Ordinary Sunday 32, 11th of November, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Psalm 146:6-10; Mark 12:38-44
My mother has a beautiful German, upright piano that was passed on to her from her mother's family. It has always been kept lovingly tuned and polished and its walnut burr is in perfect condition, except for the marks on the two front panels where the old, brass, candle holders have been removed. I remember, as a child, asking about these marks and being told that the brass fittings were removed during the first world war and melted down for armaments.
I have since discovered that this was very common, particularly in Europe. The enormous demand for resources for the war brought about very strict controls on what materials were available for civilian use and people gave willingly to support this huge effort, proud to be doing their bit to support their country.
Of course, the ultimate contribution was made in the form of beloved human beings who left home to serve, many of whom never returned. The cenotaphs in Australian country towns record the costliness of this support in their record of names, sometimes multiple ones from the same family, who died far away from home.
16 million people, civilians and military personnel were killed died during the war. In Australia, from a population of fewer than five million, over 400,000 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. There were many who were left widowed or fatherless as a result of this conflict and many more whose loved ones returned to them terribly damaged by their experience.
Looking back, we now know that some of this terrible slaughter was needless. Poor planning, incompetence, a willingness to sacrifice many, many lives to gain very little advantage, decisions that served narrow, political interests and the power of a privileged few, all contributed to the tragedy. The system to which so many gave so much, was, in many cases, exploitative of those who gave.
It is this kind of exploitative institution that Jesus denounces in today's reading from the Gospel of Mark. This story is usually referred to as, "The Widow's Mite", as we tend to focus on Jesus' praise for the widow. But this story is also part of Jesus' ongoing lament over the Temple and the abuse that flows from its religious structure.
The scribes are the religious establishment of Jerusalem, the Big Guns in terms of knowing and keeping the Law. The most vulnerable people in society, widows and orphans, are the number one priority for protection under the system over which the scribes preside. But Jesus accuses them of behaviour that is directly counter to what they should be doing. Instead of caring for widows, the scribes abuse their positions within the institution to gain benefit from the resources of the poor, 'gobbling up' the widows' houses.
The Greek word used here for 'gobble up' is the same word that Jesus used in the parable of the seed and the sower where the birds of the air gobbled up the seed that fell on the path. In that parable, the birds are equated with Satan, devouring life's potential. For Mark to put the same word on Jesus' lips here is a very strong condemnation of the behaviour of the scribes.
The requirement that society cares for the vulnerable is central to Jewish law. Again and again the prophets speak out against the neglect of those whose circumstances make their survival reliant on the compassion of others. The psalm set for today tells us that, "The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin" (146:9). God's people are called to reflect God's character. This means not gobbling up resources but giving freely of what we have and working to invert the unjust systems of the world.
Much of the dreadful waste of life in WWI occurred because of the desire of both sides to preserve or gain power at all costs. Human life was gobbled up as more and more resources were poured into maintaining the mechanism of war, and wave after wave of men were sent to die just as those before them had died.
Tragically, exploitative and abusive institutions and power structures are not a thing of the past. The terrible ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Israel/Palestine, the children wasting years on Nauru and Manus Island; the gobbling up of life, of hope, of human potential, continues all around us.
Nor is abuse and exploitation only found in military or secular institutions. Just as in Jesus' time, the same kind of behaviour exists within religious institutions. The findings of the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Child Sexual Abuse are a terrible, obvious example. However, in these days of declining church attendance, the pressure to preserve ourselves, to make sure we succeed and survive can easily lead to self-serving abusive behaviour that gobbles up the lives of God's people, clergy and laity alike.
God calls the Church to work for justice, not self-preservation. The choices we make as a community must reflect our response to that call. But Jesus does not just warn us about institutions and their tendency to corruption, he also speaks to us about individual responsibility.
Today, as we remember those who, in war, gave everything they had, and as we remember the generosity of the poor widow, we, as individuals and as the people of God, are challenged to ask ourselves; "What is it that God has entrusted to me? How do I behave so that my life is not lived for self-interest, but for radical, costly love that is prepared to give everything I have?"
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.