This is my senior sermon delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary on November 26, 2018, addressed primarily to my community of classmates, professors, and administrators.
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4
Apparently, the Diocese of Virginia has been concerned about its seminarians lately. You see, they haven’t been saying the word “Jesus” enough in interviews. This has become a bit of a running joke for my 2019 cohort. Now, I must admit I was as uncomfortable as most #exvangelicals when a member of my own Standing Committee eagerly spoke up to say they’d been asking every interviewee, “But do you love Jesus?” I mean, what are you really supposed to do with that as an Episcopal seminarian? Do they really think we’ll say “Nah, not so much, I’m more of a Paul guy?”
Yet at the same time that we're not interested in repeating Christian clichés and using religious terminology merely to seem “correct,” many of us have also been wondering where Jesus is supposed to show up in our campus curriculum. In the two and a half years I have been at this seminary, I have taken classes in Bible, systematic theology, Christian ethics, ancient languages, and church history. Yet not once have I heard a single lecture or had an assignment on the lived life or teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Why? Of course, I’m not in charge so I can only guess, but I wonder if challenging stories like the one we have assigned today play a role in how much more comfortable our lives are if we still stick to theories about the Christ rather than the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus began his transition from teaching and healing in Galilee to religious debates and the Passion in Jerusalem midway through Luke’s Gospel. Upon arrival in the great city of David, he has wept over it, protested in the temple, had a death-plot start against him, and debated authority, taxes, the resurrection, and the son of David. Jesus’s opponents are driven to silence as this section comes to a close, allowing him the chance to do some observation and commentary on the surrounding temple scene.
What our lectionary has so suspiciously cut off is the other half of the story. It reads:
And, while all the people were listening, he said to the disciples, “Be wary of the scribes, who wish to walk about in long robes and who cherish salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the chief couches at banquets; who devour the houses of widows and as a pretense make long prayers; these shall receive a severer judgment.”
This then is the context for his observation of the rich giving showy gifts while the destitute widow gives her entire living away: a judgement on the religious institution’s leaders and scholars who give long prayers and take honored places while devouring the houses of widows!
The widow’s foolishness, her pious and naïve trust in her religious leaders to care for the people of God, has led her to go beyond the requirements of the Law in giving up everything she had to live on while it simultaneously shows up the cynical behavior of the leaders who preach what they never intend to follow. These scholars have ingenious and elaborate justifications of their actions, and they have developed tradition and ritual in order to repress their anxiety and moral consciousnesses. Quoting chapter and verse, they can fund their grand buildings, liturgical vestments, and the training and supply of the vocational elite class while neglecting the care of the orphan, widow, and all the oppressed and impoverished classes these traditional labels represent.
I imagine those scholars and leaders back then might join with many today who repeat the sentiment of Jesus’ own disciples in a different Gospel context: “This Word is hard; who can listen to it?” After all, we live in the real world, right? We need our private, exclusive pension system built on investing in private prisons, oil companies, and the military-industrial complex. We need our buildings built with slave labor, our endowments developed with sugar-water capitalism, and our ongoing fundraising efforts giving voice and honor to the wealthy, denying contribution to public needs from large estates through financial planning (something which reminds me of Jesus’s condemnation of corban), and even the taking of pennies from widows, widowers, and poor clergy with the justification that “rewards will be had in heaven!”
Yet, is this what Jesus would have us do? Walter Brueggemann, based on his studies of the Hebrew Bible, once said that “to do justice” is to “sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” That seems to be more consistent with the teachings of this first-century Rabbi who regularly condemned the rich, commanded that wealth be given away, and sought out the poor and marginalized to the exclusion of the religious.
Now, I really do sympathize with the problem. I don’t really know how to do this either. I’m struggling to know how to apply these teachings today, with my family and obligations. I recognize that it’s easier to speculate about the divine Christ than to wrestle with the human Jesus. But let’s be honest and open our eyes: how often does obsession with, say, finding the absolute correct theory of the atonement, something which has little-to-no impact on how we are to live our lives, distract us from the command of Jesus to follow him and do what he provided us example?
There are four sets of characters in this story. Jesus, his disciples, the crowds, and then finally those in power: all those religious leaders, the scholars, and the rich. History is not so distant from us as we’d like: I think if we’re honest, most of us are in or well on the way to being in that latter group soon. Our challenge is to recognize that, and then to explore what it might mean to join a different group, to become part of the disciples who crouch at the feet of the master listening to and wrestling with these hard words. Right now, we're facing record levels of wealth in equality while my generation and younger in particular has become disillusioned with organized religion having anything to do or say about the situation. And we're supposed to be in parishes weekly, very soon, reading these stories and teachings of Jesus and trying to relate them to current lives and events. We'll get questions, or, maybe more likely, we'll get silent drifting away as the teachings of the homeless, possession-less hero of the poor are twisted into justification of wealth and charity.
So I invite us all together to re-evaluate where we are in this story. It’s inescapable that we're the scholars and the religious leaders or leaders-in-training. What I want us to consider is moving from our places of privilege walking about halls of the sacred institution and instead find a place on the floor beside the teacher from Nazareth, listening to and wrestling with these hard words.
“The widow’s foolishness…cynical behavior of the leaders…” see DeLay, The Cynic and the Fool for expanded commentary on the two types.
“This Word is hard; who can listen to it?” from John 6:36 according to David Bentley Hart’s translation. Capitalization added.
“to do justice” from Brueggemann, To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly, 5 quoted in Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church, 199.
Image from “Jesus of the People” by Janet McKenzie.