She Gave All That She Had
A Sermon for Twenty-fourth Pentecost
Two of my very favorite stories from the Bible are presented in today’s readings. One is the story of Ruth and the other is Jesus’ parable about the widow who gives two small copper coins to the temple treasury. Now of course we know that there are many differences between life today and life in Biblical times. But among the things that haven’t changed are the characteristics of the most marginalized, least powerful, most impoverished and most vulnerable members of society: women, children, the enslaved, the poor, the refugee, the different.
The reading today in the Hebrew scriptures tells a portion of the story of Ruth: a woman faced with fragile and uncertain circumstances in her life that had left her with 1) few resources and only the means to carve out a very marginal economic existence; 2) few (of what we would call today) “support systems” beyond that of her mother-in-law Naomi (herself a childless widow and a vulnerable person); and 3) who, besides, all this was someone who bore the stigma of being an outsider, a “foreigner,” - a stranger in an unfamiliar land. Ruth had, in faith, given all that she had by following her widowed mother-in-law Naomi’s to Naomi’s homeland of Bethlehem-judah after the death of Naomi’s two sons, one of whom had been Ruth’s husband. To characterize the life circumstances that Ruth and Naomi faced at this time as “extraordinarily difficult” seems an extreme understatement. However, at the end of the passage today in Ruth’s story, hope enters into these nearly unbearable circumstances. Boaz (a kinsman) provides a lifeline for both Ruth and Naomi.
By taking Ruth as his wife, Boaz provides legitimacy for her. No longer is Ruth and outsider and a non-person. No longer does she have little support and no economic base .But, perhaps (and even more importantly in this story), Ruth also provides a lifeline for Boaz (and indeed for a whole people) in Boaz’s child Obed that she bears. Obed will grow up to become the father of Jesse, who will become the father of David. The story of Ruth is a story of God’s plan worked in and through the most unlikely of people – not the powerful or the wealthy, but the most marginalized people in the most vulnerable of circumstances who have little left but their faith.
In today’s lesson from the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells a parable about another vulnerable individual. In this case, again it is a woman who is also a widow and one who gives all that she has – even all of her living – her entire economic means – to the temple treasury. Her gift is small in comparison to others’ gifts to the temple treasury, but Jesus commends her actions, pointing out that (again, in today’s language) what the widow gave came not from any discretionary income source, but from something that represented her entire livelihood: indeed, her very ability to obtain enough to ensure her continued physical existence perhaps even in that very day, or almost certainly in the next. In this parable, the two small copper coins given by the widow represent something far greater than money: they represent a gift of her very self: a gift, given not our of wealth, but out of the poverty of resources needed to sustain her very life.
Now while we are given further information about Ruth after she meets Boaz, I often wonder what might have happened to the widow in the parable after she, in faith, had given her two copper coins to something beyond herself. We, of course - in our supposed modern sophistication - know that “faith doesn’t pay the bills” and that “you can spend a dollar (or, in this case, two small copper coins) only once and then it’s gone.” But I would like to think that a follow-up to the giving widow’s story might just have been her realization – and the realization of others – that someone blessed with the sustainability that she lacked at that moment would come into her life to help her, as Boaz did with Ruth.
I often think too about how those words “she gave all that she had” and the story of Ruth and the parable of the widow might apply today. Who indeed, gives all that they have? Well, certainly for Christians this is the Christ model – Jesus who gave of himself entirely. But what about us “regular folk”? How can we relate this to our own humanity?
When a men and women enter the military, they sign what is often referred to as the “Ultimate Contract”. This means that they pledge, if it becomes necessary, to give their life for something beyond themselves, for a nation that they have sworn to serve. This is also the case for other professions – police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders, and Secret Service agents who will take a bullet for those whom they protect, who put their lives on the line every day. These are indeed obvious examples of duty and devotion, writ large.
But (once again) why would anyone do this - giving their all, even possibly their very life? Perhaps there is more than a single answer to this question, but the answer that I like best is that it is (in a very real sense) a gift – a gift of self - a responsibility taken on out of love of something or someone beyond one’s self.
And what about some other – and perhaps not so obvious – examples of those who give it all they have. People who live each day and bravely deal with serious health challenges – and their families and their caregivers and their medical teams - are simply giving life their very all. Children and youth who struggle with difficult home circumstances and face daily school challenges are giving it their all. Those who take monastic vows to live a life of service are giving it their all. A single parent struggling to feed, clothe, and shelter a family; an unemployed worker facing job loss and financial hardship; those in our own communities and throughout the world who face oppression and who struggle for basic necessities day after day – these are all examples, I believe, of those who are giving their all in the most abyssimal of situations – not unlike the circumstances faced by Ruth and the impoverished widow.
But still I am left with the question of “why” – and especially: why would someone voluntarily give it their all, or why would someone whose external circumstances force the situation, give it their all and not give up? I am left with the answers of faith; of love; and especially of love beyond the self. It is a difficult, but an extraordinary opportunity, to have the chance to love something beyond one’s self. It is in this, I believe, that our faith teaches us to “go deep” and to take the risks of that faith. Churches are not places that people go to just because there are a lot of activities. (Lots of activities, after all, can be found in any number of other arenas and organizations.) Churches are – or should be – places that people go to because something is there to which they feel connected and drawn. This is the Presence: the real faith and the love that goes beyond the self , often tested in the harshest of circumstances, that requires us to “go deep” – both in our own spiritual lives and in our lives as a community of faith.
Thus, two challenges presented by today’s readings are 1) the challenge to live by faith (real faith, not just faith in the face of comfort) and 2) the challenge (some would say the commandment) to “go deep” and to love something beyond ourselves And to do this not only by our words, but also by our actions. Day in. Day out. Loving that which is more than what we are.
And so – will I “go deep”? Will you? Please take a moment today or tomorrow to thank or to remember someone who has given - in many and a variety of ways - all that they have to something beyond themselves.
November 11, 2012