Homily November 11, 2018

Homily for the XXV Sunday After Pentecost B – November 11, 2018

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Today we find Jesus, once again, teaching in Jerusalem, a few days before his arrest. Our scene is the Temple, the center of Jewish society. The Temple is the place where prayers and animal sacrifices are offered. It is the closest place to heaven that humans can reach, and at the same time is a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13), as Jesus says elsewhere, that is, corruption is nested in the Temple. The two main groups of religious authorities to which the Gospels make reference, the priests and the scribes, are both very much part of the establishment that Jesus harshly criticizes. Today we hear his severe judgment of the scribal class: “They devour widows’ houses and they make a show of their long prayers” (Mark 12:40). It is not just their hypocrisy that Jesus criticizes, but the participation of the scribes in the oppression of the poorest of all social groups, that of widows. Those religious experts make harder and harder for widows to keep their homes after the death of their husbands, very likely by upholding laws against them (see Mark 7: 9-13). They flaunt their religion, their high knowledge of religion, but they act in ways directly opposing both the Torah and the prophetic tradition. In fact, the notion of “social justice” that we employ today, far from being alien to the Scriptures (as some people so strangely maintain) comes straight from the Bible. Let the sojourners gather the harvest you are not able to reap after you have gone once through your field (Leviticus 19: 9-10), do not keep after sunset the cloak of the neighbor that you have taken as a pawn (Exodus 22:26), do not oppress the immigrant remembering that your ancestors where immigrants (Exodus 22:21), and so on and so forth. In the context of an agrarian patriarchal society, these Old Testament norms in favor of the lower classes were the only thing that kept them alive. This was the kind of “love” that was at the center of the Jewish religion as Jesus was practicing and preaching it.

The intertwining of religion and politics that Jesus so harshly criticizes in our passage is the use of religion by people in power to gain even more power, to oppress the poor, and even to control their minds and behaviors. For many years, when reading the passage of the widow who tosses her little money in the treasury of the Temple, I heard Jesus praising the woman. But I was also troubled, because such praise did not square with the context of the story. Why would Jesus criticize so harshly the people in charge of the religious establishment and then praise a poor woman who deprives herself of the little she has by tossing it into the offertory plate, so to speak. She should rather receive from the sacred offering! Now I understand this passage differently. Jesus is moved by the poor widow, his heart is broken by what he observes. He praises not her act in itself, and surely not her unwilling contribution to her own oppression. He praises her deep faith and her profound dignity. The critique that Jesus brings to the religious system could not be clearer or stronger. He asks his disciples to pay attention, to understand that those who give a lot to the Temple are actually not sacrificing anything. And, then, he asks them to pay attention again, and to notice a woman that nobody notices. Jesus asks them, he asks us today, to shift our gaze from the center to the margins.

It is a duty for us to open our eyes to the connection between religion and politics, the bad connection which makes of religion a tool in the hands of the rich and powerful. That is very importand and we should not be shy in proclaming loud and clear that such a use of the words “Christian” or “Gospel” or “God” is blasphemy. But that is not enough. We also must look around in our proximity and observe the dynamics of power that are in place in all the institutions to which we belong. We should train our gaze to see those who are the marginals. How does the institution treat them? What does the institution teach them in matters of religion? Which image of God we pass on to them? Or we don't care because we think that they just need food? Most of all: what can we learn about God from those whom we serve or, in any case, are not the religious experts of the day?

When the word “God” is used to maintain the status quo, to contribute to the oppression of the poorest of the poor, magically transformed into enemies, I am pretty sure that it is not the God of Jesus. But even if we reject that, all of us, and especially those of us who study “God” and God-related subjects, still need to learn about God from unexpected sources, from the wisdom of those who, perhaps untrained in theology and unproficient in morality, keep their dignity in the most difficult circumstances and express their faith in ways that we might not appreciate. Naomi and Ruth, two widows, and thus the poorest of the poor, devise a shrewd subterfuge to get Ruth pregnant and thus save them both from abjection. What does it say to us that such behavior is praised in our canonical Scriptures by dedicating to it an entire book, the book that bears the name of Ruth? What does it tell us about God that, by means of such a subterfuge, Ruth becomes the ancestor, through David, of Jesus Christ?

We need to save Jesus from the grip of moralizers and power-hungry preachers. But we also need to shift our gaze to the margins. We need to be challenged, surprised, at times delighted, never simply comforted, by our Scriptures, which nothing should have to do with the maintenance of the status quo in any situation, even in our little parish. We can do all of this, becoming more and more curious about this subversive Jesus and his subversive God and, in the process, make our religion fun again! Amen.