The Widow’s Gift–Mark Braverman

Dr. Mark Braverman


The Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost–November 11, 2012

Preacher: Dr. Mark Braverman, Program Director, Kairos, USA

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44


It’s a joy to be with you in this beautiful place.  I want to thank Liz for the honor of preaching from this pulpit.  You know, as a Jew who grew up in the synagogue, preaching from a prescribed set of scripture reading is very familiar territory.  Every Sabbath we read a section from the Five Books of Moses – it’s a one-year cycle, we divided it into 52 portions.  But when I discovered the lectionary I was so delighted – what an embarrassment of riches for the preacher!  There is the Old Testament — with a psalm as a bonus, and Gospels, and Epistles. And for me, especially – this you need to understand —  growing up I was not supposed to read the New Testament, and talk about Jesus was out of bounds. In fact when I was a kid even walking into a church was out of the question – it was actually considered a dangerous place –such was the painful legacy of our common history. And so to bring the scriptures together into one whole is a miracle for me, a wall coming down. And walls coming down is the topic of today’s preaching.

So let us turn to the text.

  “The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’”

What a surprising and strange mission this seems to be for the prophet: a widow will feed you?  But when we look at the original Hebrew this becomes more clear.  The that is translated as “feed” also means “will hold you to account.” The widow is going to instruct you on what is really going on, what is up with the world. As these prophetic parables are meant to do, it will create a social justice imperative – a challenge from God from which you cannot turn away. The widow, of course, is a figure that appears regularly in the scriptures:  the widow who exemplifies the poor, the desperate, the powerless, the needy, society’s most vulnerable.

Elijah makes the request as God has instructed, asking her to bring him a morsel of bread and a bit of water.

“But she said, ‘As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’”

 And die.  This is what the Empire does, what Kings do. It’s an old story.  The prophets have been warning about this all along.  We recall Second Samuel, chapter 8, when God instructs Samuel how to respond to the people’s demand for a king:

He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.  He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen.”. 

And then the first miracle occurs:

 The jar of meal was not spent, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD. 

This is in the idiom of miracles, loaves and fishes, the manna of the Old Testament that God sent to sustain the people in the wilderness.  It is God’s bounty. But remember how the gift of God’s bounty works, remember how the manna works — you only take what you need, no more.  You can’t store it up, you can’t bank it. It is sufficient, it is available, and it is for everyone. The next miracle that follows in this chapter is bringing the dead back to life – actually, the recapitulation of the parable of the widow using different imagery. God brings life.  Kings bring death. This is the reckoning, this is the lesson taught by the widow.

The parallel to the reading from Mark is unerringly exact.

It’s a perfect Sunday School story, isn’t it, well-known to all, in many Bibles appearing under the title “The widow’s offering.”  But this is not a pietistic homily on the devotion and humility of the widow, who out of her devotion to God gives her last penny to the Temple. It is, rather, a devastating critique of the system that takes the last penny, the last crumb of resources from this person who has lost the support conferred by the traditional patriarchal system, a society member who should be supported, not abandoned to grinding poverty. Where is the safety net for such as these?  What kind of a society is this, where the most vulnerable, the most in need of support is seen giving up her last crumb in tribute, preparing, we must assume, like the widow in the Old Testament reading, to go home — if she has a home — to die?

In the Old Testament reading Elijah sits as the gate of the city. This is a not a random detail in the story. The city gate was where the local elders or leaders sat and meted out justice, handling disputes and rendering decisions.  Like Elijah’s setting, in the Gospel story we are in the very heart of the system that regulates human relations. Jesus is positioning himself “opposite” the treasury, in the Greek kateante, the position of judgment, where he can see all that is going on, witnessing, as Jesus summons us to do, the signs of the times, what is as clear and obvious as the weather if we open our eyes to it. And this is where we find ourselves today, and we have only to open up the Palestinian Kairos document.

In this powerful, courageous document, the Palestinian Christians, speaking for their entire people in occupied Palestine and in exile, sit at the gate of the city. They sit facing the structures of Empire and conquest, and they call us to account.  In fact, they call the church to account.

 Our vocation as a living Church is to bear witness to the goodness of God and the dignity of human beings. We are called to pray and to make our voice heard when we announce a new society where human beings believe in their own dignity and the dignity of their adversaries.

 The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events. If she does take sides, it is with the oppressed, to stand alongside them, just as Christ our Lord stood by the side of each poor person and each sinner, calling them to repentance, life, and the restoration of the dignity bestowed on them by God and that no one has the right to strip away.

 Saint Paul says: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom.14:17). Therefore, religion cannot favour or support any unjust political regime, but must rather promote justice, truth and human dignity. It must exert every effort to purify regimes where human beings suffer injustice and human dignity is violated.

 This is the widow speaking. It is the Palestinian people, a people dispossessed, denied fundamental human rights, a people down to the last penny of their resources.  And don’t let anyone tell you that the millions being poured by the U.S. and the western powers into its client state, the Palestinian Authority, is going there to help the Palestinians to build their economy and improve the quality of their lives. It’s an old story. It’s about occupation, it’s not about liberation, it’s about building the prison walls higher. This is not the kind of resources, value, life giving that is talked about in our readings.  Jesus is saying that you can pour money into the treasury, and, sitting in judgment, he declares that it is without value. The money is not going to feed the people.  If it were, then where has this poor widow come from?  She has come to show the truth about the system. The widow, Jesus tells us, has put in more.

Back to Mark:  After his encounter with the widow, Jesus – upset and outraged, walks out of the Temple, for the last time, and we are in this famous scene outside its walls:

The apostles – remember these are simple Galilean country folk — are awestruck by the Temple’s grandeur, taken in by the scale and the majesty:  “Look, teacher,” they cry, “what wonderful buildings, what stones!”  “Do you see these great buildings?”  Jesus says to them.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”  Jesus here is making a political statement.  This is not my Kingdom! he  proclaims: not this world of greed and taxation, of grinding poverty alongside of obscene wealth. My kingdom has nothing to with invoking the divine covenant as a real estate contract, a license to steal, a making of my house into a marketplace.  Indeed, what Jesus was literally “deconstructing” was the very idea that God lives in a house or on a particular mountain, or that any particular land is holy. The prophets lived in the crucible of the tension between the reality of the Israelite monarchy and the true, enduring and priceless value of the Mosaic code, the law of God. Jesus lived in that context as well. He was born into an occupation that represented the worst evil the world had ever known. The Gospels are the record of his ministry to the people suffering under that evil. His arrival was God’s time, kairos time: in the words of the Kairos document, “a time of grace and opportunity, when God issues a challenge to decisive action.”

We live in such a time.

I am an American Jew born in the years immediately following World War II and within a month of the establishment of the State of Israel. Growing up, I was taught that a miracle had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was redemption from 2000 years of suffering and slaughter. “In every generation,” so goes the Passover liturgy, “tyrants rises up to annihilate us, and the Lord God saves us from their hands.” Jewish history was a story of struggle, exile, oppression, and slaughter that had now culminated, at last, in a homeland.  We had been, literally, redeemed. The suffering and the helplessness were over.

The legacy of Europe that shaped my generation of western Jews and the generations that followed was a sense of specialness, separateness, and entitlement. Growing up Jewish was wonderful – but it also involved living behind a wall of self-preservation, vulnerability, and a kind of brittle exclusivity. It was the legacy of 2000 years of oppression, marginalization, and fear.

I embraced this narrative, I adopted this identity. I carried that wall inside myself.

Until I witnessed the occupation of Palestine. I stood in front of the 30 foot-high wall and recognized it as a physical manifestation of the wall that had been built in my own heart. When I saw the dispossession and oppression being perpetrated in my name, it broke my heart and it challenged my assumptions and beliefs. I learned about another narrative, the Nakba, in Arabic “catastrophe,” the dispossession of three quarters of a million men, women and children to make way for the Jewish State, a process of dispossession that was continuing to unfold before my eyes. Most important, I met the Palestinian people and recognized them as my brothers and sisters. For me, the wall came down.

I realized that my own people had to transcend our sense of specialness and victim-tinged entitlement, a sense reinforced over 2000 years of marginalization, suffering and slaughter that had now taken the form of political Zionism — the claim to the land as our particular inheritance and birthright.

Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider hard the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my identity and as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today – not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. We need to take a long hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. This does not lead to redemption, this does not sustain life.  This leads to death – physical, moral, spiritual. We are back with Elijah at the gate of the city.  We are with Jesus at the Temple treasury.

I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land:  Yes!  Go!  Walk where Jesus walked!  For, if you do go and indeed see what is to be seen, you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw.

You will see land taken through the imposition of illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots.

You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life.

But you will also see nonviolent resistance, in the refusal of famers to abandon their land in the face of walls, fences and harassment.  In the gathering of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict who declare “We Refuse to be Enemies.” In the courageous, inspiring, heartbreaking testimony of young Israeli soldiers breaking the silence imposed on them about the soul-killing human rights violations they were ordered to commit as occupiers. In the declarations of Palestinian religious leaders who, in the spirit of Jesus’ exhortation to love your enemy, reach out to their Israeli occupiers and demand justice.

Go and see this.  And then you will return to your Bibles and understand the origin of Christianity as a movement of nonviolent resistance to the forces that would remove women and men from the source of their strength and from knowledge of God’s love. You will also see the transformation of the land promise from its origins as a promise to one family to its fulfillment as the starting place for a universal mission, as Jesus charged his followers on Pentecost: to leave Jerusalem, and to continue, beyond Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.

In the Gospel of John (John 2:21), when Jesus says “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up,” the narrator, just to make sure we get the theology right, explains: “He spoke of the temple of his body.”  Body of Christ: humankind made one, whole, united in one spiritual community. This world, Jesus is saying, this system of empire which seeks only to increase its own power and reach at the expense of communities, families, human health and dignity, this Empire that tears at the fabric of society, its basis in human equality and compassion for the most vulnerable, that assaults the very fundamentals of social justice, administered, not compassionately in the marketplaces and the gates of the city but arbitrarily and cruelly in the halls of power, this world order will give over to the Kingdom of God – an order of compassion and love not found in some heavenly realm or some Endtime but here, in our world, and through the work of our own hands.

We are with the widow –with the poor, and the dispossessed, the “least of these” that Jesus speaks in Matthew chapter 25.  In her story we understand the meaning of resurrection of the dead: no more death, no more despair, no longer condemned to have her life blood bled out on the alter of greed and power.

Here is where Jewish exceptionalism in our claim to the land is challenged. And the same exceptionalism on the part of those Christians who would support the Jewish claim.  And, by the way, so is our own American exceptionalism challenged: the idea that our way, the Right Way, must be imposed by economic and military might. Exceptionalism is very much in the American DNA –a shining city on a Hill, Manifest Destiny, God is on our side and we have the right to sweep away anyone in our path, whether it be an indigenous people sitting on land we covet, or dark-skinned Others half a world away who worshiping a God called by another name. The Puritans were wrong then and we are wrong now. The displacement of indigenous peoples is not God’s will, it is not God’s plan.

The church is called.

The church has been here before.

It was here in 1934 in Barmen, German when a group of pastors split off from the Nazi-sanctioned Reichskirche and declared themselves the German Confessing Church.  It was here in 1982 in Ottawa, Canada when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared itself in status confessionis and suspended the South African member churches for their active complicity with Apartheid.  The church was here in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. scribbled a letter on scraps of paper then smuggled out by his friends.  Recall the context. The writers of “A Call to Unity”  — nine white pastors – had entreated Rev. King to end the demonstrations, boycotts and sit ins. Let us work through channels, they said.  Let’s have a “peace process.”

To which he responded:  we cannot wait.  Nonviolent direct action is the right course for our churches, for our society, and for our leaders. This is what our Christian faith requires.

When the history of this time is written, what side of history will our pastors, rabbis and community leaders find themselves to have been on? In hosting the Tree of Life conference St. Michaels has made its decision about that – as have scores of other congregations and, increasingly, church leaders. Early last month, heads of 15 American Christian denominations issued a letter calling on our government to investigate its unconditional support of Israel’s illegal and peace-killing policies. And yes, your own Presiding Bishop was not among the signers. And yes, the history of this movement is that denominational leadership has resisted the faithful statements and actions coming up from its own grassroots.  It is in the nature of institutions to oppose the true mission of the real church, the church within the church.  This is the point that Jesus was making in our reading today.  But as awareness of the truth of the situation grows, church leadership is increasingly ready to stand up to the bullying of the Jewish advocacy organizations and to the voices within its own ranks counseling caution lest the foundations of the institution be shaken – voices that confuse the beautiful stones with the true church.

The church is — or should be — right at home here.  This is the social justice agenda that permeates the American church – it’s not a hard call!  Except for the interfaith issue. I know what charge you open yourselves to when you dare to criticize the State of Israel – the worst name you can be called:  anti-Semite. And I can only imagine the impact that it has on you.  But I say to you:  do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. Have compassion for us, honor the painful process that we must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God as we confront the awful consequences of our national homeland project, but do not wait for us. If you do, you will wait too long. The time has come to act. To choose, to quote Martin Luther King Jr., a positive peace which is the presence of justice over a negative peace which is the absence of tension.

Listen to the voices of your consciences, let them shout out loud before the forces that seek to stifle your commitment to the fundamentals of your faith.

It’s an old story.  It’s as old as that of the widow gathering sticks, as old as the officials in long robes devouring those same widow’s houses.  As old as that same life force, the force that comes from God, that asserts love and compassion in the face of oppression and power and the attempt to silence the cry of the oppressed.  It is the arc of history that bends toward justice.

It is the 2000-year old story that is being re-enacted today, on the very same soil. The Gospel of Luke records:

“As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’”

The local authorities were displeased: your singing and praising and proclaiming, they told Jesus, threatens to disrupt the establish order, to spoil the accommodation we have made with the Empire. “Teacher,: they said to him, “order your disciples to stop!” And Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out!”

Whether praise or protest, you cannot silence the cry of the oppressed or deny the hunger for justice. And what was all the noise about, after all? It was the spontaneous response of an oppressed, occupied people—a cry of love, adoration and sheer joy for the miracle of Jesus’ ministry—his power to heal, to inspire, to lead. You can’t stop this! Jesus was saying. Nature itself, even these seeming inert stones, resonates with the joy and life force emanating from the people.

I close with the words of Martin Luther King Jr., responding in his own time to the voices urging him to  silence.

 There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man.

 The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Well sisters and brothers, it is the twenty-first century, and the church is again called, and these words ring out as though they were written yesterday.

Let us pray.

Lord of all creation, renew us to life. Remind us that the time has come for shouting and that in that shouting we praise you.  Remind us that you love this shouting.

In all the names you are called,