Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Proper 27 Year B

Proper 27 B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127


I Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

The Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, has cast her future with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi who becomes concerned about Ruth's future "security." Naomi instructs her to go to where Boaz could be found that evening. She also tells Ruth to "put on your best clothes" when she goes to where the men will be working on the harvest that night. Also, she is to "not make yourself known" until after the men have celebrated with a heavy meal and plenty to drink. After Boaz and the others have fallen asleep, Ruth is to lie down at his feet. [This excerpt skips over the part of the story in which Boaz acts with circumspect propriety before he takes Ruth as his wife.] The marriage produces a son, because "the Lord made her conceive...." The women of Bethlehem express their joy to Naomi that this grandson "shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you... has born him." Naomi "became his nurse." And the women of Bethlehem named him Obed. Now comes the kicker to this wonderful story: the non-Jewish daughter-in-law whose loyalty to her mother-in-law was 'thicker than blood' is the grandmother of Jesse and great grandmother of David!

The first half of this psalm establishes that without the Lord's beneficence human labors are in vain. The second half celebrates that "children are a heritage of the Lord/and the fruit of the womb is a gift." Parents are blessed with children who can protect them in old age.


Elijah is on the run from Ahab because he prophesied a drought, which came to pass. During the ensuing famine, the Lord instructs Elijah to go to Zarephath "for I have commanded a widow to feed you." At the entry to the town, he spots a widow gathering firewood and asks her for a drink of water. Then he asks for something to eat. She has only a little food at home, which she intends to finish with her son and then they both will die. But Elijah insists she prepare a meal for him as well as for herself and her son, "for thus says the Lord the God of Israel: the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until..." the draught is over. Miraculously, there was plenty to eat for the duration of the famine, "according to the word of the Lord spoke by Elijah."

The psalmist considers who should we trust. Do not trust "princes," he concludes, because when they die their plans go with them. Instead, trust in "Jacob's God," who is "the maker of heaven and earth" and "who keeps faith forever/does justice for the oppressed/gives bread to the hungry...." This Lord restores those who have been put at a disadvantage, including "widows and orphans."

The writer who has chosen to address himself to "Hebrews" continues his elaborate reinterpretation of Temple worship. This excerpt contrasts the repetitiveness of Temple worship with Christ's once-for-all-time sacrifice. "He has appeared once for all at the end of ...[this]age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself." He will appear a "second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

Continuing the theme of denunciation by Jesus of religious hypocrisy (but with less fervor than Matthew or Luke, it is worth noting), Mark takes particular aim at those who "devour widow's houses and [then] for the sake of appearances say long prayers." This stinging criticism sets up the story Mark pauses to spend some time telling with an unforeseeable conclusion. Jesus positions himself so he has a clear view of the faithful as they approach and put their offerings into the Temple offering boxes. The wealthy put in large gifts of money. The satisfaction and prestige for their generosity is their reward, the reader is assured. But one person in particular catches his eye. "A poor widow came and put two small copper coins, which are worth about a penny." Jesus directs the attention of his disciples to what the woman has just done and then says this poor widow has put in more than those who gave such large, generous amounts. The explanation for the conclusion Jesus reaches turns expected assumptions upside down and inside out: Those who gave large amounts of money gave out of their abundance, "but she gave out of her poverty... everything she had, all she had to live on."

The wonderful story of Ruth, the tale taken from the life of Elijah and Mark's distinctive telling about a widow who catches Jesus' eye and inspires him to make an unforgettable statement comprise an ecstatic exploration of giving/gift/"pure giveness." Elijah's survival depends upon the generosity of strangers to whom the Lord directs him. Ruth's entire, amazing story is one episode after the next of unexpected generosity from people who, technically, have no social or moral obligation to each other. Although an alien, she demonstrates loyalty to her adopted family and their God and elicits their love and protection. (And out of this story of crisscrossing, non-obligatory generosity comes the direct lineage of David and of the Messiah/Christ! ) Mark provides us with one of the most permanently surprising sayings in the gospels when, after noting a widow drop small change-- "all she had to live on" --into the offering boxes, Jesus declares that she has given more out of her poverty than those who gave large gifts gave out of their abundance! Giving/gift/"pure givenenss" play a much different role in our lives than we realized, perhps until now.

It is Jean-Luc Marion who writes about "pure giveness." He describes a slow-growing realization that "begins when the potential giver suspects that another gift has already preceded her...." (
The Visible and the Revealed, p. 91) One is not born and does not survive childhood without the generosity of many others, parents especially, of course. I begin to understand that I would not be who I am were it not for the generosity of others, some known to me and many others forever anonymous, who nurtured me and opened up the world to me. This realization, Marion continues, leads one to realize "she owes something, to which she owes [to] herself to respond." A cycle, habit, personality change, conversion is set in motion by a conscious decision to be one who gives. Marion's own words are: "...the gift comes about by the decision, by the giver, to give, but which also means that this decision implies that the giver feels herself obliged, and hence, obligated..." by all the gifts that preceded her and benefit her. Simply put, "The decision to make a gift implies, first of all, the decision to make oneself a giver." This is not just some warm, fuzzy feeling that arises occasionally, this is how I chose to live my life, this is who I chose to become.

Ruth, Naomi, the widow who fed Elijah, the widow Jesus observed put her last pennies into the Temple offering box all made the decision to be "givers." To which Jesus adds, they were "givers" not out of abundance, because there was nothing tangible to give, but gave out of "poverty." The decision to be a giver is not made when I already have more than I basically need, but when I have assumed I have nothing left to give. Giving/gift/"pure giveness" is that "secret" that brings life to Life and can even sometimes bring something out of nothing.