Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Widow's Mite

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene, OSH

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 and Mark 12:38-44

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes – they devour widow’s houses and say long prayers just for the sake of appearance!” Then, he calls his disciples to come near and watch one widow in particular. We don’t know her circumstances. She could be young, old, infirm, or healthy. We can tell by her offering that she is destitute. Widows in First Century Jerusalem were at the bottom of the social strata pile – along with the diseased and crippled, foreigners and most women. The self- important scribes that Jesus refers to would scoff at the amount of money this poor widow placed in the temple’s treasury.

But we are familiar with her offering as the famous “Widow’s mite” – the tiny donation that represents everything this woman has. The same “everything” that we are asked to give to the God of Love and Justice. Jesus makes a point of calling the disciples to observe the widow as a teaching moment. What is it, exactly, that he wants them to understand? They know very well about giving everything they have. They have already given up their jobs, homes, and family in order to follow Jesus.

Those of us in religious orders know what it feels like to give up everything and follow a call. It’s a pretty heady feeling. I got quite a bit of attention when I told my fellow teachers that I was quitting my job as a Speech Therapist, selling my home, and moving to a convent in New York. I felt a bit special, unique and important for a few, brief months. I watched my motley collection of furniture go out the door to friends, family, and strangers, and I sent boxes and boxes of trash and recycling to their various resting places. I was starting over again and allowed a chance at a new life. I was headed forward toward a new adventure that beckoned me toward the unknown, but much fantasized convent.

As soon as I arrived at the convent the novelty of my situation evaporated. All of the women I was now living with had given everything up years ago and they were less than impressed with my sacrifices. In fact, as they watched my many “essentials” move in, they remembered the days when they brought all that they owned in one small suitcase. I had a little travel trailer stuffed to the gills with books, clothes, bedding, and favorite pictures, chairs, and bookshelves.

I soon learned that this business of giving everything up for Jesus was meant to be more of a day-to-day offering of self than an audible clink in the collection plate. The kind of offering that Jesus attempts to teach his thick-skinned disciples and the rest of us who are less than spiritually brilliant, is the moment-by-moment offering of our steadfast love and undying commitment to God.

The Hebrew word for this lovingly tenacious spirit is hesed – the steadfast love of God given freely to us as an act of grace. And, nowhere in the Bible is hesed better illustrated than in the Book of Ruth.

I’m going to fill in what is missing from our reading this morning so that the impact of Ruth’s unusual actions on the threshing floor can affect us more powerfully.

The story begins in Bethlehem, literally, the House of Bread in Hebrew. Naomi, her husband, and two sons leave Bethlehem because of a severe famine in the land. Ironically, there is no bread in the House of Bread.

They travel very far away to the land of Moab – one of Israel’s historic enemies on the far side of the Jordan River. They go to a land held in contempt, yet find abundance there. They prosper on all counts. The sons marry Moabite women and the family settles in to their new home for the next ten years.

Then disaster hits in ways that remind us of Job. First Naomi’s husband dies, and then both of her sons. Suddenly there are three widows: Naomi, the Israelite, and two young Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.

Hebrew customs leave widows with very few viable options. The Torah demands that the oldest brother of the deceased will marry his widow so that the father’s line can be continued. Naomi knows that if she has any chance of survival it will be with her own people back in Bethlehem. In addition to family she has heard that the famine is over. She sets her face to return to the House of Bread and her daughters-in-law follow in her footsteps.

But Naomi stops, turns back to them, and tells them that they must not follow her. They have no male relatives in Bethlehem and Naomi knows that no self-respecting Israelite would marry a Moabite woman. “Go back to your mother’s home,” she tells them, “and may God grant that there you will find a new husband.”

But the young women surprisingly resist. They show their mother-in-law Naomi an abundance of hesed – a steadfast loving-kindness that refuses to part from her. Naomi gets more explicit with them. “What hope do you have of getting a husband from me? I am old. I have no more sons in my womb and I have no hope of ever having another husband. I am without hope, and am so bitter that my name is no longer Naomi, which means Pleasant, but Mara, which means Bitter. Your only hope, my daughters is to return to your own mother and find a husband among your people.”

Orpah listens to Naomi’s pleas and returns, tearfully, to her home in Moab. Ruth however, clings tenaciously and lovingly to Naomi, in a direct imitation of the quality of God’s love for us.

“Do not press me to leave you,” Ruth says, “Where you go I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” Here is the hesed of a new convert to Judaism, demonstrating that even from the land of the enemy can emerge the most faithful of God’s people.

When Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem it is harvest time. The people of Bethlehem are gathering the abundance of grain that will go into their famous bread. It is a new day and famine no longer rules the land. One of the most prominent land-owners is a man named Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. With Naomi’s blessings, Ruth makes her way to Boaz’ fields and begins to gather up the scraps behind the harvesters, as is the custom of the poor.

Boaz notices this beautiful and strangely exotic new woman among the gleaners. He asks about her and is unperturbed by her troublesome ancestry. He watches as Ruth works tirelessly, without taking any breaks. Boaz approaches her and tells her that he has heard of what she did for Naomi. He blesses her for showing such tenacious love for Naomi that she left her own people to come to a land she did not know and worship the God of Israel.

He promises to protect Ruth and asks her to eat with him and his men. Then he prays for her, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

When Naomi finds out that Ruth has found favor with Boaz, she hatches the plan for Ruth to sneak down to the threshing floor at night and lay at the feet of Boaz. She instructs Ruth that when Boaz wakes and discovers her there he will tell her what to do. Ruth obediently follows Naomi’s plan to the letter.

We don’t know the symbolism of Ruth uncovering Boaz’ feet, but the implication is that the intimacy of her actions, coupled with the fact that it was the middle of the night, forced Boaz to take some action.

When Boaz takes Ruth as his wife he takes possession of Ruth’s deceased husband’s name, continuing the important line of inheritance. His decision, essentially, restores the fortunes of Naomi, who lost her sons and had no grandchildren to carry on the line. By marrying Ruth, Boaz brings new hope to Naomi’s bitterness.

The child that Ruth bears is given to Naomi to nurse. What was once barren in her is now fertile, because of Ruth’s self-giving hesed – her faithful and tenacious love. And by giving Naomi her first-born child, Ruth is giving her mother-in-law everything she has. Just as the widow at the temple gave her two copper coins.

The story of Ruth and Naomi is continued in the line of descendants that come from this special child. They name him Obed, and he becomes the father of David. It is from David’s line that Jesus comes. It is because of these family ties that Joseph and Mary must return to Bethlehem for the census. Jesus is born in the same House of Bread where his female ancestors found the abundance of new life.

It is this abundance that Jesus wants the disciples to learn from the widow at the temple. What the widow offers to God is her undying, faithful, and abiding love for her creator. It is this love that is represented in the two small coins. When there are no more coins to give, she will continue to give her love and willingness to do whatever God asks of her.

What we offer to God is much larger than a yearly pledge or a frantic fishing in our wallets for some loose change to put in the plate. What God asks of us is a never-ending supply of our own hesed – to mirror back to God the same tenaciously faithful love he has shown to us through Jesus Christ.

If you watch today while the offerings go up to the altar you will see how we reenact our faithful love for God. The wine and the bread are at the back of the church for a reason. They come from us, and are given back to God in recognition that all that we have is ours only because God gave it to us in the first place.

Our offerings of money and food for the food bank are symbolic gestures of what we give to God from our inner being. Yes, we need the money to run this church and to uphold our responsibilities as a member of this diocese. But, the money is really not the point.

The meaning comes from what that money means to us. We prosper in this life when we recognize that our lives are completely dependent upon God. The offering we give here is a wake-up call. We come together as a community to watch our offerings of tangible gifts travel up to the altar where they are transformed into the intangible hesed- filled gift of God to us through the broken body of Christ.

We lift the offerings up to God in recognition of all that he gives us, and what little we are able to give back. Then we move into the Great Thanksgiving where we sing God’s praise before we recount in the prayer what Jesus did for us.

We dine on nothing less than Christ himself, giving us his entire being. It is harvest time, and as Christians, we gather together to offer God our abundance. We give of ourselves in order to see a communal reminder of what we’re asked to give God every moment of every day – our undying and tenaciously faithful love of Christ and each other. May we walk in that love always.

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