Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
What obligation do we have to those in our society who cannot provide for themselves? What responsibility do those who follow the Triune God have for people systemically oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable?
The texts appointed for this week will not let us dodge these basic questions of what it means to be faithful to the God who came to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free. While our country roils with conflict, division, violence, vitriolic rhetoric and deadly acts, the Bible holds us accountable to how we treat the disinherited. Jesus takes sides and tells us with whom we are to stand if we want to be with him. The Scriptures require us to examine our hearts, actions and witness in the face of our current context and every shocking headline. Beginning with how we treat the least of these, the systemically oppressed and the situationally vulnerable, no matter who they are.
How do we treat the widows in our day? Naomi knows all too well that without a man to protect them, she and Ruth risk destitution and death. Naomi says to her daughter-in-law, “I need to seek some security for you.” That security is Boaz, the next of kin; and as it turns out, he’s a moral and good man. Naomi gives Ruth explicit instructions that almost sound advice from a 1950s women’s magazine: Clean yourself up and make yourself look good and go get close to Boaz. “He will tell you what to do.”
Boaz follows the religious rules. He makes sure a closer next of kin does not want Naomi’s husband’s and sons’ property, nor Ruth. He sends Ruth home with six measures of barley and eventually takes Ruth as his wife. She bears a son, Obed, father of Jesse, father of David. Naomi and Ruth’s story moves forward and that of Israel, too. A disastrous, tragic ending is avoided due to the goodness of Boaz.
While not exactly a resounding win for feminism, Boaz acts righteously and within the customs and constrictions of the time and demonstrates proper care for widows, the vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Contrast this story of Boaz with that of the scribes in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus calls them out for their showy piety devoid of care for the widows. Worse, they not only fail to provide for the weak and marginalized, they exploit them, the very ones they care called to care and protect. More than praising the widow for giving all she has to the temple, Jesus is condemning the temple economy that demands that even those who have nothing give everything.
Making this a stewardship text about sacrificial giving gets too many of us off the hook for holding institutions, church and otherwise, accountable for systemic oppression of the already marginalized. Think cash bail, payday loans, court fines that keep escalating. The widow putting in her very last coin is akin to refugees and migrants paying smugglers as they flee for their lives. The widow should not be giving all she has to the temple treasury. The scribes of the temple should be giving from that treasury to care for the widow.
Ched Myers, in his book “Binding the Strong Man,” put it thusly: “The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus ‘exits’ the temple — for the last time.”
Over and over again the litmus test for loyalty to our God, for faithfulness to Jesus Christ, for obedience to the Lord of all is this: How do we treat the poor and vulnerable? Do we care for the least of these?
Over and over again, God’s prophets and God’s Son reserve the harshest judgment for those who profess belief in God all the while exploiting, oppressing and hurting those already suffering. Scribes, Pharisees, unjust judges, woe to those who do not extend compassion, mercy and tangible care and protection to widows and orphans.
The call of Jesus is unambiguous: Do not exploit the vulnerable. Care for those the world relentlessly seeks to crush.
The judgment of God is explicit: Woe to you who tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, but neglect justice and love of God (Luke 11:42-43). You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans (Exodus 22:22-24).
Howard Thurman, in “Jesus and the Disinherited,”wrote: “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of great significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.”
Too often Christians have sold their soul for the sake of some perceived sense of personal security with the widow paying the price for their “safety” with her last coin, with her very life.
Outlook reporter Leslie Scanlon recently went to the border between Mexico and the United States to see first hand what is happening to migrants and asylum seekers there. Her stories reveal both heartbreaking suffering and heartening acts of compassion. Reporting from the shelter, La Posada Providencia, Scanlon interviewed the executive director Andi Atkinson: “An asylum seeker is ‘someone who had to leave their country, but didn’t want to leave their country – kind of like Mary and Joseph,’ she said. ‘It’s kind of amazing how many Americans don’t want to let in immigrants any more, especially if those immigrants are poor and people of color. … It’s amazing how many Christians don’t want to let immigrants in, even though the gospel mandates you are supposed to treat the foreign-born the same as the natives. So many Christians have forgotten some basic things from the Bible.’” (Read all of Leslie Scanlon’s stories from the border here.)
This week’s reading puts front and center, in plain sight, some basic things from the Bible, some basic instructions and admonishments from Jesus: Do not abuse, exploit or neglect the vulnerable. Care for widows and orphans. Woe to you religious leaders who use your positions and power for your own gain and at the expense of others.
- Use a Bible concordance and look up the words “widow” and “orphan.” What do you discover?
- Read all of the verses between those appointed in Ruth for this week. What do these additional verses reveal about Boaz?
- Who are the most vulnerable people in your church? Community? Our world? How are we caring for them?
- How are “widows and orphans” being exploited in our time? How do we combat that exploitation?
- Is it a misreading of this text from Mark to use it as a call to sacrificial giving? Why or why not?
- Look at the parallel texts to the Markan one for this week in Luke 20:45-47 and Matthew 23:1-36. How do these account inform the one from Mark?
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