The Two Faces of Tradition

An interpretation of the fable of the widow’s mite il_214x170.684870014_kvo6

For some time, we have been following the events of Jesus’ road trip from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Mark’s narration of the events along the way Jesus has now reached his destination.

Mark 12:38-44 is one of the most remembered passages in the New Testament. It is a story that inspires and disturbs by turn. The actions of the widow who puts into the Temple treasury all the money she has appeals to a part of us where we would like to be more deeply motivated to trust, and through trusting to become more generous than we usually feel it is prudent to be.

I know that within myself the courage to trust to a sense of abundance is fought with on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Within this pericope – from the Greek meaning an isolated selection of text – we have the appearance of generosity that costs everything pitted against the appearance of costless generosity. Jesus observes the wealthy giving large sums of money to the Temple treasury. In doing so, he notes tow things: their self-satisfaction and public pride and that their generosity costs them nothing.

Mark 12:38-44 has a fable-like – a short tale that packs a heavy moral punch – quality. He sets up a comparison between those who give only what they can afford to miss – and the widow who sacrifices all she has. This inspires and shames us to want to be more generous and self-sacrificial.

We should be more honest with ourselves and face-up to our struggles to live from trust in a spirit of God’s abundance. Yet, for the most part, we continue to choose to live under the weight of insecurities, fuelled by a fear that what we have, we have to hold onto. Few of us feel able to risk the widow’s generosity.

A new interpretation of the fable

But is generosity the point of the fable? If verses 38-44 are reconnected with the overarching thrust of Jesus’ teaching a very different interpretation confronts us.

On his first day in Jerusalem, Jesus sits observing the people dropping offerings into the Temple treasury. He watches the goings on and identifies a woman, whom he believes to be a widow. What escapes us is that Jesus also knows that she has no son or male heir, otherwise, it would be her son who would be making the offering.

In Jesus’ day, a woman without sons could not inherit or manage her deceased husband’s estate. Such estates were vested in trust to the Temple authorities to manage rather like a court-appointed trustee of our own day, appointed to manage the estates of minors or others who have less than a full legal status.

The Scribes and Levites in the absence of laws on financial regulation fraudulently devoured the property they administered in trust.

To add insult to injury, this woman, the likely victim of institutional embezzlement comes to the treasury and gives all of what little money she has left.

The traditional interpretation implies that Jesus praises the Widow’s action. Yet, nowhere in the text does Jesus praise her or imply any approval of her actions. Neither does he explicitly judge the rich in this passage. We are the ones who read in judgment and approval respectively, drawn from our awareness of Jesus’ wider message about the difficulties of wealth when it comes to the spiritual life.

Jesus, to say the least is an anti-establishment figure. His preaching of God’s Kingdom stands in opposition to a religious system based on the fraudulent exploitation of the poor. When seen within the larger context of his message, Jesus’ observations at the doors of the Temple treasury are less about generosity than they are a challenge to the way religious tradition has the potential to condition us to act against our own individual and group best interests.

Jesus observes a Widow acting against her own better interest because she is conditioned to do so by the religious system she lives within.

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.

Setting the fable in a larger context

Organized religion always plays an ambivalent role in any society. 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 easily becomes a pillar of the status quo, and as such, it blinds us to the need to question a system that privileges some and oppresses others. Whatever the merits of the widow’s actions she is a victim who cannot see beyound what her religion has conditioned her to see. She is thus blinded to her own best interests by her encounter with her religious traditions.

This last week I had to do some long-delayed work on the St Martin’s website. This was mostly a matter of updating content as we move towards a major experiment in the way we organize our Sunday mornings; making sure the changes are well signposted for visitors to our website. 

In the E-news this week, I wrote about our need to increase the number of portals through which the spiritually curious can enter into our community encounter with God. Our website has now replaced our red doors as the most important portal of entry into St Martin’s. 

The home or landing page is always a challenge. What do you put here that will grab the fleeting attention of a visitor to the site? The home page is where we communicate the essence of our message.

The difficult question for me is not so much what is our message, but how much of it to put in this crucial home page location?  The hard part is to say enough but not too much. Say too much and you overload the fleeting attention span of the casual site visitor. It seems today that every parish priest is required to be an expert in the subtleties of marketing and brand management.

If you visit stmartinsprov.org you will encounter in the first sentence the core of our message.

We are a Christian community exploring and interpreting the tensions when 2000 years of Christian Tradition is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of 21st-century life.

There are 10,000 words of meaning packed into this one sentence and I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying over whether tradition engages the opportunities and challenges of modern life or is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of modern life? You might this is hair splitting, but it matters.

The rapidity of change in modern life is increasingly stressful and the core of our message as Episcopalian Christians is that we believe in the continuity of the Christian Tradition (scripture, tradition, and reason) with a capital T. For us it is a conduit through which God speaks. Yet, we recognize that the simplistic application of the Tradition to modern life, i.e Tradition engaging modern life, solves little beyond further straitjacketing people into lives that are too tight for them. Instead, we believe that when Tradition is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of contemporary life something powerful emerges from having to navigate through the resulting tensions.

The Temple in Jesus’ day was the place for powerful and life-changing encounter with the living God. At the same time, it also represented a systematic accommodation with the powers and principalities of this world. It was the thin place where God was encountered. It was also a system that ideologically blinded people to its operation as an instrument of their oppression.

Christian Tradition bears a legacy that has become largely discredited. For many in our society its failure to speak truth to power, preferring to align with the interests of this world has robbed it of authority and credibility. It is viewed as something that continues to thicken rather thin the blindfold across our eyes. Yet, Christian Tradition is first and foremost the transgenerational transmission of the Gospel – the good news- to each succeeding generation through which the collective human experience of being in relationship with God flows. Despite its capacity to become corrupted into an agent of oppression, Christian Tradition, as the good news of God is the chief means by which we free ourselves from the manipulation and oppression of the business as usual mentality of the world.

Crammed into the one sentence on our website is an attempt to articulate that our St Martin’s community is a place where Christian Tradition is engaged with from the perspective of the lives we actually live rather than something imposed that does violence to the integrity of our experience in our own time and place. When this engagement takes place, renewed by our encounter with it, Tradition becomes something with the potential to speak wisdom to the issues and conflicts that lie at the heart of our lives, awakening us to where our best interests really lie.


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