Not So Ancient: Reflections on Institutions, Widows, and Discipleship

32nd Week of Ordinary Time
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

This week’s lectionary gospel (Mark 12:38-44) gives us the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.” Most times I’ve heard this preached as a story of immense generosity on the part of the widow – and we who are followers of Jesus are asked to go and do likewise, to give all we have, even to the point of giving our whole lives over to God. Of course, giving our whole lives is what Jesus does – and so we can make a connection between the widow’s example and Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection – she becomes an example for us to emulate.

Yet as I’m reading this week’s gospel in light of last week’s and this week’s readings, I’m wrestling with another aspect of Christian life. I’m struck by the ways Jesus seems to be critiquing social institutions, and also by how difficult it can be for even his disciples to be on the same page as Jesus.

First, consider what we read last week: a scribe asked Jesus which, of all the commandments, is the greatest commandment, and Jesus answers with the Great Commandments that we find in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: to love God and neighbor. Today’s scripture begins with scribes – but very wealthy ones who like to parade around, show off their power, appear to be very devout by praying long prayers, and who even “devour widows’ houses.”

Upon making his comments about scribes, Jesus deliberately moves, finds a seat in the temple square across from the treasury, and simply observes what is happening. Many people walk by and donate generously to the treasury – but Jesus comments only on the one woman who gives all she has to live on, her whole livelihood. She contributes not only out of scarcity, but she gives away every last thing,even to the point of endangering her life. Jesus’ words about widows’ houses surely echo strongly in the disciples’ minds as they wait and watch with Jesus.

Yet there is still more to see, as scripture scholar Harry Fleddermann notes – but we must skip ahead a bit to next week’s gospel to see it. Next week’s reading immediately follows upon this week’s: we’ll see Jesus leave his temple perch; then we’ll see his disciples exclaim at how large the temple buildings are – and we’ll see Jesus tell us that not a stone of the huge temple will be left. (The disciples even seem a bit clueless here….) What began as a commentary on the wealthy scribes in the temple complex links to a practical discussion of a very real, destitute widow, and ends on an eschatological note: this temple will be destroyed (and presumably all the milieu that is part of temple culture).

The thing is, Jewish culture has within it great resources for doing something alternative when it comes to caring for widows. We can compare Jesus’ encounter with a widow to today’s first reading (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17). Ruth’s story also compels us to see that the fact of widowhood means desperate destitution. Yet this story offers great risk-taking (on the parts of Naomi and Ruth) and great compassion and generosity on the part of Boaz. It is important, in fact, that in Ruth, the social structure appears more clearly opposite to what we see in the gospel. The impoverished widow gives all she has in Mark, but it is the wealthy landowner who shares what he has in Ruth. Their collective risk-taking, generosity, and compassion are rewarded, for these are the ancestors of the man who will be King David, as well as the Incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, the tradition offers us a story about widowhood, but Jesus suggests that the cultural and social structures have failed to live up to that story. We might, therefore, see in this week’s scriptures a cautionary tale for those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Our tradition is one that strongly emphasizes care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, but how easy it can be to fall into a different pattern, one that doesn’t fully live into the tradition.

For example, a long-standing aspect of Christian tradition has been in its institutional care of widows. An “order of widows” – a community of women who are cared for by the church and who care for the church in return – is described in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. There is documentation, across a variety of Christian denominations and time periods, of the church’s specific care of widows – whether in an “order of widows” or in housing designated for widows, or via other means of care.

These days, however, there is often less structure for providing shelter and monetary care of widows, as well as less overall awareness of these who are the least among us. Some of that is because of cultural changes: in an age when it is presumed that women can be, and often are, financially independent, it would seem that widows are not in any particular need. Yet current statistics show that the poverty rate for widowed women in the US is at 13% across all age groups, and increases the older women are.

I am reminded of a lecture I gave on the “order of widows” to a local church in Arizona – to a room filled mostly with widowed women. After my talk, I could hear some palpable sighs, and several women wondered, “How could we start something like that here?” They were overwhelmed by the cost of living, by their houses, by the responsibilities that people still sought from them even after the deaths of their spouses. They longed to be part of something alternative, something that would enable their livelihood and discipleship, too!

Not all Christian communities will need to wrestle with the particular tradition of care for widows – but I suspect most of us need to wrestle with some places where we’re being more like the scribes – or Jesus’ somewhat clueless disciples – than we care to admit. Where are the hurting places, and what in our tradition offers an alternative that we might recover, so that we may do better in our call?

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