Widows…Again?

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ Nov. 11, 2012

Scripture:   1 Kings 17:8-24     Mark 12:38-44

Several people in the congregation are reading Joyce Rupp’s Open the Door for discussion in Spirit Group. In her introduction Rupp tells how the image of a door kept popping up in her life. She quotes Esther de Waal about the boundless capacity of imagery to help us find meaning:

“The longer we stay with an image and dialogue with it,” de Waal says, “the more it will yield up. . . . We have to wait for the image to find us. Sometimes it may come unbidden, but more often we must expect to stay with it, and to be ready to go deeper, layer upon layer upon layer, always waiting expectantly.”

So while Spirit Group participants are examining open doors, I have been examining the unbidden recurring image of widows and orphans.

The last time I preached, on Labor Sunday, I offered half a dozen scriptures where God urges us to take care of widows and orphans, but especially widows. I said then — and I still believe — that when we read about widows in scripture, we should interpret the passage as referring to people who are powerless, who are on the margins of society.

When I gathered those scriptures in late August, I did not know I would be preaching today, nor did I know, when I volunteered for this date, that the lectionary would offer up a number of scripture passages dealing with widows, including the other Old Testament lectionary passage we are not using today, which is from the book of Ruth.

All this is to say that for me, at least, the image of the widow in scripture is not through with me yet. I have more layers to peel back. And today, you get to do it with me.

The sermons I heard growing up and into young adulthood tended to treat widows with sentimentality. “Look at the poor widow, giving all she has. Her gift is greater than those who give out of their abundance.” I have heard Jesus’s remark most often used in stewardship sermons, praising her generosity and urging people to give more money to the church.

Only in the last few years have I read commentary that puts Jesus’s criticism of the powerful and wealthy scribes in the previous verses together with the comment on the widow’s tiny contribution. In our passage today, Jesus criticizes “teachers of the law” — in some English versions called simply “ the scribes” — saying “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.”  Jesus says, “These men will be punished most severely.”

THEN he sees the widow — maybe she’s one of those whose house was devoured by these wealthy law teachers — and he says “out of her poverty, she put in everything—all she had to live on.” Given the context in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is not praising the widow for giving her last pennies to the temple. He is criticizing the wealthy onlookers who make such a show of giving to the temple while they ignore a poor widow who now has nothing to live on.

In Jesus’ time, pointing out poor widows was a touchy subject. Peeling back the layers on this image, I am reminded that Jesus mentioned the story about the widow of Zarephath when he went to the synagogue in his home town at the start of his ministry.

As the writer of the gospel of Luke tells it, the listeners in the Nazareth synagogue were commenting on what a good job Jesus did, reading and explaining the Torah lesson of the day. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

And Jesus picks a fight with them. He says he’s not going to heal anyone in Nazareth, as he has already done in the next town over and in the countryside. He reminds them that the widow of Zarephath that God saved from starvation was from Sidon — not Israel.

Maybe you recall what the Nazareth listeners did then — they tried to throw him off a cliff.

Mention a widow to people in Israel or Judah, especially the widow of Zarephath, and you get an angry response — a “them’s fighting words” response. Why is that?

This contrast of reactions to the image of “widow” reminds me of the reactions today when you mention “the poor.” For some people, especially during the election, being poor is a cardinal sin. The poor are lazy; it’s their own fault; they’re not my problem. It’s everyone for one’s self. I call them the “I’ve got mine” group. The most vociferous of these are people who don’t have very much themselves — Or at least they don’t think they do — and they get angry when they’re asked to share.

For others, “the poor” refers to an amorphous group of people that need our help. But we often look down on “them” almost as much as the “I’ve got mine” group does. We think of them as objects of charity. And we think we’re such good people when we give them something. You don’t hear the term, “deserving poor” much anymore, but that’s still part of the mindset of people who say that efforts to help the poor should be the business of churches and charities, rather than the entire society.

Many of us give out of our abundance — maybe making a parade of it, maybe putting pink bows on our products to show what great guys we are to sell or buy products from companies that will give a bit of money to help poor cancer victims, for instance. Maybe establishing a foundation — or giving money to one — and using that as an excuse to keep from paying higher taxes that would support food and healthcare programs for all.

Jesus was trying to get our attention when he mentioned the widow of Zarephath and the widow with two pennies in the temple. We’re supposed to share our abundance with everyone — not only giving with great ceremony at the temple, but treating people fairly in all our dealings.

The books of 1st and 2nd Kings are about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Like most of the prophets — Jeremiah, Amos, Micah to name but a few — Elijah spoke to the king and the powerful people in the society, whether it was Israel or Judah. Their prophetic statements do not just urge people to say their prayers and behave well — they urge change in society as a whole, to share and be fair. And they speak to the powerful because they are the ones who can change society.

I started wondering, why did God send Elijah to a widow in Sidon — an enemy of Israel even then. In fact, Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the queen of Israel and Elijah’s No. 1 enemy. So here’s some background on this story about the widow of Z and Elijah. Elijah warned Israel and King Ahab and Queen Jezebel that the drought was coming. In fact, some people in Israel believed that the drought was Elijah’s fault.

God sent Elijah to a wadi — a trickle of water — in the desert and sent ravens to take him food every morning and evening during the drought. Then the wadi dried up too. You could say that Elijah obviously couldn’t go back to Israel, because everyone there was mad at him — and maybe at God — for sending the drought to begin with.

But maybe there was another reason for sending Elijah to Sidon. That widow was alone. She was gathering sticks by herself. She had hoarded the little flour and oil to feed herself and her son.

In Israel, if the people had been following God’s commandments through their history, especially the commandments given them when they entered the promised land after fleeing Egypt, if they had been following God’s clear commandments about taking care of widows and orphans and strangers in their midst, no widow and her orphaned son would have been facing starvation alone. Those with flour and oil would have been sharing with those who had none.

By sending Elijah to Sidon — and this was perhaps Jesus’s point to the people of Nazareth — God was saying that God cares about widows outside Israel as well as inside.  And Jesus was saying that if the widows in Israel were starving, that was perhaps the point of the drought to begin with — that God was punishing Israel for not following God’s commandments to share.

Now lets turn from the political point to the personal point, for the widow and for the prophet. I confess I am put off by Elijah’s requests to be waited upon. If I were the widow, I would have said, “get it yourself.” Or perhaps, “could you at least help me gather the sticks?”

I would have expected the balance of power to shift just a bit. She’s the one with the flour and oil, after all. Elijah is not only asking her to share it, he wants to be served first. I can’t help it, I keep thinking, “just like a man.” But the men close to me know better than to suggest I serve them while they sit there and watch me work.

Elijah doesn’t seem too uncomfortable making his request. He does, after all, offer God’s promise to make the flour and oil last.

This widow is not meek. She stands up to Elijah — I have only enough for me and my son, and then we’re going to die. She agrees to give Elijah bread, and God makes good on the promise that the oil and flour will not run out. She not only feeds Elijah, she gives him a place to stay, in an upper room in her own house. (I guess since she lives in Sidon, the law teachers haven’t foreclosed on her property.)

The writer of 1 Kings tells us that God said “I have directed a widow in Sidon to feed you…” We get the impression that this widow is familiar with the God of Israel. The first words out of her mouth are “As surely as the Lord your God lives…”

When her son dies, she is assertive enough to call Elijah out on his claim of power from God. Elijah calls on God to bring him back and the boy is revived. Only then does the widow declare “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

To summarize, when the widow shares with Elijah, he moves in and they eat together. They become a sharing community and the power of God is increased.

From the widow of Z and the widow with the two pennies I get another insight. There is a difference between being powerless and being helpless. The widow of Z is powerless in the face of the drought, but she does what she can to help herself, her son and the prophet sent by God.

The widow with the two pennies has very little to share with people in the temple, but she gives them anyway. It is the fault of the rich and the powerful that she has so little to live on. But she does not let that keep her from giving what she has to the temple fund to share with others.

God commands all of us to share — the widows and the wealthy. And God commanded Elijah, the powerful prophet, to accept charity from a poor starving widow in an enemy country.

In the aftermath of this election, we in America will continue the conversation about sharing, about our obligations to each other — whether we are poor or wealthy — and how we will organize our society to follow God’s commandments to care for the widows, the orphans and the strangers among us.

Praise God, Amen.

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