Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44
In the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot wrote this:
. . . In order to arrive there,
to arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You need to go by a way in which there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
There is a revolution from God, an impossible turning in which the very worst that may visit us in life is able to reconfigure itself as the very best. It is a revolution that resists explanation or representation. It happens in our experience. We know that it happens, and we can recognise it when it happens to others. But we struggle to understand or tell it, to name its dark contours even for ourselves. To my mind, the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus is our best telling of this revolution. “Best” because here the story unfolds from our lips and imaginations, from the lips and imagination of the church, and yet it does not come from us. We hear it, first of all, from God. What we confess with our lips and know in our hearts begins not with our own hearts, but with an event that happens in the heart of God.
The gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, is a version of that telling. Although we have it here, in Mark, as a story about discipleship - an allegory and paradigm example for us of what a disciple of Jesus would do - its context in the larger gospel story suggests something else. Since Jesus himself is about to be arrested, and everything taken from him through the humiliation of torture and crucifixion, and since Mark casts this great loss as a willing loss, a sacrifice or gift on the part of Jesus and his Father for the life of the world, so this simple act of a widow’s offering is not primarily about what disciples do, but what God does. In the larger story about Christ’s offering, God’s gift, the woman’s willingness to part with everything that she has to live on prepares the reader to hear the story of the passion: that she is like the God who loses everything, but willingly, in the encounter with human evil.
Consider, if you will, what has happened in the story so far. In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to inaugurate a kingdom, the kingdom of God. In chapters 2 through 7 we read stories about the signs of that kingdom’s arrival: the preaching of good news, healings, exorcisms, and (not least) the shattering of human traditions about what is right and what is wrong. In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that salvation comes only for the one who is willing to die, to be baptised into death, to become the slave of all. Also in chapter 10, in what I take to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God. Can you see where Mark is leading us with that story-line? To suffering and to crucifixion, as a direct and necessary consequence of God’s encounter with human beings. But also to the revolution revealed there, that strange turning in which death becomes life, poverty becomes riches, and the loss of self the key to a newly made identity that God gives freely. So what Mark is trying to tell us in this stark story about a widow who gives away even the little she has, is nothing other than what he is telling us in the gospel as a whole. That one can never be saved from life’s cruelties unless one is willing to confess and acknowledge one’s own involvement in the system that perpetuates those cruelties, giving oneself over, instead, to a different logic, the logic of God which is called by the beautiful name of grace.
What I mean is this. For Mark – and, indeed, for the Letter to the Hebrews before him – there are two powers or logics in the world: the power of religion or karma, and the power of the gospel or of grace. In Mark’s world, as in ours, it was the power of karma that appeared to reign supreme. Karma is the power of necessity, you know, the compulsion we feel to ‘get ahead’ by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy. Of course, we would not feel such compulsion unless we believed in karma ourselves, if we did not want to get ahead, if we were not already invested in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us. Yet this is where most of us are. Compelled, entranced, invested. Yet, the karmic system can only ever lead us to despair, for it condemns us to reap only what we sow. It is like capitalism, which delivers to us only what we produce ourselves – images of the real, but not the real itself. The real eludes us, for we are not God. We cannot create even ourselves, let alone what we need for happiness or peace! This widow of Israel, for example, was probably caught in a double-bind, a circle of despair with no exit. Like all good Jews, she longed to be part of the people of the redeemed, those who were acceptable to God because they obeyed the priestly law. Yet, she wanted to survive as well, to live. When her male patrons died or put her aside, she had to turn to activities condemned by the law in order to feed herself and her children – to prostitution or stealing or slavery in the houses of idolators. The only way to achieve both ends, to stay alive and ritually clean at the same time, was to accept a form of moral blackmail, to pay the priestly caste a large portion of her ill-gotten earnings in return for their acceptance and protection. Unfortunately, her willingness to do so almost certainly kept her in a state of perpetual want and need. It also perpetuated and repeated the very system that oppressed her, so that nothing was able to change. She reaped what she sowed, her poverty and need creating nothing but more poverty and more need.
Thank God there is another power in the world, the power of grace! Grace, as I have been preaching for some time now, is the opposite of karma or religion or myth. It is like the blessing of children of which the Psalmist speaks. Children cannot be produced by the machinations of our human longings, needs or planning. They are not a reward for our labour or a right to be possessed. Children come, as many of you know very well, as a sheer gift from God, without reason or foretelling. Children are therefore signs to us of grace, that condition of blessedness and peace which comes not from ourselves but from somewhere other, from God. Grace is that which comes to question, to interrupt, to displace and even destroy the cycle of despair which is karma. With the gift of grace, we reap what we have not sown, and live in the power of that which we have not produced or made for ourselves. In grace we experience the love of God shown in Christ’s self-sacrifice. In Christ, God is totally for us, even to the point of so identifying with us in our karmic cycle of despair that he suffered the full consequence of what that cycle produces: nothingness, and only nothingness.
Of course, having given itself over to nothingness and to death, grace is not exhausted. It rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its own destruction, and proceeds to infect the karmic system like a virus which cannot be quashed. In the gospel story, this power or property is called resurrection. It is the perseverance of love in the face of death and despair, the never-depleted surplus of possibility over necessity. In Mark’s world, the widows of Israel were forever caught in a web of karmic despair. In trying to escape its demands they succeeded only in fulfilling its demands. Not so, we are told, with the widow who gave her all, all she had to live on. In the context of the gospel as a whole, we must understand this act evangelically, that is, as a picture or metaphor of salvation. As for Christ himself, and for all who follow his way of the cross, it is only by finally allowing the karmic system to have what it seeks – our very lives – that we shall find ourselves free of its determinations. For while she, and we who are Christ’s, indeed give our lives daily to the system we inhabit, that system need not possess us thereby. For we are Christ’s, and our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God, as the apostle says. Therefore we are being freed from the desire to get ahead, to succeed in terms determined by the law of karma. We are people who know a love which is stronger even than death, and the gift of a life and future we have not produced. Therefore we choose, over and over again, in all the minutiae of life, to serve our neighbour without thought of cost or ego. For the price is already paid. What can karma take from us that Christ cannot return a hundredfold?
The movie known as Matrix: Revolutions, can be read as the third volume in a three-fold re-telling of the gospel as I have proclaimed it today. In that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of karmic inevitability, that the revolution begins. As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen. What was absorbed begins to absorb. What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life. What had been given away now returns more powerfully to inhabit all the world, bringing light and life and peace where once there was only darkness, death and enmity. So it can be for us. Jesus promises that if we will face our deepest fear – the loss of our very souls – and if we will trust in his love, then we shall live, even though we die. “In my end is my beginning,” wrote T.S. Eliot. Let us give thanks that it is so.