Widows: A Biblical Interpretation
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

November 8, 2015

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

The scriptures we read each Sunday are full of shorthand. In the Old Testament, what my seminary professor called the “Prime Testament” as it is not old and replaced, but simply first, the events of the Prime Testament did not all happen in round figures of 40 days, or 40 months, or 40 years. 40 is shorthand. It means that it was the fullness of days, a complete set of months, the appropriate and whole and right number of years.

Similarly, when the Bible speaks of widows, it does so not to caricature or demean women who have gone through the pain of losing their husbands, but as shorthand for those who are vulnerable. When the Bible wants to discuss those who are most at risk, those for whom there are the least protections, it talks about the widows and orphans.

Recently a friend of mine wrote about her mother, recently widowed, being scammed. A person called, pretending to be a family member, and needing money for a bond to get out of trouble. Between the emotionality of the plea, and her mother’s poor hearing, her mom wired money to this person, and now the money is gone without a trace. In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But widows are not simply the patsies to scams and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. Ruth and Naomi are widows. And while they are grieving, Naomi her husband and her sons, Ruth, her husband, father-in-law, and her own land and people; they are also wise in the ways of the world. So Naomi sees an eligible bachelor in Obed, and instructs Ruth in a strategy worthy of a soap opera or late night TV. When he is tired from the harvest, go and lie with him and uncover his “feet.” Please understand that feet are sometimes also shorthand for, well, after she lies with him and uncovers his feet, they marry and she has a kid. You can figure it out…

Were this just another story, it would be of women who exhibit Jesus’ admonition to his follows many generations later, to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. But it is more than just another story. It is more than just women who are vulnerable finding security, and widows without a community finding a home.

Ruth gives birth to…(Jesse). And Jesse has a bunch of sons, the youngest of whom is….(David). That’s right. No Naomi, no Ruth. No Ruth and Obed, no Jesse. No Jesse, no David. No David, no Jesus.

How often does the Lord of all creation work wonders not through the princes of the world, but through the most vulnerable, and the least of these in our midst?

So now to Jesus and the widow. How much do her two copper coins equal? What is their worth? On the one hand, it says they are worth a penny. On the other hand, they are all that she has. These are two different values, are they not?

Put it another way, say we are all pitching in on the cost of dinner. One person throws in a $20. The next guy puts in $10. Who has put in more? Now imagine that the one who put in $20 had $200 in his wallet, and the other was down to his last $10. Now who put in more?

It is also helpful to realize where they are giving their money. The treasury is not the general budget of the Temple. It is not the building fund. It is not the capital campaign to rebuild Solomon’s portico or the Gate called beautiful. It is the money used to help those in need.

She is spending herself on behalf of others. And Jesus praises her faithfulness.

Now, a word of caution is appropriate. As a society, we have often witnessed or encouraged women to give all of themselves on behalf of others. We have praised selfless actions, when it is our womenfolk who are doing so. And the message has been taught and learned, whether we are aware of it or not, that a woman’s role is that of self-sacrifice.

How often do Pastor Tom and I counsel women that the lifeguard is not allowed to drown? How often do we tell our female friends and colleagues that taking care of everyone but themselves is not the point?

And there is a flipside to it. Allowing women to do the service and caring and nurturing heavy lifting leads to a distortion of what it means to be a faithful man as well.

In my days in Texas, I heard so many stories of past generations where the command to honor the Sabbath was taken with near Orthodox zeal. No work was to be done. The men would read, or talk, or play music (but definitely not cards!), and the women wouldn’t work either. They would simply cook the big family meal and set it out and clean up after it and do the dishes and prepare for Monday morning’s meal. (Anybody see a discrepancy?)

I do not believe that our stories of widows are about women spending themselves without regard to their own wellbeing. They are stories of those who are most vulnerable, for whom we should care. But they are also stories of the faithfulness, the agency, the admirable wisdom that they have. They are stories of God working on behalf of and through the least of these in our midst. They are stories that tell us to never write someone off, either for their age, their vulnerability, their position in life.

Thanks be to God.