The central event of the Christian gospel is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All four gospel writers give much attention to the details that surrounded his arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Central to this narrative are these memorial words: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.” This is from the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 24 and verse one.
Matthew, Mark, and John join Luke in providing richness to this wonderful story of the women at the tomb. John narrows his version to the acts and words of Mary Magdalene and her encounter with the risen Lord. Matthew says the women were “afraid yet filled with joy” as they reported their discovery to the disciples. It is Mark who writes with stark simplicity: “The women … said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
The women may have been afraid for their lives, aware that some momentous and mysterious force was at work in and around Jesus their Lord. But it is Luke, once again, that gives us another reason for their hesitation to tell the gospel story. “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others …. But the apostles did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
It is a small but telling detail of a long and terrible tradition: the men did not believe the women.
It is part of a larger prejudice. People in power tend not to believe those who are not in power: not just women, but children, slaves, foreigners, criminals, commoners, strangers, the poor, and anyone else who did not look and act like the men. Their words did not count. Their testimony was ignored.
No wonder the women of Easter morning were hesitant to tell their story.
This long and terrible tradition has stifled the witness of women wherever men gather in the name of Jesus: at the councils, in the lecture hall, and in the sanctuary. I grew up in churches that would not even allow women to enter the pulpit. I remember the Sunday when, for the first time ever, the female youth minister stood in the pulpit and led the congregation in prayer. It was surprising to some that the sun was not turned to darkness and the moon to blood (to quote the words of a Hebrew prophet).
Eighteen years ago I joined a ministerial party to officiate at the funeral of a young man gunned down in a drug deal gone bad. The lead officiant was a woman, and I was behind her in the procession, prepared to deliver the eulogy. The ministerial parade was halfway down the aisle before I realized that protocols at that church required her to sit in the pew and speak from the floor while I was ushered to the platform and offered the pulpit. It was a wrenching moment of ministerial despair.
Much of this age-old prejudice against the testimony of women has given way to a glad invitation for them to join the men at the front of the assembly—the gospel assembly, the judicial assembly, the legislative assembly, even the corporate assembly. The same surge of spiritual energy that has parted the waters of patriarchy has unleashed the feminine voice to testify about other things—things like abuse and sex and violence. Surely among the most stunning movements in modern America is the tsunami of stories that have been collected under the #MeToo banner.
The statistic of greatest sadness is this: seventy percent of sexual assaults are never reported. Never reported because, in the words of the gospel writer, “the women … said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Or more tragic, because, in the words of that other gospel writer, when they did tell their stories, the men “did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
As the drama in the assembly in Washington plays out, it is good for us to recall this gospel word, about who knows the truth, why they are afraid, and whose words today seem like nonsense.