Thinking on widows…

This morning we encounter two very different women in scripture.

Ruth’s story and the story of the widow’s mite are wonderful old favourites for most of us.

We have heard them read – perhaps we have studied them in depth.

They come to us in familiar form,

and we think we know what these stories are going to be about…

we have convinced ourselves (or been convinced by others)

that at the heart of these stories is a faithful devotion to the unseen mercy of God.

But how do these stories show us God’s mercy?

Is Jesus really saying that we should impoverish ourselves for the sake of our souls?

Is it true, every time , that the landless, powerless stranger

will land safely in the arms of someone who will care for her,

if only she trusts enough – has faith enough?

If God’s mercy is the theme here, it is well hidden.

Ruth and Naomi are full of plans and schemes as there story is told –

they are leaving nothing to chance in all of this –

not waiting on God, but putting herself firmly in Boaz’ way,

so that he must take notice – must act.

His reputation will be ruined if he does nothing –

God’s mercy there may be, but it is not the wide open arms of mercy we would like to see.

God is at work in (and in spite of) the planning and manipulation

of these faulty, but faithful people of God,

and through them comes a king that will take God’s people in yet another direction.

But there is the matter of this widow in the temple –

a place where mercy has become rather scarce.

This text has been transformed for me this week, from a hollow lesson in stewardship

(give all you can and God will take care of things)

to a scathing accusation against the lack of mercy

to which the people of God are often inclined.

Jesus leaves the widow’s fate hanging – “she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

the implication is clear – this two-penny offering may well have been her dying act.

The officials don’t notice her.

The important people go on praying and parading around in their glory.

Think back to last week – the encounter with the scribe;

it’s part of the same scene in Mark’s telling.

The first commandment?

More important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices…Love God, love neighbour.

Where is the love in this woman’s poverty?

You must imagine, says one commentator,

that Jesus shakes with rage when he describes this woman’s offering –

not angry at her, but at the system that has turned its back on her.

We still stand convicted of Jesus’ anger.

We delight in our churches – the buildings, the institution – we fight for the preservation of our traditions, our congregations, our worship practices and all that.

We are selfless in our giving to keep things going,

and there are many good things going on as a result –

but just imagine how much more mercy and love could we demonstrate

if we could take our oil budget

and use it to supplement the income of those whose jobs have ended –

if we took our maintenance and housing money,

and used it to house those who are living in the street –

if we released ourselves from the burden of paying ordained clergy,

and used the savings to purchase medicine, food and clothing

for the outcast and downtrodden of our own time.

it seems like foolishness because ultimately I’m talking about my own welfare.

But the money we devote to ‘sustaining church’ –

to having worship and being a presence in the community – to keeping buildings and paying ministers, administrators, musicians and missionaries –

could be used to give glory to God in so many different and imaginative ways…

God’s people could be free to enter into the lives of the suffering majority

to offer up our devotion in more practical ways – meaningful ways –

and that, I think, is the point in Jesus anger.

He is reminding us, in every age, how easily the focus of our devotion is altered.

The rich in their flowing robes had long ago stopped honouring God – stopped noticing their sisters and brothers in pain and need –

stopped giving God glory.

The fixation on the time and place – the method and manner of worship and work

is no more honouring God than those loud, long prayers of the perfectly pious.

Our worship is important, but the focus of our worship is more important.

Some structure is important, but to what does that structure point us?

Our activity must draw us closer to one another in love, and closer to God in love

whether we meet in a cathedral, or a cabin.

When we are looking to the welfare of our neighbours,

when the stranger in our midst feels at ease,

when our worship and our work brings to mind the Risen Christ and the glory of God

then we will have accomplished something great.

Not once in scripture does Jesus ask us to build an institution devoted to keeping the rules

He asks us to baptise and teach – to make disciples –

to live in the light of that love of God that he so often demonstrated in his life’s work.

His focus was God – God’s kingdom, God’s glory –

and we are invited to follow his example.

Not giving our our riches, for our glory –

but sharing in the gifts of God,

that all may offer praise and give God glory.

Amen

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