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Sunday, 8 November 2009

Unsettling our judgements about status and desert

The Gospel reading this morning from Mark 12 about Jesus sitting around in the Temple observing who was giving and how much they were giving to the Temple collection raises some interesting issues.

One of them is the simple fact that Jesus was just sitting around observing what was going on. He was interested in what people were doing and how they were relating to this central institution in Jewish life.

Jesus made the observation to his disciples following his observation of rich people putting in a lot of money and a widow putting in a couple of low value coins. "I tell you this widow has put in more than all the others. Everyone else gave what they didn't need. But she is very poor and gave everything she had. Now she doesn't have a penny to live on."

What is Jesus up to here? Is he commending what the widow has done? After all she is someone with no status, no access to economic resources and totally dependent on the community provision through the laws related to gleaning and provision from the harvest leftovers.

What right did she have we might think seeing that she is dependent upon the limited social welfare system to go giving away what little she had? Is she moving herself out of the ranks of the deserving poor into the undeserving poor because of her extravagance on the religious front? I can imagine that there were those in the Temple hierarchy who would have assented to this judgment.

Was Jesus commending the widow? The text isn't clear but there is no doubt that her generosity is acknowledged by Jesus and her status is elevated compared to that of the rich people who give what is left over. It's a commendation of some sort with the implication that.


But think about the equivalent scenario today. It is as though a single Aboriginal mother on Centrelink benefits has gone and given away her last $10 to a World Vision appeal for victims of earthquake in Indonesia and will have to go to the Salvation Army for food for the next couple of days till her next payment is due.

Is she still one of the "deserving poor" or has she removed herself from that category because of her extravagance in giving away what little she had and increasing her reliance on the generosity of the community?

There is something unnerving and unsettling about Jesus and the observations he makes here.  Our easy certainties about status and desert are brought into question. There is a further sting  which we miss because the chapter division used by the lectionary cuts off the reading at this point.  Immediately afterward at the start of the next block of readings as Jesus leaves the Temple he speaks of the edifice being torn down, a judgment on the entire Temple system. Whatever our assessment of who is or is not deserving we are all subject to the questioning of God's justice.

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