Bad religion (8 November 2015, Year B)

Ruth 3.1–5; 4.13–17
Mark 12.38–44

…spiritual brokenness affects our lives and the lives of others. We have found, however, that God is eager to bless us even in our spiritual brokenness. (from Soul Repair)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That’s the opening line of a 1953 novel called The Go-Between. It’s a brilliant opening line for a novel and for a sermon. We must always remember when we read the scriptures that the past is a foreign country. They did things differently there. We’re going to see that as we look at our scripture passages today.

Firstly, widows: in an age with no social security, no pension, they could be in a precarious position.

The readings for this week and last draw our attention to the plight of widows in biblical times. We have Naomi and Ruth, husbandless and childless, forced to eke out a living gleaning grain from the fields that hadn’t been gathered by the men working there; and also forced to plot and plan to ensure that Boaz noticed Ruth. This is more than a romantic story; it is a matter of life and death for Ruth and Naomi.

And in today’s Gospel Reading, we have the widow who had fallen on hard times, whose offering is two small coins, each worth only about six minutes’ work. Her offering is practically worthless. But it was all she had.

And don’t forget that last week we heard Psalm 146, which proclaims that

The Lord keeps faith for ever,
giving food to the hungry,
justice to the poor,
freedom to captives…
comforting widows and orphans,
protecting the stranger…

The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments proclaim that God seeks justice for the widow, the orphan and all who are being failed by the society they live in.

Then the scribes: last week we mentioned the scribe Ezra who was active at the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile, in the 530s BC. Ezra was

skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7.6)

and he

had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7.10)

But in this foreign country we call ‘the past’, they did things differently. Ezra wasn’t just someone who knew and taught his bible; he was also what we would think of as an official of the government. The two roles were not separated in this time. Today, we do separate them and we call them ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ or ‘church’ and ‘state’. Back in the days of Jesus, they wouldn’t have understood what we mean by separating them out. Remember, the past is a foreign country.

So we can see that a scribe had authority in far more areas than any minister or priest in Australia today.

One of those areas that a scribe may have been involved in was acting as guarantor for a widow’s house, so she could keep living there. It seems though that some may have charged so much for this service that the widow became destitute.

So a scribe may appear to be a righteous man, helping poor widows; in reality, he may be grasping and greedy. (Not all scribes were like this, of course. We came across a scribe last week who was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’.)

Jesus condemned the way the scribes defrauded widows in no uncertain terms. He said:

Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

‘They devour widows’ houses…’ ‘Devour’ is a violent word, which conjures up the picture of wolves or lions tearing at the flesh of a small animal. A widow doesn’t stand a chance when a scribe gets her scent.

And this is the context in which we hear about the widow and her paltry offering.

We can imagine the story in our mind’s eye. We see the rich people, the people of power, ostentatiously putting their wads of $100 dollar notes in the offering. We see them competing to outdo one another in their very public giving. They each want the honour of being the one who gives the most.

Then this poor widow comes along. Perhaps she’s a young widow, maybe she still has children holding her skirts, we just don’t know. Her offering is practically worthless.

People are watching. The kinder ones might turn their faces away, and pretend they’ve found something interesting on the ground. Others swap knowing looks with each other, or they scoff openly.

Jesus says,

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. (Mark 12.43–44)

She had put in all she had. She had given everything.

What did Jesus mean? Most of us will hear Jesus commending the widow. But is he really? Might he not be just observing what is going on?

When you look at what Jesus says, he is not praising the woman. He’s just telling it like it is. There is no overt commendation, even though that’s what we usually assume Jesus is doing.

Perhaps Jesus really is just making a disinterested comment. Why not?

Wait a minute, though: Does Jesus even ‘do’ disinterested?

Friends, we can be sure that Jesus doesn’t make disinterested comments, particularly about widows or others who fail to ‘get ahead in society’, and for one very good reason. It’s there in Psalm 146:

The Lord keeps faith for ever,…
comforting widows and orphans…

And Jesus is Lord. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is God in human skin living a fully human life. Jesus keeps faith for ever. He doesn’t look upon widows with disinterest.

Jesus is concerned about the widow. When he points her out to the disciples, it is with compassion. She is a widow in a time when scribes would cheat widows out of anything they could, and devour whatever was available. All the while, they appeared pious and holy on the outside.

Really, what the scribes were doing was a particularly vicious form of spiritual abuse. We hear a lot about abuse, for example domestic abuse; spiritual abuse exists too. It is the use of religious power to limit the freedom of other people, or even to harm them.

This widow was placing her offering in the Temple treasury. She gave two coins, all she had. She was making herself—and possibly her family—destitute.

Was Jesus commending her? Or was he looking on her with compassion?

Think what it would mean if Jesus were to commend the widow. He would be giving support to the abusive system that robbed her in the first place, and left her with only two tiny coins. Surely, he was looking on her with compassion, as he looked upon the scribes with—what?—exasperation? anger?

It is a misuse of this scripture to make it about stewardship and giving. It is about spiritual abuse. It is wrong not to condemn the behaviour of ‘televangelists’ and others who profit by encouraging people to give beyond their means.

Stewardship of our time, talents and money is vitally important. We are to give freely, regularly, generously, even at times sacrificially; but we are not to ignore spiritual abuse when it occurs. This widow was being abused.

Jesus brings grace and freedom, not bondage. He has compassion on the poor, and criticises those who withhold money from them. In the foreign country we call the past, it was scribes who did this; scribes were religious figures, but also had power in what we think of the ‘political’ realm.

That’s why the Church must be involved wherever vulnerable people are disadvantaged.

We are the body of Christ. Our mission is the ever-new mission of Christ. It is to go and do likewise. It is to help people’s hearts to sing to in the freedom of Christ, the peace of God and with joy in the Holy Spirit.

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Filed under Church & world, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon, Year B

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