Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to???

A widow's mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

A widow’s mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

Pentecost 24

The Book of Ruth, Mark 12:38-44

Marian Free

In the name of God whose preference is for the poor and the vulnerable. Amen.

It is no secret that I am a Jane Austen fan. This may have to do with my growing up in an era when the role of women was still considerably constricted. It was not until I reached my teens that mothers began stepping confidently into the work force and I still have vivid memories of a single female friend who, despite having a good job and regular income was obliged to ask my father to be guarantor so that she could obtain a home loan. She may not have felt this way, but even though I was relatively young I felt keenly the humiliation of her experience. The idea that because she was a woman she could not be trusted with something as weighty as a home loan seemed (indeed was) ludicrous.

That said, by the time I came into the world some things had changed for the better. By then the government was providing some sort of support for women who had been widowed and for single mothers who were strong enough to refuse to put their child up for adoption. For centuries prior to that, women without a husband or father to protect them often found themselves in very straightened circumstances[1].

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility gives an insight into the precarious nature of a woman’s place in the world of the eighteenth century. Mrs Dashwood is the second wife of an older man whose estate is entailed on his son John. When her husband is dying he makes John promise to care for his stepmother and stepsisters. The son promises, but does not take into account his overbearing wife who cannot bear the thought of sharing the estate, or of their only son being deprived of even a modest part of what might become his inheritance. Mrs Dashwood senior and her daughter’s find themselves unwelcome visitors in what up until then had been their family home. They feel sufficiently uncomfortable that they seek to find somewhere else to live, but their allowance will not stretch very far and many suitable house have to be ruled out. Thankfully a distance cousin offers them a small cottage on his estate and so they move (with the few possessions that they can call their own) to a situation far removed from that which they were used to.

The privations do not end there. Even though their cousin is very generous and insists that they eat with his family most evenings, the yearly allowance does not stretch to beef or even sugar. Overnight what had been a privileged and comfortable lifestyle is reversed and the women find themselves utterly dependent on the generosity of others.

The Book of Ruth is set during the time of Judges – approximately 1200-1020 BCE. At this time the majority of Israelites were small landowners and could support themselves through farming. Laws were in place to ensure that the widows and orphans were able to sustain themselves. Not only was it the responsibility of everyone to provide for them, but there was a law to the effect that farmers should exercise a certain amount of carelessness when harvesting. Leviticus 19:9-10 specifically instructs the Israelites to leave the margins of their fields unharvested, to leave behind any produce that fell to the ground and to harvest only once. This ensured that the poor and the aliens could be assured of finding food to eat. They could enter a “harvested” field and glean what had been left behind. It was not an easy existence, but it did provide a way for the poor to support themselves.

Fast forward to the beginning of the first century and we discover a situation that was completely different. With the best will in the world no one could impose the Levitical law universally. At this time many Israelites had been forced off their land so that the Emperor could give gifts to soldiers who had served him well. This meant that there were fewer farms in the hands of the Israelites and therefore fewer people to observe the obligations set down in Leviticus. In the city of course the situation was even worse. It has been said that Israelite women were at this time among the poorest people in the world.

Today’s gospel has often been used to extol the widow for her utter selflessness and to encourage the rest of us to follow her example, but that interpretation misrepresents what is really happening here. When we read the passage in its entirety we see that the story of the widow is a continuation of Jesus’ attack on the scribes. This forces us to observe that Jesus is not complimenting the woman for her generosity; but instead is lamenting the political and social climate that has created a situation in which the widow thinks that she has to give anything at all. The scribes it seems have found a way to convince the poorest and the most vulnerable that God requires demonstrations of their commitment – in the form of donations to the Temple. By insisting on “sacrificial giving” they are in effect, “devouring the estates of the widows”. The poor and the widows should have received support from the Temple, not felt obliged to do the reverse.

By giving her last two coins, the widow has not achieved anything. Her small contribution will not all much to the Temple resources but will certainly deprive herself and any dependents of a future[2].

Jesus’ attack on the scribes suggests that they were more into outward show than they were into meeting their obligations to those who were entirely dependent on their goodwill and generosity. Like all people of wealth and status, the scribes were determined that they should they behave in a way that demonstrated their wealth and power and that they should receive the honour that they believed was owed to someone in their position. At the same time, they were determined to preserve their relative position at all costs – in particular at the expense of those who could least afford it.

The problem then, as it is now, is that one can only maintain one’s own position at the expense of those who have no resources and no position. The gospel challenges us to seriously consider how much we ourselves exploit and disempower the poor and the vulnerable in order to hold on to our status and relative wealth. Who is disadvantaged and oppressed because we refuse to give up our comfortable lives? Whose life is on a knife-edge because we cannot bear to give up our relative luxuries in order to liberate others to do more than eke out an existence?

Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to?

[1] If you were poor you might, as a woman, have found work as a servant or in the mills, but the novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles demonstrates that even for the rural poor, life could be horrendous for those who had no husband or son to provide for them.

[2] The coin, a lepta, was the least value of the coins of that era and was worth about 6 minutes of an average day’s wage.

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