Last revised: November 11, 2015
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PROPER 27 (November 6-12) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 32
RCL: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
RoCa: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
René Girard has put forward a somewhat unique definition of the prophets, which has been picked up by others such as Gil Bailie and James Alison. The prophets are those who are victims. One’s status as a prophet can often be hidden for a time, to the extent that the scapegoating mechanism works to hide the status of victims qua victims. It tries to conceal victim-status behind its need to justify its own violence. Revelation of prophetic status is thus often an eschatological event, one that is rooted in the revelation of the resurrection of Christ and then poured out on all who believe, beginning in the Pentecost event (the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that all God’s people would become prophets). All Christian saints are called to be prophets as we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Perhaps the most glorious picture of that eschatological status as prophets is painted for us in Revelation 5-7 with the white-robed martyrs who have come through the ordeal and have been gathered from all over the globe.
The picture in Revelation shows us the last day when prophetic status is fully revealed. But we say that the Judeo-Christian scriptures offer us stories of prophets, stories of people whose lives have begun to anticipate this final revelation. In short, their lives, most especially as victims, have begun to reveal to us the nature of the Victimage Mechanisms. In that sense, Christ was the most perfect of prophets, the one whose death and resurrection has enabled us to see what and who the prophet really is. It is the resurrection which has brought the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God’s Spirit of prophecy would begun to be poured out on all peoples.
As the Scapegoating Mechanisms, a.k.a. the Powers and Principalities, continue to have their day, how and when does this power of prophecy work? When does the victim’s status as victim and prophet remain hidden, and when does it have the prophetic power to reveal the victimage? Are these the basic questions for prophets like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who strove to find the ways in which being victim to violence are more than merely another victimization but in fact become prophetic? Revelatory of the violence itself? I’m afraid that much about this remains a mystery and is tied up with the mystery of suffering, only to be fully revealed on that last day.
But today’s lessons seem to point to a willingness to undergo suffering as a necessary part of the revelation. And the even greater mystery seems to be the discovery, within the willingness to suffer and die itself, that this world’s basic values undergo a reversal: what the world counts as oriented to life is really oriented to death, whereas in the willingness to die is life; where the world sees poverty there is really abundance, and vice versa. In short, it is what Jesus has seemingly been trying to teach his disciples all along in Mark’s gospel: the first will be last, and the last will be first; those who cling to their lives will lose them, and those who give them up for gospel will truly live; those who would be master must be slave of all, etc.
For more on the Girardian take on being a prophet see the reflections for Pentecost B.
1 Kings 17:10-16
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “Elijah: Anti-sacrificial Sacrifice” (excerpt), pp. 169-173. This idea of “anti-sacrificial sacrifice” has been very influential for me. I find it to be a useful illustration of the many ways that Christians throughout history have done violence in the name of a ‘righteous’ effort to stamp out ‘paganism.’ The Crusades, for example, would be an instance of anti-sacrificial sacrifice.
Reflections and Questions
1. Which better constitutes Elijah’s status as a prophet: his splashy victory over, and slaughter of, the priests of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel, or his joining in solidarity with this poor widow in a situation of famine and near-death? With the former he ends up performing an anti-sacrificial sacrifice; his own sacrifice of the priests of Ba’al veils any light he would hoped to have shed on the nature of sacrifice. His efforts at revealing only result in a reveiling.
With the widow of Zarephath, on the other hand, Elijah shares her vulnerability to death in a way that reveals an abundance from God behind the apparent poverty she suffers at the hands of our sacrificial world. Notice, too, her willingness to give herself over to death; it is perhaps with a sense of resignation, but it doesn’t cause her to horde her remaining food. No, she is willing to share and then die.
2. The widow’s situation recalls the times of famine in our century. It is the soldiers and men of power who typically horde the food in such times, most often by force. There is often ample food coming from relief efforts that tragically doesn’t get to the women and children, unless there are ‘prophets’ who take the risk of getting it to them personally.
3. Elijah’s going to this woman is prophetic in another sense which Jesus himself points to in Luke 4:24-27:
And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus, of course, spoke these words to his own hometown crowd, and they tried to lynch him for it on the spot. Jesus was directly challenging the comfortable games of who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who’s clean and who’s profane. He uses the examples of both Elijah and Elisha being sent to outsiders, to the unclean.
1. I quote Martin Luther’s criticism of the Roman practice of the eucharist as a sacrifice in my article on Holy Communion (Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 210-211). Luther cites the same difference that we see expressed in this passage from Hebrews: spilling you own blood rather than someone else’s.
2. See the extensive bibliography on Hebrews for Proper 23B.
3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 156-260, a section entitled “Sacrifice to End Sacrifice.” After showing how Stephen (in the Acts account of his martyrdom) and Paul speak against sacrifice, Heim begins this section on Hebrews with this observation:
Stephen and Paul look back through Israel’s history and draw a line to Jesus through the voices of scapegoats and victims, through the persecuted prophets and their words against sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews draws a line to Jesus through all of Israel’s prior sacrificial practices. These are quite different approaches. It is striking, then, that they reach the same conclusion: Christ has ended sacrifice. The one approach emphasizes that the cross has revealed what was always wrong with sacred violence. The other emphasizes that Christ’s sacrifice is better than all the others. It is the one truly effective offering and accomplishes what all the others never could. But these are not really opposed to each other. They are more like two sides of the same thing. (p. 156)
Heim quotes today’s passage as pivotal in showing that Hebrews different approach is no less effective in making the essential points. Heim summarizes beautifully:
The book of Hebrews turns sacrifice inside out. Rather than deny ritual sacrifice any effect (for it has a very real effect) or reject all its practice in the past, this writer presses a koan-like conclusion. If you believe in sacrifice, then you can’t practice it anymore, because it has been done completely, perfectly, once for all. This was the sacrifice to end sacrifice. Hebrews is rife with the language of liturgy and ritual, but its premise is the very opposite of what ritual presumes: not repetition but finality. (p. 160)
Reflections and Questions
1. The Letter to the Hebrews begins by placing its entire theology in the context of prophecy: (Hebrews 1:1-2) “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
But the writer develops this prophetic theology through the office of the priesthood confronting the powers of sacrifice which have existed “since the foundation of the world.” This passage goes right to the heart of the difference between all other priests and Christ: any other priest offers the sacrifice “with blood that is not his own,” while Christ “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Christ is thus both prophet and priest; he is both victim of the sacrifice but also, in that he offers himself, is the priest. Or should we say that to the extent that Christ was himself the priest offering up himself, his victimage was prophetic; it revealed the true nature of the sacrificial powers. We don’t see him simply as victim but as prophet.
2. In 2012 my sermon, “Models of Generosity,” moved through disappointment over seeing the widow in Mark 12:41-44 as a model of personal generosity to seeing the challenge from Jesus about the injustice of our economic institutions, at the center of which in the First Century was the Temple. But that initial disappointment can give way to seeing the really Good News that Jesus died to also redeem our institutions. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is dealing with the colossal disappointment of the destruction of the Temple by detailing the ways in which Jesus came to redeem such human institutions. At the heart of the difference is the insight reenforced by Mimetic Theory that the old-time sacrifice of spilling someone else’s blood is being replaced and fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice of his own blood. This brings us God’s promise that someday all our institutions will be redeemed from having to spill someone else’s blood.
This Sunday in 2012 fell precisely on Veteran’s Day (Nov. 11). We are genuinely grateful on this day for the fallen soldiers who were willing to have their own blood spilled on behalf of family, friends, and fellow citizens. But Jesus’ singular act of generosity goes even beyond such a noble sacrifice to shed his blood even for his enemies. The cross is the event in which Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies is faithfully lived out in a sacrifice that sheds no one’s blood but his own. We are grateful for the sacrifice of soldiers on our behalf, but the vocation of a soldier is also to spill someone else’s blood in the service of the greatest old-time engine of sacrifice, War. In my sermon, I quote familiar words from Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson is expounding the ancient logic of sacrifice, as witnessed to by the writer of Hebrews. The high priests of our human institutions, people like Jefferson, need to spill human blood from time to time to keep the engines of our institutions running. Isn’t the Good News for us on Veteran’s Day that moment in history when the Great High Priest changed all that? Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice of his own blood on the cross God’s promise that someday our human institutions will be redeemed to the point of never having to spill blood ever again? Obviously, that day isn’t here yet. But how can followers of Christ begin to live into it?
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 8, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
3. Sarah Dylan Breuer, Proper 27B, of “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog.” Breuer makes a critical exegetical insight. In the context of the first part of this text, in which Jesus tells us that the scribes devour the houses of the widows, the widow’s offering is more an example of that sorry state than an example of how others should give — the latter being a common interpretation at stewardship time. Breuer:
Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it’s a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers — all she had to live on — in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?It just isn’t there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS’ HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:
Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow’s last two coins — all she has to live on.
Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to “and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman — she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building.”
4. Ched Myers, teamed with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Chapter 19, “Arguing Scripture: Mark 12:18-13:2.” Myers reads this passage similar to Breuer, being even more blunt about reading the passage as a commendation of the widow’s generosity. He sees Jesus as angry at the Temple and its leaders:
Infuriated by a widow who has been made destitute by her tithing obligation, Jesus summons his disciples for another solemn teaching (12:43f).
His comment here has long been trivialized as a quaint commendation of the superior piety of the poor, when in fact it is a scathing indictment. He considers this an example of “the devouring of a widow’s house”: “She has put in everything she had, her whole sustenance!” The Temple, like the scribal class, no longer protects the poor, but crushes them. His attack on the political economy of the Temple and its stewards complete, Jesus exits the Temple grounds for the last time in disgust (13:1). (p. 165)
5. John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Mark – Year B), also corroborates seeing the widow’s sacrifice as Jesus making a socio-cultural criticism of Temple-based economics. He writes:
Throughout the Gospel Jesus has consistently championed human needs over the hardened practices of the synagogue. Now he targets the Temple treasury. When he sits opposite the treasury, it symbolizes that he is opposed to the whole temple atmosphere around money. It is a public affair with the rich parading their large sums. But Jesus is not concerned with the rich. They are never exploited. They give to the temple out of their surplus. Piety will never carry them away. Like the scribes, the rich take care of themselves.
But the widow divests herself of all support. Her generosity plays into the devouring greed of the Temple. Those who are supposed to protect her leave her, literally, penniless. What is most frightening is that she cooperates with her exploitation. (p. 267)
There is no way to know for sure, because Mark and Jesus don’t tell us the widow’s motivation for placing her entire means of living into the treasury. But is she a prophet in the sense I bring out below, namely, that of shaming her exploiters knowingly? Even if she is cooperating with her exploitation, she is still a prophet in the sense of being a victim, a victimage now revealed through the cross and resurrection of Christ.
Reflections and Questions
1. Is Mark offering this widow to us as a prophet? As a prophet both in the sense that she essentially gives herself over to death by giving her whole living, and in the sense that she prefigures what Jesus himself will do on the cross? Does her status as a prophet, in the sense we are considering for today’s reading, depend on whether she herself understands that she is being exploited by the system? Mark doesn’t tell us her motivation for putting in all she had. Was it naive generosity? Or was she doing this as a protest? Without so very little to lose, is she losing everything as a way to shame those who oppress her? This is perhaps unlikely, but Mark’s narration doesn’t preclude it. In any case, Jesus interprets her action as prophetic in the sense that it reveals an oppressive system.
John the Baptist if often referred to as the last prophet. Girard emphasizes how John the Baptist is a prophet in the sense of prefiguring Christ’s own death at the hands of mimetic-sacrificial powers. But Mark seems to offer us these glimpses of other lesser known characters in his story, often unnamed women, who are also prophets in this sense. This widow who gives her all may not even be yet the last prophet before Christ in Mark’s gospel. What about the woman in Mark 14:1-9, of whom Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Sounds like a prophet to me. The disciples remark that the expensive ointment could have been sold for the poor. What they fail to remark on is that it could also have been sold for the woman’s own benefit. She chooses neither. Instead, she spills it out in an extravagant anointing of Jesus’ body for the death that will bring new life. (When some other women, only two chapters later, bring ointment to anoint what they think will be Jesus’ dead body, they are confronted with Good News about life.) To truly understand such things as wealth, abundance, and poverty, perhaps we need to look first to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Appearances can be deceiving.
Is that the similar message of this story of the widow in the temple? The rich give out of their apparent abundance; and this widow gives out of her apparent poverty. But in giving up her whole living, who truly ends up poor, and who rich, in this story? Aren’t the wealthy who continue to play the games of death in the sacrificial cults more impoverished than this widow who reveals its true nature in giving her whole living. She is a prophet; they are not. Their gifts do nothing to reveal the nature of the sacrifice; her giving up her whole living, on the other hand, has the chance to reveal what is truly going on.
Is the widow’s act prophetic in the sense, then, that Jesus talks about through similar outrageous acts in the Sermon on the Mount? In talking about the revealing of the violence in our sacrificial world, Jesus recommends doing such things as: offering the other cheek when someone strikes you; giving up your underwear, too, (and presumably standing there naked!) when someone sues you for your outer cloak; carrying a soldier’s pack a second mile when he forces you to carry it the first mile. These are outrageous submissions to violence that have the chance to be prophetic, that have the chance of revealing the violence in its essence, by virtue of the outrageousness of the submission as a voluntary act — a sacrifice of one’s self, if you will. Is this also the nature of the widow’s act? The rich people simply play along. But her offering up of her entire livelihood is such an outrageous submission to the sacrificial violence of the temple cult that it is prophetic, revelatory. And isn’t it also prophetic, then, of what Jesus himself will do on the cross?
And does any of this make any sense whatsoever without the resurrection? Can we ever, minus the resurrection, begin to trust or have faith that God provides just such abundance of life in the face of what this world counts for poverty?
2. In 2012 our Fall stewardship theme was “Models of Generosity,” and this was the climactic Sunday. We held a dessert the evening before, telling inspiring stories of people who are models of generosity for us. We had anticipated this passage as inspiring us with another model of generosity. But in my preparation for preaching what came through more strongly is the aspect of socio-economic criticism. The context makes clear that Jesus points to the widow’s generous offering as part of his critique of Temple economics. In Mark 11-13, Jesus is literally and figuratively ‘sitting opposite the temple’ (13:3). So my sermon, “Models of Generosity,” expresses the disappointment of having to change gears from a theme of applauding the widow as a model of personal generosity to the theme of socio-economic criticism against the sinfulness embedded in our human institutions. But, hopefully, that brings us around to a point of greater inspiration: the singular act of generosity of Jesus on the cross as the moment in history with the power to redeem even the sinfulness of our institutions.
In that sermon I ended up linking to the Second Reading (see more above) and Veteran’s Day (it was November 11), on the spilling of blood. The Letter to the Hebrews is similarly working a critique of the Temple. Looking back, however, I could also have pressed further on the matter of personal generosity. What often holds us back from being personally generous with others? Isn’t it more than battling the personal attitude of stinginess? In other words, our personal battles against stinginess are more than battles against ourselves. Don’t our institutions teach us stinginess, nurture us in stinginess? Isn’t Capitalism, for example, premised on fair distribution of scarce resources? We are taught to see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance. I made the case in the sermon that Christ came to redeem our institutions, too, and not just us as individuals. I could have (but didn’t) illustrated this around the stewardship theme of generosity. Jesus in faithfulness to his Father’s promise of abundance sacrifices his own life, trusting in God’s overflowing abundance of life. It is an act in history that unleashes God’s spirit of generosity in ways that promise to even redeem our institutions someday from their stinginess. What would it be like to someday operate within an economics premised on God’s abundant providence for all God’s children? What would it be like to be stewards of Creation in which we all help one another flourish, trusting in God’s abundant care?
3. This is the “stewardship season” (an unfortunate nomenclature since every season is actually stewardship season) — that is, the time when we make our monetary commitments to church. At the worst of times, I resent the fact that I tithe. A pastor’s salary doesn’t go very far in today’s economy, and our tithe as a family puts a strain on things financially. But at the best of times, times of stronger faith, I find myself able to experience a different kind of abundance that perhaps this story of the widow is trying to teach me as being directly related to our financial risk. It is because the tithe so completely flies in the face of our culture’s economics that I can begin to see the death-based orientation of our economics in the first place, and so begin to experience a different sort of abundance.
Heed Breuer‘s warning above, however, before too easily turning this into a stewardship sermon that lauds the ‘sacrificial’ giving of the widow. Jesus is calling attention to the widow not so much for her giving but as a continuation of pointing to the injustice of the scribes, the wealthy.
4. A good modern-day illustration of the widow’s generosity is Oseola McCarty. She just died in 1999 at the age of 91. She was an African-American woman from Mississippi, who earned a living by washing and ironing other people’s clothes. McCarty, who never married, was in the 6th grade when she had to leave school and take over her mother’s laundry business while she cared for a sick aunt. “All my classmates had gone off and left me so I didn’t go back,” she said. “I just washed and ironed.” She has never had a car. Only recently, at the urging of bank personnel, did she buy a window air conditioner for her home. McCarty’s arthritis forced her to retire in December of ’94 at the age of 86.
McCarty scrimped and saved, however, until she was able to leave $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to set up scholarships for other needy African Americans. Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, Ted Turner, a multi-billionaire, gave away a billion dollars. He said, ‘If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.’
“I want to help somebody’s child go to college,” Oseola said. “I just want it to go to someone who will appreciate it and learn. I can’t do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. I wish I could do more. But what I can do I will do.” Amen, Oseola, Amen! (For a sermon using this story link to “Forgiveness: The Way Between Self-Justification and Despair.)
5. A sign of hope in the McCarty story is the response of Ted Turner. In the Gospel story, no one else sees or hears of the widow’s plight or poverty. If not for Jesus, she will be a forgotten victim. But after Christ’s self-sacrifice transforms the old sacrifice, others begin to see and notice victims. Today, even someone like Ted Turner pays attention to the generous act of a women who had lived in similar poverty. He doesn’t want to be outdone. Even the word “sacrifice” means something different since Christ. So the quiet act of justice by a woman who never had a fair chance at education gets noticed in a different way than it likely would have in Jesus’ time by people like the scribes.
6. The widow is also a direct contrast to the rich young man of several weeks ago (Proper 23B). Jesus asks the man to do what this poor widow does in fact do. And so this current passage recalls some of themes of that earlier one, and the sermon entitled “Maybe This Is Good News, after All.”