Sacrificing the innocent, devouring the vulnerable

St Andrew’s Anglican Church 



Sunday 11 November 

Remembrance day 

Ruth 3.1-5; 4.3-17 

Psalm 127 

Hebrews 9.23-28 

Mark 12.38-44 

Sacrificing the innocent, devouring the vulnerable. © Sue Wilton    

Most of us, I suspect, will think of the Gospel reading we had today  as the story of the widow’s mite. Possibly our eyes slid past the early  bit of the reading today and moved to this celebration of the  generosity and selflessness of a woman who gave all she had. At  least that was the way I always used to think of this story, and the  way I was taught to read it when I was younger. This is of course a  very comfortable reading which doesn’t do more than maybe  challenge us to give up a bit more of our wealth. It surprises me now  as I read it that I could have ever have missed the red flag of Jesus’  comment, “she has put in everything she had, all she had to live  on…” There is clearly something wrong with this picture, and it isn’t  just that there were rich people there who proportionately put in so  much less. A poor widow left without anything to live on is not a  story to celebrate. 

If we return to the early part of the story that sometimes gets lost in  this picture of sacrificial giving, we find Jesus berating those scribes  who look and sound pious but in reality are “devouring” the houses  of widows. It is no coincidence that suddenly in this context we have,  enter stage left, the poor widow. 

What is going on with this devouring? In the Greek, the word does  literally mean to “eat down” whether literally or figuratively, and this  connects strongly to Jesus’ description of the woman giving over all she had to live on- her very life eaten up. These religious leaders who  attracted Jesus’ judgement were apparently preying on the economically vulnerable through the devouring greed of the Temple  system. Here is a tradition where care for widows –for those most  socially vulnerable- returns again and again in Scripture as a sacred  responsibility, and Jesus, the good Jew, is calling the religious leaders  to account.  

But it doesn’t end there. Jesus is communicating what he sees as an  integrated person who is able to step apart from social convention and religious pieties to reveal what is really going on here. The text  tells us Jesus took up a vantage point opposite the treasury and  watched. Perhaps that is the first lesson. How often do we attempt  to step apart from the structures in which we live and work and  really look and see what is going on? I would like to spend some time  sitting and watching life in our local area- perhaps you might like to  join me one day on a morning of quiet observation and theological  reflection around Westfield!  

Jesus position symbolises that he opposed the whole temple  atmosphere around money, and the public way the rich parade their  wealth. But he is also able to see what others do not. How was this  widow so destitute that she has only two copper coins left, and why  does she feel she needs to put these into the Temple treasury? In her  desperate circumstances it could be that the widow comes to the  temple to pray for help, and there the scribes are to help her with  divine favour, and for such attention and prayers, particularly the  long ones, there is a fee. The injunction on the people of Israel to  care for the widow has become a pretence for enriching those who  already have much. It is true that the widow gives freely and  generously, yet her generosity actually plays into the voracious greed  of the Temple system. Jesus is making clear that in feeling she should  give and give some more, this woman is not only acting with great  generosity, but is revealing the injustice of the temple culture. Jesus  is pointing out that by her giving, this widow has left herself with nothing, while the wealthy all around her give much but remain  unaffected by their tithe. How often do those who are oppressed  cooperate with their own exploitation, seeming willing partners?  Sometimes the exploited are too close to the structures of their own  oppression that they do not see clearly what is happening. We might  think of women who remain in situations of domestic violence or the  elderly who completely divest themselves of their incomes to their  families or, on a broader scale, the effect of the whole machinery of  colonisation on indigenous peoples of many nations. We need  spiritual insight to see the complexity of these relationships of power  and dependency if we are to prevent some people “giving their all”. Sometimes the burden of sacrifice seems to be carried by the most  vulnerable. 

Today is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. It is an important  day to remember and honour the war-dead from the First World  War, and all those casualties of this and other wars since- all from  

the armed forces, but also children and other civilians, as well as the  medics, journalists, negotiators, chaplains and all those who are  survivors of war but struggling with PTSD or other long-term effects  of the violence and trauma. My grandfather served in the horrors of  the frontline at the Somme and my father in the air force during the  second World War, so I am familiar with the way the experience of  warfare continues to be present in families down generations. There  is often a romantic idealising of the notion of sacrifice that comes  into our language that can prevent us from seeing that in war, as in  so much else, the burden of sacrifice is carried by the most  vulnerable. So many of Australia’s youth from country towns and our  own local area found themselves in the trenches in bloody and often  mismanaged campaigns. Wherever war breaks out, so many end up  “giving their all”- women, men, children, the aged- with little or no  capacity to have any other choice. Yet it is true also, that sacrifice can  represent the highest expression of humanity perfected in love.  Sacrifice needs to be understood as an act that is freely given- truly  voluntary- and which does not end in futile loss, but causes life and love to multiply. It is this kind of sacrifice that we recognise is caught  up in our remembrance today, as we honour all those who were  willing to let their blood be spilled on behalf of others.  

Human institutions so often have people in power who preside over  the sacrifice of others and devour the lives of the vulnerable. Thomas  Jefferson once said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This kind of violent  thinking is found all through our human history, but as Christians we  need to recognise that this is contrary to the will of the God revealed  in Scripture and in the person of Jesus the Christ. The writer of  Hebrews emphasises that Jesus’ sacrifice was not like the sacrifice of  the institutions where blood is shed “that is not his own”, but rather  he bought freedom through his own blood. Rather than believing  that violence is a necessary part of buying a better world, Jesus  reveals a God willing to become the supreme sacrifice, so that no  one’s blood need ever be spilled again. Never again is an appropriate  theme for today since 100 years ago at the 11th hour, the truce was  declared that ended World War I, then known as “the war to end all  wars.” 

Remembrance Day is a day that needs to be honoured, but those  who paid the ultimate price must be allowed to speak not in  romantic or sentimental language, but in the strident voice of  prophets who say, “never again” and help us look with hope for a  world where the innocent are no longer devoured by institutions  that deal in violence and the vulnerable no longer expected to “give  their all”.  

Above all we need to hear the voice of the crucified and risen one in  our midst who has set us free and calls us to a life spent creating the  Commonwealth of God on earth; where the vulnerable are  protected, everyone has a place at a generous table, and we are all  together part of one unbroken peace.  

+ Amen.

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