Pentecost 22B, 2003

Mark 12:38-44

A Liturgy is also available


This week I read an interesting article by a person called William O’Brien,

who, among other things, suggested:

“The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing. Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity....”

Well, I am sure you have, over the years,

heard many similar presentations of a similar argument 

from many different ministers. 

So maybe this comment is not as radical for you as it first sounds.

But I’m not finished yet. O’Brien’s comments went on:

“the Word... must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we've been taught about the Bible” (William O’Brien. Web site -The Other Side).

Now that is certainly saying something different.

So, being one who uses words and biblical stories regularly

I thought I had better sit up and take notice.

And as this article was talking about something 

which I engage in, regularly,

I thought I had better check me out!

So let me spend some time exploring

what I reckon is some of the thinking in and around all this.

And as it may sound a bit heavy in places,

or a bit longer than usual,

I invite you to listen carefully.


Several biblical scholars have said we need to rescue the Bible from a narrow world view,

or from literalism,

or from fundamentalism.

To hear that sort of stuff is not new at (NN), is it!

O’Brien’s article is certainly suggesting some of that.

But from a closer reading of his article, I reckon he is also saying something more.

Especially to people like you and me

who hear the Bible read in small chunks each week

from the Lectionary, when we come to church.

While we may profess to love the stories of the Bible, such as the stories of

the so-called good Samaritan,

or Nicodemus,

or the one about the widow and the coins 

- the one we heard this morning -

let us be careful to hear them in the broader context

suggested by the storyteller.

Well, a telling example for O’Brien of this process

is the traditional interpretation of Mark’s story of

the widow and the coins.



On its own, which is usually how we hear it,

the story lends itself easily to moralising about

the heroic sacrifice of this poor widow, who gave of all she had.

Sermons have been preached on it.

Stewardship services have been build around its theme.

Offering plates have been sent around for a second time.

And parallel stories such as the one where God gives a man 10 apples:

three for food,

three to trade for shelter,

three to trade for clothing,

and one to give back to God in gratitude... 

But this apple looked particularly delicious.

So he ate it and gave back to God the core.

All these have been regularly told.

And I am sure they have been great sermons and services and stories.

And I want to include myself somewhere in all of that as well.

But William O’Brien is suggesting to you and to me:

what is the broader story Mark is trying to tell us here?

And that broader story seems to be about naming

a system which abuses poor people,

and religious leaders who wield unilateral power

in violation of God's will.


Powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows at one end.

And an announcement that says you can’t do that 

and think you can get away with it, at the other end. 

And in the middle: this story of the widow and the coins.

Put all these together... and what we hear is

Mark, the storyteller, weaving together

echoes of the Hebrew scripture's constant concern

for widows and other outcasts.


As well as the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos,

who condemned the religious establishment

for exploiting the vulnerable.


So... is the widow and the coins,

a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice?

Or is it more pointed evidence undergirding Jesus' judgement

against an exploiting religion of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story,

this widow story is offered as a model of stewardship

to encourage giving to the church.

And because we at (NN) have agreed to undertake a modest building program,

perhaps I should stop now.  And just ask you to give!

Because we genuinely need the added financial support.

Yet when the stories are stitched together

it suggests a very different reading:

nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion

and politics and power to victimise those

who are powerless and vulnerable.

And that’s different!


Now... I remember saying once that

the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book.

I have since been challenged on both grounds.

But what I was suggesting was something like this...

When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories

we need to be careful how we use these stories

because our tendency is to over-spiritualise them.

And when we do, the ‘hard’ and ‘challenging’ issues of adult living:



poverty and hunger, 


violence and oppression,

are softened,

often marginalised,

rendered invisible,

or lost to a ‘religion-is-a-private-matter’ reasoning.

To hear beyond the domestication of these stories

will often mean we will have to

unlearn much of what we have been taught.

And for some that can be really challenging.

But as you know and I know,

that’s what many contemporary scholars

are calling for in this the early years of the 21st century.

William O’Brien suggests we can go on that journey

by listening to the broader context of the individual stories.

I think I am agreeing... but with a hesitant y-e-s.

Hearing the stories in the wider context is helpful.

But we also need to hear them with a healthy dose of suspicion as well.

Because when the stories of the storytellers 

we call Mark and Matthew and Luke and John are broaden out,

that is when we are also more likely 

to get the spiritualisation of the story.

‘Blessed are the poor’.... for example

often becomes ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit!’

And that is very different!

A system which keeps people in poverty is evil. Period.

But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that.

Very real hunger and poverty, every day.

And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’.


Unlearning much of what we've been taught about the Bible

is an exciting and challenging experience.

Sharing in that experience

with a group of equally open-minded people

is a positive and empowering and liberating experience.

As challenging as it can be, we have much to gain when we approach

even the most familiar biblical stories

as if we've never heard them.

We must probe for fresh aspects.

Listen for new voices, including the silent voices.

Let ourselves be surprised.

That’s the new journey I reckon the Spongs and the Borgs and the Winks

are calling us to share in.

To take a lead in.

To empower people to shape a new spirituality for a new world.

And if any congregation can do that,

this congregation – (NN) - can!

And continue to do it well!