Following God in a True Way
There are two stories here that the Prayer Book puts together and it makes a lot of sense. We have two widows, who are lifted up as the example of what it means to follow God in a true way. In case we don’t get it, Jesus points out what it means to act like you are following God, but it is not true.
But there are nuances to these stories, so let’s look closer. The first story is part of a larger one, where the prophet has really irritated the powers that be, and is on the run. He goes here, and then there, and finally leaves the country because it is just too dangerous. But the part of the country that he goes to is in the middle of a famine. So it is that a poor widow is gathering a few sticks to be able to make a little pancake out of the last of their food, and that will be the end, she and her son will finish dying of starvation. This is what she tells the man of God when he shows up and asks for a handout.
He has been told by God that in this certain town there will be a widow who will help him. So he walks to this town, and there is a widow. He asks her to bring him some water to drink. She agrees to bring him water, and then he says, as long as you are going, bring me a little bread too. She is caught up short. She will share water, but there is only the smallest amount of flour left to make bread. She explains this to him. It is not that she does not want to share. There simply is none left. Nevertheless, he says, if you will do this, if you will bring me a little first, and then eat the rest, there will be enough, when there should not be. Clearly, if there is only enough to make a small pancake for her and her son, there is not enough to feed him too, and there certainly will not be any after that! But she believes him. She goes home, and makes him the pancake first, and gives it to him, and he moves into the house. And then there is the miracle. There is always enough flour and oil to make food for the next day, until the famine is over.
There is another technical detail which is very important in this story. This widow is not Jewish. She is a foreigner. This is one of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures which open the concept of God being more than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is an unsettling story, because it clearly says that God uses “them” as well as us, that the God we claim also claims them, those “others” that have not been claimed as members of “our” family. We still get caught by this, with nationality, with religion, with race, even with educational differences.
We know this was an important story for Jesus, because he uses it with one group to point out that they think they are God’s special people, and he says, don’t you think there were enough Jewish widows who were starving, but no, Elijah goes to a foreigner – at God’s command! They get so mad at him that they pick up stones to throw at him. When you just don’t like what someone says, you throw a tomato or rotten fruit. When you throw stones, it’s because you want to kill. It was the only legal way for ordinary citizens to kill someone, but it was quite effective.
Our Gospel lesson has Jesus with his followers at the front of the temple, where people put in their offerings. This was not an anonymous affair. I remember the first time I saw the “offering bags” in the Catholic Church, there was a velvet bag, with a wooden circle at the top holding the top open, and then two handles, so it could easily be passed from person to person. Because everything fell to the bottom of the bag, nothing would fall out, which was very clever. But the thing that impressed me the most as a kid was that you could put in whatever you put in without anyone seeing what was in your hand. We use envelopes for the same reason, right?
But in the time of Jesus, it was very public. Here is the widow, and she puts in her tiny amount, and as usual, Jesus turns the conventional wisdom upside down, saying that she is the example of righteous living. Remember that “righteousness” has to do with the right relationship with God. She, like the foreign widow, has given away “too much,” and she will get the reward, not the rich people who have put money in out of their excess. The rich have already gotten their reward.
This is a hard lesson for us. It was a hard lesson for the disciples. They were taught the same things that we are, that God favors the rich, that if you are poor, you have done something to deserve it, and so on. And we are also taught to take care of ourselves, to make sure we have enough. Does Jesus really want us to go hungry?
I don’t think so. However, I do think we need to share more than we do. I think we need to worry less about “what if” and more about our neighbor who does not have enough. I just talked to someone about his health and food, at his request, and when we started talking about what exactly he was eating, I found out that he was “dumpster diving.” Do you know what that means? That is going around behind the restaurants and grocery stores and pulling out the food that they have thrown out at the end of the day. He simply didn’t have money for food, not to mention health care, which he also needs. I was shocked. I would never have guessed. Now that I know about it, I feel the need to do something about it. I’ve done some, and I will do more.
[pullquoteleft]The first question is: what does it mean to you to follow God in a true way? To be in “right relationship” with God?The second question follows the first: Are you following God that way?[/pullquoteleft]I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this is why I think it is good to give “presents” by way of Episcopal Relief & Development, or Heifer Project, or another favorite of mine, the Solar Cooker Project. One of the things that the solar cooker project is able to document is that when women have solar cookers, they get raped less, because they are not out in potentially dangerous areas searching for wood. So by giving to them, I help the environment, because they are not burning wood, I help these women economically, because they don’t need to spend time searching for wood, and socially, because they are not getting raped! All of that with one donation! One “present” to them instead of going to the mall getting something for someone who already has enough. Amazing.
So the questions this week are simple, but the answers are not simple. The first question is: what does it mean to you to follow God in a true way? To be in “right relationship” with God? The second question follows the first: Are you following God that way? Do you feel like you are doing what God calls you to be doing?
How do we know?
There are a couple of things to consider. First, we listen to the way Jesus talked about these things. He obviously didn’t care for the typical social hierarchy. He didn’t follow the rules of society. He did follow the teachings of the prophets, which is why people started calling him a prophet, and even people who do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah will call him the prophet – like Muslims, for instance, and also Jews. They are very clear that Jesus was a great prophet. The prophets all claimed to speak for God, and they had a pretty consistent message. That is, God has a heart for the poor. God cares about the “little ones.” God is with the people who feel abandoned, the people who have been abused and cast out. In Biblical language, God cares for the orphans and widows, those who have no protectors. When we help those people, we can be pretty sure that we are working with God. And, we are reminded, not only do we need to help those people who need protection, we also need to make sure that we are not part of the problem. Jesus sums it all up in the Beatitudes. Blessed are those who . . . he says. And we have to figure out what he means by that, because it is not always clear. But sometimes it is. And we don’t like it very much, because a lot of it has to do with depending on God rather than ourselves.
Over and over, we hear, don’t depend on your own strength, don’t depend on the strength of the things that are symbols for power in your society. In the time of Jesus, the horse was considered to be a symbol of power. Only very rich people had a horse, and the government. A horse was considered to be a war machine. In our day, we might say, don’t depend on the stock market. It cannot save you, not in the long run. There is nothing wrong with having a horse, nothing wrong with having money in the stock market. There is a lot wrong with depending on that to keep you safe. That’s the point. There were a lot of suicides when the stock market tanked, both in the 1920’s and then again recently. People had depended on that money to keep them safe, and suddenly it was gone.
Depend on love, God says. I will always love you. Practice love with each other, God says, practice loving each other. This is the way to truly following God, to love, and always opening the circle wider to include more and different people.
As we get ready to enter the season of Advent, think about how you will show love.
Our Readings Today
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Mark 12:21-44″ title=”Mark 12:21-44″ url=”https://www.bible.com/bible/392/mrk.12.41-44.cev” type=”iframe”]
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Reading Two Citation” title=”Reading Two Citation” url=”https://www.bible.com” type=”iframe”]