TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The psalm for this coming Sunday makes unmistakably clear God’s preferential love for the widow, the orphan, the alien, the oppressed and the hungry. Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on the heroic faith of a single mom struggling to keep herself and her son alive during a famine. In the gospel lesson, Jesus raises up the fate of a widow whose last means of support is taken for maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. I have heard criticisms of the lectionary from time to time by people who insist that the Sunday readings were selectively chosen to support a “liberal social agenda.” Anyone who follows my posts can attest that I have often questioned the wisdom of the selection process employed by the lectionary makers. But in all fairness to them, I think they would have been hard pressed to give equal time for passages that encourage individual achievement, self-reliance and libertarian independence. The lectionary makers would have had a difficult time finding texts supporting the right of the wealthy to accumulate and retain for themselves more wealth. More difficult still would be the task of locating passages supporting imprisonment and deportation of aliens, legal or otherwise. Those actions and the ideologies justifying them find support neither in texts from the Hebrew Scriptures nor in those of the New Testament. So if there is a political agenda here, it is God’s. Don’t blame the lectionary.
As I have often said, the United States is not God’s chosen people. The Bible is not addressed to America. Its voice is directed to Israel and the Church. For that reason, it is a mistake to apply biblical norms to the social and political workings of the United States as though the Bible were a book produced for general consumption and its teachings were applicable to everyone. The Bible is normative for disciples of Jesus and for the people of Israel. Apart from these communities formed and shaped by it, the Bible is nothing more than an anthology of ancient literature of no more contemporary relevance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Nonetheless, the Church lives in America. We drive on American roads, rely on American governments to collect our garbage, protect us from fire, regulate commerce and provide us a measure of social security. We cannot be indifferent to all that transpires in the larger society. Even as exiles who “have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14), we find our welfare in the welfare of our city of exile. Jeremiah 29:7. What, then, do we as Church have to contribute to the welfare of the United States?
In the past, I have used the term “counter-cultural” community as a useful synonym for the church’s faithful corporate witness. I am less than enamored with that term now, however. In addition to having become too “trendy,” the term can be construed to mean a community that derives its identity merely from being against the dominant culture. That is not an apt description of the life of the Church in society. In the first place, the dominant culture we call American is not rotten to the core. There is much that is admirable, much that is worth preserving and much with which the church can identify. Moreover, sometimes developments in the surrounding culture alert the church to its own blind spots, prejudices and sinfulness. The culture is not always wrong and the Church is not always right.
More significantly, however, I am uncomfortable with the term counter-culture because the church is not principally about protesting evil and injustice in the world. It is about embodying the mind of Christ and living out that consciousness. To be sure, faithful discipleship will at times bring the Church into conflict with ideologies and practices of the dominant culture. Indeed, the cultural environment might become so hostile to the reign of God that disciples will need to withdraw into their own enclave to live faithfully under that reign. Yet even such withdrawal should constitute a positive witness to the Lord we confess rather than mere revulsion at the condition of society.
The texts for this Sunday challenge us to recognize God’s agenda for creation in Jesus’ life given faithfully and freely to the implementation of that agenda and God’s resurrection of Jesus from death guaranteeing God’s eternal commitment to making that agenda a reality so that God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven.” We are challenged to practice hospitality to aliens, show mercy to those living on the margins of society and seek justice for those who have neither voice nor vote. That brings us into direct conflict with advocates of mass deportation and militarized borders. It puts us at odds with all who feel that nutrition, health care and housing for the poor in our midst is too expensive. Discipleship puts us on a collision course with an economy that elevates profit over people. That’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic or Republican. It’s Moses. It’s the prophets. It’s Jesus. Deal with it.
This story is from the beginning of the Elijah/Elisha tales. These tales come into the Bible from the Northern Kingdom of Israel that broke away from the Davidic Monarchy after the death of David’s son, Solomon. This Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E. The stories of Elijah and Elisha were likely brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah shortly after that time by refugees from the north. The stories were then incorporated into the traditions of Judah, which continued to exist under the Davidic monarchy until its conquest by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. During and following the Babylonian captivity the Elijah and Elisha stories were woven into the narrative fabric of Israel’s life in the land of Canaan.
As one commentator points out, “[r]ecent studies…have sought parallels between twentieth and twenty-first century communal traumas and the biblical events of 722 and 587. The past century has witnessed not only numerous cases of devastating war and population displacement but also a good deal of research into these phenomenon, using the tools of the social sciences. If we proceed with appropriate caution, we may assert that there are indeed insights to be gained into our texts. Clearly, the destruction of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile were central events in the life of Israel. In a pivotal article Wright (2009) argues that the Bible as a whole and its notion of a People of Israel owe themselves directly to catastrophic defeats (722 and 587) that resulted in Israel and Judah’s loss of territorial sovereignty. More recently, Carr (2010) has called the Hebrew Bible ‘a Bible for exiles.’ This is manifested in many biblical texts-not only portions of the Early Prophets, but also Lamentations, selected Psalms, passages from the prophets, and possibly Job-that express reactions akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. They reflect the need to constantly relive the trauma, as it were; they focus on blaming the Israelite community for its fate; and they at times give rise to feelings of intense nationalism, amid a glorification of the distant past. The Bible thus represents an Israel, or at least an influential group of Israelites responsible for its composition, trying to come to terms with catastrophe.” Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Vol. 2 (c. 2014 by Everett Fox, pub. by Schocken Books) pp. 554-555; citations to Wright, Jacob, “The Commemoration of Defeat and the Formation of a Nation in the Hebrew Bible,” Prooftexts 29. (2009 Gen’l); Carr, David M., An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts for the Hebrew Bible, (c. 2010 by Wiley Blackwell).
While there is obviously danger in over psychologizing the Bible, I agree that the Hebrew Scriptures reached their final form during the nadir of Israel’s existence while she lived as a conquered and exiled people in a land not her own. Israel, or more properly Judah, was coming to grips with the loss of everything that had made her a nation: the land promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs; the temple in Jerusalem; and the line of David that was supposed to last forever. If national prominence, wealth and military power measure the strength of a deity, Israel’s God had surely been bested by the Babylonian pantheon. How could the God of a ruined and enslaved people be God in deed? How could Israel be the people of God while living in servitude? If Israel were not to abandon her faith altogether, she would need to rethink who her God truly is and what it means to be the people of such a God.
We are citizens of what is now the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world. Most of us have been inducted into a Christianity that has dominated Western culture for over a millennium. For this reason, I believe we find it hard to hear the genuine voice of these scriptures. Moreover, that voice has undergone some horrible distortions from having been spoken under the acoustical conditions of wealth and prosperity. For centuries the Bible has been employed as justification for white privilege and western domination of the globe. It has been enlisted to support genocidal wars, heartless political ideologies and ruthless acts of terror. Today, it is being cited in support of racial hate, violence against gays and lesbians and the right to carry concealed weapons.
The scriptures speak from a context that is entirely alien to most of us. The biblical authors and editors have, for the most part, far more in common with the millions of refugees eking out their existences in containment camps with no nation to call home than with middle class American churchgoers who have been raised to believe that theirs is the nation “under God.” While this does not mean that we cannot rightly understand the scriptures, it does mean that we must learn to read them through different lenses and view them from perspectives other than those of power and privilege. The Bible is the book of the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed. That isn’t simply a political statement (though it surly has political import). It is a fact.
On its face, Sunday’s lesson is a touching story about kindness shared between a couple of strangers living on the margins. Some context is helpful here to give the story its full narrative punch. Elijah is a fugitive on the run. King Ahab is out to kill him for his fearless words of judgment against the king’s idolatry and the ruthless oppression of his administration. The woman in is a native of Phoenicia, a gentile outside the scope of Israel’s covenant and not a worshiper of Israel’s God. She is also a single mom living in the depths of poverty in the midst of a famine. As with hurricanes and other natural disasters, famine hits hardest the weak and the vulnerable. A widow with a small child living in a society with no “safety net” is about as weak and vulnerable as weakness and vulnerability get. When Elijah encounters this woman, she is gathering sticks to make a fire and cook a small biscuit from the last bit of wheat and oil she has. She will then split this small morsel with her little boy. After that, they will both starve.
Elijah asks her to bake him a biscuit also from her meager store. That is a mighty big ask. In the first place, this man is a stranger, a foreigner and a criminal. Why help him? What does she owe him? Helping him might get her in trouble with the authorities. We know that King Ahab has enlisted the help of all the neighboring kingdoms in tracking down Elijah. I Kings 18:7-10. Why would a woman with enough troubles of her own want to get involved with an illegal alien that has a bounty on his head? Secondly, there simply isn’t enough. What little this woman has cannot even sustain her and her son for long. Charity begins at home, after all. Could anyone blame her for denying aid to a perfect stranger in order to save the life of her own son?
The story, however, takes a turn that we would not expect. This is no chance meeting. We learn that God sent this prophet Elijah to this particular widow. That changes everything. God is behind all of this. The prophet therefore can promise the widow that her little jar of wheat meal and her flask of oil will see all three of them through the famine. The woman believes Elijah and they are, in fact, sustained. If the widow in this story had been practical and pragmatic, she would have sent Elijah away empty handed and kept for herself and her son the little she had left. Ultimately, she probably would have starved. Instead, she had compassion on Elijah and trusted the promise of his God who was surely unknown to her. In so doing, she discovered what the people of God have had to learn again and again: Our God is a God of generosity and abundance.
So here is the take away: The people of God do not believe in “chance,” We should not be caught uttering nonsense like, “Well what are the chances of our meeting here?” or “I guess we just got lucky.” At least we should not be using these terms when it comes to the people we encounter in our daily lives and the opportunities God gives us to show them compassion and hospitality. We believe that our God is behind every encounter we have with another person. We believe that every encounter is another opportunity to give or to receive God’s tender loving care. Because God stands behind every human encounter, it follows that God is able and willing to provide us with all we need to make such an encounter a saving, redemptive, life-giving event. Because God is generous, we can afford to be generous-always. To put it plainly, there is always enough. To believe less than that is to doubt the existence of the God we claim to worship.
Such bold faith stands in stark contrast to the craven fear of privation pervading our culture. Despite all the talk in Washington these days of belt tightening, deficits and fiscal cliffs and notwithstanding the irrational and racially motivated hatred of immigrants “stealing our country” whipped into a white hot frenzy by some presidential hopefuls, there is no shortage of anything anyone in the world needs to live well. However little we may think we have, when we place it at the service of our God it is always more than enough for ourselves and our neighbors. That is the divine economics of the loaves and the fishes. It is the economy of the people of God.
This hymn of praise is among a group of psalms called “Hallelujah Psalms” (Psalms 146-150) because they begin and end with the phrase: “O Praise the Lord!” commonly translated “hallelujah.” The fact that this hymn speaks of royalty and the reign of justice solely in terms of God’s sovereignty with nary a mention of the Davidic monarchy suggests to me that it was composed after the Babylonian conquest of Judah when the people had no king or prince of their own. Such kings and princes as there may have been were no friends to this conquered people living in a land not their own. This would explain why the psalmist urges people not to put their “trust in princes.” Vs. 3. Skepticism about human rulers may also reflect Israel’s disappointment in her past rulers whose selfish, shortsighted and destructive actions contributed to the loss of her land and her independence as a people. In either case, the psalmist would have us know that God is the only king worthy of human trust and confidence. God alone has the interests of the widows, the fatherless and the resident aliens at heart. Vss. 7-10. God is able to exercise power without being corrupted by it. These factors and linguistic considerations support an exilic or postexilic date for this psalm. See Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 178.
I have always loved the phrase from the second verse translated by the old RSV as “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Vs. 1. The Hebrew notion of “soul” or “nephesh” is nothing like the contemporary understanding of the soul as an immortal part of the human person that somehow survives death and goes on living somewhere in a disembodied state. In Hebrew thinking, the soul is the life force, the self, the innermost person. This innermost person must be urged, encouraged, prodded to praise the Lord. That is very much the way it is with me. I do not always feel like praying when I first wake up. In fact, more often than not I must discipline myself to make time for prayer. It is not until I am well into praying that I experience the joy that prayer brings. Like the psalmist, I need to encourage myself: “Come on, soul! Get with it! Wake up and look around at all there is for which you ought to be thankful!”
I must also say that I love these psalms of praise above all others. I am convinced that they are transformative. If we let them shape our hearts and minds, they make of us the joyful people God desires for us to be. Happy people are thankful people; people who recognize that all they have received is a gift; people who receive thankfully their daily bread without turning a jealous eye to see what is on everyone else’s plate. They are people who recognize, even in their failures and defeats, the presence of the one who makes each day new and finds new directions where everyone else can see only a dead end. This psalm was in all probability written by one who knew well the realities of oppression, poverty and human cruelty. But these things do not reign in his/her heart. God reigns throughout all generations. To God belongs all praise and trust.
As I have pointed out in previous posts, I believe that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.
This message is difficult for us to get our heads around because we are so far removed from the trauma it is intended to address. Yet, as I have said previously, there are perhaps some parallels in our own experience. We preach, teach and confess that the church is the body of believers in Jesus. Yet we cannot help getting attached to the building in which we worship. The sanctuary is a place where treasured memories coalesce. It is the place where we bring our children for holy baptism. It is the place where we witness their confirmation. It might also be the place where we spoke our marriage vows to our spouses and where we bid our last farewells to dear ones gone to join the church triumphant. When a sanctuary filled with so much meaning and so many memories is taken from us-whether through its destruction, the disbanding of the congregation or through renovations that altar the look and feel of the sanctuary-the result can be a deep sense of loss. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the building, however deeply we may be attached to it, is only a symbol or reflection of the reality which is Christ. As John points out in his gospel, worship of God is not tied down to any location or physical structure. John 4:21-25. The same can be said of particular liturgies, hymns or styles of worship to which we have a tendency to become attached. We can afford to lose them, provided we keep our focus on the person of Jesus to which they point us. As a book written to a church traumatized by loss and change, Hebrews speaks a timely and much needed word of hope and encouragement.
While the scriptures themselves are the inspired word of God, the same cannot be said of the chapter and verse designations that come with all of our Bibles. The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury in about 1227 C.E. While these divisions make citation of Biblical texts easier, they can also blind us to connections between related portions of scripture that are arbitrarily broken by Langton’s system. I believe this Sunday’s text is a victim of this distortion. I should also say before going any further that I owe this insight to Professor Gerald O. West, a remarkable young theologian who teaches at the University of Theology at Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Professor West was a speaker at the Trinity Institute National Theological Conference which I attended in January of 2011. He is the one that alerted me to the context of this story of the “Widow’s Mite” which I simply failed to see for all of my life because I have always stopped reading this story at the end of Mark chapter 12. Now I invite you to read this story in its full context:
“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 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.’
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘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.’ As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
We have always used this text as a stewardship lesson. We urge people to be more like the poor widow who gave to the point of impoverishing herself than like the rich people contributing large sums of money representing only the excess of their great wealth. But that might not be the point at all. First of all, notice that Jesus does not commend the woman or her offering. He merely states the obvious. Her little coins are far dearer to her than the excess of the rich. For the rich, their offerings would at most affect the quality of the hotel they choose to stay in while vacationing at Monaco. For this woman, her offering represents her last chance for survival. Does it make sense that Jesus would commend this woman for committing suicide? When Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell everything and follow him, he instructed him to give his money not to the Temple and its commercial enterprises (which Jesus soundly condemned), but to the poor. Moreover, Jesus did not leave the young man without any options other than starvation. He invited the young man to follow him and find his security not in wealth but in the community of faith through which all disciples are blessed. This woman is given no such summons and has no such option.
Perhaps we need to read the story of the widow in connection both with what precedes and what follows. Just prior to this incident, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the scribes who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Vs. 40. The widow in our lesson appears to be “Exhibit A” for this very point. She has put into the Temple treasury all that she had to live on. Vs. 44. We have always assumed that this was a voluntary donation and thus an expression of generosity and faith in God. But that isn’t exactly what the text says. The gospel tells us only that Jesus was watching “the multitude putting money into the treasury.” Vs. 41. How do we know that they were doing so voluntarily? Could this have been a sort of tax? We know that there were such taxes imposed for the support of the temple from other biblical sources (See, e.g., Matthew 17:24-27). Taxes, as we all know, fall harder upon the poor and lower classes than on the rich. Again, our lesson is a case in point. If I am right about this, then the first two verses from chapter 13 which are not a part of our lesson, make perfect sense. Jesus leaves the Temple with his disciples who have presumably heard his teaching in Chapter 12. As usual, they are clueless. All they can do is gawk at the Temple like a band of tourists coming to the big city for the first time and yammer about how marvelous it is. But Jesus has been telling them from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that the Temple and the corrupt and exploitive practices it represents are not marvelous in God’s eyes. Instead of glorifying the God who is the guardian of widows and orphans, the Temple and its priesthood, aided by their Roman overlords, are impoverishing and exploiting widows. For this reason, the Temple is doomed. Not one stone of it will remain upon another when God is through with it.
I have to confess that I have been unable to find another single commentator on the Gospel of Mark that agrees with this reading or even considers it. (I have consulted four) But given the context, I must say that I find this interpretation very compelling. How, then, does this text so construed speak to us? I don’t think the church in the United States can fairly be accused of impoverishing anyone. Unlike the Temple authorities in Jesus’ day, we don’t have the power to impose taxes. We ask for financial commitments, but these are voluntary and they are not legally enforceable. Still and all, there is often a tendency in the church to view people from the standpoint of consumers. Very often dialogue about mission degenerates into tiresome discussions in which the dominant question is “How can we get more members?” The trouble here is that we begin to view people not as persons to be served and cared for, but as raw meat to fill our committees and help finance our operations. Naturally, people flee from organizations seeking to exploit them and so we fail both in our purpose as a church and in our objective of bringing on board new members.
The lesson also forces us to face the troublesome fact of economic inequality within the church. If we take seriously what Jesus teaches us about the proper use of wealth and if we take to heart Paul’s understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ whose health depends on the wellbeing of all its members, we must ask ourselves how it is possible that we have disciples of Jesus here in the United States and around the world that lack the basic necessities of living. If we are called to be an outpost for the reign of God in the world, then we ought not to import into the church the same disparities and lack of concern for our neighbor that is distressingly common in our culture today.