The word for widow in Hebrew means “one who is silent.” It reflected the status of widows in ancient culture, which was utterly dependent, having no voice of their own, having no home of their own other than their husband’s nearest male relative, if he would take her in, and who might fulfill his obligation to give her a son, though it wasn’t thought of “her” son, rather his dead brother’s son, if he had had none before he died.
So taking care of the widows and orphans is over and over lifted up as an obligation of the community of faith, and it was certainly one of the marks of the early Christian community. Their common meals and sharing of resources saved many an otherwise destitute person from utter misery and abandonment.
Ruth and Naomi lived on the edge of their patriarchal culture, which had made some provisions for them (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 11/11/12). The poor were allowed to glean on the edges of fields, entitled to the unpicked or dropped harvest. There was also the levirate marriage, allowing a widow to be married or “acquired” by her dead husband’s nearest male relative as part of his estate. Those were Ruth and Naomi’s institutional options, but their story reflects a much richer and more creative set of possibilities. They take care of and show concern for one another. They become “safe harbor” for one another, as Martin Copenhaver puts it, (Cited by Huey, op cit.) and in that caring and concern, discover a way where there appeared to be no way, and they give life not only to their community but also to generations to come.
There isn’t a lot of “God-talk” in the book of Ruth, other than saying after the fact that God must have intended either the bitterness of Naomi’s losing of her husbands and sons (which we read about last week) or, in the end, the blessing and restoration of Naomi’s fortune, when her daughter-in-law marries Boaz and produces a son–and a future– for her. But beneath the surface, in much more subtle ways, God is at work, creating a future not only for Ruth and Naomi, but for all of Israel as well. God’s actions, though, depend upon the courage and creativity of these two women, who had been written off by their culture as hopeless cases, living, as it were, on a fiscal cliff, on the edge of ruin.
In a recent interview with World Ark, the magazine of Heifer Project International, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about the importance of supporting and empowering women throughout the world as a primary and effective way of raising the standard of living and well-being of the world’s people.
We know that investing in women’s employment, health and education levels leads to greater economic growth across a broad spectrum
[she says]. It also leads to healthier children and a better educated population overall. We know that political systems that are open to full participation by women produce more effective institutions and more representative governments…
…Women have shown time and again that they will seize opportunities to improve their own and their families’ lives. And even when it seems that no opportunity exists, they still find a way… [World Ark, Holiday 2012, pp. 7-8]
Secretary Clinton could have been describing Ruth and Naomi. If you’ve never done it, I urge you to read the whole story of Ruth–it’s only 4 chapters, less than 4 pages in your Bible–and totally worth it. It’s got intrigue–even sexual intrigue–humor, courage, and daring. It’s even got a happy ending, which we all could use these days, so give it a read–you’ve even got an extra day off this week, and this will only take you a few minutes.
In the snippet we have extracted from the story which we read this morning, “Naomi her mother-in-law said to [Ruth], ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well for you. [Remember Sec. Clinton’s remarks–“Women have shown time and again that they will seize opportunities to improve their own and their families’ lives.”?] ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well for you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor;; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’ So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her.”
See what I mean? Intrigue? Double intendre? Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that this story, which is the basis for the Jewish Festival of Weeks, is written with subtlety and sophistication, pointing out that “the primary action occurs on the threshing floor…It may…be…that in the imaginative horizon of the narrator the threshing floor, the defining venue for the festival, is understood as a most generative arena in which radical newness is given that opens futures for Israel.” (Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 322) It is that “divinely given newness” that is celebrated each Festival of Weeks.
Our readings this morning don’t include the additional potential barrier of another, closer male relative, but Boaz quickly and honorably negotiates the passing of his right of redemption, and when our reading picks up, we know that “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son…They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” God has indeed acted in what appeared to be a hopeless case, but not out of the blue–not without the courage, kindness, initiative, and risk-taking of Ruth & Naomi.
Jesus points to another widow living on the edge in our reading from Mark this morning. Jesus sits opposite the treasury and watches the crowd putting money into the offering box. “Many rich people put in large sums, [but] a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Jesus calls his disciples and says to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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.”
This story is often read this time of year, when many churches are engaged in their stewardship campaigns, and the widow is lifted up as a model of sacrificial giving. But is Jesus praising her or lamenting her situation? Just before this, Jesus has pointed to the scribes, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets…They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Is Jesus perhaps pointing to the widow’s giving of her last two coins to the Temple treasury as an example of the “devouring of widow’s houses”? As a condemnation of an institution which drains people’s resources and then ushers them out the door? I have come to insert my own revision of Mark’s manuscript here. Before the next verse, when Jesus is coming out of the Temple, I imagine Jesus’ saying to one of his disciples, “Go over to that widow and invite her to our supper tonight. And see if there isn’t room in Martha’s house for her.”
“Jesus didn’t allow his listeners to forget about the poor,” writes one commentator (Greg Carey, Odyssey Network, 11/6/12, “Chump Change”). “It would have been impossible anyway. Nearly everyone in the ancient world lived in poverty, often dire. Jesus’ world included a very few wildly wealthy people, a few people finding ways to make money and accumulate wealth, lots of people scratching a living off the land, and lots of people living on the margins of the economy.”
It doesn’t sound all that different from our world, although most people don’t live close enough to the land to scratch a living off it. And we still don’t like to talk about the poor, as I’ve said before. We and our politicians prefer to focus on the middle-class. We still think poverty is shameful–not just for what the poor do or don’t do, but for who they are. They are largely invisible in our midst, but Jesus saw the widow.
“The widow’s generosity places the reality of poverty before our eyes,” that same commentator goes on. “It reminds us that the poor do not represent parasites who drain society of its resources. This story reminds us that we live in an economy that siphons its resources upward and leaves the vulnerable to face destitution on the own.” (Carey, op cit.)
Before we urge widows or anyone else to give all they have to the church or any other institution, we should rather make sure that we are taking care of their basic human needs, that we are acting as a “family of choice” for all those without families who can care for them, caring for one another, becoming safe harbor for one another. Jesus may be suggesting that the widow who put her two coins in the offering is giving out of her love for and gratitude to God, not the Temple per se. What we can learn from her is that we are all dependent upon God for all that we have and are, not independent, self-sufficient individuals, which our culture is more likely to lift up as the model to be copied. In as much as we as a church community live up to the community of caring that Jesus creates, we are worthy of sacrificial giving, not only of our treasure, but also our time and talent, so that we can continue to be such a community.
No matter what we might be “on the edge of”–financial ruin, a new stage of life, the end of independent living, on the cusp of a new way of thinking and acting, a new way of being “church”–we can look to the models of these widows who became vessels for God’s radical newness, who dared greatly, who trusted in God boldly, who cared for one another, and who, in the end, became part of the story of God’s people transforming the world, no longer silent, but becoming the Word made flesh. This is Good News indeed!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark