In our lessons for this Sunday, the conclusion from the book of Ruth wraps up Track One’s brief summary of that marvelous brief work, and joins to it an equally uplifting psalm 127. In Track Two the reading from 1 Kings 17, Elijah and the widow from Zarephath, has been chosen to come alongside Jesus’ bold commendation of the widow, who “out of poverty has put in everything she had” into the temple treasury. Mark has aligned this brief account with Jesus’ condemnation of those scribes who love their finery, but have fleeced widows contemptuously. The Epistle reading continues our selections from Hebrews, now at the 9th chapter. As Jesus has entered the sanctuary of the Temple and cleansed it, he confronts likewise the uncleanness of religious leaders in their manifold roles, contrasting it severely with the fragrant offering of a poor widow. Through his death he has entered a heavenly sanctuary and the author of Hebrews explains the permanent significance of that. To which in a moment.
Let’s start with Track One.
Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, we recall, had indicated how perilous the decision to come with her would be. Ruth is a widow, as is Naomi, but also now without inheritance or support, alone in a foreign country through her decision to cling to Naomi. Naomi’s husband Elimelech had a wealthy kinsman named Boaz. So Naomi conspires to put Ruth in his path. The poor may glean in fields, Deuteronomy tells us, even as in this case it is also risky, given the festivities which mark the final days of the occasion.
Boaz has already taken note of her, we learn earlier in the story, gleaning with the others, and he commends her for her kind treatment of her mother in law, which has been made known to him. So the situation is auspicious. When Ruth tells her of this, Naomi sees it as a kindness of the Lord and concocts her plan. Ruth complies.
Boaz is indeed an honorable choice, though we learn he is not the closest kin and so the plot thickens. But the unnamed kinsman relinquishes his claim and Boaz takes on the role of perpetuating the name of the deceased husband. When a child is born to the happy couple, the women of the village speak of the resolution of Ruth’s and Naomi’s losses both. “A son has been born to Naomi.” Indeed, he is the grandfather of David. The path paved by Ruth, we learn in the final verses of the book, had its forerunners going back in time, strong and bold gentile women all of them.
“Children are a heritage from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a gift” the psalmist says – surprising even Naomi, who had cautioned Ruth—do I have sons still in my womb?– but who now finds a son laid on her own nursing breast.
Having these two widows provided by the Track One reading we are given a helpful entry onto the Gospel story of the widow’s mite. She has thrown herself and all she has onto the mercy of God though her gift of two lepta, the smallest coins there are, but all she has.
Our Track Two OT reading has been chosen from the 17th chapter of Kings to also provide a widow, from yet another episode in God’s plans with his people. In Luke’s Gospel the episode is referred to in this way, underscoring the point from another angle:
“In truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”
Well-known and repeated often are the solemn injunctions in the OT to care for widows, whose fate is especially precarious. Neglecting this or abusing own’s power in probate are to be severely punished.
In our story from Kings we have a famine like unto that of Ruth. God commands Elijah to go to Sidon and be fed there. On its face one might assume that the idea makes sense if the famine does not reach that far. And that appears right as Elijah’s request for water is complied with by the widow, out gathering sticks. But his request for food reveals how meager are this poor widows stocks. She has been collecting wood for a fire for her last meal, she and her son, and then to lay down and die. Elijah will have none of it, but she must prepare a cake for him all the same. Having done so Elijah provides his OT version of the multiplication of loaves and we learn that having thrown herself all in—so Ruth, so Naomi, so our widow for today with her meager 2 lepta—God is good on his promises. Jesus remembers the same story and holds it up to remind his hometown people just how far the love of God reaches into famines of our lives, yes to Moab or Sidon or at the very steps of the Temple itself.
Our psalm lines it out nicely:
8 The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
And it also cautions:
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
Put not your trust in rulers…
When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Our Gospel reading from Mark has the commendation of the widow preceded by yet a further encounter of Jesus with the religious leaders. In strong contrast with the good scribe who answered Jesus well and was told he was not far from the kingdom of God, here we see Jesus observing other scribes, those who love long robes, clothing of distinction, best seats in church and in culture both, the knowing salutations of admirers. Of course all these things could be tolerable if excessive, one supposes, but we learn they go hand in hand with taking advantage of the least of God’s own, those to be set apart for special care and attention, given their vulnerability. As if instead of Boaz protecting Ruth, she would be violated and thrown into hopelessness without bottom. Naomi’s bitterness tripled. Or as if Elijah stole the last stores of a poor widow and her dying son. Treasury gifts from a poor widow, giving all that she has, so as to finance lavish robes and places of honor and salutations for their public displays of the sale. Devouring widows houses is taking the only thing left to them, through skillful scribal manipulation or by other means not detailed by Jesus.
Ironically the Levites are also numbered among those needing special attention, given their sacrificial role, without inheritance. Like unto widows. Something has gone terribly wrong here and as his last act before crossing the threshold to final trial, persecution, and death, Jesus takes the time to teach for one last time his disciples.
Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, 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.”
And in this action who is she most like, but the one who will give his life as a ransom.
Hebrews can have the last word then.
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
There is Ruth, Naomi, the widow of Zarephath and our final widow at the threshold of Jesus sacrifice of love.