Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lessons from the widow at the temple

One of the stories in this evening's chunk of Mark (12:18-44) is the one about the widow in the temple.

I've always found this a complex and fascinating episode. Traditionally, she's seen simply as a model of self-sacrificing generosity. And that's how Jesus commends her to us. But just a couple of sentences before, he's drawn our attention to the scribes getting rich because 'they devour widows' houses' (12:40), leaving them in the state exemplified by the widow in this scene.

So, here's a picture of this devout woman dropping her last two coins into the treasury to pay for the upkeep of the scribes' power base and relieve the poor of Jerusalem. It's a somewhat more nuanced scene than we often see.

I think it serves both a negative and positive example.

She is an example of a widow being ripped by a system built on religious hucksterism. She's the victim of the worst kind of telly evangelist-style exploitation; the sort that says if you send a dollar, God will bless and heal you; a victim of the devouring of widow's houses that Jesus has just condemned.

But she is also an example of self-sacrifice, a picture of Jesus in giving her all for the good of others - even others who do not deserve it. Jesus is about to offer his body as a sacrifice on behalf of sinners - like the scribes, like the temple authorities who hound him to death, like this widow, like you and me.

We assume the audience of the teaching in v38-44 is primarily the disciples. Jesus is telling his friends not to be like the scribes, motivated by money, using religion as a means of making a fast buck at the expense of the vulnerable. Sadly it's a lesson we need to learn in each generation.

The lesson probably ripples wider to those in any kind of public service. After all, the scribes were among the political elite and rulers in Jerusalem. The widow is a lesson for all who enter politics - that it's about serving not being served.

And it's a lesson for us who are privileged to live in a system where we're allowed a say in who governs in our country. Are we looking for people who live lives of self sacrifice, seeking the welfare of their communities, paying particular attention to the poorest, the most vulnerable, the marginalised and weak?

Judging by the results of our recent round of elections, that doesn't seem to be the case. we still vote only for those who offer us the best deal, promise to protect our standard of living. We who have enough ought to be looking at the poor widows giving everything they have to keep their communities alive, get alongside them and share our fortune

1 comment:

Ben said...

I was struck by how well this illustration of 'radical downward mobility' chimes with the example of the suffering church in Revelation. Both are a kind of anti-Prosperity Theology: a reversal of the gospel that I see spreading even in the local church. (Not in the Baptist Church, I hasten to add.)

It's a very cynical piece of in-house secularism, I think, to assume that Jesus could want no more from us than to be happy, healthy, beautiful and rich... And one which guarantees Christian extinction within a generation or two, if it continues unchecked.

Which I think is what the artist Robert Lentz was trying to convey in his 'Christ of Maryknoll' icon; the challenge to meet Jesus where He really is... at the margins.