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Sermon – “Four Widows” – November 11, 2012

Sermon for November 11, 2012                                  The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Four Widows

Ruth 3:  1-5, 4:  13-17;  1 Kings 17: 8-16;  Mark  12:  38-44


My great uncle, after his wife had died and he was living alone in the old farmhouse, was encouraged by his family to get some help.  He wasn’t eager to do that, still being able enough to look after himself– his wife had been the invalid, in fact, so he was used to it– but people pressed him,  so he looked into it.  He was amazed at what help would cost.

He knew what was to blame.  Social Security meant that there no longer was a great pool of older, widowed women willing to work for almost nothing.  What formerly had been, for him, an obvious source of reasonably-priced help–not only willing to work cheap, but to take orders and put up with the personality and quirks of the paymaster–had been ruined forever.  All those older women who once might have resigned themselves to showing up  and cleaning and cooking in exchange for a modest wage instead were living off their Social Security benefits.  He frowned, imagining an army of them idled, spending their time with the television, and forgoing becoming domestics for crotchety old characters like himself.

The world has changed so much, so fast, that it’s hard to believe that there were people who lived into my lifetime whose frame of reference was a world in which women were dependent on husbands or children for their economic security.  Even though the term “widows and orphans” is still used to describe a social grouping vulnerable to poverty and in need of help, many widows are relatively well-off, and the current assumption is that women will manage their business perfectly well on their own.

In Jesus’ day single women were at a disadvantage.  Whatever the customs and laws of the various nations which mixed in the Holy Land in the First Century–Jewish and Greek and Roman–none of them encouraged women to be educated apart from domestic tasks and arts.  There were exceptions, but most women never had a career, as such, and did rely on their family status for what they had.  Jewish women were able to recover a part of their dowry when they were widowed, but a male relative had to act as administrator for them, and they only got enough to sustain them for a year.

It was very rare for a widow to be independent.  Widows did, in fact, rely on the kindness of others, and the Old Testament cultivates the ethic of looking out for them.  Though they wouldn’t necessarily be poor, they were likely to be, and they and orphaned children form, in the Bible, a special category of neediness, since the assumption in a clan-based social system was that people’s well being resulted from being enmeshed in kinship relationships.  It was possible for widows to have no one very closely related on whom to count, and the same thing was true for orphans.

Before talking about the four widows in today’s scriptures–and what characterizes them in all of the scriptures is this quality of being, because of the social system they inhabited, unavoidably and in a sense forgivably poor–I want to ask who is the equivalent in today’s world?  Who is, because of social and cultural expectations and patterns, and events over which they have no control, at a disadvantage in our time?

We know people either get advantages or disadvantages from all sorts of things over which they have little or no control.  People are always doing studies to confirm what we suspect, like the fact that tall people and good-looking people seem to have an advantage in making their way in the world, or that people who get to attend certain schools tend to be favored, or, to use a notorious example, that it remains true that males tend to be paid better for doing the same work as females.  There are all kinds of exceptions to these things, but they are exceptions because they overcome existing prejudices and patterns.

There’s a variety of advantage which is similar to the one that women in the Bible possessed while being daughters and later wives and relinquished, sometimes, when widowed, and that is the advantage of being connected.  It is not as routinely based on kinship in our society, though that still matters.  What we all realize is that there is truth to that saying that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  People have a little leverage with others who are somehow in their social group, and may hope to be treated with a little more kindness or consideration than if they were strangers.

Often when people speak about this, it’s to complain.  It isn’t fair, if the real value is job experience, or performance, for someone to be hired simply because he is  a local product.  On the other hand, most of us are grateful when our way is smoothed because someone influential knows us.  Very often in the world the assumption is that, especially when it comes to doing a job, that one candidate is going to be very like another, so why not hire someone known or recommended by someone known?  Social life inevitably has lots of obligations and expectations, so it’s hard to see how this could ever end, if people wanted it to end.

My point is, even before getting into political controversy– because the existence of privileged persons and disadvantaged persons is not merely a fact of life, but also a political battlefield–that there always are persons who have to try harder, and who may not end up as well, simply because of accidents of birth and circumstance.

There are a few different scenarios for their finding their way.  The Book of Ruth is not a very religious book.  God is mentioned because it’s a world in which every tribe and race has its God, and Ruth opts for the country and therefore the God of Naomi.  Really, though, it’s a love story, with a few different kinds of love in it. There’s the love between Ruth and her mother-in-law.  There’s the love which Ruth finds with Boaz, and there’s the love Ruth and Naomi have for Ruth’s baby who, because he becomes an ancestor of King David, has this family story preserved as an example of what loyalty and decency achieve.

Naomi had gone to live with her sons and their wives in another country.  While her sons lived, they were her security as a widow.  When they die, she goes back to Israel, where she has more distant relatives but at least that kind of a claim on others’ sympathy and a chance to get by.  She discourages Ruth from joining her because Ruth is an outsider, and will always be regarded as something of an outsider, as we see at the end when Ruth’s baby is referred to as Naomi’s baby by Naomi’s friends.  Now that Ruth’s husband has died, what status will she have in his homeland?

Naomi solves this problem by figuring out that Ruth can capture Boaz, an older and established man, for a husband.  She tells the younger woman what to do to ingratiate herself with the older man, and counts on Boaz’s natural instincts, after he’s been drinking, and his grateful ego, once he realizes what Ruth desires, to get her a kinship status.  It works out for Naomi, too, though we shouldn’t be cynical about either woman’s benefitting from Ruth’s marriage to Boaz.  The New Testament, much later, favors younger widows’ remarriage as a way to solve the social problem of their finding a way in the world.

What Naomi and Ruth had was a tenuous grip on getting by, which Naomi changed by encouraging the still-young Ruth to remarry.  Most of the widows in the Old Testament don’t have that strategy available.  They are confirmed in their status, and if they aren’t part of a larger family unit which supports them, they depend on God just as much as do the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

There is an element of resignation to that utter dependency in the other two widow stories.  The widow who plans on dying until Elisha the prophet comes to live with her has nothing to lose by listening to him, and later, when her son dies while Elisha is there, doesn’t seem especially grateful for the miraculous sustaining they’ve received to that point.  Elisha raises the boy from death, but my point is that the woman’s life is hard all the time, and her hosting the holy man seems done more from lack of alternatives than piety.

The woman who puts her widow’s mite into the Temple offering and is offered by Jesus as an example of true generosity, in an invidious comparison with the rich, may have more religious feeling.  She is happy to participate in the support of her ancestral faith.  It’s a way to be connected with something big and meaningful, the beautiful and magnificent building, the impressive rituals, the social function of a national religion.  She may feel that her own connection with God is enhanced by all that, and by her offering.

Jesus praises her not only for her demonstration of dependency–giving all she has to God is an admission that all she has is from God–but to criticize the rich.  They have plenty to spare.  They rely on their resources, they rely on themselves.  What our culture commends Jesus questions.  Reliance on money sets snares– it makes the Pharisees hypocrites, publicly calling on God and privately profiting from others’ vulnerability.  The weak are their victims, but the weak know that God is their source and their support, and when they do, they model for everyone the proper humility and gratitude Christ tells all of us that we should have.  We are to recognize our weakness and dependence on God, no matter what our strength or status, and be sympathetic and humble with regard to our more visibly dependent brothers and sisters in the world, no matter their weakness and position.


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