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Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 AND Psalm 127:1-5 OR I Kings 17:8-16 AND Psalm 146:1-10, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

There are lot of widows in the Bible—over 100 references to “widow” or “widows.” They are often linked with “orphans.” In biblical times, they received no inheritance or social security check. When a widow’s husband died, she could be as abandoned as a child who was orphaned.

Widows, specific and general, are mentioned in several of this week’s lectionary readings. They are people to be cared for. As in the case in modern society when there are those who need care, debates go on about two possibilities: 1. It is a responsibility to be undertaken by the family. 2. The church or society need to organize some way to provide services to such people. Both forms of service and care existed in biblical times as they do today.

Pastor Rick, in his benediction at the end of worship each Sunday morning, usually tells us to “Go out and take care of one another.” Looking at scriptures about widows and orphans can call us to think about and figure out how to care for one another. Even today, widows may find themselves impoverished, deprived of companionship, not feeling like they fit into the social networks that used to sustain them—but we also can look at the wider framework of need and response in and through family and social reality, including the church. Do widows and others with social needs find inclusion and support in the church, or do they feel alienated and isolated? Both can happen.

The lectionary continues this week with the story of Naomi, and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. After they become widows, Naomi decides to return to her homeland, Judah. Ruth, in a dramatic display of loyalty, insists on accompanying her. One common avenue to security for widows was to remarry. Jewish Law even provided a framework for that. The deceased husband’s brother was to take the widow as his wife. Ruth, a foreigner, is not part of that framework, but Naomi says to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” (Ruth 3:1) Naomi identifies a relative who may rise to the occasion, Boaz. (vs. 2) Ruth is sent to lie with him on the threshing floor. “Uncover his feet and lie down;” Naomi says to Ruth, “feet” being a euphemism for genitals. “He will tell you what to do.” (vss. 3-4)

Boaz and Ruth bear a child who is seen as a great blessing to Naomi. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.” (vs. 15) Naomi more or less adopts him into her Jewish culture and family, becoming “his nurse.” (vs. 16)

This story is included in the Bible, I suspect, mainly because this child, Obed, is the grandfather of David, which also makes him an ancestor of Jesus. Somebody looked at David’s birth certificate and found that the line had been contaminated by a foreigner. The story tells us that even foreigners can have faith and be included. It is one of several Old Testament stories that tell us that God’s love is bigger than tribal lines, that even redemption can come from the womb of a foreigner. It also underlines the Old Testament view that blessing comes to us through our children. They are the sign of our immortality.

Psalm 127 certainly picks up that theme. “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has a quiver full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-4) Although the Psalm is not about widows, it is about the importance of family connections. Family connections, at their best, are a source of sustenance and blessing, bringing us close to God as well as to one another. Not all families realize that potential, but the first verse of the Psalm holds up an ideal: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who built it labor in vain.” I’m also aware that sons were more highly valued than daughters. Although we still often fall short of full equality between the sexes, today most of us see daughters as a blessing equal to that of sons.

The larger picture in this week’s blog is taking care of one another in families and beyond. It can even be one way of looking at why we are here, of what families and churches and social connections have as their purpose. It takes a village. We are here, at least in part, to take care of one another.

The story in I Kings involves another widow, a widow who is called upon out of her limited means, to offer care for one of God’s prophets. Elijah, having been cared for by God through a time of drought, finds that the spring which has sustained him has dried up. (I Kings 17:1-7) God tells him, “Go now to Zarephath . . . and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (vss. 8-9) Elijah goes and asks the woman, who remains nameless, for bread and water. (vss. 10-11) This widow, who has a son, calls attention to her own poverty. “I have . . . only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go him and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (vs. 12) Elijah insists on being fed, promising that “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (vss. 13-14) I’m not sure whether the story is about the promise that God will provide or the seeming miracle of the provisions which don’t run out. If we went a little further in the story, we would find another miracle. The widow’s son apparently dies and Elijah brings him to life again. (vss. 17-23)

There’s yet another miracle I’d like to focus upon. It is that this woman living on the margins of existence is presented as one who has something to give. She is a source of blessing to this one who is called “a man of God.” She trusts what must have seemed like a pie-in-the-sky promise and gave what little she had. She is not unlike the widow praised by Jesus in this week’s Gospel reading. She comes to the temple where Jesus sees her put into the treasury “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” (Mark 12:41-42) His comment: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (vs. 43-44) Having grown up on the margins of poverty, I have also viewed with wonderment the generosity I have seen among the poor. Here, after having berated the scribes for devouring “widows’ houses,” Jesus sees widows (and others in poverty) not just as those to be “helped” but as people who have something to give, a contribution to make in this process of taking care of one another.

That leaves only a reading from Hebrews and another Psalm. We’ll skip the few verses from Hebrews this week, having in previous weeks explored the theme of Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. The Psalm is one which speaks of God’s concern for those in need, including the declaration that “he upholds the orphan and widow.” (Psalm 146:9—see also vss. 7-8)

Verse three of this Psalm says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” As I write, it is election day. Reading this verse anew helped me reassure myself that whichever candidate wins it will not be the end of everything I have valued and held dear. Many of the words that have been slung through the air, by both sides, might have us believe that, but I’ve lived long enough, seen enough candidates and presidents (some of whom I intensely disliked) come and go, to know better.

Still, part of the way I will evaluate the results of this election is how widows and others in need are treated. Both candidates have shown a pattern of personal care for such people, although one leans more toward family and church solutions and the other sees a larger role for government. I admit I’m concerned about how all that gets worked out in policy, but, beyond all the immediacy of such political issues, I have confidence that “the Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146:10)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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