Sermon 8 November 2015
Do you like reading? One of the ways I relax is by getting absorbed in a good novel. Taking my book to my favourite coffee shop where I am well recognized is one of the simple pleasures of life. Don’t we love a good story, whether it is in a book, in the movies, on the television or things on YouTube or Facebook! Quite often when I am sipping my coffee in the café I look around at people chatting to each other or sitting by themselves and think to myself “Each of these people has a story, a story that is about happy times and about struggle, about particular places that have meaning for them.” Each of us has a life full of memories that we have accumulated as we go along life’s way. Memories can enrich our lives. Some lie forgotten, somewhere in the recesses of our mind. There are things also that we may try to push away that can jump right back up and hit us when we are feeling low. Everyone’s life is a unique and precious story.
Today we have heard about the lives of people who lived a very long time ago. Their cultures are strange to us. There is much that can’t be immediately understood, but beneath this strangeness lie very recognizable human situations. And more than that, because these stories are held within the book we call holy. So we also have to see beyond things that may seem rather shocking to try and discern what might be the God message.
When we hear the story of Ruth, we hear about the struggle for these two women to survive. Both of them widows, one old and one young. One Jewish and one a Moabite, a foreigner in her mother-in-law’s country. They have been surviving by gleaning, going along the edges of the fields that were being harvested and picking up the stray grains. The field is near Bethlehem (the name Bethlehem by the way, means “House of Bread”) and belongs to a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. Can you sense the desperate plight of these women who had nowhere to belong and no-one to provide for them? Naomi says to Ruth “My daughter, I must find you a home”. And so she hatches a plot. How many stories or real lives can you think of where such scheming goes on, or tactics are devised to achieve a particular end? The full text of the story is a glimpse into the powerlessness of a widow at the time. Naomi has to get around this somehow. So Boaz is set up. But in order for Boaz to be able to take Ruth as his wife, she has to become secondary to Boaz buying and selling of a bit of land, land that had Ruth’s dead husband’s name on it. When this requirement was fulfilled the acquisition of Ruth would go along with it. All this was because the most important thing was that the dead husband’s name would not disappear. In the end though, the story of Ruth and Naomi is one of love and devotion and hard common sense. The women are provided for, Ruth has a son, Obed, who became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Naomi gets to cradle the child, the grandfather of a king and one of the biggest names in the Hebrew Scriptures, whose own writings in the Psalms still bring us comfort, help us lament, offer strength and give words to thankfulness. It’s a great story and reminds us how God works in our lives in all kinds of ways.
There is more to be learned from another widow in the reading from Mark’s gospel. But there are some preliminaries to this story. Let us set the scene first. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The passage we heard is one of the last bits of teaching that Jesus will do before the events of the last supper, his betrayal and arrest. This is not just casual storytelling on Mark’s part. It is all there for us to learn from. Some of the translations vary quite a bit in their grammar, their punctuation. In Greek there are no such things as commas. In some translations, as in my own New International Version, verse 38 reads: Jesus said “Watch out for the teachers of the law”. That is a stand-alone sentence. Followed by “They like to walk around in flowing robes” etc. Others say “Watch out for the scribes/teachers of the law who like to walk around in flowing robes” etc. The difference is important. There is no full stop or comma between the two clauses. In the first example, all the teachers of the law are included in Jesus’ warning. In the second, it is only those who like to walk around showing off who are denounced by Jesus. And we might remember that this story is immediately preceded by the story we heard last week of the teacher of the law who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment and who was then commended by Jesus for saying that love of neighbour is more important than any burnt offerings or sacrifices. Remember that last bit. Mark has written this deliberately. The plot thickens!
So we have set the scene for Jesus words about how these people who swan around in their fancy clothes, eating at big banquets, (we might insert expensive cars and posh restaurants) and have abused their legal power by selling off widows’ houses at inflated rates, lining their own purses, and leaving the already powerless widows with nothing.
Jesus now sits himself down, deliberately it would seem, opposite the place where people came to put their offerings into the temple treasury. It is a very public place where people liked to show off their apparent generosity. All the “show” is on display. So it is hard to be a poverty stricken widow who comes to do her bit. We can imagine the scene and I am afraid we can probably also imagine how people would scoff and look down on her.
The traditional way of looking at this is that she was giving everything she had, trusting in God. She had reached the end of the line. Others gave from their surplus and it really cost them nothing. But there are other ways of looking at this also. The widow could have bought nothing with those small coins anyway. In a sense they are worthless. What could you get in Woolies or Coles for two 5 cent coins? But the institution of religion still placed a demand on her to fulfil her religious obligation. Remember what the teacher of the law said earlier, about love being worth more than any burnt offerings or sacrifices or rituals of religion?
The other thing about this story is that Mark was writing it after the destruction of the temple that happened some 35-40 years after the events we have been thinking about. The next passage in the gospel predicts it. So all these offerings, all this show, comes to nothing in the end. They all become worthless. Mark is pointing us to what really matters. What do we learn about religious law, about morality, about care for the widow and the powerless in our midst? What is it that matters? Because what matters is no different now from what it was back then in Jesus’ time or in Naomi and Ruth’s.
Sometimes these Bible stories become so familiar that we don’t see what is there behind the words. If we are to let the story speak to us and address us where we are now, we have to have our eyes and ears open, because there are always truths there that speak across the ages. Mark wants us to question how our living out of our faith measures up to the way of Jesus, who is the Christ for all time. It is not always comfortable reading. How could it be? How often do we find ourselves impressed by the things that speak of wealth and comfort? How often do we allow ourselves to become caught up in preserving the trappings of religion and forget the gospel’s heart – the thing that addresses our everyday lives?
Faith always has informed the way Christian’s respond to need. If it is not doing that then our faith is not alive. Churches have through the centuries been places of refuge and help for the destitute. And among those have always been widows. In the age of the welfare state there is some safety net, though it doesn’t always save people from falling into terrible situations. How often do we hear of lonely older people unable to keep warm in the winter or to manage their rent, their bills and to feed themselves properly? Those are some of the stories that are around us, though often we don’t know about them. How many older women are isolated, many having lost their husbands in war, decades ago, in another whole part of their life? War always creates widows and they bear a terrible burden. In Korea, after the Korean war, there were some 300,000 war widows with some 517,000 dependent children. They wandered the countryside, destitute and uncared for. But the churches and other faith based NGOs stepped in to offer help when the government was overwhelmed. They provided housing, materials for sewing and knitting, chickens to raise so these women could begin to support themselves. Women in Korea had long been regarded as of less importance than the men. Two weeks ago we heard Michelle talk of han, of the suffering that was too often the lot of women. Often when the husband died, the widow was blamed for his ill health and ostracized. But the churches, and the Christian faith began to reframe these attitudes. The gospel of love and respect took root and grew.
We are always called to have our eyes and ears open to see what is going on, just as Jesus saw and understood the unspoken stories. I was talking to my husband about the gospel reading and he reminded me of a wonderful lady in the congregation where we were in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was approaching ninety. She had been widowed in her twenties, left with four young children. She worked to support them. She was deeply involved with the church but by no means uncritical of it. She was always eager to learn, loved to sing new hymns and had a great sense of humour. She was very afflicted by fragile skin and was forever swathed in bandages. She joked that she would soon be coming to church in a wet suit for protection. We all laughed with her imagining it. But one thing she found so hard about church was all the language of family. The church family. Because, for her, and for so many other people, that implied two parents and their children. It seemed then that she did not fit in. A term, seemingly casually used so often, was actually not warm and inviting but excluded her. And because she spoke about that, we became aware of how many other people also felt excluded.
The gospel of Jesus call us to love with a clear eyed love that sees beyond the superficial and notices where there is real need; that is not impressed by grandeur and status but values the least and hopefully tries to understand them. When we feel we are getting lost in the complexities of our world today, we may be surprised to find in the stories that come to us from very different times in the Bible, that there is the wisdom that gets to the heart of the matter. If we are courageous enough to listen to it, we are drawn back to the truths that are timeless. Then we know we are part of a vastly bigger story of the love of God, a love that can empower the powerless. Thanks be to God.