Tulo Raistrick

When I go out running, I like to listen to podcasts I’ve downloaded onto my phone. I listen mainly to distract myself from the discomfort I’m feeling in my aching limbs. Recently, I listened to two podcasts that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable in another way. One was a history podcast about the film “The Favourite”. The panel of experts discussing the film were all women and they were delighting in the fact that a historical film had been made which, though they differed in the degree of historical accuracy they thought the film had, had placed women at the very centre of the drama, as the people of power. The other podcast was a Radio 4 comedy panel show where all four comedians were women, and the jokes they were making felt mainly at the expense of men.  As a man I was left feeling uncomfortable, disempowered even, wanting to fight back. “How could they be saying such things about me?”

It put me in touch with emotions I had experienced 25 years earlier, living as a white man within the black community in apartheid South Africa. There I had come to accept that though I had not chosen to be white, I was still party to the benefits of being white in such a culture, and that actually I needed to listen and humbly accept the criticisms that came from my black friends. I wanted to insist on my voice being heard, of my argument winning the day, but I came, painfully, to realise that after centuries of white oppression of black people, the least I could do was to not insist on having the final word, even if that left me feeling frustrated and disempowered at times.

For many of us men, the rise of the Me Too movement and other similar movements has left us feeling a little bit uncomfortable. What we may have thought was an equal playing field turns out to have been perceived as anything but. That unconscious bias as well as outright sexism and discrimination, has left many women feeling the tables have been tipped against them for centuries. Thankfully, if slowly, things seem like they are beginning to change. If only we had listened to the message of Luke’s gospel, we may have got there sooner.

For Luke’s gospel provides us with a message of the equal value and importance of women, remarkable for its time. Jesus lived in a culture where in morning prayer a man would thank God that he had not been made “a Gentile (a religious outcast), a slave (the poorest of the poor) or a woman.”  And yet throughout Luke’s gospel we find women being used powerfully by God, being examples of faith, being seen as central characters in the work of salvation, not as bit-part extras on the edges.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is based on Mary’s perspective – she seems to be his main source for these events. The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is given prominence, and it is Mary’s song, the Magnificat, that illuminates and electrifies the whole of the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. We hear not just Simeon in the Temple prophesying over the baby Jesus, but the prophetess Anna, a lady of great wisdom and prayerfulness.

Luke tells us that in addition to the twelve disciples, there were women disciples too. He names them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others. It was these women who supported the Twelve financially. The Twelve were dependent on them. Without them, Jesus’ ministry would have looked very different. And these women travelled round with his other disciples, something that was seen as shocking in the culture of his day. Jesus was close friends with women as well as men. He stayed at the house of Martha and Mary and clearly valued their company and their conversation.

We hear of Jesus healing numerous women – of the woman  who had been bleeding for 12 years, of Jairus’ daughter, of the woman who had been crippled for 18 years. These are not people who are mere after-thoughts, once he has healed more important folk. These are the very focus of his ministry.

Jesus has particular concern for widows, not only because of their emotional loss, but because of their financial vulnerability, in a world where property and wealth resided with the man. We see this most movingly in today’s Gospel reading, where we are told Jesus’ heart “went out” to the widow of Nain who had just lost her only son. We see it too in the stories he told. In both the story of the persistent widow who will not stop persevering in putting her case until the judge will hear her, and in the poor widow whose tiny gift at the temple is worth more than the offering of the rich, he speaks and commends faith in those who are seen to have least.

On the way to the crucifixion, Jesus reaches out to the women he sees along the way, and speaks specifically to them. And it is the women disciples, not the men, who have the courage to gather at the cross to witness his death, and it is the women, not the men, who Luke records as first witnessing to and believing in the resurrection.

In other words, any attempt to suggest that women are less than men, or should be subservient, or be treated or heard with less value is total anathema to the Jesus of Luke’s gospel. It is a message that has taken far too long to be embraced by the church and our wider society.

It is not just women that we find Jesus in Luke’s gospel reaching out to. It is those who are poor and destitute too. We have already seen his concern for widows, who through circumstance, were some of the poorest and most vulnerable people of the time.

Jesus himself experienced poverty. He was born into a poor family – they could only offer the sacrifice of two pigeons in the Temple, the cheapest of offerings – and he was buried in a borrowed tomb. His mission was to preach good news to the poor, as he stated in the synagogue in Nazareth. And when John’s disciples came to ask him whether he was the real Messiah, he answered that the proof was that he was preaching good news to the poor.

His parables affirmed the value of the poor, and regularly he compared the depth of their faith with the poverty of faith of the rich. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, for example, it is the poor Lazarus who is held up as the model of faith, while the rich man suffers for his lack of generosity.

In a radical reversal of most contemporary thinking, Jesus encouraged the rich to give away their wealth. Wealth was only a way of blessing others; not of being blessed oneself. The rich young ruler is urged to give away his wealth before following Jesus. Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed by the love of Jesus he gives away half his wealth to the poor voluntarily. And we see that concern continuing in the early church, caring for beggars, like Peter and John in our New Testament reading.

In other words, throughout Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus commending the poor, championing their cause, identifying with them. Not focusing on the powerful, the movers and shakers, the influential, but instead spending his time with those who were seen to matter least.

There is a real challenge for us too. Who do we value? Who do we see as important? Are we willing to use the money and resources God has given us to help others? Are we willing to give of our time to reach out to those who are on the margins, those who we find easier to ignore. What may God be calling us to do? You may want to speak to Bernardo about what help you can give the Winter Night Shelter and the homeless in our city. Or to Jessica and the Good Neighbours project about connecting with the isolated housebound in our community. Next month we will be announcing the various charities and organisations we will be supporting this year as a church – maybe you will want to get more involved in one of them. And at a time when more and more politicians are acknowledging that our system of politics is broken, maybe God is calling some here to get involved to start fixing it, to work for the poor.

Luke’s picture of the life of Jesus was radical 2,000 years ago, and it remains so today. Jesus valued all people – women as well as men, poor as well as rich. If you are someone who has felt marginalised, under-valued, disregarded because of who you are, read Luke’s gospel and know that Jesus turned all that on its head. He welcomes you, he loves you, he knows your worth. And if you are someone who has perhaps treated others as less – because of gender, because of education, because of wealth or class, because of age – allow the Jesus of Luke’s gospel to show you a different way, the way of transforming and liberating love.