Sunday, November 8, 2015

Not Enough to Live On!

Today’s readings are largely about journeys, provisions and widows. The Old Testament reading gave us a choice of two stories. I wish we could have read both as they share the themes of widows, journeys and provisions. 

The first reading is part of the story of Ruth. The background to this story is that Naomi journeyed from Bethlehem to Moab with her husband and two sons. While she was there her sons both married. One of them married Ruth. Sadly, Naomi’s husband and sons all died. Leaving both Naomi and Ruth widows. Naomi had to return to her homeland Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law. Together they journey from Moab to Bethlehem.

To keep them from starving Ruth went out into the fields to glean. Boaz, who was their kin, saw Ruth and instructed the harvesters to drop a little more grain than usual to make Ruth’s task a little easier.

However, this wasn’t enough. I think this is a feminist issue. The woman was offered what the men left over!  Perhaps we could say that Boaz was a kindly man, after all he left extra grain for Ruth to glean. But this story is not about whether Boaz was kind or not. It is about women’s rights. And Ruth and Naomi had the right to be cared for by Boaz. It was the law (see for example Deut. 25:5-6,).  Boaz may have been kind to Ruth but he was shirking his duty as a relative.

In the lectionary passage today Naomi finds a way to remind Boaz of his responsibilities to Ruth and herself. This is really important. The women did not calmly accept the little that was offered but demanded their proper place in that society. Happily, Boaz fulfilled his responsibilities and the story ends well.

The second story is very different. In the tale the prophet Elijah is sent by God on a journey to Zarephath. According to the story Elijah will meet a widow who will provide for him. But the widow he meets is at the end of her resources. She has only enough food to prepare one final meal for herself and her son. Then she knows they will die of starvation.  Elijah asks her to prepare bread for him first.  The story tells us that God, through Elijah, has said the “jar of meal” would not be emptied until rain came to allow more crops to flourish. Surely, this is a story of generosity of a woman, sharing even in the face of poverty. Yet, the story does not end there. The widow’s child becomes sick and dies but is miraculously revived by Elijah (or God). Overall it is a story of provision for a woman and her child. In this story the provision is supernatural.

Often in the bible we read of widows and orphans. I think this is a bigger concept than just those who are physically widowed or orphaned. They are used as biblical examples of those who are marginalized, poor, needing care, needing to be seen, etc. The stories around them illustrate this.

The New Testament story also features a journey, a widow and provisions (Mark 12:41-44). In this tale people have journeyed to the temple and are giving money to the treasury. Many give lots of money but the widow puts in only two coins. The story continues with Jesus commenting that she put in all she had to survive with.

This is often called the widow’s mite. It is cited as a good thing, Jesus is said to applaud her generosity. Sadly, this story has also been used to make people feel guilty if they are not giving everything they own to the church.

Today, I want to re-imagine it or re-vision it or re-claim it.

As we read it, remember that the widows and the orphans have often been used to represent those who are needy and poverty stricken.

I want to set the text in context.

Firstly, in the whole scriptures using the examples of the lectionary readings of Ruth and Elijah. In both cases, although in very different ways, a duty of care is illustrated. It is a duty of care that did not let widows starve.

Secondly, I want to set the passage in the context of the verses around it. Immediately before it is love. New commandments are given which talk about loving God and loving neighbour. The text is quite specific, “to love one’s neighbour as oneself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (33)

The people listening were instructed not to be like scribes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (40).

Then Jesus took the disciples and sat and watched people go to the treasury. The treasury is in the court of women. It consists of thirteen brass receptacles. They were the shape of trumpets. People placed their offerings in them. Nine of them were for money tributes, for example sin offerings. Four were to receive freewill offerings used to buy wood, temple adornments and incense.

They watched the woman come in and put in her two coins. It was all she had.
Was this an example of “devouring widows’ houses”? She was left with nothing to live on.

Does this sound like something Jesus would applaud? Personally, I say a resounding “no”.

As I read the passage it feels like Jesus is showing the disciples the shame of the system. It exposed a religious society that did not care if widows were left to starve.
It exposed a widow harmed by her offering.

Yesterday, we ordained Thomas.
Our conversation was of a new kind of priesthood.
One that serves
One that cares
One where people are more important than temple decorations
One that, metaphorically speaking, doesn’t leave widows and orphans to starve.