Posts Tagged ‘widows’

Desolation and despair

June 4, 2016

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free


In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.


[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.


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

November 7, 2015
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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