Widows might not:  Proper 27, Year B

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 127; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Unless one pays attention, Proper 27 offers another easy sermon day.  Conventional Christianity will focus on Mark’s story about the “widow’s mite.”  Mark’s Jesus accuses the scribes and scholars of crass hypocrisy, as they “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”  The poor widow puts her life savings into the church offering, having faith that God will take care of her.  God’s care is amply described:  Naomi – the widow who returns to her homeland and the God of Israel – is rewarded with a grandson who turns out to be the grandfather of the great King David, and the ancestor of the Messiah himself.  Elijah saves the life of the widow of Zarephath, who gives the last of her oil and flour to provide hospitality to God’s prophet.  From henceforth, throughout the coming drought years, the oil and the flour shall never run out.  The verses carefully excised from the letter to the Hebrews can be construed to assure the faithful of the 21st Century that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”  Psalm 127 sums it all up: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain . . .”

Let’s dispense with the portion selected from Hebrews first.  Once again, when context is considered, we are left with a highly anti-Semitic text.  For reasons that become obvious once it is read, the portion skipped by the Elves is the most damning in this regard.  The heart of the argument in chapter 9 is found in verses 15-23.  “[Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant . . . because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.”  Bottom line (22-27): Under Jewish law “almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.  Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things [the “consciences of the faithful Jews”] to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things [faithful Christians] themselves need better sacrifices than these.  For Christ . . . entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself again and again as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; . . .”  Christ will come a second time, not to deal with sin under the old covenant (Judaism), but to save from hell those believers who are “eagerly waiting for him” to return.

This theology is atrocious.  Thankfully, the end is near.  Proper 28 will focus on Chapter 10, which sets us up for the Apocalypse.

The Elves skip Mark 12:35-37.  Here, Mark’s Jesus seems to engage in a non sequitur.  The early Christians appropriated Psalm 110 as prophetic of Jesus (as we have been reminded for the last several weeks from the readings selected from Hebrews).  He refers to that Psalm when he asks  the “huge crowd” in the Temple, “If David called the Messiah “lord,” how can [the scholars claim] that the Messiah is his son?”  This exchange cannot possibly go back to the historical Jesus, but it is an essential part of the story Mark wrote.  Two weeks ago, in Proper 25, Blind Bartimaeus identified Jesus as the Son of David; now, Mark seems to be arguing against the Messiah being the son of David.  This is not a contradiction.  It is all leading up to Mark’s Little Apocalypse, in which Mark will lay out his argument that Jesus is the Son of Adam (from Daniel 7:13-14) who comes to establish the 5th Kingdom – the Kingdom of God – NOT the Son of David who is the political Monarch, representing the injustices that arise from Empire.  Perhaps Mark’s point is that the leaders in his community who are using Psalm 110 as a proof-text for Jesus being the Son of David are the worst of hypocrites.  

Immediately after this inside joke, Mark’s Jesus snipes at the scribes/scholars in 12:38-40. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”  Mark follows this with the story of the poor widow who gave all she had.  The “poor widow” who gives all, while the rich powers that be give a small portion is a conventional tale, and appears to have a conventional, pious meaning.  But Mark is anything but conventional; nor are the other stories of widows selected by the Elves for our consideration.  Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law insists on accompanying her back to her homeland, and promises that Naomi’s people will be her people, and Naomi’s God her God.  Then she gets all dressed up, and after Uncle Boaz has fallen asleep “in a contented mood,” she “uncovers his feet” and lies down beside him.  21st Century minds can be certain that what transpired on the threshing floor did not stop with the removal of shoes.  Boaz marries Ruth after Naomi’s xenophobic brother-in-law declines to marry the illegal alien.  The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is usually thought of as a story illustrating Elijah’s considerable magic powers.  Instead, it is a story of the radical abandonment of self-interest by the widow on behalf of the prophet.  In return, the bit of oil and the measure of flour do not run out.  These are stories of justice, not convention.  So is the popular tale told by Mark’s Jesus.

Christians following the Revised Common Lectionary, dictated by the Christian liturgical year, do not realize that the context of this portion of Mark’s gospel is Jesus’s last week of life.  Jesus has already performed his anti-imperial demonstration with his parousia  into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by rabble, declaring him to be the king that comes “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on an ass” as opposed to the ass Cesar’s royal entrance, surrounded by sycophants, full of pomp and circumstance.  The money changers’ tables have been overturned, in protest of the corruption of the temple authorities, who collaborated with the Romans.  Mark’s Jesus has already introduced the metaphor of the fig tree, out of season.  Now, in 12:41, Mark’s Jesus is seated “across from the treasury” watching the widow who did not allow the scribes to take her money for repayment of debt on her house (“devour the houses of widows”), but in an audacious act of defiance, dedicated it as she saw fit.  “The scribes take; the widow donates.”  See, A.J. Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperCollins 2006) p. 151. 

Centuries of orthodox Christian interpretation of  “the widow’s mite” can cause the unwary to overlook some important details.  Because the story is a conventional moral tale that appears in many different religions and cultures, it could easily be disregarded by scholars attempting to reconstruct what Jesus might have actually said and done.  Luke also tells the story, (21:1-4), but in a very different context, and Matthew does not mention it.  However, look what Mark has done.  

Mark’s Jesus has already overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple.   Now he is not sitting in the Temple precinct.  He is “opposite the Treasury” in the NRSV, and “across from the Treasury” in the Scholar’s Version [link to the five gospels.].  The scholars and scribes he has just mocked for “devouring the widows” are also outside the Temple, demanding the best places in the synagogues and at banquets.  Mark’s Jesus heals, accepts, and eats with the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the dispossessed.  Within the last day or so he has had a confrontation with the “Pharisees and Herodians” who tried to trap him by asking whether they should pay the Roman poll tax or not.  He told them to give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar (the coin) and to God what belongs to God (the earth and all that is in it).  At the beginning of his ministry, Mark’s Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come.  The verb tense is present perfect.  God’s imperial rule has now replaced Cesar’s.  

So to whom is the widow giving her money?  It is not clear from Mark’s setting whether she is contributing to the Temple, or whether those collaborators with the Romans have forced her to give her last possibility of survival not to God who might be able to act to save her life (as with Naomi and the widow of Zarephath), but to the Empire – who only wants its pound of flesh.  Mark’s Jesus could be engaging in some pretty bitter sarcasm when he says (NRSV), “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.”

Is this not the very argument made by the so-called “conservative base” in 21st Century United States?  The mantra for conventional politics on the left and the right for years has been “no more taxes.”  Whenever the left argues for higher taxes on the rich (which would certainly be fair), the right stirs up the small business owners and low-wage earners with the harrowing spectre of being taxed to death in order for the government to spend money.  Most recently, “government spending” has been described as bailing out the rich banks and car companies at the expense of the poor: “Wall Street versus Main Street.”  But the argument is insidious in its injustice.  If the rich would pay their fair share (and their businesses be subject to regulation), the poor and disenfranchised could have the social safety nets they so desperately need (not to mention single-payer health care – Medicare for Everyone).  By rising up in “tea party” protests, the disenfranchised poor are contributing to their own oppression.  As Mark’s Jesus may well be bitterly making clear, the rich contribute (if at all) out of their surplus; the poor from what they need to survive.