Pentecost 23B, 2006
Mark 12:38-44

A Liturgy is also available

During the week I was catching up on some of my reading
when an overseas colleague’s sermon (Ian Lawton/C3 web site) reminded me
of the things our parents often taught us about religion.

1. On prayer-
"You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet."

2. Obedience-
" Because I’m your mother and I said so, that's why."

3. Compassion-
"Keep crying, and I'll give you something to cry about."

4. Perseverance-
"You'll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables."

5. The blessing of receiving-
"You’re going to get it when you get home!"

6. Tradition-
You're just like your father."

7. Wisdom-
"When you get to our age, you'll understand."

And 8. Justice-
"One day you'll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you."

In case my parents are listening from the other side of the grave,
this is a totally fictional list.  And any resemblance to family members
is purely coincidental!

However, what we hear and what we do believe about life,
and learn from significant others, can make a huge difference to us.
And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that!

The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story 
of the ‘widow and the coins’, can be one such example.
So let me play with this story for a bit.


On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years,
this story lends itself easily to moralising about
the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow,
who gave of all she had.

But I want to suggest there is a broader, and I reckon,
more important story, that Mark is suggesting here.
And that broader story seems to be about naming
a system which abuses poor people.

 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: the 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 of their day
for exploiting the vulnerable.

Not to mention the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders.

So...  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about
boundless generosity and self-sacrifice?
Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges
against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story,
this widow story
is often offered as a model of stewardship
to encourage giving to the church.

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.

That’s different.  And that’s very challenging.
Because heard with those ears this story
becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201).


I remember some time back making a statement that the Bible
is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book.
And I was immediately challenged on both grounds.

But I am an unrepentant progressive post-liberal!
What I was suggesting, and continue to suggest, is something like this...
When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories
we need to be very careful how we do that.

Because our general tendency is to:
(i) take the stories or quotes out of context, or
(ii) over-spiritualise or domesticate them.

To hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories often means
we will have to unlearn much of what we have been taught.
And for some folk that can be really threatening.

But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for.
Seek out the broader context.
But also listen with a healthy dose of scepticism.

In this telling comment one scholar, not from the ‘progressive’ movement,
but from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, William O’Brien says:
“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....”

And he goes 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” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

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’.

Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable,
especially if they had no sons to protect them.
Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots
that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’.

And what all these people have in common is their
“isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (John Donahue, 2000, <americamagazine.org>).

While the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used,
not to described a religious group or party, but more likely
“[was] a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

Indeed, Old Testament and Process Theology scholar, Robert Gnuse says:
“...we in [Australia] live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally
underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves... with the scribes in this passage, not the widows”(RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

So rather than being a moralising story about the heroic sacrifice
of a poor widow, it is really a story about
the need for ‘fair dinkum’ distributive justice.

To test my suggestion, let me share with you
a comment from another overseas colleague, Beth Quick.

In her sermon for this day (in 2003) she writes:
“... perhaps you have heard it said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world's wealth.  I have often heard these statistics, and shook my head in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by so many.  But what I was shocked to learn, and maybe you will be too, is that I am in the top 1 percent.  To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, you simply need a household income of about $23,000 a year.  The top 10% for the globe earn around $8,000 and up...  Jesus speaks about (most of) us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” 
(BQuick 2003/ <www.bethquick.com>).



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 before.
• Probe for fresh aspects.
• Listen for new voices, including the silent voices.
• Be surprised.

And yes, separate the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus!

That’s the journey I reckon the Spongs and the Scotts and the Funks
and the Herzogs of our day are calling us to share in.
To take a lead in.
To empower people to shape a new and open and honest
theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world.

And if any congregation can do that, this congregation can!
And continue to do it well!

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton: Fraser Books, 2004.