Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44
The book of Ruth is a parable, a story written in order to undermine the dominance of a certain kind of religious ideology that was prominent in Israel at the time of its composition. You can read all about that ideology in the book of Ezra. There you will read about the zealousness of a group of aristocratic religious reformers who returned from the exile in Babylon convinced that God had punished Israel primarily because its men had taken foreign wives to their beds, thus making it possible for corrupt (that is, non-Jewish) ideas and practices to flourish amongst the chosen people. The reformers therefore forced or convinced thousands of ordinary men, most of whom had never in fact left Jerusalem at all during the exilic period, to ‘put away’ both their wives and their children as an act of religious duty. Read against that background, one can see how the book of Ruth would have once been regarded as a revolutionary literature. For in telling a story of the royal lineage of David, it also seeks to demonstrate that the God of Israel cannot be counted on to support such a programme. In the verses we read this morning, the authors stress that Israel’s most lauded family only became what it was because God chose to bless and honour two revolutionary women who chose to buck the religious system of dos and donts. Tamar, a Canaanite woman, disguised herself as a prostitute in order to get an heir for Judah, the great ancestor of the Davidic clan. And Ruth, a Moabite woman with no firm legal or religious status in Israel, went out on a very thin and very dangerous limb in order to get a son for Naomi. One must surely conclude, at least, that God is not one to honour our fear of ethnicities other than our own. And perhaps we may also conclude that God will not be bound by any of our human fears or anxieties, no matter how deeply mythic or religious their origins seems to be.
But I am ahead of myself, for I wanted to talk about another of God’s revolutions, the revolution in which poverty becomes the most enriching experience in the world. This is figured for us in the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, into the temple treasury. Lest you think I am being romantic about her poverty, let me remind you of the situation such a woman would have faced in that time and place. In a deeply patriarchal society, such as that of first-century Palestine, women are little more than goods to be bought and sold. Upon marriage, they pass from their father’s ownership to their husband’s. If that husband dies and there is no-one else, no other kin, who will marry her, then she reverts to the patronage of her father’s house. But remember that we are talking about a desperately poor peasant society here. Most men, because of hard labour and poor nutrition, could not expect to live beyond thirty five in ordinary circumstances. Fathers and brothers would therefore be most unwilling, if they were still alive, to take the widows of their kin, especially if they had children already. Jewish widows were, quite simply, at the bottom of the food-chain. They were the ones left to fend for themselves when the going got tough. And that often meant either Roman slavery, or prostitution, or both. Often these options amounted to the same thing. Now, add to all that the expectations of the religious elites who ran the temple, those whom Mark’s gospel calls ‘the Scribes and the Saducees’. These groups had enormous power in Israel, in both religious and political terms. They enjoyed the highest religious and social status because they were the heirs of the priestly casts. But this also gave them enormous economic power, because, by declaring a person or place ritually unclean, they could also successfully blackmail any person who wished to claw their way back into a state of purity. The phrase in Mark’s gospel, ‘they devour widows houses’ probably refers to precisely that practise. It is likely that some of the priestly class, at least, were given to extracting money from pious widows in return for a declaration of cultic purity from sin.
Given all that, why does Mark record the story of the widow’s offering? Wasn’t she being ripped off? Why would she put in all that she had to live on, unless she was being blackmailed in some way? Some commentators say that the story is told simply to highlight the evil practices of the scribes. But I do not think this is so. For later tradition will make explicit what is already right here in Mark’s text, namely, the intention to hold this woman up as an example of a truly revolutionary discipleship under very trying conditions. For while it is true that the text does warn the reader against the false piety and moral blackmail of the priestly system, it does not propose an entirely socio-economic solution to the problem. How could it? How could a widow possibly be saved from economic ruin in such circumstances? Is someone going to step in to give her more cash, or protect her from what the system makes inevitable? There is no hint, in Mark’s text, that Jesus or his benefactors intend to do so. So why is the story told?
The answer lies, I think, in a reading of the story which takes the whole flow of Mark’s gospel into account. In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to preach the kingdom, to heal, and to exorcise. In chapters 2 and 7 we read stories about Jesus’ willingness to confront or break the laws of the temple aristocracy in order to do so. In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that there is salvation only in being willing to die, to be baptised with his own baptism, to become the slave of all. Also in chapter 10, in what I believe 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 all this is heading? By the time we come to this story of the widows offering, the reader couldn’t possibly believe that Jesus is offering some kind of socio-economic solution to the problems at hand. On the contrary! What Jesus seems to be implying is this: that in order to overcome, to be saved, to be healed, to be liberated, or whatever, one must ultimately give the powers arraigned against us what they want: our very lives. Why? Because Mark believe that it is in giving our lives over to the powers that be, that we shall ultimately gain our freedom from those powers.
Now, one can see how Karl Marx came to his stinging criticism of Christianity, can’t you. Religion, he said, was an opiate to keep the poor in their place. But this is of course to entirely miss the point of what Mark is trying to teach us! You see, for Mark – and indeed for Paul who wrote before him – there are two powers in the world: the power of religion or karma, which says that we get what we deserve, and the power of gospel and grace, which gives without reason or cause. Now, in Mark’s world as in ours, it is the power of karma that appears to reign supreme. We get ahead by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy. Which implies, of course, that we want to get ahead, that we are happy to invest in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us. But grace inhabits this world of karma in such a way that its power is stolen away. The power of karma is death: death is what the karmic system threatens us with in order to make us do and be what it wants. But Grace says: “in order to find yourself you must lose yourself. In order to live, you must die. In order to gain all things you must lose all things.” In this way, grace promises that the moment of capitulation will ultimately become the moment of freedom, for it is in being willing to let go of what we cling to so desperately that we shall gain ourselves anew as a free people whose lives are hidden with Christ in God. What seems ludicrous and impossible for human beings, is of course entirely possible for God. This is God’s revolution: the coming of a new and strange peace, at precisely that point when justice seems dead.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the new Matrix movie is called Revolutions. In that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of inevitability - to the evilly karmic power of Smith who wants to repeat his banality over and over in the world until there is nothing left but the Same - 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 spreads through all the world, bringing light and life and peace where there was only darkness, death and enmity. So it can be for us. Jesus promises that if we give over to him that which controls us most, our desire to ascend the karmic ladder and become someone, then we can be saved. Only in dying is there is life, only in stillness is there dancing, only in suffering the evil of what surrounds us is there freedom from it. This is the revolution the gospel promises. What is impossible for human beings, is possible for God.