Please check out the following sermon preached this past Sunday at Sparta United Methodist Church in Sparta, NJ by Kathleen Stone, Chaplain to the Church Center for the United Nations. It is specifically speaking about two texts from last Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings, Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Mark 12:38-44.
I’ve entitled this sermon, confessions from a woman’s eyes.
I feel a little bit that by the end of this morning, in the best of light you might look at me like I’ve uncovered the missing “r” that the monk discovered. You see after all these 2000 years, and the 100s of years of painstaking transcription, writing down each letter with such precision, the monk discovers that an “r” had been dropped by some early predecessor who had worked painstakingly in the night to illustrate the scriptures. You see, it was supposed to be “celebrate”….not celebate.
Now, lest you think I’m thinking this would be good news and everyone would be happy, imagine the traditionalists, imagine the church structures, and imagine all the conflict that this discovery would bring forth.
But, just to be straight up. Here’s what I’m trying to do these days. Scripture has been interpreted for 2000 years mostly through the eyes of those who really do not know the story of women unless they were married to them and even then, well……husbands, boyfriends, sons…..do you find yourselves sometimes just not understanding women at all? Women’s experiences of life, the social, economic and political world around them and what they do about it really are somewhat outside men’s experiences of the same.
I remember this amazing poet I used to listen to quite regularly and he and a female storyteller did a seminar together. In that seminar, they discussed what happens between men and women in relationship….And with great humor, David Whyte – the poet said…..you know…..the woman comes in and says…. “Dear, we need to talk about this” and the man responds, “Again? Didn’t we talk about that last week?”
So, I ask you for a moment to think and feel along with me. I know this can be challenging but give me and the God who has freed me and liberated me to tell my truth, for this moment, give me a hearing…….
These two texts were simply the texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary.
Widows — Ruth and Naomi, as well as this unnamed woman in the Gospel story, they were all widows. In ancient Israel, a widow, was the proverbial metaphor for someone who was utterly marginalized by the society in which they lived. They are poor, not from their own merits, content of their character or any other reason than the written and unwritten cultural, legal, social, economic policies that impoverished them and told them they are without any power. They are not powerless or voiceless because they have no voice or no inner power or have nothing to contribute to society. They are not helpless or dumb or uneducated from the skills they need to live in that society …… they are impoverished and exiled because the society has dis-enfranchised them and determined that they are not worth a hearing, not worth a roof over their head, not worth food on their tables…not worth anything. They are not poor because they deserve it, are owed it, did it wrong, made the wrong decisions, etc. They are poor because the policy of the land made it so that …….unless the widow was attractive enough for a man to remarry her, she remained destitute, and vulnerable to atrocities.
This attitude was in ancient Israel (and in some places around the world still) considered normal; not many questioned this aspect of the social world. The Prophets challenged it sometimes. But mainstream temple politics certainly did not. It was most often not raised up as a question in men’s literacy classes. The widows themselves, I’m sure, critiqued the injustice, but most merely had to put their heads down and somehow manipulate their circumstances as best they could so that they’d be able to have another meal and a roof over their heads….. These were women……seriously cursed not by God, but it could be taken out on God…..they were women seriously cursed by the social world in which they lived. …. As they both grieved for the life and perhaps love they had lost and had concerns for their survival at levels I don’t know whether many of us in this sanctuary can relate to.
Let’s look at the texts now that we have a bit of context. We have a bit more of Ruth and Naomi’s life in text than the Widow in the Gospel text.
In Ruth and Naomi’s case, the horrendous nature of the political and economic and social consequences of being marginalized come forth into their lives…. First of all, they have to migrate. Naomi determines to go back where she thinks she has a bit of a community from the past. But, Naomi arrives back into Israel to gossip from the townswomen who do not quite recognize her, and question whether she is Naomi. I wonder if grief and the hardship of widowhood and migrating across the desert had all taken their toll. The women of the community (which I assume are all married) had bought into the ways things were…..had bought into the horrors of a system of social, economic and political exclusion – probably saying things like “but for the Grace of God, go I” and then saying, “What are you going to do; look at her, she’s so far gone”. But, for whatever reasons, the community support systems that Naomi had wished for are just not there. Naomi is no longer beautiful or young and I’m assuming she has some deep well of grief and anger that she needs to work through just because of that; but this next injury where her sisters from the past gossip and exclude her again — God, help us.
The incredibly loyal daughter in law Ruth thus must figure out a way for them to survive. So, she goes out to glean the barley in Boaz’s fields. Gleaning, for those of you who don’t know, was a legal way that the impoverished could have food in ancient Israel – like a food bank, this was the leftovers…..they would follow behind the official harvesters and glean whatever little bits were left. Whole loads of poor people often gleaned in the fields.
For a while this gleaning works for Naomi and Ruth, but in today’s text, the fields are harvested and so, like we heard, they have to figure out something new to survive. Naomi, wise in the ways of the world, determines to use the one power the two of them have left, Ruth’s youth, appearance and beauty…coupled with the power of sexual attraction….. Naomi traffics Ruth – dressing her in very attractive clothing and perfume, Naomi tells her to lie down with the twice her age old man Boaz in the middle of the threshing floor. This way, they might both have a chance of surviving.
Now let me stop here. Tradition hasn’t usually looked at this text in the way I’m going to look at it. Traditional interpretations seriously white wash Boaz. The tradition says: Boaz is a savior type figure who saved Ruth and Naomi and whose descendants eventually birthed Jesus. We know, certainly, that without Boaz, the life of Ruth and Naomi would have most likely ended, unless they found another way to survive. ….…. . But from my vantage point, Boaz isn’t really worthy at the entire label of savior. He simply uses his economic, political and cultural power as a landowning politically privileged male of significant social stature to get what he wants. He neither really cares whether women who are still left in the fields have anything to eat…. nor figures out ways that there could be a more systemic address to feed the widows where they would not be so impoverished. He simply figures out a way to save the one he wants, Ruth, who has done such kindness to him to lie down with him, an old man….. and realizes it’s probably a package deal with Naomi.
This is the moral dilemma with having power. And this is what I want to talk about…..For I believe this is the challenge in both this story and the widow’s mite story. When you have economic, social or political power, you can use it simply to get more of what you want or you can understand the systems and pressures that create the power imbalances and the totally unjust judgments of society……and do something about that…..notice it….tell the truth about it…..work to eradicate it. I prefer to think the 2nd of these is Gospel Good News work.
In the Widow’s mite story, Jesus is pointing out not so much the Widow’s two cents as the Widow’s two cents in comparison to the Sadducees and Pharisees who’s relatively small but great contribution allowed them access to the power and privileges of the temple. They were sure they were “in”, “righteous”, “the ones whose appearance seemed so clean” while at night they devoured widows’ houses. How we could spend a long time on this when we think about bank bailouts, the housing crisis, the ways were made to participate in a system which is just not good for poor people, which does ok for the middle class but which does very well for the rich……….from birth to death…..
Recent elections? Yes, we can use the power we have to get what we want, to make us feel important, to make sure we have the privileges we think important….. Or we can use it to make sure that the systems change so that no woman or man or child ever has to compromise their fullness of life, the abundant life, by giving their proverbial last two pence to the religious coffers…..or that no man, woman or child ever has to give their body to the Boaz’s of the world in order to belong, be a part, to eat, to have shelter, to be forgiven, to have a place…..everyone should have these things…..PERIOD.
What is the role of the Church – the Body of Christ – in such a world……..
We can take a look at the Body of Jesus’ in this middle of this culturally, politically and economically disastrously powerless world for widows, for those disenfranchised…those society has deemed not so important………He sits down where he can see what’s going on and he waits, and listens, and watches and from all of that, he slams the Pharisees and Sadducees – tells the truth about them and then…finds a widow, this unnamed widow – the one with nothing – no looks, no marriageability, no power in society and impoverished and notices her. …..There’s nothing pretty about what he gazes upon. It’s painful. She’s putting her last two pennies in the temple treasury….Don’t you want to shout, “STOP!” But, he watches her. He gazes upon her. And then? He raises her up. He notices her love, her faithfulness, her hope, her story, her generosity, her richness and in pointing to the system of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he then condemns a system that would require her to give her last two pennies to the Temple treasury where she will receive nothing in return from their economic, political or social distribution of power…no power to sit up front, no belonging, no food, no redemption….nothing….. He watches her. The great Jesus who had crowds of people gathering around him, in the center of Jewish economic, social, political power, the Temple which was in the center of an unjust Jerusalem and he gazes upon the one who is “nothing” in the eyes of the world…
I’m not pretending to have answers about what the Church should do, but Jesus’ action here would be a good start. I’m sure there was discomfort in the room when Jesus pointed out this concern in the Temple and to raise up a Widow’s tuppence as the better gift? Where do we need to point out the concern in our life together, dear people? And how would this truth-telling and compassion truly embody the good news Gospel?