“No lyric has ever stopped a tank.” That’s a line from the poet Seamus Heaney. That’s what he said about the efficacy of poetry. “No lyric ever stopped a tank.” And that’s how I’m feeling about our sermon series over the past month, as we pay attention to these passages we usually don’t hear during worship, these parts of Scripture that typically don’t show up in our lectionaries, all of this as part of our attempt to expose the knee-jerk sexism we’ve inherited in the church, the way patriarchy has become part of our imagination, when it comes to thinking about God, and singing about God, and praying to God.
No lyric has ever stopped a tank. No sermon has ever ended patriarchy, especially a sermon delivered by a man.
But here we are, trying again, with some words about a few Scriptures—an invitation to live into new possibilities, a call for change. Because we are in need of reformation, we are in church always in need of reformation, to be renewed and restored. To be healed from the sexism that has plagued the church, that plagues our society, that infects our lives, our relationships.
In her sermon last week, in one part Martha talked about the Gospel of John as bearing witness to the initial priority of women in the movement that became the church—that women, throughout the gospel, were the leaders while the male disciples bumbled around. Please correct me if I misheard or am misremembering here.
She pointed out that part of what’s going on is that John’s Gospel echoes with the voice of Sophia, with this Jewish voice of woman wisdom, a tradition within our Bible that we find in Proverbs 8, as we heard last week, and in later Scriptures like Wisdom of Solomon that we heard two weeks ago, and now from the book of Sirach this week. “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,” Wisdom says. “I sought a resting place; a territory I might lodge.” You can hear a resonance here with the beginning of John’s Gospel, where the Word was in the beginning with God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.
There’s more I could say about this passage from the book of Sirach, about how it fits in some Bibles and isn’t included in others. It’s a similar story to what I said a couple weeks ago about the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, about how Protestant publishers these days follow Martin Luther’s decisions about which books to include in the Bible, and about how the early Anabaptists thought included the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach in their preaching and teaching, just like other biblical books. That’s a recap of what I said a couple weeks ago, in brief.
This week, I thought we could turn to a couple other places in the Gospels where we can hear this figure of Woman Wisdom, of Sophia, present in the life of Jesus. In our readings just now we heard two different versions of the same scene—one from the perspective of Luke, the other from Matthew. There have been lots of arguments since forever about who wrote their Gospel first, Matthew or Luke. It’s hard to tell which author borrows from the other, as they tell the story of Jesus in their context, for their own community. What’s the same in both versions of the passage we just heard is that Jesus identifies himself as this woman wisdom, Sophia is the word here in Greek. Actually, the word occurs with the definite article, the Sophia—which our translations ignore. Jesus is not talking in generalities here about wisdom; instead he’s referring to something, someone in particular, a persona, an identity.
“Wisdom, Sophia, is vindicated by her deeds.” That’s the verse from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus refers to himself as a her. You probably heard the slight difference in Luke’s version. “Wisdom, Sophia, is vindicated by her children.” Jesus here in Luke’s Gospel identifies himself as a mother, Sophia as mother, with his followers, with her disciples, as children—with Jesus as the one who adopts people into a new community, her family. In a single verse, Jesus switches back and forth between pronouns, between gender identities—he’s the Son of Man and she is Sophia. He is she and she’s he, in one verse, in one breath.
This is the same for both Matthew and Luke. The only difference is that Matthew has Jesus vindicated by her deeds, where Luke has Jesus vindicated by her children.
This difference, I think, makes sense for Luke’s version of the story of Jesus, because that Jesus is all about the redefinition of the family. That’s my way of putting it, but Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is a bit more antagonistic against the biological family, against the family unit and family relations. For example, this is what he sounds like in chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Those are harsh words against the family.
For those of us who grew up with Dr Dobson, this Jesus of Luke’s Gospel doesn’t jive with a faith that focuses on the family. Jesus rejects the biological family in order to form an adoptive family, a new way of being together. There’s a scene in Luke’s Gospel where a messenger lets Jesus know that his mother and brothers are waiting to talk with him outside. Jesus ignores them and responds by saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel becomes the mother of a movement—or, maybe a better way to say it would be that Sophia becomes a mother of a movement, adopting all of us as children into a new community, all of us as siblings.
The Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel isn’t as focused against the family as Luke’s Jesus is. That’s why I think we have what we have in Matthew 11:19, where Jesus isn’t a mother—she’s a worker of righteousness, a builder. “Wisdom, Sophia, is vindicated by her deeds.”—not by children, but by her deeds. Jesus lives out the life of Sophia, this diligent and creative persona, this figure who was the visionary of the world, the architect of creation. “Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked the depths of the abyss.” That’s Sophia speaking in our passage from Sirach. In our passage from Proverbs last week, Sophia is called a master worker, with God from the beginning (Prov 8:30).
A challenge I heard in Martha’s sermon last week was that our language about God is important but changing our words won’t necessarily change the world. Patriarchy is a reality that has spent centuries of accumulating power, setting the terms of our relationships at home and work, and here in the church. Patriarchy has been structured into the world we live in, the world that lives through us.
Jesus was born into this world—a different version of it, but similar nonetheless. And he found ways to betray it. That’s part of what I hear in these two passages from the Gospels—Jesus’s refusal to play by the gender rules of his time, his refusal of the gender roles of his society. He identifies as Woman wisdom, even referring to himself with a feminine pronoun.
Jesus is a gender nonconformist—the Son of Man who is the Sophia of God. And he lives this out throughout his ministry, as an example, an invitation, as inspiration for our own attempts to break with unhelpful categories for our lives that we’ve inherited.
For the early church, in those first few centuries after Jesus, the greatest challenge the life of Jesus posed to society, to his people, in terms of gender, was his singleness, his refusal to marry, which involved his refusal to participate in the patriarchal structures of society, a society where women were the possessions of men, passed from the father’s household to the husband’s. His singleness made him a misfit, which is why so many misfit became part of his movement—a community of misfits, transgressors of social roles and gender rules.
In those early years of the church, singleness was the normal way to be Christian, as people followed in the way of Jesus, living out his gender nonconformist posture in the world. But the church has always been gracious, so if someone got married, they weren’t kicked out, which those of us who are married should be grateful about. The community made room for married couples, even though it was clear that such things were contrary to the example of Jesus.Marriage was tolerated, but not preferred.
In the late fourth century, around 390 AD, a man named Jovinian started teaching that married and non-married people were spiritually equal in the church. He offered this vision as an innovation. Singleness should not be seen as better than marriage, he said. Church leaders thought this new teaching was such a threat to the witness of Jesus that they ruled it a heresy. His teaching was condemned as heresy—just think about what a different world that was from ours, that the church ruled that Jovinian was leading the church astray by saying singleness and marriage were equal ways of following Jesus.
In terms of the church’s official teaching, what was normal for Western Christianity for centuries, for sixteen centuries, was the singleness of Jesus as an example for all to follow. It was only in the late 1600s that we see a drastic shift, after the European Reformations. In England, for example, the household became “a little church”—that’s the language that becomes popular in the late seventeenth century: the household as a little church, the central place of God’s work in the world, the family unit as the building block of the church and society. Monasteries and convents, communities of single people, were banished. Marriage became the normal way to be Christian. The pastor had to be a good family man. The family bible was invented, for the Christian home. This is the Christian world we live in now. If you take the long view of history, it’s strange that marriage is so normal for Christians now.
I’m not saying that those of us who have chosen to get married have made the wrong decision. I don’t think going back to those early years of the church would be better than what we’ve got now, in terms of sexism in the life of the church and society. The world changes, and that’s fine. Every era of history has it’s own set of problems and possibilities.
But what I do think that, if we talk about Jesus as a guide for how we navigate our gendered existence, then we have to worry when it feels like our church turns marriage into the normal way for living out our faith. Jesus refused the gendered role his society expected of him in order to invite a new community, where people became children of God together, each as sibling to the other.
To talk about gender in the church, in light of these Scriptures, should do something to our images of God, and this conversation should do something for the gendered categories we impose on one another, which has everything to do with taking a serious look at ourselves, as a community, in terms of how we reinforce cultural expectations that aren’t necessarily good for everyone.
To pay attention to the singleness of Jesus, to follow him through the Gospel stories as he lives out his gender nonconformism, her identity as the Sophia of God, works on us like that line from Seamus Heaney. “No lyric has ever stopped a tank.” It’s not like I’ve given you, given us, the answer to the problem. The singleness of Jesus isn’t the solution to patriarchy, as if to be single is to be free from the experience of sexism.
But I think these stories about Jesus do to us what Seamus Heaney says after his line about the impossibility of stopping a tank with words. Heaney says this: “No lyric has ever stopped a tank.” Instead, a poem “is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.”
What we have in this Jesus is the one who leaves us speechless and somehow renewed, renewed for the gospel, for a world where all of us can be whole, where all of us experience the love of God, the affirmation of the Spirit found in the care of our siblings.