As the world struggles to visualise and commit to a way of living that will foster abundance, peace, justice and respect for all life, we are encouraged and challenged from within our tradition. Our readings this week (RCL 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:23-28; and Mark 12:38-44) , as so often, take us into a place of tension and paradox. On the one hand we have the letter of the Hebrews reminding us that Jesus our great high priest has made the ultimate sacrifice once and for all for us as an expression of love without limitations. And then we have this familiar story from the gospels about the widow’s mite and the sacrifice we are called to as disciples on the Way.
We think we know the widow’s story well because we learnt it at Sunday School and because we have probably heard many a sermon or appeal for donations using this Scripture. This widow is held up as the example of how any and all of us can be generous for God and of how God can use this generosity to further the kingdom. And I think that this is true enough – she is a wonderful example of generosity and faithfulness which I am sure God can use for God’s good purposes. But I also think something a bit edgier and more subversive is going on as well.
Firstly, as our Old Testament story indicates, Jesus is not preaching out of a vacuum but out of a long and established tradition of stories about widows and other barren women. Women don’t appear very often in the Old, or even New, Testaments. And even when they do they frequently don’t have personal names. So when they do appear you can be sure that the author is about to make an important point usually to the effect that God is so powerful and God’s purposes are so important that they can be achieved even through the role of women! Indeed there is some sense that the more lowly the human actor the more glory goes to God. There is also the related theme that humble faithful humans, male and female, can be used in bringing about the purposes of God. More contemporary theologies would emphasize that humanity and God are co-creators of the kingdom. So our story this week of the faithful widow who shares her last meal with the prophet and thus plays her part in God bringing judgment and renewal to the land is an important backdrop to the gospel story.
Secondly Jesus has been making many comments about the arrogance, hypocrisy, and this week the outright corruption of those who run the temple. Mark and the other gospel writers, particularly Matthew, seem to see the destruction of the temple in 70 CE as a judgment by God that the temple was so corrupt that it had to be destroyed. So Jesus is not only making a strong contrast between the scribes and the widow but also, I think, saying that the widow’s lot is as hard as it is because of the injustice and hypocrisy of the religious scribes! Doubly damming. We have only to think about how the wealthier nations have contributed disproportionately to what has led to climate change while it is the many of the poorer nations that are bearing the worst of the impact. We are modern day scribes and Pharisees in so many ways.
And thirdly, and inconveniently, Jesus also seems to be holding up the widow’s sacrificial generosity as a model of the life of discipleship “... but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” This is sacrificial giving and it is part of being a people who follow Jesus not merely worship him.
Many of us participate in traditional worship and every week many of us pray before we depart “...send us out as a living sacrifice”. But what really does that mean and if we believe that the love offering of his own self, the sacrifice of Jesus, was once for all then why are we being encouraged to live and love sacrificially. Holy paradox.
So I am wondering for myself, for each one of us as individuals, and as a body of Christ what does it mean to be a living sacrifice. I do not think I have the definitive answer but three thoughts I would like to share with you.
Firstly that as Christians we do believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has created a living way between us and God: that we are justified or saved or made alive most fully through faith and relationship with the divine and not by our good works or sacrifices. And yet Jesus himself said that we needed to take up our cross and follow. Jesus may have died as one of us and for us but it is a process that we too must deeply enter into. We are to be initiated into such self giving love that sacrifice is not a price for salvation but an expression of love, as it was for Jesus. This is foundational to our understanding of the life we are called into.
Secondly that we are called to be living sacrifices – that is, fully alive and drawn into life abundant. Participation in the life of the divine is to bear the fruits of the spirit in our lives including love, joy, peace, forebearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. The purpose of self giving love is not death but life without limit.
And thirdly, and there is no getting away from it, that we are called into a life of sacrificial living. For some this includes the ultimate sacrifice of life itself being given, as with the martyrs. But for all this includes a life in which we seek to give up and to give over all that separates us from God. For most this includes giving material wealth up and over for the needs of the kingdom and our neighbours – to church, to charity, to family etc for the needs of today and the hopes of tomorrow. But for all of us the sacrificial life includes the more constant and subtle giving up what keeps us small and anxious and distracted from God. Day by day we are asked to give up ideas about ourselves and others that are too small or too grandiose.
I believe that we are called to live fully – full of hope, joy, love, forgiveness, gratitude and peace enjoying all that God has given us in creation and the human family. And full of tender concern, of loving kindness – in feelings and action – for others. And that sort of fullness will lead us into lives that are a living sacrifice.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ come.
Advent will soon be with us. This year I have written two courses to take us deeper into the season and if you are a worship leader to inspire you to prepare your own work. Take a look and consider.