Monday, November 9, 2009

Taught by Two Widows

Scripture for this day includes Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

We hear about two widows in our Bible readings today. In a patriarchal society like that of ancient Israel women were considered, by and large, their husbands’ property, and with the death of her husband a widow’s primary security was gone. It’s worth remembering that one of the hallmarks of the early Christian Church, mentioned often in the New Testament, is the care provided to widows within the community of the followers of Jesus.

The significance of that care could be lost on us, living in a society which takes for granted the presence of certain security nets—though it would take a Rip Van Winkle to have lived through the past year still taking security nets for granted.

But it was revolutionary, that insistence by our 1st-century forebears that the at-risk members of their society should be honored with care, to the extent that a distinct order of ministry, deacons, was appointed to oversee that care. “See how these Christians love one another!” is an exclamation seldom heard these days; when it was said in that first-century world, it was often because citizens of a brutal world order looked with longing at what seemed to them a radical and lovely reordering of priorities.

That there was much to notice was because the message of Jesus had taken hold: To follow me, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and the burdens of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

If we want an example of folks who had no use for that message, Jesus draws our attention to some very religious-looking men who enjoy living high on the hog, and don’t mind if that’s at the expense of the widows in town. Let the poor widows feel obligated to maintaining high standards here at the temple, they say to one another; it will do them good to feel as if they belong… but not to our club, of course. Our education entitles us to all the perks of membership here; we’re the guardians of culture and the interpreters of law…without us, who would these widows have to look up to?

And with that lofty attitude went a certain kind of stewardship: coughing up a respectable donation to help perpetuate a way of life with which these men were quite content. From their excess, their pocket money, the scribes place annual dues in the temple treasury—some of them, rather hefty donations that doubtless led to their being honored as Archangels, Angels, Patriarchs, or whatever names they used in their annual report to recognize the big hitters. History remembers them only as Scribes and Pharisees.

Against them, Jesus contrasts the giving of a poor widow who puts on the counter two small copper coins, “everything she had, all she had to live on,” says Jesus. No category for her level of giving, in the annual report. No… but her name is in the book of life.

What is it about her giving that Jesus find commendable? Is Jesus really pleased by her sacrificing her own wellbeing for the good of a religious establishment which has little interest in his kind of justice and mercy, little interest in the likes of her?

It doesn’t say that he held her up as an example of what all poor widows should do, does it? Given how he assails those scribes for devouring widows’ houses, he’s not likely to be urging poor widows to make the temple their top priority.

No… he contrasts her whole-hearted giving, her utter dedication, over-against the easy affording of the scribes. He teaches his disciples to appreciate her situation, to learn from her, to view her with that recognition that the scribes long for, respect.

But what is it about her giving that Jesus finds commendable? The commentary tells us that two kinds of transaction took place at the temple treasury. One was the paying of the temple tax expected each year from each Jew twenty years or older. That’s not what the widow is doing, for that tax was a good deal more than she could afford. She was making a freewill offering, the second kind of transaction, a sheer gift which in her eyes might have been for the good of the nation or for the honoring of God. However you imagine it, what moved her to give her two coppers mattered more to her than her daily bread.

This is a good moment to return to the other widow we meet today, Naomi, one of the central characters in the Book of Ruth. Her name means “my joy, my pleasant one, my lovely one.” We can imagine her having heard such sweet pillow-talk from Elimelech, her husband, a man from Bethlehem. During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons found refuge in the country of Moab (one of Israel’s chronic enemies), and there the sons married. And there Elimelech died, and their two sons after him. Naomi’s sad story follows somewhat in the vein of Job’s sufferings.

Left alone in a strange land, Naomi wanted to return to Bethlehem in Judah, so she urged her two Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families. One, Orpah, agreed and did. The other, Ruth, persisted in her loyalty to her late husband’s mother and refused to leave Naomi’s side. Her famous words, rather mis-applied when read at weddings, are these:

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16)

So today’s portion shows Naomi’s loyalty to Ruth taking the shape of clever strategic planning. She has noticed that when Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, Boaz, owner of those fields, admires her. The gleaning she’s doing is around the edges of the field, the portion decreed by Jewish law to be kept available for the poor. She does her best to be inconspicuous out there at the margins, but Boaz is impressed and Ruth notices. Ruth also knows that Boaz is related to her late husband, Elimelech, and she decides to play matchmaker.

What stands in the way is social standing, which Boaz has and Ruth has not. But, coaching her to stay near him, Naomi counts on Boaz’s compassion to be kindled. Perhaps it is also his passion that she hopes will be kindled. Whatever the mix, Boaz pays a price of redemption to free Ruth from whatever stigma has attached to her station in that ancient society, and he weds her. Their son, Obed, will become the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, David.

And there, you might say, is one more patriarchal story, one more instance where a woman’s worth is based on her bearing a son. But on this Sunday when widows appear from scripture, let’s recognize Naomi and her action with respect similar to what our Lord asks for the widow in his Gospel.

Like that later widow, Naomi exhibits the dedication that will become the core message of Jesus: that, to be faithful, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and those of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

Like the widow at the temple treasury, Naomi makes a freewill offering. It isn’t two copper coins that she sacrifices, but her freedom to follow her own instinct and return to familiar Bethlehem. Does her freewill offering to remain in Moab for the sake of her daughter-in-law save Naomi from a pointless return to her past? Does her sacrifice free her for a useful and creative future?

Without her willingness to sacrifice her own desire, there would have been no King David for Israel, no house and lineage of David from which, generations later, a certain baby could be born in Bethlehem of Judah.

His is the message our widows reveal: the love that makes the world go ‘round is a sacrificial love that learns to serve, even when it has barely anything to give but its presence.