Just When It Was Going So Well
I was really rooting for the systemic critique option in interpreting our text.
I know the intention of that option is to open us to the political dimensions of the Markan composition, and it has done that. Part of the intention was to walk away from valorizing victimhood and winking at victimization, especially as practiced in the values of our dominant cultural setup. The systemic critique seeks to read the text from the “bottom” rather than from the “top.”
That’s all well and good and worth pursuing. It also has the side effect of taking the spotlight off my personal relationship with my wealth and putting the spotlight on “The System.” Just as I can persuade myself that the story of the Rich Man is not really about selling all I have, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus, so the widow’s story is not really about giving my whole life to God – including my stuff.
It’s the System, I can tell myself, not me.
We can’t discount all the systemic critique and social justice reality in this text, nor should we. But the evidence seems fairly compelling to me that this text is first and foremost about what a faithful disciple looks like. They look like Blind Bartimaeus. They look like the poor widow. Even when we subtract the ableist, sexist, misogynist, and classist elements from these images, what is left is discipleship as offering my whole life to God, without remainder or reserve.
Just when it was going so well.
The poor widow’s story leaves me grieved, embarrassed, and ashamed. She gives her whole life, every penny, trusting that things will somehow be all right. I’ve never given my whole life for anything, no matter how I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise. I’ve never really put myself at risk without a Plan B (and C, D, and E), an escape hatch, a fallback position.
The closest I’ve come is those times when I’ve gotten fed up and said, “The hell with you all. I’m outa here.” But that’s not sacrifice. That’s mostly self-righteous pique and self-serving avoidance. That’s not discipleship. That’s escape.
The Markan composer tells this story to encourage, to motivate, and to persuade the Markan community and newcomers. This is, after all, part of the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If the story leaves me grieved, embarrassed, and ashamed, so be it. I can imagine it had that effect on at least some of the first listeners. That response was good enough for the Rich Man. If the shoe fits, etc.
This impact of the story on me is an appropriate example of the “second use of the law” in our Lutheran tradition. It demonstrates to me my deficiencies in performance and forces me back to my dependence on the grace of God in Christ. But if that’s where I go immediately, then that grace is cheap (as Bonhoeffer so rightly noted). If I don’t sit with my grief, embarrassment, and shame for a long time, then all this second use stuff has simply backfired.
I doubt I’ll ever put myself in a place where I’m risking a lot. That’s not my default strategy. When it comes to personal discomfort and risk, I’m mostly a coward. I’m not worthy to hold the poor widow’s now-empty coin purse.
Larycia Hawkins declared during a Wild Goose interview with Barbara Brown Taylor that following Jesus should cost us. Unless following Jesus has gotten us kicked out of something or locked up for something, we are probably coming up short. If she’s right, then I don’t qualify. Loving God with my whole self means trusting God with my whole life. I think that would be a good sermon theme for this text, but I could only preach it as a hypocrite.
Loving God with my whole self means trusting God with my whole life. I’ve never done that any time with anyone, must less God. That’s my personal spiritual disability.
It’s all backwards in this story. The “rich” people give out of their surplus. It doesn’t really cost them anything. They take it out of petty cash or the fun money fund. The widow gives out of her deficit. She probably doesn’t crawl off somewhere and wait to die after she gives. This isn’t Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath. But there’s no assurance that she will eat supper that night.
These days, if I don’t have some backup groceries and a thousand dollars in the savings account, I get anxious. And let’s not go back to conversations about toilet paper shortages and gas prices!
I don’t know what to do with this widow who grieves me, embarrasses me, puts me to shame. I know she chooses to do what she does. She’s no fool. Only rich people can afford to be stupid with money.
She’s no victim, either, even if other people use the system to line their own pockets. She loves God with her whole self and trusts God with her whole life. The Temple she supports (and probably loves) may be headed for dust and ashes. But that doesn’t change who she is or what she does.
I work hard to organize my life so that I won’t ever have to make such a choice. Is that why it’s so hard for us rich people to enter the Kin(g)dom? I’ve structured my life to turn following Jesus into a lifestyle option rather than my way of life. I make contributions rather than commitments.
Maybe it’s too much to haul out the hoary story of the pig and the chicken at breakfast. But it seems appropriate to the conversation. In a bacon and egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a commitment.
Granted the story has all sorts of problems. The pig gets slaughtered. The chicken’s progeny is kidnapped and consumed. And it’s not nearly so amusing now that I’ve been vegan for three years. But it still illustrates the difference. At most, I’m an egg disciple rather than a bacon disciple. Does that mean I’m really no disciple at all?
What would it mean for me to really join the widow on the Way? I think it would mean, for example, paying racism reparations to a good cause in an amount that forces me to give up something I need, not just something I want. I think it means getting into good trouble when the opportunity presents itself, without a lawyer on speed-dial and bail pre-arranged. I think it means calling out negative behavior in ways that put at risk relationships I value.
I don’t think I’m up for that. I won’t even risk hurting someone’s feelings in a discussion – not because I’m so wonderfully kind, but because I don’t want anyone to think ill of me.
Is the Jesus escape hatch, the second use of the law, the only option for me? Is this story just a prod to drive me into the forgiving arms of Jesus who does what I cannot? I think that’s even worse than doing nothing. I don’t think I can treat Jesus as the “Get Out of Morality Jail Free” card (and I don’t think that’s what Luther intends in his typology of “uses”).
Jesus doesn’t come and die to let me off the hook. Jesus comes and dies to transform me to be like him.
So, I won’t go away grieving, embarrassed, and ashamed. Despair is not a solution here. It’s just despair (I hope the rich man figured that out while he had the time). Perhaps I’ve painted myself into a theological and ethical corner on this one. If so, I just need to sit in that corner for a while rather than buying a quick escape. I wonder if that’s the best we can do preaching on this text – leave our privileged audiences and ourselves dangling – no poem or happy ending.
It’s no wonder we preachers are relieved, at least in some parts of the Tradition, to go with the Reformation and All Saints texts. It’s much more fun to celebrate the Raising of Lazarus – complete with stinky corpses and clinging rags. If the emphasis of All Saints is mostly a commemoration of those who have joined the Church Triumphant, then perhaps that’s the better text. It certainly doesn’t squeeze me the way the widow does.
Or does it? After all, Lazarus has a second funeral. Before that second funeral, his life is at risk alongside that of Jesus. He has become Exhibit A in the Johannine case for Christ. I think there’s no relief here. Even Lazarus is raised up from premature death – not to live forever – but rather to follow Jesus to the cross. If Lazarus is, in fact “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (and I think he is), then he does – at least in the Johannine script – follow Jesus to the end. He gets his whole life back in order to give his whole life in faithfulness.
It seems to me that the Markan script offers these little glimpses of getting it right. We don’t get the whole story, for example, of any of the four women discussed in an earlier post. We see these flashes of dazzling discipleship – like ethical supernovae blazing brighter than a galaxy for a cosmic moment and then fading into the dust. We don’t know if the “little people” in the Markan composition were so faithful before or after the encounter. Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t.
Maybe that’s part of the takeaway. The Twelve suffer a fantastic failure, but they must have recovered somehow and somewhat. We know much more of their stories. We can aspire to first like the last ones in the Markan script. We can admit that we are often last like the first ones in the Markan script. That’s really what life is like on the Way.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.
Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.
FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.
MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.
WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.