On this day we hear the sacred stories of four widows – women who were supposed to be powerless and unimportant – yet who lived surprising lives and whose story is still told today. This is a remarkable feat – and it is one which is difficult for us to understand in 21st century San Francisco.
How can we understand their world today?
First, in the world of Hebrew Bible and of first century Israel, scholars say nine out of 10 people lived close to or below the subsistence level. That’s not saying ” say nine out of 10 people lived close to or below the poverty level.” That is saying the vast majority of the people Jesus ministered and talked were at best getting enough food to survive and at worst barely surviving. Those who didn’t have enough to survive died.
Poverty – and the possibility of starvation – could confront widows and their children. Which is why the Hebrew Bible contains so many admonitions for people to feed and care for widows and their children. Admonitions are only applied when a problem becomes severe enough to compel action.
Second, the world of the Hebrew Bible and of first-century Israel was a man’s world. The Hebrew Bible’s principal characters are predominantly male. From the patriarchs of Genesis to the redeemer Moses, to the all-male priesthood, to the Kings they are all men.
In their world, divorce was easy for a man but impossible for a woman. Men held most of the power. For example, in many ways, the Hebrew Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men and most of those who edited this text were men. Even the texts attributed to women authors have been edited by men.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that we hear the story of four powerful women today. Let’s consider each of these stories and see what’s going on.
First, we hear of Ruth & Naomi. Things are not going well for them so Naomi hatched a plan to marry Ruth off to Boaz. Her scheme is overtly sexual. And it works. In fact it works so well Boaz and Ruth are said to give birth to the father of King David, who tradition says was a forefather of Jesus. Not a bad plan. But what if this isn’t an historical story?
Perhaps this is a story to prove how foreigners who convert to Judaism to marry can become good Jews. Not just good Jews, but even outstanding examples of how to follow Jewish law. Not just exemplary followers of Jewish law, but the mothers of a great figure like King David. If this is so, then surely there is no reason to exclude them or their children.
Why would we think this is a teaching and not an historical story? Because there are so many lessons we can read in this text. Some see this text as a celebration of the relationship between strong and resourceful women or as a book that champions outcast and oppressed peoples. Some see Ruth and Naomi as the story of two women in love. History usually tells center on the story of the winner; but teaching texts are open to many interpretations.
Second we hear the widow of Zarephath’s amazing story. She has very little food left. In fact, she is awaiting her death and the death of her only child by starvation. Then the prophet Elijah shows up unexpectedly. He demands the last of their food. She objects but then Elijah tells her that God will not allow her supply of flour or oil to run out. He says: “Do not be afraid … For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
She believes him and she feeds him and the miracle continues for three full years. You can read this as God providing them “manna” even while a terrible drought afflicted God’s unfaithful people in the Promised Land. Here, the unimportant widow is the one who obeys God’s law and she is the one who survives and prospers.
Third we hear of the poor widow who moved Jesus’ heart by her donation of more than she could afford to the Temple coffers. Jesus says: “I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Like the widow of Zarephath, this New Testament widow made a deep sacrifice to obey God’s law.
The theologian Addison Wright notes that, just before Jesus sits down across from the Temple treasury, Jesus said: “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
Jesus condemns religious leaders’ who pretend to be pious but then steal from widows, the kind of leaders who encourage widows and other poor people to give more than they can afford. His harsh words seem to apply equally to today’s ‘evangelists’ who live in multimillion dollar mansions or exhort their supporters to buy a new, larger jet plane, more television time, or a higher salary.
Perhaps, as Wright suggests, Jesus is attacking both the political system that forces her to live in poverty as well as the religious system that enables it. In this context, this widow’s story is more of a rebuke to those who do wrong. Thus this widow should not – as is so often the case – be used as an example of how much we are supposed to give our church.
Together these three stories of four widows also reflect a theme of Biblical Christian theology: God’s willingness to work God’s will through the hands of the poorest and least powerful people in society. I wonder what God could accomplish if we lend our hands to the work of healing the world?
How can we go about that in our lives?
Here’s one way. Yesterday, more than 120 people gathered in this sacred space for a memorial remembering Marlene Aron. Marlene was part of the SF Live Arts Concert series here, managing the box office and booking acts. On September 20 of this year, as she was walking in a crosswalk in Bernal Heights, she was struck by a truck. She died at the Hospital.
I remember the first time I met Marlene. I’d just been appointed to serve as the priest here. And I decided to attend the SF Live Arts Concert here that weekend and help celebrate the music of Phil Ochs. You see Phil Ochs was my chosen troubadour of adolescence. I was a nerdy, closeted teenage boy trying to survive being a teenager in a rural part of Maryland. It was not a good fit for me. And Phil Ochs helped me make it through that part of the ’60s. There was something about Phil Ochs that moved me.
So when SF Live Arts offered a celebration here at St Cyprian’s, and when that fell on my first Saturday as the priest here, I took it as a sign from on high and decided to attend. And that’s what I met Marlene. She was sitting with Tom Wishing at the door doing the box office. As we exchange the money and tickets I introduced myself.
She looked up and smiled at me, and at that moment the night became a little brighter and the night a little more special. She suggested that as the priest I didn’t have to pay. I replied I wanted to pay in the hope of encouraging more Phil Ochs revivals. She smiled again and we handed me my change.
A few weeks later, when I was complaining about the difficulty in finding an electrician to solve a minor problem here, she volunteered Tom to help. A bit after that she asked if she could rent in the room for a birthday party for Tom. And then she asked if my husband and I could attend.
That was the remarkable things about Marlene: She was always making connections, always linking people together in new configurations, thinking of new ways to engage people, new combinations of artists who, when performing together, would complement each other.
And this uncanny ability to look at disparate people or things and see a unity where others only saw difference, that was a gift she brought to her work here, to people who were blessed to know her, and to her art. Who would have thought that some of the things she put together art would work? She did! And she was right: they did go together.
Because she saw the inner unity that eluded the rest of us. Perhaps that’s what makes an artist an artist. Or perhaps that’s how we get on with Jews refer to as Tikkun Olam, or the idea that by acts of kindness each of us can help perfect or repair the world.
Perhaps that is what each of our four widows – and Marleen – show us: that through acts of kindness that follow God’s law we too can help repair the world. Perhaps if we reach out to widows and strangers, to the brokenhearted and those who hunger for food or community, we will someday be remembered as a model for future generations. That is up to each of us to decide.
Let us pray,
God of widows and strangers,
you protect the oppressed and forgotten
and feed the hungry with good things.
You stand among us in Christ, offering life to all.
Give us open hearts and minds
to respond with love to the world,
caring for those for whom you care.
Let the church say: Amen!