The Widow’s Offering: Blog Action Day 2014 (Mark 12:38-44)

Facebookinstagramsocialtile2There’s a moment, not long after the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus and the disciples are watching the rich and the powerful make extravagant offerings to the Temple coffers. And yet Jesus isn’t impressed with them; rather, his attention turns to a widow, tatty-clothed and hungry, who places two small copper coins into the collection. “Look,” he says, “She’s put in more than everyone else; that’s all she has to live on.”

I’ve always heard this taught as an example of great faith, and maybe it is – after all, no-one can say that the widow’s offering isn’t sacrificial. She gives everything she’s got to God, trusting that he’ll look after her; frankly, she’s got more guts than I’d have in that situation. Problem is, if we leave this story as one of an individual’s trust in God, we miss the prophetic anger that drives the scene. Because this is all about inequality.

The widow appears in verse 42, four verses after Jesus excoriates the religious leaders. These so-called “Men of God” demand respect and honour and make a great show of their piety, but they’re all surface – underneath, they’re the sort of people who “devour widows’ houses” and they’re heading for a fall.

This pretty brutal summary comes immediately before the widow makes her offering, painting the whole scene in a harsher light. Suddenly her story falls within a great prophetic tradition – look at how Isaiah and Amos rail against religious observance coming at the expense of justice. It’s clear from the Old Testament Law that the widow s08257_all_001_01-widowsMitehouldn’t have been in such dire straits – the community should have been protecting her, along with orphans and immigrants. Instead the very men who should have been defending her cause were pushing her deeper into poverty. We’re seeing piety without justice; doctrine without jubilee. No wonder the very next passage is a prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.

So, what does this mean for a world in which the richest 10% hold 86% of the wealth, in which the wealthiest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion? I live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet we’ve seen a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last twelve months. It feels like inequality has been sequenced into our society’s DNA.

The frightening thing is, I know the answer starts with me – or rather us. I like blaming the 1%, until realising that I’m in the next 9% just by benefit of being born in a European country and having a decent job. That’s a sobering thought, forcing me to count my blessings and check my privilege. But even when I realise that I still do more tutting than acting. And the houses of widows still get devoured.

I can’t fix global inequality. But I can vote with an eye towards justice, I can make my voice heard, I can donate, I can use my democratic right to hold power to account. I can see people not as shirkers or skivers but as individuals with there own stories and circumstances and histories that I need to be aware of. Because, in the face of naked displays of avarice and hypocrisy, Jesus, the Son of God, was most interested in a starving widow.

In the face of food banks and ambiguous percentages, I think that’s a lesson for us all.

Some older posts related to wider issues of inequality are The Edges of the Harvest, No Jew or Greek But Plenty of Elephants, and Aliens, Strangers and Junia the Apostle

The Edges of the Harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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And so we enter into harvest season; we hold festivals and bring tins of baked beans or our prize winning parsnip to the front of church and thank God for another year of his provision and blessings. And yet harvest isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility.

We see this back in Leviticus 19. Among various laws concerning lying, stealing and idolatry we come across what to do with the edges of your harvest:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

At its heart, this is a law of compassion, but one with far-reaching implications. After all, this law lead to the first meeting of Ruth and Boaz, who went onto become ancestors of King David and, by extension, Jesus himself: justice for a poverty-stricken immigrant is at the root of Israel’s royal line. When you help alleviate poverty, it’s always wise to listen for the echoes.

But the reason there are echoes is because some laws are also acts of remembrance. Deuteronomy 24:19:22 gives a bit more context for this: God helped the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they should help others in need. Yeah, sure, you may have planted the seeds and tended the fields, you may want to glean every last bit of profit from your labours, but ultimately the reason you’re there in the first place is because of God, and if you’re blessed you better make sure you’re blessing others.

This is the relevance of harvest to an increasingly urbanised population. Figures from the Trussell Trust note there has been a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last financial year, although the number of food banks themselves has only risen by 45%. There are needs out there, and while one-off donations are fine, there’s a more systemic element to this; people can’t be left to starve. There’s a reason we’re talking about Old Testament laws rather than suggestions. This stuff needs to be woven into our day-to-day lives; Israel was called to be a nation that protected orphans, widows and immigrants, to proclaim a Jubilee every 50 years to prevent generational poverty. It’s in the job description.

(So maybe, as Pastor Abe Johnson points out, the story of the widow’s offering isn’t just a celebration of a woman’s faith, but a condemnation of the attitudes that lead to her being so poor in the first place – you can’t divorce Mark 12:41-44 from verses 38-40.)

This isn’t about charity, this is about justice. Our harvest – literal or metaphorical – isn’t entirely ours, not in God’s eyes, and everything, from groceries to rainforests, are called upon to ensure fairness for the poor and oppressed. God has a call on our lives – our souls, our principles and the edges of our harvest.

The Scars of God (John 20:24-29; Revelation 5:6)

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Sometimes we miss the scandal of Christianity.

It’s shocking enough to say that God became human, that the creator and sustainer of the universe contracted and limited and incarnated himself, not as a warrior-king but as a baby. The Almighty had to learn how to walk and talk, had to learn to read stories in which he was intimately involved, had to be dressed and fed and washed.

The Son of God had to be potty trained. How shocking is that?

That was his childhood of course, and childish things would be put aside to follow a path that lead to the cross. We know this story, know that it ends with resurrection, Jesus returning in a body that seems both spirit and flesh and blood. It’s this resurrection that demonstrates triumph over death.

And yet look at Jesus’s encounter with a doubting Thomas; while Jesus is back from the dead, he still carries scars. They could have been healed, but they remain.

This isn’t just an interesting fact about what happens when someone comes back from the dead. This becomes a fundamental part of Jesus’s identity. When John’s having his apocalyptic vision in Revelation 5, a great and mighty figure is introduced, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David. We’re lead to expect some powerful warrior sitting on the throne; instead we get a slaughtered lamb, but a slaughtered lamb with power over all creation.

This is intrinsic to the gospel story, and points to the scars of suffering and sacrifice as being fundamental to Christ’s identity; Revelation, all about Jesus as king, portrays him as slaughtered rather than slaughterer. In John ‘s gospel, those scars are sufficient to prove that he is who he says he is. These aren’t battle scars either, at least not how we might understand that; sure, Jesus won the battle over death, but that was through his sacrifice, not war, through changing the game rather than playing by its rules. A God with scars turns the world upside down.

No, wait: a God with scars turns the world right-side up.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer, with those who have been hurt and abused, with those pushed to the sidelines, with those beaten and battered and bruised. And, because these scars are self-sacrificial, they also speak of love and compassion.

The scars of God aren’t a blasphemous anomaly, they’re a part of who he is. And that’s shocking but also hopeful: God is with us. Even when the knives are out, even when the war is raging, we’ll know the King through the scars on his hands.

No Jew or Greek but Plenty of Elephants (Galatians 3:26-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
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I like this verse. It speaks to the Star Trek fan in me , the Utopian; we can get beyond our differences and move forward into the future because we’re reconciled to God and we’re all his children. So let ‘s treat each other as equals and embrace a world in which we’re post-racial, post-feminist, a world in which sexism and racism are artefacts of seventies sitcoms. Our differences take second place to our unity.

But that’s not always true in practice, is it? Our differences do still matter; if they didn’t, would there be protests in Ferguson, Missouri?

There’s a danger that we end up using verses like this as a silencing tactic – “Paul said we’re all one in Christ Jesus, therefore I’m not racist. Please stop asking awkward questions.”

Now, I’m not arguing that, through Christ, we’re all God’s children, all joined together as a family in which, despite our demographics, we’re all equal. But if we are all spiritual siblings, then we don’t get to ignore or explain away the experiences of those outside the church’s power structures. We get to shut up, and to listen, to to join with our brothers and sisters as a force for justice.

We’re not always keen to do this. We don’t like to talk about race. We don’t like to talk about feminism. We don’t like to talk about abuse or mental health, inequality or sexuality. And if go on ignoring each elephant in the room, all we’ll end up with is a church full of elephants.

Here’s the thing. I like to think I’m not particularly prejudiced, but I’m a white, straight western male and I’m acutely aware I have no idea what it’s like to face police suspicion every time I walk down the street. I have no idea what it’s like to receive rape threats just for expressing an opinion online. I don’t know how it feels to be ostracised because of my sexuality, or how it feels to suffer in silence because I’ve been told that depression is just a lack of faith. I don’t go to church and feel a second class citizen because the wheelchair access is like something from The Crystal Maze. I’m not late for church because I’ve had to stop off at the local food bank.

I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but I do have to acknowledge that I benefit from a system that disadvantages others, and I do have to make sure I’m listening to the voices of those without my levels of privilege. Heck, my sons have autism. Life’s not going to be a picnic for them, and as parents we have to be their advocates, and that’s a hell of a fight at times. There may be no Jew or Greek in Christ, but there’s prejudice and bigotry and ignorance and apathy in society, and if we can’t advocate for our family, then all our claims about the unity of the church are empty rhetoric, soundbites for our corporate Facebook pages and about half as useful. We need to maintain a pastoral eye towards these issues; if we don’t, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is.

The people looked at him as if he was crazy. “When did we see you stopped and searched for no reason? When did we see you threatened with rape, or told not to report the man who abused you? When did we see you looking for the number for the Samaritans, or struggling to feed the kids? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our church. Someone would have mentioned it.”

And Jesus replied, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.”

Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.