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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Devouring widows' houses (B32O)

The widow's mite, as illustrated by the MAFA artist
Bénédite de la Roncière.
With five appointed uses in the three-year lectionary cycle, as well as a place in the "common psalms" available to use any Sunday in Ordinary Time, Psalm 146 is in an elite group of psalms with the likes of Psalms 19, 23, and 98, perhaps better-known than itself. As I've commented previously, most recently just this past September when it last came up, it is a great example of what Walter Brueggeman described in Israel's Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology as "tale-become-liturgy," full of the "vitality of reason." Psalm 146 is so cogent a liturgical song because it summons the hearer and the singer (and, in the case of the king, the observer and regent, who is charged with turning liturgy into policy) to "praise YHWH" for his specific and concrete intervention in the world on behalf of the poor. In the words of Brueggeman's translation (page 93), the psalm sings "Alleluia - praise YHWH who
made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners,
he upholds the widow and fatherless.
Brueggeman writes, "No great rhetoric of persuasion is needed when the memory itself persuades. Such a raw, embarrassing, revolutionary statement lives happily and trustfully in the still-available memory and experience of transformation." (emphases mine)

So, my first exhortation of the day is that communities ought to know an empowering, convinced setting of Psalm 146 that helps "tell it like it is." I'm quite sure that reading Brueggeman's book helped me think about how to set this psalm back in the 1980s when I did. And when we got around to recording it with GIA on Psalms for the Church Year, Volume IV, I approved of Gary's re-imagining the rhythm of the song in a sort of reggae style, which puts it solidly in the musical language of the poor and disenfranchised. All I can do, of course, is play it; I can't be the poor, but praying the psalm helps me and others to remember that we're called not just to join in the praise but to join in the politics of Psalm 146, to take the side of the poor, where God is.

Since she appears in the psalm today along with the other ones who are "bowed down," I think we're supposed to keep our eye on the widow in the first reading and gospel as well, doncha think?

There are a couple of ways that exegetes and preachers that I have read and heard interpret the gospel for today. In one, there is the predictable contrast of the ostentatious and probably coveted generosity of the wealthy with their big-number contributions to the upkeep of Herod's beautiful temple and its caretakers with the sustenance-level generosity of a poor widow, who gives "all she had, her whole livelihood." From this we are to understand that both people are generous, but the woman's gift was more generous and beneficial because she gave from her need rather than like the rich, who gave from their excess.

In another approach, there is a political element that suggests that Jesus's rising anger over the management of the temple and its transformation into a site of political collaboration between Jewish leaders and Roman authorities has brought him to a crisis. In the previous verses in Mark, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a mock military style, attacked the Sadduccees and scribes in a series of ripostes and parables, and entered the temple courtyard and overturned the moneychangers' tables. He has just made an outraged speech against those scribes who wear long robes, enjoy privileged positions in society, and "devour the houses of widows." Now, he goes back into the temple, "takes a seat opposite the treasury," and calls the disciples to notice the contributions being made. He sits across from, distancing himself from, the source of his anger. His statement to the disciples in this reading, which is taken by Ched Myers and others in "Say to This Mountain" Mark's Story of Discipleship, might be interpreted more like this: "Would you take a look at that? Look how they bleed the poor to keep up their beautiful temple, when they ought to be busy 'upholding the widow and orphan,' like they sing in their songs. John Shea has a similar conclusion in his The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Jesus, says Myers, "exits the temple grounds for the last time in disgust."

So, how do we read this? Is the widow cooperating in some way with her own exploitation? Is she to be imitated in her generosity, or taken as an example of someone being wronged by the economic establishment and, in modern terms, votes against her own best interest? Is there a third way?

Maybe, in a non-rivalrous world, a world imagined by the great René Girard, who died this week at the age of ninety-one, there is a third way. Maybe it is possible to desire to imitate the generosity of the poor widow even as she is being exploited, if we can imagine a widow so full of God-like love that it is possible for her, even as she knows that she is being exploited, to play the game of exploitation so that it is exposed as evil through her generous poverty? Maybe it is possible to imitate her contribution to the community enterprise of the temple, while still sitting in judgment, like Jesus "opposite the treasury," rejecting its contagion. One side of the argument, in any case, wins the battle of words and symbols in Jerusalem in the first half of the first century of the Common Era, in the same way that it has over and over since. The forces that build the status quo, that keep the temple working and pay the armies, swat the fly that buzzes around their conscience.

That gadfly, Jesus, once preached to his own congregation in Nazareth about the encounter between Elijah and the widow we heard about in today's first reading. That widow, too, had next to nothing, and shared it with a "sojourner" when she was asked, at the very edge between her own life and death, and that of her son. Her generosity saved her, more than once, and God's favor to her through Elijah, Jesus said, had not been shown to any Israelite widow, but to a widow from Sidon, the homeland of Ahab's queen, Jezebel. For that little bit of a homily, the hometown crowd wanted to kill him even then. This time, in the shadow of the temple, they will succeed in doing so, in just a few days.

Some will devour widows' houses. Some will devour the house of the Lord. The liturgy lets us know that when they do, Christ will raise it up again in three days. And when they devour the houses of widows, the Lord of the temple is watching from a seat across the room, choosing again whose house to favor with food in famine and resurrection from the dead and whose offering will be remembered as the name of the story that's told, and about whom it will only be said, "There is no more chance that they can 'get' the reign of God than a caravan can hora through a needle's eye."

Here's what we're singing at St Anne:

Entrance: All That We Have (Dameans)
Psalm 146: Praise the Lord, My Soul (RC, GIA)
Presentation of Gifts: These Alone Are Enough (Schutte, OCP)
Communion: Cry of the Poor or Within the Reign of God
Sending forth: Let Justice Roll Like a River