Readings for this Sunday:
1 Kings 17:8-16 | Psalm 146 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44
Beware the comma! It can change everything.
It can be a matter of life or death. It can be the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma.” Or consider the sign I saw recently “Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians on the trails” …which could have benefitted from a comma so that it would read instead “please use caution when hunting, pedestrians on the trails.
Now when it comes to our ancient biblical texts, there is an added problem. As you may know, the original texts of both the old and new testaments didn’t have commas, or really, any punctuation at all! They were a bunch of words jammed together that really only gained their meaning as people read the letters out loud and formed them into words. That’s part of what is behind the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who meets Phillip in the book of Acts. As language developed and real-estate on the page became more abundant, punctuation developed to help us clarify things, but that wasn’t always the case, and the challenges it present can still haunt us as choices are made as to the meaning we give to particular stories. Take as a case in point, Jesus’ warning today about the scribe:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
Now, I read it like it is punctuated in your Bibles, but, here’s another read: “Beware the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” and so on. There’s a difference, isn’t there?
Is this a statement about all the scribes, as if they were a monolithic class of oppressive bullies? Were all scribes just awful people, only concerned about themselves?
Unfortunately, such generalizations have been used through history to act against whole groups of people and to perpetuate cycles of violence that seem to have no end. And besides, if that were the case, how do we square what happens just a few verses earlier when, after another scribe responds positively to Jesus and Jesus looks at him and says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”?
You see, sometimes, the type is movable. Sometimes you need to give the sentence and the story it tells a second look.
I’ve been trying to do that with the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. Perhaps it isn’t a problem with a comma, per se, in this story, but if you look closely, the story starts out pretty dicey. Here you have this poor widow. She woke up this morning at edge of famine. She is at her end. Her last bit of flour. Ready to bake one last meagre loaf of bread for her child and herself before death brings perhaps the first comfort in a long time. We know people like this.
And in comes this prophet—a foreigner, demanding the hospitality her culture demands of her. Set aside your own needs and your son’s for this foreigner and his promise. Here you have this poor widow who has nothing, and Elijah comes to her and demands priority treatment. And even worse, God sends him to do so.
You can feed yourself and your son in a minute. Feed me first. Give me something to drink first. Serve me first. Throw those last two coins in the treasury and everything will go well with you.
You get the sense that the story could have ended a lot differently, don’t you? What if he had been more like this scribes who were more interested in devouring a widow’s house than communing in it? Which would it be? “Let’s eat widows” or “Let’s eat, widows.” How would she know where the story would place the comma?
It just feels wrong that these widows who have nothing should be asked to give everything. And that certainly seems to be where Jesus places his comma as he watches people give at the temple treasury. And while this seems to work out pretty well for the mother and son in Zarephath, you don’t get the sense that the widow who has given her last two coins and her whole life is any better off in the short term.
So what are we to make of this?
There is this consistent claim, this persistent belief in our Christian story that blessing comes when you embrace someone you aren’t supposed to, when you give of yourself in ways that go against your best interests, that take a chance. When you put yourself and your wants second. But there’s also a clear sense that widows get taken advantage of, regularly. You get the sense that there are systems that are so ravenous that they have no limits when it comes to what and who they will devour.
Our faith does not offer guarantees, does it. As much as we would love for it to, we do not deal in certainty. We step out in faith, trusting in a self-giving, I’m-going-to-come-second Way and even more in a Presence and a Power and a Goodness that punctuates life with hope.
And the hope isn’t so much that everything is going to work out well all the time. Perhaps not even most of the time. The hope is in a way of being and living that follows after the One who watched out for widow’s houses and praised scribes who were inclined to do the same.
You see, while there is not a certainty to our faith, there is a clear and certain heart to it.
It is hard to deny that Old and New Testament both are born out of poverty and displacement and speak good news to it and to the poor who find themselves trapped in cycles of suffering and death and to the outsiders who long for a home. And the brilliance of the gospel as I understand it is to see that through the speaking of good news to the least it speaks with a full-throated good news to everyone. When the least are better off, we all are. We come to know the ways of peace. We have the possibility of sharing a common and full life together that is more free from danger and instability. That we come to know a home only when we know it to be together. That we know the fullness of life we crave when we choose to go second.
But this is something that we lost for a time when the comma got misplaced.
In his book Finding Our Balance, Ron Byars notes that American churches, particularly Protestant mainline churches occupied a position of status and privilege before and into the founding of the American republic. And yet, we forget that even in those times that our churches knew privilege, they were in the minority. Byars summarizes the historical development nicely:
"American Protestants were among the most recent heirs of the post-Constantinian settlement, when the conversion of the Roman emperor to Christianity ensured the church a privileged position in what became European society. Being in a position of privilege and status suggested authority, so that people simply presumed that Christianity should be the default setting for the spiritual lives of Western people. When that privileged status evaporated, diminishing with particular force in the 1960s, that authority-by-default disappeared. It was clear that Christianity was one religion among others, with no special claim to anyone’s allegiance simply because they were Americans, or because they or their family had had some sort of affiliation with a church in times past."
This is profoundly important because our history has misshaped our expectations and dulled our clarity to the point that when we are no longer able to draw the crowds we used to, we start to panic.
But these texts today remind us that our hope was never found in our dominance. It was never rooted in going first. Our hope has always been the hope of widows and orphans and immigrants and homeless. That’s why Jesus sits and watches her so intently as she offers her last two coins, and says to us across the ages, look at her, and learn. The Reign of God belongs to her. If you want to know it, if you want to know me, know her. How I come to her is how I come to you.
St. Andrew Sermons