Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44 for Nov. 11, 2018, Pentecost +25B
I taught the Old Testament in Croatia for 10 years, and I came to understand that the stories in the Hebrew Bible are not cute or simple. These stories were probably first told orally before they were written down. People tell stories because they say something about who they are and how they believe the world is. People remember and write down stories, and hand them on to the next generation because they believe something essential and important can only be learned and remembered through stories.
We do that too. We tell stories all the time, although in different forms. There are the stories we read in books, the stories we see in films, the stories we hear in radio and podcasts. Did you ever think about the news as a form of storytelling? It is. To say “story” doesn’t imply true story or fictitious story. There are both kinds of stories.
Another word for story is narrative. We hear narrators narrate stories all the time. Actually, in all of our heads is a mental narrator, narrating our lives to us as we live them. It is the voice we hear in our heads that tells us that we like what is happening or we do not like it, telling us we are doing a good job, or failing, telling us we are good enough, or not good enough, that we have enough, or that we do not have enough of whatever we need at the moment, or for the future.
It is important to believe true narratives. It is important to live into true narratives. True narratives teach us; they guide us through life, and help us to be the people we were made to be; the unique, beloved, children of God that we truly are.
But bad narratives are destructive. They mislead us. They hamstring our ability to love, to grow, to blossom, to thrive as God wants us to.
So, today we have two stories before us. They were remembered and shared, written down and handed down to us. That means they are part of our wisdom tradition, our scriptures. Both stories are stories of widows. We will look briefly at both of them and try to see the deep levels of meaning that they contain for us.
Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
First the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. Elijah is a prophet, so this is a prophet story. We expect that prophets are agents of God, speaking for God, and acting as God’s instruments. But this is also a widow story. Widows are type-characters. We know that this is going to be a story of scarcity.
Widows were one of a set of three types of people, a trio of characters, that the Hebrew Bible draws frequent attention to. The other two are the orphan and the stranger, or resident alien, or, what we call the immigrant. This trio of characters is notoriously vulnerable, unprotected, without adequate means to maintain themselves. So, the Law of Moses has many provisions for making sure that the community comes together to help them. Every third year, for example, the tithes (we would call them taxes because they were not voluntary contributions) were specifically collected to support the widows, the orphans, the immigrants and the Levites who had no land of their own.
But the Elijah story takes place outside of Israel, in the land of Sidon. There is no Law of Moses there, so this widow has no social safety net. She is on the brink of starvation, she and her little boy. Scarcity is her narrative. It defines her. She has no hope. One more meal, and that’s it for them. Then they die.
But something new enters the narrative. The prophet of the living God shows up. On the surface level, what Elijah asks of her is horrible – he wants her last meal. But on the deeper level, we see that the prophet, as God’s agent, is there to reverse the narrative of scarcity and transform it into a narrative of abundance. We see again and again that God’s orientation is directed towards the poor. Not just the poor Israelites but the poor on the other side of the border, in a foreign land, in Sidon.
Jesus will recall this story, according to Luke’s gospel, specifically to draw attention to the fact that God’s care for widows extends beyond the borders of Israel. When Jesus said that, it made the nationalist of his day angry. They tried to kill him then and there, but Luke says cryptically,
“he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4)
Back to the story: when an agent of the living God shows up, hopelessness is transformed into hope. There is a future where no future had been imaginable. God is a God of compassion without limits and borders. God is oriented towards the poor. So the meal never ran out, and the oil remained abundant. The narrative of scarcity was transformed into a narrative of abundance.
The Widow’s mite
Now let us look briefly at the other widow story. This is a Jesus story, so again we expect it to be a story of an agent of God teaching us something important. It is a widow story too, and so we are prepared to understand that type-character, with all the baggage of need, of vulnerability and scarcity, included. But this widow is inside Israel where the Law of Moses has many provisions for widows, right?
Not so fast. The Law is there, but is anyone paying attention to it? Well, we may think, maybe many average people could have been neglecting the Law of Moses, but surely not the religious leadership? We would be wrong if we thought that. In Jesus’ day, the temple leaders were of the aristocracy. They had their own vested interests to protect.
How does Mark tell this story? Before getting into the story, Mark recounts a strong warning from Jesus to his disciples about those aristocratic religious leaders. He says,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses…”
How would you devour a widow’s house? The next story shows how. I used to think of this story as quaint, or perhaps cute. It used to be called the story of the widow’s mite, the old King James’ translation of the copper coins she contributed. I heard it as an example story: we should all be like the humble woman who contributed her last two coins to the temple. But that was a misread.
This is not a cute example story. It is a scathing criticism. Instead of collecting money from the community to support this poor widow, the leadership was extracting money from her, making her scarcity even more extreme. Her house was being devoured before their very eyes, by people who had more than enough, but whose appetites for more only grew larger along with their growing wealth.
So what does Jesus, the agent of God do in this situation? He draws our attention to the widow, to the one in need. Maybe we had been paying attention to the big donors, but if so, our eyes were misdirected. Our attention, like God’s, should be on the poor. Jesus exposes and names the injustice. The gap between the rich and the poor was widening before their eyes. Widows’ homes were being devoured. Look at it; face it; name it. It goes against everything we believe in.
There is no miracle here. No endless supply of meal and oil for this widow. Because the problem that has driven her to utter poverty and scarcity is not an individual problem to be solved individually. It is structural; it is systemic. The whole system is set up to squeeze her last coins from her bony fingers, and to stuff the bulging pockets of the wealthy.
How can we possibly hear these stories and not see our own situation being described? We are surrounded by narratives of scarcity, telling us that there is not enough to go around. Not enough food in this country to feed all of our hungry children. Not enough money to provide adequate health care for everyone. Not enough to end homelessness. Right here, right now, we watch as the backpack program gets severely reduced. And we are told that the poor people of other nations do not count. In fact, we are told that we should fear them, as if God was partial to native English speakers.
We do not believe these narratives of scarcity. We believe the earth has enough to support us all. We believe that our attention as a people is properly directed to the poor. We believe that we are now the agents of God for our generation.
So, it is important to look at the systems and structures of our day that contribute to the problem. We have been fed the narrative that the free market always makes the wisest decisions. But we are people who have had our eyes opened by a vision of abundance that we call the kingdom of God, which has helped us to see things.
We see that the market does not care if you have a job or not. The market does not care if you have health care or not. The market does not care if you are a widow, or an orphan or an immigrant and you are suffering. The market does not even care if your water is poisoned or your air makes you sick. The market is not a Christian. It is not even a humanist. The market does not believe that the poor in spirit are blessed nor does it believe the meek will inherit the earth, but Jesus did, and as his followers, we do. We do believe that there is such a thing as enough.
So, we live into this alternative narrative. We will take some of our abundance, and we set it aside, dedicating it to God for the sake of this faith-community and for the sake of our mission to our neighbors. We believe the narrative of abundance because we believe in a living God who lures us toward goodness, toward love, and toward compassion. We believe that we are not isolated individuals but that we are a community. That means we believe we have responsibility for each other, and especially for the poor. And we do not believe that national borders confine our love.
And from here we will go out and work to make the structures and systems of our world more attentive and responsive to the poor. We will work to do what the market cannot do: bring the values of the kingdom of God to bear on the structures of our world. We believe in inclusion, in welcoming the stranger, and in making sure that everyone has a seat at the banquet table, because this is where we find our blessing, our joy, and our peace. This is our response of faithfulness to our Living God of abundance.