As ever, the characters the Bible brings before us as heroes of the faith are persons whom the community at large regards as insignificant. But look more closely! These women are risk-takers, women of daring, extreme widows!
A priest by the name of Wes Seeliger was shopping for a motorcycle. The Harley-Davidson salesperson bragged ‘this machine will go from 0 to 150 in 20 seconds. It will hug the road at 150 km/h. It will outrun anything on wheels. What do you do for a living, sir.’ ‘I’m a priest’ Seeliger said. ‘It’s also very, very safe,’ the salesperson quickly added.
Priests and clergy types have for a long time had a reputation for being cautious and reserved types of folks – conservative and quiet. This is not only true of clergy, of course, but is an association often made with the church in general. The church is seen as a traditional and conservative institution that attracts people who are conservative and have a love of tradition.
At an airport, the parents of one toddler were clearly distressed as their son rampaged around the airport lounge, knocking over bags, spreading his ice cream over people’s seats, and generally making a nuisance of himself. The father was overhead to say ‘perhaps we should send him to Sunday School?’
The assumption again is that church is a quiet, conservative place that will likely have a calming influence on him and teach him to be a little more civilised.
The ever-quotable Mark Twain went so far as to say of the church that “It is a place where nice, respectable people go to listen to a nice, respectable man, teach them how to be nicer and more respectable.”
Our Scripture readings today centred around the acts of a number of women – Ruth, and Naomi in our first reading, and a nameless widow in the gospel reading. And these figures had a number of other things in common, apart from just being women.
They were also widows, which entailed them also all being poor and vulnerable persons. They were also, each of them, very insignificant persons in terms of their status in their communities. And one more thing they each had in common – none of them could possibly be characterised as conservative or respectable, or even sensible.
Ruth, if you remember her story – had the choice to do the sensible thing by following her mother-in-law’s instructions to ‘go back home’. It was the sensible thing to do. There she could get a job, start another family, find a new life for herself. She had a better than even chance of finding a future for herself if she headed back home, but not if she stuck it out with the old lady, Naomi.
But Ruth didn’t do the sensible thing. She did the compassionate thing. She stuck by the side of her mother-in-law and refused to abandon her.
And in today’s reading she continued her pattern of reckless abandon – hiding herself in the bedroom of the elderly but eligible Boaz! She took an enormous risk – risking not only her reputation, but risking being violated herself of course. But she took a chance, for the sake of securing a future for herself and for her mother-in-law.
The widow in the gospel story comes across as equally, if not more, outrageous. ‘She gave everything she had!’ – hardly a sensible thing to do for an elderly woman who didn’t even have a pension to depend on!
This gospel story astounds me, frankly, as I can’t see any reason that Jesus and His disciples would be hanging around the treasury area of the Temple, except perhaps to discourage people from putting money in!
You might envisage that Jesus and his team might hang around the donations area sometimes, just to quietly suggest to people that they make their offertory somewhere else (‘hey, had you thought about giving it to the Salvos?…)
Of course this woman didn’t give a lot but, as Jesus pointed out, it was a lot to her!
It’s really a lose-lose situation I would have thought. The temple officials are not going to be impressed by this woman’s offering. as it is not going to make any real difference to them. At the same time though, it will destroy her! And Jesus says … Good on her!
This old woman, Jesus says, “put in far more than all the others. For they gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”
And so she is held up before the apostles, not as an example of stupidity, but as a model of Christian integrity and discipleship!
It occurred to me, as I thought about this woman – indeed about all three women – that most of the people Jesus holds up to us as heroes are … well … a bit crazy!
Think of the characters that feature in his stories: Samaritans who risk their lives to help out complete strangers, shepherds who leave 99 sheep on the hillside in order to devote time and energy to one sheep, fathers who allow their sons to waste all their inheritance money and then throw a party for them when they return home!
And not just the fictional characters – think of the other persons whom Jesus extolled in front of the disciples: that woman who poured all that ointment all over his feet. “That ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor” – that’s the sensible response. Jesus says, “No! This is wonderful!”
Zacchaeus says, “Half my goods I give to the poor!” We say, ‘No. Hang on a second Zaccheaus. Start up a trust fund. Then use the proceeds of that trust fund to give long-term support to significant charitable works that you feel make a contribution.’
Zaccheaus says, ‘No thanks. I’m just dividing everything down the middle. Whoever wants the other half of my stuff here, they can come and take it!’ And Jesus says, ‘Yeah, that’s the spirit, Zaccheaus!’
Some of you may be familiar with the ethical writings of Aristotle (the Nichomachean Ethics) – so influential in the history of Christian thought (especially St Thomas Aquinas). Aristotle taught that in any situation where an ethical decision had to be made, there were always two extreme possibilities, and the proper path always lay in between.
We may have the option at mealtime of eating a lot or perhaps nothing at all. These are the two extremes. The right thing to do is to eat a medium amount.
In making a donation, we can choose to give more than we can afford, or we can choose to give nothing at all. These are the extremes. The appropriate amount is a midpoint, somewhere in between the extremes.
The ethics of Aristotle are all about balance. Live according to Aristotle’s rule and you will live abalanced life – stable, secure, measured and reasonable. I think we have to be honest and recognise that, despite Aristotle’s influence on Christian thinking, the ethics of Aristotle are truly NOT the ethics of Jesus.
Jesus Himself did not choose his path as a middle way between the easy way of the devil and the hard path of the cross. He chose the hard way, the extreme path. He held nothing back, but pushed himself all the way to the point of death. Jesus did not live a balanced life, and he didn’t expect his disciples to live balanced lives either. On the contrary, he told us to ‘take up our cross and follow him, for whosoever saves his life will lose it, but that whoever looses his life for the sake of the gospel will find it!’
I think we generally let those words wash over us, as if they made perfect sense, but when Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he is very explicitly asking us to choose the path of suffering and death for the sake of the Gospel. It is an exhortation to go to the extreme for the sake of the Kingdom we believe is coming. I would like this to really sink in today – for us genuinely to think about the reckless abandon with which the Lord Jesus apparently expects us to live our lives.
Kierkegaard said that there is an image of the good life, being like a boat tied up safely at the dock. This is not the Christian life, says the great Dane. Floating out over 40,000 fathoms of water, with only your faith to hold you up – this is the Christian life.
“If I am a fool”, says St Paul, “I am a fool for Christ!” For this is the Christian life – not a quiet, conservative, well-organised, journey through a peaceful landscape to a happy destination, but a roller-coaster adventure of extreme love, extreme sacrifice, and extreme faith.
My exhortation to all of you today – do something nonsensical for Christ this week!
Not just any foolish act will do, of course. Our examples are in the Scriptures today – throwing in your lot with an elderly widow and moving to another country, hiding in the room of an elderly but eligible bachelor, pouring all the money you don’t have into a corrupt (but spiritual) institution. Perhaps there are even better ways to be foolish for the sake of Christ?
Whatever you choose to do though, resist, resist, resist the temptation to retire into quiet and insipid respectability! Take rather the example of these women who, out of their poverty gave to God everything they had.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 12th November, 2006.