November 7, 2021
Every time I’m going to sign up to preach, I first visit the website of the Revised Common Lectionary and scroll through weeks and weeks of scriptures. I wait for some kind of reaction in myself, be it surprise, compassion, or even revulsion – when something catches my attention, I trust it’s a door worth opening.
And when I got to this week’s scriptures, what caught my attention – in fact all I could see – was the preponderance of widows. There are three in the scriptures you’ve just heard: Ruth and Naomi, and the unnamed widow in the Gospel reading. The alternative readings also include a story about a widow who feeds and cares for Elijah, and a psalm that exhorts us to care for the widow … so, ok, only 5 widows mentioned; but still, given that we read about an average of 0-1 widows on most Sundays, it felt like a lot.
When I sat down to think, ok, what is the Holy Spirit trying to tell me with all of these widows, the first thought I had was: vulnerability. In that last scripture, the Psalm, widows are listed alongside orphans and foreigners as people in need of special care. Those three are so often grouped together in the Bible, it’s almost as if it’s one word: the-widow-the-orphan-the-stranger; together standing as shorthand for all those who are oppressed and neglected by society. The association with vulnerability is so strong that when I took a quick poll of you all, asking the Seekers mailing list for the first word that came to mind when you thought about widows in Biblical times, more than 70% of the responses were on that theme. Here are some of them: Poor. Poverty. Alone. Abandoned. Lonely. Ostracized, Discarded, Disenfranchised. Helpless. Liability. Dependent.
These impressions dominate for a reason. To be a married woman in ancient times was a challenging existence in all sorts of ways (see: basically the entire book of Genesis), but to be a woman without a husband was an incredibly precarious existence. In ancient Israel, women were generally economically dependent on men, first on their fathers, then on their husbands. A woman without a man was therefore financially adrift; if she was not taken in by extended family, she could be forced into begging, or even sold into slavery.
In her dissertation “Widow As the Altar of God,” Lisa Marin Moore notes that the etymology of the Hebrew word for widow may derive from a root that means “to be mute.” Moore says, “Thus the widow was one without a voice, and one who had no one to speak on her behalf.” She continues: “Both Testaments contain admonitions to God’s people to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, indicating that these particular people were vulnerable…”
Indeed, these admonitions are far too numerous to include all of them in this sermon, but here’s a quick sampling:
Deuteronomy 24:17 Do not deprive the foreigner of justice, or the orphan either; nor take a widow’s garment as collateral.
Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the orphan, plead the widow’s cause.
Jeremiah 7:5-7 If you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the orphan, or the widow, or shed innocent blood… then I will let you dwell in this place.
Zechariah 7:10 Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor, and do not plot evil against one another.
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: coming to the aid of orphans and widows, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.
So this is the backdrop upon which we come to today’s scriptures, and I would tell you to prepare to be shocked, except that you’ve already heard some of them read. But to drive home the point, let me also read the alternative Hebrew scripture for today, 1 Kings 17: 8-16; a story that takes place in the context of a years-long drought that has ravaged the land and driven the population to the brink of starvation:
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 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 went and did as Elijah said, so that she, as well as he and her household, ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that God spoke by Elijah.
This widow of Zarephath, Ruth, Naomi, and the widow Jesus sees in the temple – are they vulnerable? Yes. Are they suffering? Yes. But none of these stories is about that.
All of these stories are about these widows finding agency. These stories are about the decisions the widows make – both because of and in spite of – the ways society has cornered them. These stories are about widows who decide that vulnerability and loss do not have the final word.
Now up until the very moment they decide to take action, you would think they had no choices. Up until the moment they act – when she shares the last of her food, gives money from her meager resources, takes her destiny in her own hands – up until that very moment, the facts of their existence suggest there’s nothing left to do, and nowhere left to turn.
So this is first thing I learned from the widows: We always have a choice. No matter what is taken from us, we do not lose the power of our humanity. We may be constrained in all sorts of ways, but we can always decide to do something.
But these widows don’t just choose something, they choose to care. Ruth and Naomi choose to care for each other, even though they’re technically no longer family nor bound to each other in any way. They choose to care for each other despite the fact that staying together may actually turn off those otherwise inclined to help because they represent double the burden. The widow of Zarephath chooses to care for Elijah, even as she faces starvation. And the widow in the temple chooses to care about the obligations of her faith. These women who seem to have been completely abandoned by the community that ought to be caring for them – they show us what the duty to care looks like.
And they show that caring becomes a life raft of sorts. By caring for each other, Naomi conceives of and Ruth executes the plan that saves them both. By caring for Elijah, the widow of Zarephath is sustained by God’s miraculous provision. You know, in my most vulnerable moments, I have always turned inwards: how do I make it through the day, how do I tend to the wounds that I am bearing, how do I care for myself? And look, I think self-care is totally underrated and absolutely essential. But I am so struck by these women and how they turn outward in their moment of vulnerability. I realized I’ve had so many encounters with people like this, people who are seriously impoverished and oppressed, who, in the way of these widows, have shown me heartfelt generosity. This is a clay pot that was given to me by a potter living in a poor community in the mountains of El Salvador. I am guessing many of you have had similar interactions, moments that throw you off-balance because they upend what we think we know about who gets to care.
That simple question: who gets to care? suddenly brought to mind the reflection by Erna Kim Hackett that Brenda shared in her August sermon: the we always see ourselves as the underdogs, the victims, the good guys even when we are the ones with power. We are the Israelites, never the Egyptians; always Esther, never Haman; always Mary Magdalen and never the Pharisee. And truly, at first I identified with the widows’ vulnerability: beset by the loss and grief of the pandemic, despondent with political forces that seem impervious to our pleas for justice, mourning the slow chaotic collapse of nature. The first draft of this sermon started with a list of all the ways I felt kin to these widows, all of my vulnerabilities and losses.
But let’s be honest, I’m a white cis-gender heterosexual living in the wealthiest region of the wealthiest country in the world. More often than not, I am in a position of power and privilege. And when I stopped and reread these stories aware of that perspective, I was struck by something else.
The widow of Zarephath and the widow in the temple both choose generosity despite their own poverty – which, when I think about this outside of the context of a Bible story, seems CRAZY.
Let’s look at these stories, for one moment, without the glow that shines on these widows by virtue of their inclusion in scripture. For a moment, imagine them as news headlines:
A woman decides to have transactional sex to secure her financial security.
Someone without income and meager financial resources, dependent on the charity of others, decides she needs to give away some of the little money that she has.
The head of the household gives away the last of her food, saving nothing for the child who is dependent on her.
From where I sit, suddenly these choices don’t make sense to me. If I’m being honest, I think they are deeply unwise.
And don’t I know these people in real life? People I just want to HELP but they DO THINGS that drive me insane?!?
A few weeks ago I was messaging with a friend in Port-au-Prince. She confessed that she was in danger of losing her home – she couldn’t pay her rent because she had sent what little money had to loved ones in Southern Haiti that had lost everything in the August earthquake. While I was moved by her generosity, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with her. She’s been out of work for nearly two years. Given the deteriorating political and economic situation in Port-au-Prince, it’s unlikely she is going to find a new job anytime soon. And she gave away her money.
Weeks later, I still can’t wrap my head around that decision. But hasn’t she shown me the better way? Isn’t this the logic of the kingdom?? Wouldn’t Jesus have said of her: Truly I tell you, this woman has given more than all those who are contributing… For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
What is revealed in the stories of these widows is that all too often my idea of wisdom is based on my middle-class American sensibilities and white Savior complex. These stories offer me a chance at humility, a chance to concede that I have a lot to learn about generosity and caring for others. These stories invite me to worry less about how people in vulnerable and oppressive situations react, and more about the things that are oppressing them in the first place.
So maybe this morning you, like me, need to turn towards those who are vulnerable and just…. listen. Trust in their wisdom, even if it’s different than yours – maybe especially if it is different than yours. Set down all of the “right answers” you are holding, and make space for the lessons being offered. I’m reminded of what Paul has to say: “God chose what the world considers nonsense to put wise people to shame. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.”
Or maybe this morning you are the one who is vulnerable. Maybe you are trapped, maybe you are being excluded, maybe you are grieving, maybe you are alone. Rest assured that God’s heart is broken by injustice and suffering, including yours. But your vulnerability and loss do not have to have the last word. Look to the widows and be encouraged: the spirit is with you.
No matter our circumstances, may God grant us all the wisdom of the widows. AMEN.