St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 11 November
Ruth 3.1-5; 4.3-17
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.