When I am reading the Bible, sometimes the light shines on it in a new way, I get a new message, one that is still true to the gospel, but gives me a slightly different slant. That is how I see God’s Word as living, as alive and responding to the needs of the day. Take, for example, Mark 12:38-44. Take out the verse numbers, and the divisions with the titles in our Bibles, both added hundreds of years after Mark wrote his gospel. See the story he tells all running together…
Jesus is teaching in the temple courts—He warns that the scribes who walk around in long robes being greeted with respect and sitting in places of honour will face the consequences of saying long prayers to keep up their righteous appearances while behind the scenes they are devouring widows’ houses. And then, still in the temple, after he has condemned the teachers of the law for their hypocrisy, for their oppression of widows—devouring their houses, taking them away for non-payment of rent—he sits down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watches the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury—from which the religious leaders had the most to benefit. He calls the disciples over and says, “See—this poor widow—she put in all she had to live on.”
We usually disconnect the first part of this story from the second and focus on the widow and her gift. The second part is often used for stewardship sermons, focussing on the generosity of the widow. But the light shining on the Word this day for me is not necessarily commending the widow, not necessarily using her as a good example. Jesus doesn’t say, “isn’t she wonderful.” He just states the facts. Everybody else, percentage wise, didn’t give as much as she did. And she gave all she had to live on—to the temple treasury, from which those who sat in the most important seats in the synagogue had the most to benefit. So is this another example of the oppression of the widows, of devouring their houses? Is this an indictment of a religious system that results in the most marginalized in society giving all she has so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort?
I am wondering today what happened to that widow that Jesus saw that day. I wonder if anyone pleaded for her, cared for her, gave her a roof over her head, food in her cupboards, helped her look after her children.
We tend to preserve the systems from which we benefit. Self-interest is a prime motivator. And the scribes—the teachers of the law—the ones with the power—are the ones who win, not the widows who have nothing. The Church is no exception. It has often participated in acts and systems of domination that involve “devouring widow’s houses.” It has supported slavery, anti-Semitism, racism, residential schools, and the oppression of women. Like many of the scribes whom Jesus condemned, we may have thought we were doing what was right. Perhaps, they were caught up in a system over which they felt they had little control, as we may also sense for ourselves.
James reminds us that religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for the marginalized and to keep ourselves unstained from the world. (See James 1: 27) So what then can we do?
We can learn from our history so we don’t repeat our mistakes. We can work for the common good, not just our own self-interest, and give our systems the “common good” test. We can stand up for the “widows,” support micro credit businesses, buy fair trade, be alert and report any hints of human trafficking, write letters in support of affordable housing or opposed to sweatshops, befriend the one who is alone. There are hundreds of other ideas of what we can do to care for each other and especially the marginalized. There may be a financial cost (eg. fair trade commerce), but the peace that passes understanding that we will be helping to spread is well worth it. The light still shines on the living Word.