Dystopia, Tragedy or Glory?
Week of Sunday November 8 - Pentecost 24
Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 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.’
41 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.’
3Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. 12Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 13And now, because you have done all these things, says the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. 15And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.
By Mark Chapter 12, a whole world is coming to its end. Jesus has slammed the corruption of the temple— cleaned it out, overturning the tables. (Mark 11:15-19) During that event, he alluded to Old Testament verses that warn us of the absence of God from the Temple. God would not be found within the very centre of Jewish life and being, which symbolised divine presence. (Jeremiah 7:3-15)
But on the next day, everything continues as usual! Yes, in their growing panic, the authorities are looking for a way to kill him. (11:18) But here is Jesus again, ignored after the outrage he caused yesterday. Is it because they are afraid to arrest him? That's inconceivable in the real world. This is a literary device which says, "Despite all he has said, it's just business as usual, with 'the crowd putting money into the treasury.' No one has noticed what he has done! No one has seen clearly!"
And in the next verses, after the story of the showy givers and the poor widow, we are told, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (Mark 13:2) Yet the proud still posture and let the widow give "her whole life." No one has noticed that all the walls are falling down.
Richard Beck said recently "Personally, I think we are headed to a very bad place and we've lost our ability to save ourselves. In our fear-driven panic we've lost our ability to turn back from the precipice. We're going to go over the edge." He's talking about gun-crazy America, hypnotised by its paranoid Republican presidential candidates. Are the Americans the usual exaggerated precursor of our own trajectory? Are they a pointer to the cost of our intoxication with possessions and appearances, and our abandonment of justice here in Australia?
And does it matter, any more, if they are not? I suspect our problems are much more planetary, than parochial.
I come to the topic of climate change, and the real possibility of human extinction, from a background in biology and ecology where it is clear that the dystopian views of Malthus, or of Paul Ehrlich's The Limit's to Growth, underestimated the ability of our ingenuity to extract evermore resources from the planet. But they were not incorrect in their understanding that our resources are finite. And as I recall studies of unlimited population growth on small, essentially closed systems, and the disasters which always follow for such populations as they destroy their system's equilibrium, our future looks bleak. In a bottle of wine, the yeast thrive and then poison themselves out of existence. On a planetary scale, we humans are now so plentiful as to be in that bottle, with nowhere to go, and it won't taste half as good. (Also see below)
How do I read the story of the widow in this environment?
She is the hero of the story, and yet as John Petty says,
Jesus does not laud the woman. Contrary to many sermons delivered since which encourage people to this level of sacrificial giving, Jesus does not lift the beggar-widow up as an example, or suggest that anyone ought to emulate her. She is not a positive example, but rather the (barely) living representative of a crying shame. She represents the on-going exploitation of the poor by the Temple elite.
If this interpretation collides with the tradition you have learned— as it certainly did for me when I first met it— try reading Mark 12:38-44 out loud, without the artificial heading that so many bibles insert after verse 40. Don't use a "reading the bible in church" voice. Read in the voice of a Jesus who is angry at what he sees. (Also see below)
The widow is a tragic figure. Mark writes as the temple is being destroyed. Is she any different to another widow continuing to tend the sick or dying as the Romans ravage the city, moments away from murdering her as they burst into her house? Why bother?
She is a victim of society. Like too many of our churches, and other institutions today, too much of the Temple survived on the selfless giving of those who could least afford it, whilst the rich postured and congratulated themselves.
We may mourn her. But would we praise her devotion to a corrupt and dying system, let alone call others to follow her lead? Does the goodness of the victims count for anything, when the walls are falling down?
Henry Langknecht wrote at Working Preacher
A sermon I do not need to hear is the one that entreats me to be more like the faithful widow. If we must hear a sermon focused on her giving and her gift, let her be a Christ figure rather than a faithful disciple figure. What makes that connection appealing is the difficulty (but rightness) of the forced analogy between her worthless coins and Jesus' life which leads to the paradox that this worthless gift brings about the salvation of the world (cf. Philippians 2!).
I wrote recently that "all of Mark, so far, has been to prepare us for the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. It brings us to the scandal of Jesus' death, the inconceivable redefinition of power and glory…" What is that about? We can begin with Bill Loader's point about the widow:
The scribes exploit and grab in their spiritual poverty; she in her poverty has a wealth of generosity. She is a type of Jesus himself: a self-giving person. The parading men are upstaged by what most would have seen as a pathetic woman, probably a beggar (Greek: ‘ptoche’ - really poor). She is as memorable as the suspect woman who will anoint him a chapter later in 14:3-9. We miss the point of both stories if we press their logic and identify their causes. The temple is done for. Jesus needs no oil. In both, the point is the total openness, the costly self-giving, the vulnerability.
But we are reading and writing and preaching as rich people wanting to know how to act justly from our position of privilege, wealth and power: the widow challenges us immensely, and rightly so.
But is this where Mark is coming from? We speak from a mindset which can hardly bear to contemplate the inevitable cataclysms that are already beginning. Pacific Islands are going under while we are living as though the world will keep going as it always has. Mark is writing when Jerusalem has fallen, or when its imminent fall can no longer be denied. How do we live then? That is where the widow was.
Was she, in her vulnerability and absolute poverty, any less, or any more, prepared for the coming death? How do the poor and already dispossessed— much of his audience, which we are invited to join!— face the destruction of all that is dear? How do we live in the aftermath of that, if we are still here? Would we live like this woman, and make matters worse for ourselves? Why not concentrate on surviving, if we can? Especially since her two copper coins made absolutely no difference to what happened to the temple.
"And what if you are wrong?" cry the sceptics. Well, if by some miracle of technology I die safe in my bed, and so do my children and their children, and even all the children of earth, I will still die.
The kingdom of God, which is life consciously lived in the presence of God, lives upon a trajectory which finally discovers how precious a gift life is, and must then learn to give it away. Giving to the poor, and even to the temple which will fall, is a freeing grace. Except if we give to be seen giving. Then, as Jesus says elsewhere, we already have our reward in full. (Matthew 6:2)
Justice, which requires self-giving, gives life to the poor, and gives life to us. It lets us "see clearly" and enter more fully into the mystery of existence we call God. If we will not give ourselves, if we will not be "a Christ figure" along with Jesus and the widow, even when it seems pointless, then resurrection and its "inconceivable redefinition of power and glory," will remain opaque to us.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Mark D Davis' words are worth reading in full. Here is an extended excerpt:
One often hears this text interpreted as the heroic, sacrificial giving of a poor widow. “The widow’s mite” has even become a colloquial phrase that refers to someone’s meager bit of contribution, which means far more than its smallness might indicate. I do not wish to dismiss either that interpretation or that application of this text, but I do want to offer a different starting point which will move in a vastly different direction.
The key to this text is to keep it as a whole, instead of separating out verses 41-44 from 38-40. The widow’s contribution is contextualized – she is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her and does so alongside of the guise of piety (v.40). In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and she is contributing toward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her.
The option not to separate vv. 38-40 from vv.41-44 means that this text allows for a profound interpretation of living tragically within systems that are oppressive and dehumanizing, yet are still places where one can make self-denying contributions toward the common good. The homiletical directions that this text can take are many – addressing those who try to work conscientiously within a capitalistic system; those who live heroically within a militaristic system that often overreaches and destroys; those who vote for a candidate that is imperfect, but perhaps the least imperfect in one’s judgment.
Once the option of not participating is ruled out (and I can’t say that Mark rules it out; in fact, I think that might be the option explored in the Parable of the Talents), the tragedy of participating is unavoidable. Is the widow heroic? Sure. Is she naïve? Maybe. Is she contributing to a system that exploits her? Yes. Can she do otherwise? Maybe not. There are no easy answers given here. Perhaps there is some Niebuhrian realism, where one does the best one can and only ‘proximate goods’ are attainable. At any rate, this is a heart-breakingly true text that many people will identify with. I know I do.
The International Panel on Climate Change, careful not to be alarmist, says
Current evidence and understanding do not allow a quantification of either the timing of its onset or of the magnitude of its multi-century contribution. It is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise dependent on future emissions.
On an interactive site, the Australian Government says
Maps are available to show three sea level rise scenarios: low sea level rise (0.5m), medium sea level rise (0.8m) and high sea level rise (1.1m). These sea level rise scenarios are for a 2100 period, relative to 1990. The sea level rise values are based on IPCC projections (B1 and A1FI scenarios) and more recent science...
The low scenario represents sea level rise that is likely to be unavoidable. The medium scenario is in line with recent global emissions and observations of sea level rise. [My emphasis] The high end scenario considers the possible high-end risk identified in 4th Assessment Report (AR4) and includes new evidence on icesheet dynamics published since 2006 and after AR4. The sea level rise values were based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections and more recent science and observations.
You can take these figures and use them at the interactive map at Geology.com if you live outside Australia.
What is relevant when observing these map is not the proportionate land area which will be inundated, so much as three other things:
the population centres which are flooded
the ensuing appalling pollution by flooding of industrial sites
the massive destruction of infrastructure on which our daily existence depends.
My reading is that we don't know how bad climate change will be. We don't know just how destabilising of the biosphere it will be. We cannot predict the positive feedback effects of warming. But it will be life changing.