Preached at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, November 11, 2018, the weekend of Veterans Day. Readings from 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Mark 12:38-44, Hebrews 9:24-28.
The readings from our lectionary seem to preach themselves today. I would like to give them a little context, and then ask you to listen one more time to these stories, thoughtfully hearing their words anew, to see what the Spirit might have to say to us today.
Our readings focus on the Widow.
In the ancient world, the widow and orphan were the most vulnerable in society. They had no means of income, beyond that most ancient of occupations, and were left to trust in the kindness of neighbors and the laws of their nation.
The first of many encounters between the vilified Israelite king Ahab and the great prophet Elijah centers around a divine judgement-by-drought and the care of a foreign widow. Ahab is said to have done what is wrong in the eyes of God more than any of his predecessors, and worst of all he had taken Jezebel the daughter of the king of Sidon as his wife. Sidon was one of the powerful and wealthy city-states of the Phoenicians. This marriage brought both lucrative trade contracts and foreign idol worship to Israel. In response, Elijah proclaimed three years of drought on the land, and then fled to the wilderness. Here he came across the household of a widow where our reading begins.
Then the word of the Unnamable came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Tzar-eh-fat that belongs to Sidon: you are to stay there, for here, I have charged a widow woman there to sustain you,”
So he arose and went to Tzarefat; he came to the entrance of the town, and here: a widow woman there was gathering pieces of wood. He called to her and said: “Pray fetch me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” She went to fetch it, and he called to her and said: “Pray fetch me a bit of bread in your hand.”
She said, “By the life of the Unnamable your God, if I have anything baked except a palmful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug... for here, I have been gathering two pieces-of- wood; I will come home and make it for me and for my son, and we will eat it and die.”
Elli-yah-hoo said to her, “Do not be afraid; go, do according to your words, but make me a small baked-cake from there first, and bring it out to me, while for you and for your son, make some afterward. For thus says the Unnamable the God of Israel: ‘The jar of meal will not be finished and the jug of oil will not be lacking until the day of the Unnamable’s giving showers upon the face of the ground!’”
She went and did according to the word of Eliyyahu, and she ate, she and he and her household, for some days. The jar of meal was not finished, and the jug of oil was not lacking, according to the word of the Unnamable that he had spoken by the hand of Eliyyahu.
Here, in the midst of a story about the heights of power, wealth, and religion in the 22-year reign of a famous king and queen, God and God’s prophet enter the depths of society to dwell intimately with a widow and her young son for three years.
Now, when Jesus sat down in the temple, he was in the middle of a series of confrontations with his religious and political opponents. Starting in chapter eight of the Gospel of Mark, he and the disciples had turned their faces permanently from Galilee to Jerusalem, to walk on that Way which would lead to the cross. At each step, he came up against resistance from the leaders of his society, the powerful and the wealthy.
Here in the 12th chapter he has just finished answering a question about the first of all commandments by answering with the great two: love of God and love of neighbor as yourself. After this, it was said, “nobody dared to put any more questions to him.”
So as he had a moment to catch his breath from all the tests and challenges he had received, he was able to make commentary on what he was seeing. Those religious leaders who had backed off on the questions might soon have preferred to keep him busy, as he said:
“Be wary of the scribes who desire to walk about in long robes,
and desire salutations in the marketplaces,
and chief seats in the synagogues,
and chief couches at meals;
those devouring the homes of the widows and praying at great length for show,
these shall receive condemnation in greater abundance.”
And sitting opposite the treasury
he watched how the crowd puts coin into the treasury;
and many rich men put in a great deal;
and one destitute widow came and put in two lepta, which is a quadrans.
And summoning his disciples he said to them,
“Amen, I tell you that this widow,
the destitute woman,
put in more than all those donating to the treasury;
for all donated out of what they have in abundance,
but out of her poverty this woman donated all she had whatsoever,
her whole livelihood.
Who is condemned? “Those who devour the houses of widows.” And who are they? The leaders who flaunt their religiosity and individual charitable giving while living in a society in which the widows starve and are made homeless.
Our Sacred Scriptures say over and over that the judgement of the world is founded on the fortunes of the weakest rather than the most powerful. I must be honest. So often in our world today, just as in the world of Elijah and Jesus, the reverse seems to be true. It seems that the powerful who make trade deals, who wage war, who worship idols of wealth, it is they whom the cosmos honors and grants glory. And it is the wage-earner, the veteran and widow of war, and the humble people of family and faith, who are the losers and the fodder of the great. That seems to be the story that we read in our newspapers and our history books.
But as for me, this day and this hour at least, I choose to commit myself to this alternative story from our Sacred Scriptures. I choose to pledge my allegiance to this vision of the cosmos. And so I will recite our Psalm once again:
My soul brims with gratitude for you
Whom I’ll praise all my life—
As long as I am I’ll sing your songs
Don’t put your trust in the powerful
Mere people who can hold but never save
When their breath leaves them
They return to the earth they’re made of
And on that day
All their hopes end
But happy is the one
Who trusts you for help
Whose hope rests with you
Who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all it holds
Whose truth is endless
Who brings justice to the oppressed
Bread to the hungry
Who frees the bound
Teaches the blind to see
Lifts up the bent over
Who loves the upright
Guards the stranger
Protects the orphan and widow
And provides the heedless with all the trouble they need
You whose way is right forever
Zion’s guide for all the generations—
Praise is yours
1 Kings translated by Dr. Everett Fox, The Schocken Bible Volume II.
Dr. Fox is a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible. His translation is very faithful to the Hebrew, including correct transliterations of proper names.
Mark 12:38-44 translated by Dr. David Bentley Hart, The New Testament.
Dr. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and Greek scholar. His translation is also very close to the Greek, including honoring oddities in grammar.
Psalm 146 translated by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Opening to You.
Mr. Fischer is a poet and abbott in the Zen Buddhist tradition. He is Jewish by birth and re-encountered the beauty and terror of the psalms being chanted at a Catholic monastery on retreat. He was captivated and appalled simultaneously, and began to work on his own paraphrases from his center in Zen after that initial shock. I find them refreshing and profound.