Wednesday, November 11, 2015
A Tale of Two Widows
This past weekend, at several thousand churches across America, attendees were exposed to a pair of scripture lessons from the lectionary, about widows.
I was a guest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where my dear friend Rev. Grace Burton Edwards had returned from her current post in Columbus Georgia to help that parish, where she began her ministry as an Episcopal priest, celebrate its centennial.
The gospel lesson on Sunday was the familiar passage in Mark 12, where the widow puts her last two mites, or pennies, in the offering box.
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus observes “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 honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
A few minutes later, a poor widow approaches. When the widow puts her pennies into the offering box, Jesus tells his disciples, “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."
And that is the end of the chapter. It doesn’t go on to say that she went home and her grain basket had been refilled and her oil had been replenished. She had put in everything, all she had to live on. She was not an exemplar, but a victim. A victim of those who devour the homes of widows. Modern capitalist Western society has assuaged its guilt by assuming she went home to a heavenly reward, but the Bible says no such thing. She went home and died. End of story. No next chapter.
Jesus was not celebrating the righteousness of the poor. He was condemning the neglect of the wealthy.
Meanwhile, one of the optional Old Testament lessons – and the basis for Grace’s sermon – was the Book of Ruth. As Grace described in her sermon, I’ve long been familiar with this story in a kind of “How I Met Your Mother” sense. The Book of Ruth is the story of Naomi, an Israelite woman in the years between Moses and David, who with her family fled a famine in the alleged Land of Milk and Honey and sought refuge in nearby Moab. While there, Naomi’s sons married Moabite women; then both her husband and her sons died.
Naomi’s only option, as a useless old widow in a Bronze Age society, was to return to Israel and throw herself on the mercy of distant relatives. The story here is that one of her widowed Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, chose to leave the similar sparse “comfort” of her own culture, and go with Naomi back to Israel.
Back in Israel, Naomi arranged to introduce Ruth to her nephew Boaz. Boaz married the foreigner and, with the exception of one sentence at the end of the book of Ruth, that was the happy end of the story;
What I didn’t know until I heard Grace’s sermon was that the Moabites and the Israelites, at least according to oral tradition, were closely related. The Israelites were the descendants of Abraham, through his wife Sarah and their son Isaac. The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame), through an incestuous liaison with his own daughter. In other words, in the eyes of the Israelites, the entire Moabite race was conceived in the worst possible sin, and not worthy of even touching. Worse, one might say, than the relationship today between modern Israelis and modern Palestinians. Or than certain modern American whites and modern American blacks.
Yet Boaz, an Israelite in good standing, fell in love with the honorable Ruth and married her. Their grandson was Jesse, and their great-grandson was King David, the first real king of a stable and viable Hebrew kingdom, and (according to prophecy) the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
So what’s the story? Had Boaz the Israelite acted on his culture’s prejudices against an immigrant woman from a despised and dehumanized culture, there would have been no King David and no Messiah.
So what is the connection here?
Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, if you know me or you’re reading this in English, you are part of a culture that has been shaped by the religion built around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who either was or was perceived to be the Son of God.
A religion based on this man/God-man’s testimony was eventually adopted by almost almost everyone on half of the face of the earth.
And what did this person/entity have to say about widows?
That the power structure of that time (and this) should be damned for devouring their houses, their meager possessions, their lives.
Yes, that they would be blessed for sharing the last of their unsustainable income with others. But not that that was God’s plan for all humanity. Jesus clearly said that a system that reduced widows to abject poverty so that the rich could congratulate themselves for giving a tiny fraction of their wealth, was corrupt and reprehensible.
And that poor widows from foreign countries – whether it was Naomi in Moab, or Ruth the Moabite in Israel, or a modern Mexican or Syrian refugee in the United States – should not only be welcomed; but could be the instrument through which each culture’s future and even “salvation” was assured.
My question in this political season is this: is the United States of America on the side of Ruth the Moabite, or of those who would send her back into the desert? Is the United States on the side of the widow who gave her last two pennies, or on the side of the scribes who would “devour her house?”
A portion of western society has been built upon Jesus’ message of radical inclusion. I would argue, the best portion of our society. Large portions of our society, though, have been built on alternative viewpoints that either ignored or outright rejected the Biblical stories that encouraged us to accept and embrace the poor and the foreigner. I don’t think that that is the best of what people are capable of, or what the Absolute Being that I want to follow would encourage.