Monday, November 9, 2015

The Way We Lived Then

I preached on these texts (Track 1) yesterday at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. What a lovely correspondence they had to my gender and religious belief class this semester, to my work with older women in prayer shawl ministries over the past few years, to my obsession with the category of "widow" in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and to the raging war over the moral statuses of the poor and of women in our culture. I think the sermon turned out rather well.

Sermon for November 8, Proper 27 Year B

A few years ago someone recommended that I read Anthony Trollope, a prolific and very popular British novelist of the nineteenth century. His Victorian-era fiction turned out to be right up my alley, like a mix of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Most of his characters are marginal members of the aristocracy -- clergy with a parish granted by the local lord, baronets who gamble at London clubs and play at Parliament, widows with money besieged by suitors with none. The rules were different at that time and place, and among those people. A young man with a title was not supposed to stoop to earn money with a regular job, but at least if they lost all possibility of living off inherited wealth, they could go into law or finance, shameful as such a fate might be.

Trollope’s women, however, are in an altogether more desperate situation. Every now and then some spirited young lady will take it upon herself to explain to a male character that while he might not like his options, at least he has them. She has none. Her choices are: (1) marry, and acquire some share of her husband’s property and independence, (2) live with family members as a spinster until she dies, (3) become a live-in companion to a widow or a tutor to someone else’s children. Getting a job, much less a profession, simply isn’t a path that’s open to her. So when an offer of marriage evaporates because the man changed his mind, or a parent can’t afford to outfit a daughter for the social scene where potential husbands roam, these women stare into the maw of impending doom. It’s not just that they will fall off the approved track of their culture and into some disreputable state. It’s that their very lives have become insecure. Who will take care of them? How will they live?

Those women came immediately to mind when I read the passage from Ruth. “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you,” Naomi tells Ruth, before outlining exactly what that security means: a wealthy husband, a landowner. And how does one get such security? By “uncovering his feet” when he lies down to sleep. I have to keep this sermon G-rated, so I’ll just say that in this biblical euphemism, feet does not mean feet. You can find other examples of this delicate language in Exodus, regarding the circumcision of Moses’ son, and in Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim covering themselves with their three pairs of wings. I’ve seen some Bible commentaries that try to sanitize this story by claiming that Ruth was trying to wake up Boaz by making his feet cold. But Naomi specifies that Ruth is to wait until Boaz finishes partying at the threshing floor, put him in a state of undress, and lay down next to him. It’s clear that she is bent on creating a situation in which Boaz believes he is obligated to Ruth, and indeed, in the next chapter, Boaz takes it upon himself to make sure that Ruth has a husband -- a “guardian-redeemer” as the text puts it -- whether it be himself or another relative who has a claim on Naomi’s property. That is the only way a woman can find security. Faced with no way to fend for herself, her only option is -- by hook or by crook -- to get a man to accept her upkeep as an obligation.

The readings for today are unified by the theme of widows. Perhaps we gloss over that word without too much thought in our ordinary reading. Widows are women whose husbands have died; it’s a simple designation of marital status. But it’s anything but simple for women in the ancient near east. In both Hebrew and Hellenistic law and custom, a woman has no independent legal status as an individual. She can only be represented in society by a male guardian -- first her father, then her husband, and finally perhaps, her son. A woman without any of those people to protect and speak for her is the most vulnerable member of the community, with the exception of slaves. She literally has no standing -- no way to acquire a secure footing from which to lead a life that deserves respect and contributes to the community.

So when Jesus praises the widow who gives her mite at the synagogue, he was noting not just her financial contribution relative to her economic wealth. He points out that she is relinquishing the only thing that stands between her and nothingness. How is she to get something to live on? There is no one to procure it for her, and she has no respectable avenue of procuring it for herself. She is giving up the possibility, slender and temporary as it might be, of the pretense of membership in the community. And she does it, Jesus says, for the sake of a greater community in which she hopes to find a place.

I would like to think that those who heard Jesus’ words didn’t just watch the widow walk out of the synagogue with the vague thought that God would reward her bye and bye. Perhaps one of them ran after her and said, “My mother,” or “My aunt, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” After all, that’s what the community of apostles did, the author of Luke and Acts tells us, organizing a system of contributions and support for the widows and orphans among them -- a welfare system, a social safety net, if you will. They did not wait for the coming kingdom of God to make things right. They took responsibility for creating that reality in the here and now.

Too often the message “give sacrificially and trust that the Lord will provide” gets preached disproportionately to those for whom any giving is a risk. For these, a finger pointed to the Lord as provider is a finger pointed very deliberately away from those of us right here and quite able to provide for more than ourselves. I hope women have more and better options for finding security these days than tricking men into marrying them. (I’m terribly afraid that many do not.) But what I really see in these passages is a reminder that we are responsible for each other -- that when one of us casts off their last mite and throws herself on providence, they should find that God’s sheltering hands look a lot like my own.

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