Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman who remarried anyway. After her first husband issued a certificate of divorce according to the law of Moses, she was left with nothing, a virtual widow, the power she once held loosely as the manager of their household with their children and their slaves now gone. As a woman in first century Palestine, her economic power resided in relationship to men, first her father, then her husband. Without one she was nothing economically. Without a second marriage she would have to resort to some indentured servitude of her own. Yet she does not feel like an adulteress. In fact, she feels joy. With all she learned from her first go at managing a household, with all she spent those years wishing for, she is thankful for the special grace of a second chances. She is perplexed at the peculiar words of the teacher on the hill. She makes a mental note to share her side of the story with him after his sermon is done. She is resolute on living her life as a blessing, regardless.
Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman who walks through the market square each day with the eyes of every man in town hot upon her back as she passes. She can hear their jeers and whispers each time she walks by. She is beautiful with God’s beauty, but instead of feeling joy about that beauty she has only ever felt shame. She feels shame because of the way her mother, wishing to rid her of any trace of pride, used to deride her physical appearance as a child. She feels shame because of the way others treat her, the way they look at her. As the teacher teaches on the hill she hears the story of her very own life; and as she hears her experience told out loud in the broad light of day, she watches the men around her. At one point, one of them casts his eyes to the ground, and for the first time she recognizes in a man the same shame that she has felt all her whole life long. In her compassion for him, she begins to feel something like relief.
Somewhere in the crowd on the hill listening to Jesus is a woman whose heart simmers with quiet rage. She has not spoken with her sister in years. The two of them were inseparable growing up, playing behind their mother’s house in afternoon hours when chores were done and supper not yet ready. In their late teens, when they were both mothering households of their own, they shared livestock between them. It only took a pair of missing hens for misunderstanding to grow between them. The argument which followed felt so uncharacteristic of their sisterhood at first, yet soon it bloomed with a rush of previously unheard of and unaddressed hurt feelings. The fighting grew so intense that they probably would have taken it all the way to a judge -if there had been a judge around willing to listen to a dispute between two women. Without judiciary recourse or closure the dispute lingered for years between them in toxic silence. As the teacher speaks, she begins to imagine what it would look like to step beyond the law and seek reconciliation for herself. She scans the crowd to see if her sister is there, too.
Somewhere in a church, in this city, listening today to stories handed down by centuries of believers, is a woman who grew up as a girl only hearing stories about boys. She has listened to men preach on stories about men written by men, she has been instructed in the ways of obedience, silent suffering, and self-annihilating service. She has remained in a marriage that stopped working long before it even began because she felt it was her God-given duty to do so. By grace, she will have a friend who finally sounds the alarm of resistance; by grace she will find a teacher, even if that teacher is a still small voice in the back of her head which has been silent all this time, at long last awoken by the ring of truth.
Before each of these four women, and before each of us, God sets a choice -just as God did before God’s people in Deuteronomy- between life and prosperity, or death and adversity. We know that life itself does not always come from the laws we have maintained or from the teachings we have inherited. We know this if we have ever found ourselves pushed up against a norm or expectation or requirement which simply doesn’t fit the pattern of what we know to be true in our lived experience. We know this if we have ever fought to change a law to more accurately reflect the justice we seek for ourselves and others, we know this if we have ever questioned a teacher’s words. We know this, and yet it can be so hard to listen to the still small voice of truth beneath the din of voices preaching doubt, and death, and fear, and hate. Yet we must listen, for God does not spell these things out beyond us in the air. God writes upon the human heart. In reply, human hands fumble to spell it all out again with pen and ink and paper and stone, but God’s ways are too fluid to be held there in place, too fluid for a book, or rule, or even the most elegantly chosen word. Jesus calls us to return to the heart of the matter, to pare down the elaborate exaggerations we have made to excuse ourselves from their great responsibility, to answer the call to help the helpless, pardon our offenders, and love our enemies with a simple, “no, no” or “yes… yes.”