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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Judged by a dead woman

Sunday, November 11th, 2012 (ORDINARY SUNDAY 32)

Readings:    Ruth 3.1-5, 13-17
        Psalm 127
        Hebrews 9.23-28
        Mark 12.38-44

As I have indicated in my notes* on the second of our Markan scenes, the glimpse of the widow at the Temple treasury (probably a first century equivalent of an auto-teller / handy-bank / hole in the wall, set up to receive but not to issue cash) should not be romanticised. It often was in my boarding school chapel experience (my only childhood exposure to the texts of Christianity), and this was probably not atypical of the teaching of the churches in the mid-twentieth century. It is too easy to read the scene through western eyes, expecting that God will, perhaps in the person of Jesus, somehow miraculously intervene in this poor woman’s plight, patting her on the back for her self-sacrificing generosity, and sending her home with a shopping trolley full of groceries as a reward. To understand the desperate nature of such a woman’s plight we need instead to picture the women we seen in media footage from refugee camps in, for example, Sudan or Somalia, their wasted breasts too impoverished to provide the nurture their near-dead child so desperately needs, their gnarled hands and bodies suggesting seventy years of life experience rather than often no more than the twenty that is the chronological truth.

There are questions we cannot ask of this text – Jesus so far as we can see does nothing to intervene in the plight of the woman. She becomes a powerful symbol of the corruption and evil of a state – in this case the Roman Empire, though the previous scene has some disturbing things to say about religious leaders, too – that leaves its most vulnerable members to die. The intertwining of religious and civil leadership in Mark’s telling of the Jesus story should warn us against any attempt to become too cosy in finger-pointing at the state: in Vladimir Putin’s Russia it would appear church and state are once more cosily in bed. While that is not the case here there are often dark mutterings when church leaders speak too noisily about issues such as migration or poverty, and I suspect we compromise ourselves even in the 21st century far more than radical interpreters of the gospel would like us to. In particular we compromise ourselves when we reduce the gospel to a cosy programme of personal salvation.

Our woman, then, is a victim of greed, corruption and self-interest, and the indictment Jesus delivers to a society that deprioritises basic human needs – today we would say human rights – is, the scene suggests, a society that has lost any ability to echo or foreshadow the values of God’s reign. This woman – already cast to the outer of society by a social structure that saw women to have value only insofar as they produced children – this woman will die, and, assuming this was an actual scene in the life of Jesus, almost certainly did die soon after these events.

What is dwelling deep in the DNA of this series of scenes in Mark’s gospel-telling is an acidic critique of the abuse of power. The widow is the victim of those who construct self-serving structures in the fabric of society that ensure only men have rights, and that women’s only function is a procreative one. While we might pretend that this is so first century, we might also recall that it is only in the last month that a US politician claimed that women who conceive a child by rape should see that child as a gift of God. While I have worked pastorally with one woman who raised a child conceived by rape, I would never in a million years impose that decision on any victim of a violent crime. Similarly we have been watching only this past week as the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church effectively stall any attempt at instigating a Royal Commission into sexual abuse by clergy. The abuse of power by clergy or other pastoral and therapeutic workers who sexually or psychologically offend against those in their care, while not the elusive unforgivable sin, is nevertheless a brutal abuse of privilege, and any attempt by the institutional church to stymie investigations is a betrayal of the gospel.

Lest this be seen as an attack on our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic church, I remember only too well in my days in the ABC producing a documentary that investigated a brutal betrayal of a young woman within the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Sydney, and know of many other cases across the spectrum of churchmanship and theology. Where we have betrayed those in our care we must confess to our sins and accept the punishment that is appropriate.

When the gospels relate Jesus’ abhorrence of those who call themselves ‘father’ and 'parade phylacteries in the market-place', or as our reading today more generally puts it ‘like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces’ the critique is not of titles or clothing choices, liturgical or otherwise, but of oppressive and exploitative attitudes. The titles or clothes I use have nothing to do with my effectiveness as an ambassador of the vulnerable Christ – no more than do the choices you make. What does matter is the decisions you and I make about the ways in which we represent Jesus in the community into which God has called us: do we represent a grasping and dictatorial, oppressive God, or do we represent the welcoming and compassionate vulnerable God revealed in Christ of the Cross?

We can major in the minors, getting hung up on externals, or we can realise that the self-revelation of God that we are called to emulate starts not in a private hospital but a manger, and ends not in splendour but on a criminal’s cross.  The love of God is revealed in defencelessness and dare I say it even inefficiency, not in the magnificence of a carefully choreographed display of efficiency and power.

The impoverished woman of the temple almost certainly died in her poverty. We strip Christianity of its message and its meaning if we leave her there. If we leave her there with no more than the hope of social reconstruction and a better society one day then history suggests we are deluded. If we leave her there with just the hope of pie in the sky then we are open to charges of otherworldliness and  psychopathic disinterest in the plight of the pain-filled.

We must do better than that: this woman, or indeed all those left oppressed in the marketplace by the Scribes and the Pharisees of every century, including victims of those pretending to  proclaim the name of Jesus, look at us with the eyes and ears of judgement. What have I done to touch those around me with the message of Easter hope and restitution? What have I done to ameliorate the plight of those at the bottom of the heap? To be honest my answer is ‘precious little’. May God forgive me, and empower me and you to do more.



Let us not romanticize the woman placing her mite in the Treasury. This woman was cactus. There was no ambulance at the foot of the cliff, let alone safety net at the top. This observation on the part of Jesus is a telling indictment of a corrupt religious structure, and will be followed in the next scene by his promise to ‘tear down’ the whole corrupt edifice. The question we must ask, as our religious institutions teeter on the brink of financial collapse, is whether this too might be the work of the Spirit, stripping away our Linus blankets and throwing us back on the justice and compassion that is the heart of the gospel message
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