As always, take a look at the texts for this week by following the link below…
And, now, let’s take a look at what I think the texts are trying to tell us…
1 Kings 17:8-16
An interesting question is raised by Paul Nuechterlein: Which better constitutes Elijah’s status as a prophet: his splashy victory over, and slaughter of, the priests of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel, or his joining in solidarity with this poor widow in a situation of famine and near-death?
Good question – in his wholesale slaughter of the priests of Ba’al the prophet’s point about the nature of sacrifice is swallowed up by his own display of pointless death and scapegoating. (That’s still a good lesson, though) on the other hand, with the widow of Zarephath, Elijah shares in her vulnerability in the face of death and does so in a way that revels an abundance of God that exists behind the apparent poverty that she suffers, and suffers – as the Markan lesson will reveal – at the hands of that sacrificial system. Like the widow who gives her last coins to the Temple - sealing her fate perhaps – the widow does not horde her remaining food but shares it, realizing that it may hasten the arrival of starvation. She learns – as the world needs to learn – that there is enough to go around if we can free ourselves from the lie that has made us think otherwise.
After illustrating how Stephen (in the Acts account of his martyrdom) and Paul speak against sacrifice, S. Mark Heim writes in a section entitled, “The End of Sacrifice” from his book, Saved From Sacrifice, the following:
“Stephen and Paul look back through Israel’s history and draw a line to Jesus through the voices of scapegoats and victims, through the persecuted prophets and their words against sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews draws a line to Jesus through all of Israel’s prior sacrificial practices. These are quite different approaches. It is striking, then, that they reach the same conclusion: Christ has ended sacrifice. The one approach emphasizes that the cross has revealed what was always wrong with sacred violence. The other emphasizes that Christ’s sacrifice is better than all the others. It is the one truly effective offering and accomplishes what all the others never could. But these are not really opposed to each other. They are more like two sides of the same thing.” (p. 156)
And he concludes: “The book of Hebrews turns sacrifice inside out. Rather than deny ritual sacrifice any effect (for it has a very real effect) or reject all its practice in the past, this writer presses this conclusion. If you believe in sacrifice, then you can’t practice it anymore, because it has been done completely, perfectly, once for all. This was the sacrifice to end sacrifice. Hebrews is rife with the language of liturgy and ritual, but its premise is the very opposite of what ritual presumes: not repetition but finality.” (p. 160)
Why we insist on putting this lesson here in the lectionary cycle – in the middle of what is traditionally the Church’s stewardship drive-time – is beyond me. We place it here because we think it is a story of great generosity. On the contrary, the point of the story is as old as the prophets (Elijah) who spoke against the oppressive evils of the sacrificial system and its symbol, the Temple in Jerusalem.
Our text begins with Jesus warning the crowd: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
As he and the disciples witness this poor widow putting her last two coins into the treasury, there is not the slightest suggestion from Jesus that this is a wonderful thing. The text has already suggested the opposite – see the bit above about devouring widow’s homes – and then concludes with Jesus commenting on the fate of this magnificent structure for which this poor woman has given her last hope of survival. Not one stone shall be left on top of the other.