‘Beyond Moral Obligation’

Posted: November 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 12: 28-34

 ‘Beyond Moral Obligation’  

Back in about 2005 or so Ian Lawton an Australian Colleague who was for a time Priest at St Mathews in the city wrote some notes about what some parents taught their children about religion. While we might recognize some of these moments from the past they are not indictments on parenting as they held within them some elements of wisdom and practicality but they also held within them some religious belief as well. They are sort of tongue in cheek and they are also indicative of some religious belief.

The first is a comment on prayer- it goes “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” The second is on Obedience- ” Because I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” The third is Compassion- “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The fourth is on Perseverance- “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.”

The fifth is on the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” The sixth is about Tradition- “You’re just like your father.” Seventh Wisdom- “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” and eighth is Justice- “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

While these comments might seem a bit harsh as an indication of what we believe about life they are significant in that they are learnt from significant others, and can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, can be one such example. And we shall unpack this a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralizing about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But I want to suggest there is a broader, and perhaps more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

We approach this by suggesting that at one end of this system we have powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows and an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle we have the story of the ‘widow and the coins’. Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. This is not new because we hear also the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day for exploiting the vulnerable. We also bring to mind the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self- sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. As Ian Cairns says; That’s different.  And that’s very challenging. Because heard with those ears this story becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201).

One of the difficulties with this is that it seems to suggests that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. This makes it difficult to use when working with younger children as it makes the line between just telling the bible stories and telling what you think they mean for today difficult to discern. Theories of child development and readiness for the metaphorical and the morals of a story get complex. I suspect this is why Bible in Schools is fraught in today’s environment of knowledge and understanding.

One position I think we as progressive liberals might take is to suggest something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to: (i) take the stories or quotes out of context, or (ii) over-spiritualize or domesticate them. To hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories often means we will have to unlearn much of what we have been taught.

And for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of skepticism. And this is even from those of the evangelical end of the church. In this telling comment one scholar, from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, a certain William O’Brien says: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….” And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The truth is that a system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them.

Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’. And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <americamagazine.org>).

The Old Testament and Process Theology scholar Robert Gnuse suggests that the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely “[was] a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). This is a challenge to the more sanitized reference to scholar or learned sect. Gnuse suggests that we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). So rather than our story being a moralising story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about the need for a fair distributive justice.

And to test this we hear a comment from another scholar named Beth Quick. In her sermon for this day (in 2003) she writes: “… perhaps you have heard it said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.

Now, we have all heard these statistics, and shaken our heads in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by so few.  But when we get past the figures what really shocks us is that we are in the top 1 percent. To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, one simply needs a household income similar to ours.  This suggests that Jesus is speaking about (most of) us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <www.bethquick.com>).

I was trolling through stuff on my phone the other day when I came across a video report posted by Action Station Aotearoa claiming we have a justice system that is broken because it fails to ask the hard questions about systemic issues like colonization and its underlying effect on the numbers and ethnicities of those in prisons. It claims this because of the list of countries which have the most indigenous people in prisons and these countries are all countries that have been colonized. And by that I think it is meant not those who have been subject to historic movements of people migrating but those countries that have in their history a clear historical period that was linked to an intentional colonization period by another more superior country. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Get beyond the blame game and address the systemic issue beneath.

And let’s be clear, it is not easy to hear that we belong to a privileged grouping and when it comes to our Christian faith we are confronted with unlearning much of what we’ve been taught if we are to understand these claims. In our case it is especially hard to hear that the destruction of the way we have been brought up on the Bible stories needs to be relearned. It is hard for us to understand that to change our thinking is an exciting and challenging experience. That sharing in that experience with a group of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Look beyond the injustice faced by the widow and see why widows find themselves among the poor, look beyond the Maori of Pacific Islander in prison and see why they number among the most incarcerated.

Get beyond the moral obligation as one of the few privileged and see the system at work beneath.

As challenging as it can be to suggest that for years we have got it wrong, or missed the point, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. We are called to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • and be surprised. This is what is known as separating the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus! See the agenda in the text so as to find the real story so to speak. This is why self-awareness is so important. This is why awareness of the big picture is so important. That’s the journey the Spongs and the Scotts and the Funks and the Herzogs of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. One where fewer people find themselves in prisons, where fewer people are among the widows because of culture, and if any congregation can do that, this congregation can! And continue to do it well! And I can’t resist the opportunity to suggest that our attempt as a private Christian school was and is an attempt to tell the bible stories beyond the moral obligation, beyond the bias of the elite and the privileged that we are. An attempt to empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different and new world. Amen.


Cairns, I. J. 2004. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton: Fraser Books.



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