Of Widows and Veterans

Tomorrow will be the first Sunday in just over two months that I am not preaching. I am enjoying the freedom to roam a little more widely in this blog entry.

Stewardship    At Trinity Cathedral a number of themes come together for us on Sunday 11th November. For us it is another Sunday in our intentional conversation over the course of our two month Annual Renewal Program for 2013. The Gospel appointed for the day is the famous story of the Widows Mite. Preachers everywhere will be trotting out the tried and true interpretation that casts the widow as an example of virtuous and generous giving in contrast to the nasty and corrupt Scribes.

This will be especially the case in the Episcopal Church,  for this Gospel reading allows the clergy, usually squeamish about addressing the issue of money, to claim Jesus’s mandate for doing so on this  Stewardship Sunday.

I have been addressing discipleship and in particular our stewardship of money for several weeks now. In my sermon summary that went out in our E-blast yesterday and will appear in the Sunday Bulletin, I am afraid I caved-in, and went for this traditional take (the self-scarificial generosity of the widow) on the Gospel Story. My excuse is that space didn’t allow for much more.

Remembrance     I will return to the Gospel in a moment. However, I want also to note that tomorrow is the Sunday of the Veterans Day weekend. This weekend in November marks the ending of the First World War, when at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns on the Western Front fell silent bringing to an end the greatest war of human carnage history has known. Armistice Day, later renamed Remembrance Day still carries a huge emotional and spiritual significance for not only the British, but also for the peoples of  New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and our nearest neighbor to the the north, Canada.

In these countries most people still practice the wearing of the red poppy for Remembrance. The red poppy came to symbolise the futility of war and the carnage of death because in the springtime of 1918, the churned-up, battle-scarred, blood-soaked fields of Flanders in Northern France were transformed by fields of red poppies coming into bloom. Those at Trinity with longer memories tell me that the wearing of the poppy was once the custom in the US as well. I am not sure why the wearing of the poppy has fallen out of vogue here.

People tell me that Memorial Day is the day for remembering those fallen in the service of their country and that Veterans Day carries a wider meaning of celebration of service for the nation. At Trinity Cathedral we will attempt to bring both aspects to mind as we remember the futility of war through honoring the fallen as well as acknowledging the commitment to service not only of all Veterans, but of the men and women in many different walks of life who serve the needs of their communities, their nation, and the wider world through unstinting daily acts of self sacrifice.

Self-scarifice    Self-sacrifice offers a nice segway back to the Gospel Story of the Widows Mite. I am with those who question the traditional interpretation of Mark 12:38-44. This interpretation casts Jesus as praising the self-scarifice of the Widow in contrast to the self-inflation of the Scribes. It tends to divide the passage into two, condemnation of the arrogance and corruption of the Scribes and praise for the Widow. Yet, the passage has to be taken as a whole.

Firstly, the corruption and power of the Scribes is the cause of the Widow’s poverty. As a widow, the estate left by her husband would have been administered by the Temple Scribes, who were like the court appointed trustees of our own day appointed because women had no legal status. The Scribes, in the absence of laws on financial regulation, fraudulently devoured the property they administered in trust, and so the Widow may well have been literally homeless. Yet, nevertheless she comes to the treasury and gives the little money she has left. The traditional interpretation implies that Jesus praises the Widow’s action. Yet, no where in the text does Jesus praise her or imply any approval.

On the contrary, the whole passage need to be read in the wider light of Jesus overt criticism of the Temple culture. This was a religious system based on fraudulent exploitation of the poor. Jesus sees her action as a demonstration of how the Widow acts against her own better interest because she is conditioned to do so by the religious system she lives within. In his blog commentary on this text D. Mark Davis notes:

The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. … She had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does, and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.

Addison G Wright in his paper on this text, Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? — A Matter of Context, says

And finally there is no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her, precisely because she ought not to be imitated. 

Conditioning      Organized religion always plays an ambivalent role in any society. This is no less true of our society as it was at the time of Jesus. On the one hand religion motivates and inspires people to transcend narrow self-interest in the service of a wider common good.  Yet, at the same time, organized religion is a pillar of the status quo, and as such, it conditions us all to unquestioningly operate within  systems that privileges some and oppresses others.

None of us can live completely outside the systems that condition our thinking and limit our expectations. We all have to do the best we can within the systems that lead some to believe in, and offer their lives for causes that others perceive as a fruitless self-sacrifice, which goes against a persons self interest in the best sense. That is the nature of society.

Service     Speaking candidly on the issue of war, I cannot support what seems to me to have been 15 years of reckless adventurism by the US-British-led military coalition in the Middle East. Yet, I wish to profoundly honor the many young men and women who have given their lives in the service of our countries. I also wish to honor the courage of those who everyday give up comfortable lives to serve the poor, advocate for the marginalized, visit those in prison, and support those whose communities are ravaged by natural disasters.

For all of us our grasp on what is the truth can only ever be partial. Yet, the message of Remembrance is that there is no greater love than to give of yourself, even to the point of giving your life in the service of others.

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