Proper 27 – Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
What is this week’s text from Mark about? I know, I know, Scripture is multivalent. There are many meanings held within these six verses.
But if we want to pick a focus for this Sunday’s sermon or lesson – what should we choose? Is this a story about post-modernity’s prized value, authenticity? The scribes act under the guise of piety, but really they are after prestige. The widow is the one to emulate in this cast of characters because her outward actions match her inward belief. Or, is this a story about status, power and the vulnerable? Paired with the risqué story from Ruth, it could be argued that this is the Sunday to preach about God’s special concern for the most vulnerable, widows and orphans. Where do we put ourselves? Do we identify with those in authority or those on the fringes? Are we caring for the widows and orphans or exploiting them? Perhaps Mark 12:38-44 is a lectionary gift for a closing sermon to the fall stewardship season. Give sacrificially like the widow, Jesus is watching. No doubt, a sound exegetical case could be made for all of the above, but is there any textual evidence that tips the scales?
This may be reductive, but I want to lift up the possibility that these lectionary readings compel us to examine where we place our trust and subsequently our security, a question that is relevant to scribes and widows, Boaz and Ruth alike. I make this case in large part based on one word in Mark verse 44, the word for poverty, ύστέρησις. The word is found only here and in Philippians 4:11, when Paul is signing off his letter, acknowledging the Philippians’ gift but making it clear he is content regardless of his material circumstances. He writes, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” Philippians 4:13, the oft calligraphied verse, follows soon after, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul’s source of strength and security remains constant, Jesus Christ, regardless of his ever changing circumstances. His trust is in the power of God to sustain him in order for him to do the mission he has been called to do.
Is this connection a clue to understanding Mark, too? The rich are giving large sums, after all, they aren’t being stingy, they just are not giving in ways that imperil their ability to provide for themselves and those for whom they are responsible. Jesus says explicitly that the widow, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable at that time, has given all she had to live on. Was her willingness to give connected to her trust in the God she worshipped? Was her sense of security tied to her faith rather than her status? Naomi makes it clear that the source of security for Ruth will be Boaz, a husband to provide and protect. She says to Ruth, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” So, perhaps the theme of trust and security is a primary one for this week.
Where do we place our trust? What is the basis of our security? These are big questions, the answers to which are often revealed more in our actions than in our rhetoric. We know whom we are supposed to trust. We know where our security lies. The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want. Look at the lilies of the field and be not anxious. Ask and it shall be given to you. God numbers the hairs on your head. If God is for us, who can be against us? We know these truths but we don’t often act as if we believe these truths. That’s the contrast between the scribes and the widow. The scribes know the right answers but their actions don’t match their responses. They know the answer to the question of the greatest commandment but they devour the widows’ houses anyway. They recite long prayers but aren’t shaped by them. The widow’s action puts her money where her mouth is, or maybe her offering where her heart is.
What about us? Are our prayers — of confession, praise, petition, the people — consistent with our actions? Do we humbly repent and seek to do better? Are we concerned about the abused and neglected, the hungry and the homeless, the refugee and the stranger, concerned enough to have our Sunday prayers impact our daily decisions? Do we rejoice in the Lord always, in all circumstances? Do our choices reaffirm our affirmation of faith?
How does what we do, individually and collectively, reveal whom and what we trust and where we place our security?
The other theme woven throughout both Ruth and Mark 12 is that of loyalty. Naomi is loyal to Ruth, just as Ruth has been loyal to Naomi. Boaz is loyal to family, as is particularly evident if you read the verses in between 3:1-5 and 4:13-17. The scribes are loyal to themselves and their interests. The widow is loyal to God with her whole life, if we want to get literal in the translation. Again, what about us?
This is the last story before Jesus tells of the destruction and persecution that is to come. The temple will be destroyed. Jesus’ followers will be beaten and interrogated. False prophets will run rampant. Things are going to get worse before they get better. It is as if Jesus is gathering his disciples close, pointing to the scribes and the widow and saying, chose this day whom you will serve. Where are you going to place your trust? Where do you believe in your heart of hearts your status and security lies? To whom will you be loyal when the going gets tough? Are you going to do whatever it takes to protect yourself and your turf or are you going to be all in, invest your whole life in the temple that will be raised up in three days?
What about us?
- Can you think of people who have put all they have into the temple treasury? What have they done and how have others viewed them? Think of the historical examples like St. Francis of Assisi.
- Is it foolish of the widow to put in all she has to live on? I know of a woman on a fixed income who used to send large donations to a televangelist. She was convinced this was the faithful thing to do. What do we say to someone like that? How do we discern what is faithful giving and what is exploitive?
- The text from Ruth and the text from Mark invite us to consider who the most vulnerable are in our current context. Who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in our time and how do we treat them?
- Religion has lately been a large part of the political discussion in our country. Are there ways faith and religion are being used in ways that are analogous to the scribes showy piety? Is it right for us to even make that judgment?
- Have you heard (or preached) a stewardship sermon on the widow’s gift? What was said? How is this a text about stewardship? How is it not a text about stewardship?
- Where do you see yourself in the Mark text? Scribe? Wealthy giver? Widow? One of the disciples? Imagine yourself in various roles. How does this impact your understanding of the story?