A priest by the name of Wes Seeliger tells of a time he was shopping for a motorcycle where the Harley-Davidson salesperson gave him a compelling sales pitch – “this machine will go from 0 to 150 in 20 seconds and will hug the road at 150 k/h. It will outrun anything on wheels.” He then asked “and what do you do for a living, sir?” Seeliger said “I’m a priest”. “It’s also very, very safe,” the salesperson quickly added.
Priests and clergy types have always had a reputation for being cautious and reserved types of folk – conservative and quiet. This isn’t only true of clergy, of course, but is an association often made with the church people in general. I appreciate that Mark Twain’s analysis – that church is a place where nice, respectable people go to listen to a nice, respectable man tell them how to be nicer and more respectable – is a parody and an exaggeration. Even so, it is not by coincidence that in our society the church is perceived as being a traditional and conservative institution, and indeed it does attract people who are conservative and have a love of tradition.
We all know that when we switch on the Christian radio station that we are not going to hear a lot of thrash metal! On the contrary, we’ve almost certainly tuned into the ‘easy listening’ station that caters to easy-going people who live life at an easy-going pace where nothing too outrageous is likely to happen!
You know where I’m going with this, I’m sure, as we’ve just been reading the Scriptures, and you know full well that the sort of demographic I’m describing here hardly fits the characters we meet in the Bible, and this is perhaps especially true of the people we are dealing with today – most obviously the series of out-there, outrageous widows featured in today’s Bible readings!
Our Hebrew Bible reading today dealt with Ruth again – a woman who combined holiness and hotness in a way that was as scandalous as it is inspiring – and Naomi, who didn’t balk at using the alluring sexuality of her beloved daughter-in-law to secure a future for them both.
Ruth in particular, to my mind, is one of those mothers-in-the-faith who really pushed the envelope in terms of putting her body on the line for the sake of love, and then we have the widow that Jesus encounters at the temple treasury – possibly the only vulnerable woman in the entire Gospel drama that we don’t see Jesus healing or helping in any way, but simply admiring! She is one who really pushes the envelope!
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:42-44)
There are at least two obvious problems with this woman’s behaviour. The first is that she is contributing to an institution that is corrupt. The verses immediately preceding this incident make this clear. Jesus says:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-41)
Whether Jesus actually spoke these words immediately prior to sitting down and watching people make their offerings at the temple or whether he spoke them on a different occasion, Mark has placed the two passages side by side to remind us that Jesus’ condemnation of the clergy was a part of his broader condemnation of the entire religious system that they were a part of.
The Scribes and the Pharisees, whom he refers to as ‘hypocrites’ and ‘blind guides’, along with the High Priest and his temple entourage all receive a fair bit of stick from Jesus at different points in His ministry, though indeed it is temple staff who get the most stick from Jesus (or at least the whip).
And it was not simply that there were a lot of arrogant and selfish men amongst the clergy but that the religious system itself was self-serving and corrupt. They ‘devour widows’ houses’ Jesus says, and they transformed the temple from a place of prayer for all people into a den of robbers!
I remember back in the 80’s when I first met Morde Vanunu, it was in part his disillusionment with the religious system of his upbringing in Israel that pushed him towards the church., Ironically, of course, nowadays, as the history of sexual abuse within the church becomes more public, people who were once attracted to the church are themselves now being pushed away!
The temple system as a whole, at any rate, was corrupt, and this woman and those who stood alongside her making their offertories were the ones who kept this system going, and that was not a good thing, surely!
The other problem with this woman in particular was that she put everything she had into the offertory plate and, even though it was only a small amount, Jesus makes clear that it was all she had to live on!
This sort of behaviour is not something we are unfamiliar with, I suspect. It’s just not the sort of thing we admire.
Many of us who are parents will have had that experience where our child insists on spending all of their long-saved-up pocket-money on some useless trinket that suddenly catches their eye at the shopping centre, or perhaps you remember when your teenager, on a sudden impulse of altruism, gave everything they had on them to some homeless guy who told them a good story, or perhaps you were once that teenager yourself? Either way, each of these scenarios invariably ends with a parental lecture, whether we are on the giving end or the receiving end.
‘Son, that homeless guy probably wasn’t really wanting the money to get a train ticket to reach his mother who is on life support at Bathurst hospital. He probably just wanted to buy himself a drink. By giving him money you’re really only reinforcing his dependency issue and not really being of any help to him. So … good on you for wanting to help, but next time …’
As I say, this sort of impulsive ‘I’m going to hand over everything I have’ behaviour is something we are probably familiar with. It is childlike. We may remember being like this ourselves when we were children and if we are parents, as I say, we may well have seen this sort of impulsive behaviour in our children, and we counsel our children in the same way that our parents counselled us. We tell them to stop it! We tell them to stop it because this is not responsible adult\ehaviour.
Throwing away all your money on an impulse buy is irresponsible behaviour. Giving all your coin to a homeless guy in the street is irresponsible behaviour. Realising then that you then don’t have enough left to pay the rent and so gathering up all your remaining coins and putting the lot on a horse in order to win your way out of trouble is likewise irresponsible behaviour. And putting your last pennies prayerfully into the offertory plate in the hope that God will then finally answer all of your heartfelt prayers is understandable but is also irresponsible behaviour.
As I say, we are familiar with this sort of behaviour. We have friends or loved ones or people we work with who live like this. Our children may well do this sort of thing. We may well have done this sort of thing ourselves at times, and perhaps we still do. It’s all very familiar and all very understandable. What we don’t expect though is to hear Jesus commending this sort of behaviour!
I’m not suggesting, of course, that Jesus commends every form of irresponsible behaviour, and I’m not suggesting that Jesus commends this sort of behaviour because it is irresponsible. Even so, the simple fact of today’s Gospel story is that Jesus extols this woman as a model of faith and virtue on account of an act that is by any rational measure irresponsible!
She is a poor widow. That’s made explicit at the beginning of the scene. By definition then she does not have anybody to support her. All she has is her two small coins and she gives them away! She is now dependent on … God! Is that why Jesus extolls her? Is it because she has made herself totally dependent on God? If so, that’s not normally how we think of faith in action.
I’m reminded of that joke where a guy is sitting on the top of his house amidst rising flood waters, praying for God to save him. A boat comes by and offers him a lift but he says “No thanks. God will save me!” Minutes later a helicopter flies near and offers him a ladder. He says “No thanks. God will save me.” When he subsequently drowns and meets God he asks what happened? God says “I sent you a boat and a helicopter. What more was I supposed to do?”
Did this woman meet a similar fate? Did she ultimately starve to death, penniless, only to have God say to her “Hey, I sent you plenty of pennies but you kept throwing them back at me!”
I think, however we interpret Jesus’ admiration for this poor woman, we need to recognise that this sort of bizarre judgement is actually quite typical of the way Jesus looks at things.
I’ve only done very basic training in ‘Christian counselling’ but I’ve certainly known plenty of qualified Christian counsellors and I have indeed been counselled by Christians counsellors on numerous occasions. What I have never found though is any Christian counsellor who models their counselling style of Christ!
Can you imagine any counsellor putting down their notebook and saying “look, I think you’re really only lacking one thing. I suggest that you go and sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then hit the streets as an itinerant preacher!”
Jesus liked to take things to the extreme! He counselled people to take things to the extreme. He commended people who took things to the extreme!
In the history of the church there has, of course, been no shortage of saints who have pushed things to the extreme. In the history of our church, if you’ve read Bob and John’s book, you know that we here have a history of pushing things to the extreme!
You only have think of some of the saints who are celebrated on our walls and windows – characters like Diggs La Touche! He seems to have been a man of extraordinary passion who pushed everything to the extreme. He was so keen to get on the battlefield in World War I that when the reports came back of his terrible death at Gallipoli, most people didn’t even realise he’d arrived there!
We celebrate people like George Chambers, who built great buildings, founded schools, started missions and really pushed the envelope!
Mind you, I can never think of my great predecessor, George, without remembering the story Ruth Paddle told me before her death (many years ago now) about the day George returned to Dulwich Hill as guest preacher after having completed his term as bishop of Tanganyika. Everyone in Dulwich Hill turned out to hear him, Ruth told me, and he was the most boring preacher she had ever heard! No one has all the gifts!
I think even of James Clark, the first incumbent here, who was eventually arrested in 1893 when he was found running around the fields here naked. He was another one who really pushed the envelope. I appreciate that not everything he did was constructive but he nonetheless does remind me of some of the characters we meet in the New Testament, for it is indeed the pattern of the New Testament that people are continually pushed to extremes!
I remember many, many years ago having a conversation with my dad and asking him how it was that this community of passionate religious extremists evolved over time into the sort of insipid Christianised golf clubs that we were more familiar with in contemporary Australia, and he suggested that the evolutionary process was actually quite natural and understandable.
He illustrated the process from his knowledge of the Wesleyan missions in the md-18th century. Wesley’s key appeal was to the working class, he said. There was an extraordinary response of evangelical zeal amongst miners and manual labourers who found Christ through Wesley’s preaching. As a result, these men would stop going out drinking at nights, spend more time with their families, start saving money, and so inevitably they would gradually evolve into the middle class, which was a very healthy sign!
That makes a lot of sense – that the result of religious revival will be that over time the community as a whole will becomes more responsible. Even so, I think we should hold up alongside that the other interesting statistic that I’ve read with regards to religious revivals, regarding the more immediate effect on the community. That is that after every successful evangelical mission – from Wesley to Billy Graham and beyond – there are always a lot of unexpected pregnancies following in the wake of the mission!
People do get passionately engaged and push things to the extreme. All sorts of things get stirred up when the Spirit of God is on the move and the results are not always what we were hoping for! We could wish that people were a little less extreme in their response, which brings us back to the widow of course. We could wish that she was a little less extreme in her response! We could wish that she might curb her religious zeal somewhat and behave with a little less passion and a little more self-restraint. We could counsel her and encourage her to curb her enthusiasm, even while Jesus is cheering her on!
Over my twenty-five years in the parish I’ve had a number of people who have suggested to me that we should be serving grape juice at the communion table, if not in place of wine at least as an alternative for those who would prefer a non-alcoholic substitute. My response has always been the same. I repeat the wisdom that was passed on to me by Bishop Will Willimon.
Grape juice, he said, is a refreshing if somewhat insipid thirst-quencher on a hot day. Wine, on the other hand, is volatile stuff! If you have too much of it or drink it too quickly you may start behaving a bit strangely. People get inappropriately amorous when they drink wine and fights can break out! Wine is dangerous stuff! Which drinks sounds more like the Gospel to you?
I was told of a scene at an airport lounge where the parents of a toddler were clearly distressed at their son’s behaviour – rampaging around the 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?’
My response, had I been there, would have been to say ‘don’t send him to our Sunday School!’ We don’t have a good record at Holy Trinity of settling people down. On the contrary, we seem to specialise in stirring them up! We are the community of George Chambers, Diggs La Touche, James Clarke, and of this current rowdy crew of malcontents! We are a community that celebrates rabble-rousers like Naomi and Ruth and the poor widow who throws her last two coins into the temple treasury! Beware the influence we might have on your children here!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 8th of November, 2015.