Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Christian history teaches us many lessons, chief among them that the church has an on-again, off-again relationship with economic justice and the prophetic proclamation of Jubilee. The church does justice in fits and starts, it seems. We started off particularly strong, with the Messiah coming onto the scene and announcing the Reign of God, a world-order marked by mutual self-giving and a reversal of first-century patronage politics. But lest I be called a naïve restorationist with a rose-colored rearview mirror, it should be noted that even the glory days of economic justice and mercy showcased in the Gospels and Acts were apparently short-lived, or at the least not universal to all churches throughout the empire (cf. 1 Cor 11:22; Philemon). With the forward march of history and the diversification of the churches came a certain forgetfulness with regard to the politics, economics, and faithful concern that is, at a foundational level, wrapped up in the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
A perfect example of this is found in the history of interpretation of one of our texts for this week, Mark 12:38-44. In verses 38-40 of this short vignette, Jesus upbraids the scribal retaining class for their choice of wardrobe, insistence upon being hailed with respect and honor, insatiable hunger for widows’ houses, and their long-winded prayers. Growing up in and around the church, I cannot remember a single sermon on this text in which the preacher commented extensively upon Jesus’ penultimate charge. The scribes were haughty and rather pretentious, the preachers told me, and overly-religious—a bit too presumptuous in the public square, and far too long-winded in their piety. The scribes are the “bad guys” for reasons related to religion, they told me; their unjust economic practices and their devouring of widows’ houses, well—that’s just not something we hear much of from the pulpit.
I would guess that others have had similar experiences in hearing this text preached. The default treatment in much preaching and devotional material of this text appears to spiritualize it, to make it all about “religion,” and to file down the sharp barbs of Jesus’ scathing political-economic critique. But the logic utterly fails: in what universe would a person’s choice of clothes or length of prayers be a more damnable offense than their destruction of the helpless poor? If such a universe existed, I daresay that Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet of the Kingdom and the only son of God, would not likely be its lord.
Fortunately for the sake of my argument, though, the story continues in verses 41-44 and what Jesus has just denounced as evil unfolds before his very eyes:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This poor widow’s generosity and her contribution to the Temple establishment is not lauded in Mark’s gospel as exemplary or prescriptive. In fact the Temple is a central focus of Jesus’ prophetic critique (cf. Mark 11:15-19; 13:1-2). The event in 12:41-44 is quite obviously an unfortunate object lesson of the reality of Jerusalem’s unjust economic system: the scribes and their Temple establishment which devour widows’ households have found themselves another meal, as the poor widow came and put in two small copper coins—all that she had to live on. This is ironic tragedy at its most gut-wrenching; that this story would be so “domesticated into a paradigm of Christian piety” throughout its history of interpretation is sad commentary on the church and her on- and off-again relationship with the abiding practices of love, self-giving, and justice—the very hallmarks of God’s reign.*
Lest I be too hard on our well-meaning preachers and teachers, it must be noted that the historic tendency of the people of God to keep alive the fullness of the gospel, even when parts of it have been muzzled or silenced, is showcased beautifully in the texts chosen for this week. The still, small voice crying for Yahwhistic Jubilee, for justice and mercy, can be heard in Psalm 146, which praises the One who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, and who sets free the prisoners (146:7). It is alive and speaking in the story of Elijah and the poor widow who shares what little food she has with the itinerant prophet, and who is then blessed by God for her self-giving and generosity with an unfailing jar of meal and a bottomless jug of oil, that she might not go hungry again (1 Kings 17:8-16). We hear it in the story of Ruth, who finds security in Boaz and extends that security to Naomi, that she too “may be well” (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17). The voice is heard in our reading from Hebrews, as Christ himself becomes the replacement of the Temple, the sole arbiter of body-and-soul salvation between God and his children. The cry for justice of God and God’s people is alive and can be heard wherever these texts are faithfully preached and lived.
This Sunday, as Christians here in America are recovering from the vicious onslaught of vitriol of presidential politics (and all the hot air about economic justice that has, and has not, been blown), let us rededicate ourselves to hearing and acting upon the voice of God calling out for justice, for the raising up of the low and oppressed—for the Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, and he will reign forever.
*Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 216.