Jesus calls us from self-promotion and self-interest to joy-filled service for Christ.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-16
The readings for this Sunday bring to a high pitch Mark's case against the Jerusalem temple and in favor of following Jesus, a main theme of the Gospel that we have been following in the lectionary's year of Mark. The Gospel reading pits the rich scribes over against the poor widows: the scribes “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets;” but they in truth “devour widow's houses” and “their long prayers are for the sake of appearance” (12:38-40). The point is promptly illustrated: watching the crowd "put money into the treasury,” Jesus observes rich people putting in “large sums," while the widow who "out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on" (Mark 12: 41-44). The story, Ched Myers argues, is not so much about the contrast between the “religious hypocrisy” of the scribes over against the “genuine piety of the poor woman,” as much exegesis suggests, but rather a critique of the scribes' desire “at every stage of social life . . . to be endowed with special privilege and status—the most important commodities in the attainment of social power in Mediterranean honor culture”—and their use of the temple as a platform for “economic opportunism and exploitation of the vulnerable widow.” The temple, he notes, “has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects the widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus 'exits' the temple—for the final time (13:1a).” The narrative proceeds immediately to the repudiation “of the temple-state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 321-23).
However valid this view is relative to the conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities, Myers does not give sufficient weight to Jesus' approving comment on the widow's donation. She is not merely a victim of the scribes, it seems to us. As Mark Wegener points out, although her gift is “the smallest contribution permitted according to temple regulations . . . for this she receives the highest commendation of anyone in this Gospel!” The reason, Wegener proposes, is that “from Mark's perspective her sacrifice of her livelihood in the middle of the week anticipates Jesus' sacrifice of his life at the end of the week.” With their gifts to the treasury of the temple, the scribes use their wealth to promote their own prestige and honor in the community; the poor widow, on the contrary, puts her meager but entire livelihood in the service of God” (“Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, p. 248). Her gift, a “mite” though it is, is at one with Jesus’ own gift of his entire life.
That this is an appropriate reading of the Gosepl is supported by the selection of our first two lessons, one from 1 Kings 17:8-16, the story of another widow and her gift in the service of God, and, two, the reading from Hebrews 9:.24-28, which comments further on Christ's sacrifice. With these two readings, furthermore, we see how the narrative is relevant to our concern with care of creation. The donation of the widow of Zarapath, too, was a gift of her “last bite.” In this instance, however, the widow's sharing of her livelihood sustains the life of the prophet in a time of an extended, severe drought, brought about by Yahweh, we are told, in response to the unfaithfulness on the part of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel in the form of worship of Baal (1 Kings 16: 31-17:1). Hearing this reading, the congregation might recall that, in feeding Elijah, the widow took over a task God had first given to ravens while Elijah was encamped by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. When the water of the wadi also fails, it is the widow's gift that saves Elijah from the effects of the drought, and thus serves to help bring about the eventual restoration of rain to the land (1 Kings 18:1, 41-46). The extended narrative of the widow of Zarapath thus belongs to a group of texts, Terry Fretheim notes, which exhibits “the providential role of the non-human:” “The wilderness," he writes, “for all its discontinuity from creation as God intended it, is not without resources. And God . . . uses those natural resources in order to sustain the human community in the midst of hardship.” The story is an example of what Fretheim points to as the dual agency of God and creation: “creative powers are shared, with the context determining where the emphasis ought to be placed.” Faithfulness to God, the more general point is, contibutes to the flourishing of creation in the relationship between the people and the land. As Fretheim observes, in the Hebrew Bible generally, “God's creation is at stake in Israel's behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 165).
Can the same be said about Mark's narrative of the scribes and the widows? On the basis of the text, we might argue no more than that in her own small way, even unknowingly, she gives encouragement to Jesus in the midst of the nearly overwhelming authority of the temple establishment. But as Wegener comments, Jesus' approving word suggests that
inside the story we realize that the issue is not really about our money as much as it is about our priorities. Ultimately what is at stake is not the fate of the temple or any other institution. What is at stake is our own commitment to the things of God and to the person of Jesus. And that, in turn, depends on the commitment of Jesus to rescuing us from our pretentious attitudes and turning us into the kind of people who find joy in offering even our livelihood into God’s service (Wegener, p. 248).
The point is well taken with respect to care of creation, as much as any other specification of the “things of God” in connection with “the person of Jesus.” That Christians as often as not appropriate the traditions and practices of faith in various strategies of self-promotion and self-preservation that preclude genuine service to neighbor and God's creation does not need to be argued so much as simply to be observed, just as Jesus watched the people depositing their gifts publically in the treasury of the temple. On any given stewardship Sunday in our churches, our failure to give our “all” will be accompanied by an equally grevious lack of commitment to the service of our neighbors with justice and God's creation with loving restoration. With few exceptions, our hope for churches to join in the work of restoring creation's beauty and bounty fails to be reflected in the goals and budgets constructed by our church councils to promote the life and work of the congregation.
Hence the appropriateness above all of the reading from Hebrews this Sunday. Jesus’ displacement of the Jerusalem temple with his own sacrifice in the sanctuary not made with hands serves, for all time, as we noted in our comment last week, to bring all creation, including the human species, back into “the eternal motion of divine love, for which it was fashioned:” “the Father's giving of the Son, the Son's execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit's eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love.” (See our comment on the readings for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year B. The quotation is from David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 371). As our text puts it, “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). This means, as Craig Koester puts it in his commentary on the passage, that in Christ God works
to change the human condition—to write God’s laws on human hearts (8:10; 10:16). The author understood that sin continued to threaten the listeners (3:12-13; 12:4). Yet he also understood that Christ’s death was a complete and final sacrifice for sin—otherwise Christ's death, like the Levitical sacrifices, would be only partially effective. Sin emerges from unfaith, and for sin to be abolished means that it must be displaced by faith, which is its opposite. When the proclamation of Christ’s once-for-all death awakens faith, sin is set aside, making the conscience complete (9:14) ( Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New York: The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 2001, p 429).
Through Christ and with the widow who gave her mite, we are restored to the “eternal motion of God’s love, and the awesome fulness and beauty of God’s creation with us. We live in the company of God, Father, Son, and Spirit,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry. . .
he upholds the orphan and the widow
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
(Psalm 146: 6-7, 9)