November 11, 2018 The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24–28, Mark 12:38–44

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the Name of Jesus, who is Resurrection and who is Life. Amen.

Widows are visible everywhere in today’s readings. In our text from the book of Ruth, both Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, an Israelite living in a foreign land, and Ruth herself, a citizen of the foreign land and so a foreigner to the people of Israel, are widows. In the alternate reading from First Kings, we read about the widow of Zarephath, a foreigner suffering under a drought sent by God as punishment for the sins of King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and her encounter with the prophet Elijah. Finally, in our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus denounces the religious leaders of his day who pray impressive prayers but also prey upon widows’ houses. At the same time, Jesus holds up a poor widow and her offering in the Temple as an exemplar of absolute trust in God.

Now, what is the significance of widows? Well, in a word, nothing—literally nothing! Widows were women with no connection to a man. At the time of the biblical witness, men controlled everything—governance, property, money, inheritance, and the lives in their households, including their wives, sisters, and daughters. A woman went from being the property of her father to the property of her husband on her wedding day, and thereafter, her primary responsibility was to bear children (particularly sons) for her husband, rear the children, and care for the household. If her husband died before her and she did not have a son to care for her or a father who would take her back into his household, she had few options for survival. Her life truly meant nothing—was nothing. She was among the invisible marginalized and dispossessed peoples of the ancient world.

But widows mattered to God. Naomi and her husband Elimelech left Judah for the land of Moab because of a famine and settled there. Naomi’s two sons married Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. Eventually, Naomi’s husband and two sons died, and her only option was to return to Judah and attach herself to a man, Boaz, who was a kinsman of her husband. Ruth chose to go with her rather than return to her father’s house, though she was childless. When in Judah, Naomi hatched a plan to get Boaz to show favor to Ruth. Eventually, Boaz not only provided food and other necessities for Ruth and Naomi, but Boaz married Ruth thus securing her future and that of Naomi. But the marriage was not just any marriage. A son, Obed, was born to the union. Obed was the grandfather of great King David, and Ruth, a foreigner, was David’s great-grandmother!

The remarkable thing about the book of Ruth is that it affirms that the love and concern of God extends beyond the people of Israel to people of every nation; and that God chose to manifest this love and concern not through the powerful or influential of the land (who tended to be suspicious of foreigners), but rather through the life of one considered “nothing” by the social standards of the day—the marginal one, the dispossessed one, the throw-away. Further, Ruth—a widow, a foreigner—becomes an exemplar of faith and trust for us all. It should be noted that when Naomi’s sons died, her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, who loved Naomi as their own mother, wanted to stay with her; but Naomi strenuously urged them to go back to their people and there find husbands and thus security for themselves. Orpah, though sad at the parting, heeded her advice and bid Naomi farewell, but Ruth refused, speaking those famous words heard mostly out of context at weddings, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) In truth, Ruth had no assurances in her choice. Naomi was too old to bear another son for her to marry; as widows, neither had the protection of a man. Ruth simply had to throw herself on the kindness of Naomi’s people and the faithfulness of Naomi’s God. And indeed, God was faithful, and God’s will was done.

Yes, widows mattered to God. The story of the “widow’s mite” in our Gospel reading for today is the culmination of a sting of confrontations and critiques recorded in the twelfth chapter of Mark that Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day. No one escapes the eye of Jesus’ scathing criticism—chief priests, Pharisees, the elders, the Sadducees, and in today’s reading, the scribes—and none are very happy about it, either. These religious leaders are charged with interpreting the way of God and teaching it to the people. They are to praise the Lord in the depths of their souls, as Psalm 146, the alternate psalm for today puts it; that is, they are to be so immersed in the love of God that they shine with the light of God for all to see and emulate. And what is this light of God according to the psalmist? To trust fully in God; to give justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry; to set prisoners free and open the eyes of the blind; to lift-up the lowly, care for the stranger, and sustain the orphan and widow—that is, to be on the side of the marginalized and dispossessed! Instead, the scribes were caught up in their religiosity, going through the motions of religious observance for show and their personal honor while doing absolutely the opposite of what they were called by God to do and be. Instead of sustaining the widow, the scribes were oppressing the widow, cheating them out of what little they may have and so condemning them to lives of desperation while the scribes themselves line their own pockets and become richer; and in all likelihood, their schemes were perfectly legal.

Against this backdrop, Jesus notices a poor widow coming forward to drop two copper coins worth a mere penny into the Temple treasury. She contributes her pittance amid rich people who gave (likley generously) out of their abundance. She, however, gave out of her poverty—”all she had to live on,” Jesus tells us. By holding her up as an exemplar, Jesus is not making a statement about good stewardship practices or right giving. Rather, Jesus is holding her up as an example of faithful trust in God. Like the widow Ruth, this widow had no assurances in her choice to put all that she had in the Temple treasury. As a result of here choice, perhaps she did not know where her next meal would come from; as a result of her choice, perhaps she would be unable to pay the rent owed a scribe who was just chomping at the bit to foreclose on her house. Nonetheless, she gave all that she had, hoping and trusting that God would provide for her; and in so doing, this poor widow becomes an example to us of the kind of trust and faithfulness that the religious leaders (of all people) should embody and exemplify. Here we are reminded once again that the love and concern of God often extends beyond the expected to the unexpected—to the marginalized ones, the dispossessed ones, the throw-aways who in turn shine more brightly with the light of God than those specifically called to shine.

Who are the widows among us—the marginalized ones, the dispossessed ones, and the throw-aways—who in their faithful trust shine on us with the love of God? Who are the poor in whose eyes we see the eyes of Jesus staring back at us? Maybe they are Central American refugees fleeing gangs and drugs and violence in their home country, slowly making their way across the deserts of Mexico determined to find a better life for themselves and their families in the United States. Despite the dehumanizing rhetoric being flung at them by the politicians, despite the threats of arrest, deportation, and even violence once they reach our borders, they keep marching forward hoping and trusting that God will keep them safe and turn hearts of stone into fleshy hearts of compassion for their plight. Maybe they are the survivors of gun violence in our land—the children of Marion Stoneman Douglas High School, or the faithful of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, or Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or the black men of our cities who live in the shadow of fear and oppression—people who trust and hope that God will give our nation the “courage at last to walk in the way of the Prince of Peace, humility to loosen its grip on certitude and self-interest, and a spirit of compromise to find a way forward” out of the madness of such violence. Perhaps they are women who find the strength and courage to leave an abusive relationship, trusting and hoping that God will help them find safe shelter for them and their children. Perhaps they are the addicted—alcoholics, opioid addicts, gamblers, over-eaters who, realizing that their lives have become unmanageable, decided to turn their lives over to the care of God, trusting that God could and would deliver them from the madness of their addictions.

These are among the marginalized and dispossessed who, in their helplessness throw themselves completely on the mercy of God, trusting that God will provide, as God provided for Naomi, and Ruth, and the anonymous widow in the Temple. They trust because text after text in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments speak of God’s drive to bring justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, to set prisoners free and open the eyes of the blind, to lift-up the lowly, care for the stranger, and sustain the orphan and widow. They trust because they know God is on their side, for such is God’s heart. And they trust because in text after text of the scriptures, God calls together a community whose heart will be fashioned after the heart of God to reach out to those on the margins and lift them up as Boaz did, and as Jesus called the scribes to do. They trust that God will provide because they know God’s heart, and they have seen God alive in God’s people.

As we see the light of God shine through the marginalized and the dispossessed, so we are called to let go of our lives and all that we cling to for our security, abandoning everything into the care of God just as Ruth and Naomi and the anonymous widow in the Temple did. We are called into voluntary poverty by following in the way of the cross: to engage in self-sacrificial love on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed of the world; to be willing, to give up our very lives if necessary (like Jesus our Lord), for the sake of the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed; to be comfortable standing in the back and giving up our places of honor; to give ourselves completely in trust to the care and protection of God. We are asked to do this even—perhaps especially—if we suffer loss for the sake of following in this way (which, if Jesus is to be believed, we most definitely will), but we do it knowing—like the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed know—that we will be held in the loving care of God, and that the God who asks us to follow in this way is faithful and true. That is, after all, where God’s heart is; that, too, is where our hearts must be as followers of this just and compassionate God; for it is the only place we can possibly find life, true life, in God. Amen.

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