‘A Divine Justice beyond Moralized Giving’

Posted: October 27, 2021 in Uncategorized

Beneath every sermon there are assumptions that are subjective, personal and reflective of where the writer thinks they are in life, or at least are reflective of what they think is what it is. When thinking about my world and where I see the picture, I came across a phrase that I think speaks of my intent in regard to why theology, why church, why religion and why spirituality matters. It is that when faced with the questions, is God dead? Is religion a thing of the past? Has church had its day? My answers would be a resounding ‘Yes but.” Yes, because I do think that the concepts, we assume reflect these things have outlived their usefulness. This is not a rejection of the any truths but rather an honest appraisal of the efficacy of these terms to express the reality we now understand. In short, we talk about God and it reflects anything from dynamic creative energy to an interventionist man up high somewhere pulling or not pulling strings that dictate what happens.

So, underlying what follows and dare I say it much of what I write is the attempt to hold on to a revisionist, integrationist model of being, that values both the Christian tradition and historical Jesus, scholarship.

Or as my mission statement suggests ‘Honour the Mind’ It is all we have to make sense of things as conscious beings. ‘Live the questions’ not just asking them but apply them to experience as both reflective and transforming activity, and ‘Explore the Adventure of Being Human’ This is our species and it is finite and yet transformative in its participatory purpose. Its task is as some have said, the universe discovering itself and we might now have to say it is that of the cosmos or multi universal reality.

Having introduced the context of thinking I want to begin to tease out the title of this sermon and ask some more questions. Like. ‘What is morality?’ and ‘What is Justice?”  Morality as ‘Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” And Justice as, ‘The quality of being fair and reasonable’ and I want to see if I can begin with some foundational thinking such as ‘What were some things that our parents often taught us about religion.

Your experience may have been different buy it seems that in general the assumptions of right and wrong or justice were summed up in statements such as “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” It seems that prayer was something that had some sense of coercion built in, “You’d better do this or else?” The underlying assumption to this is that one must obey. “Because, I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” Then there was the pastoral assurance of compassion even available to the wayward child. “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.” What is certain about the above is that of resilience building through perseverance, “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.” But its, not all bad because there is the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” and just in case this sounds sexist there is tradition to back this up, “You’re just like your father.” Then comes the education and the goal of being wise about things, “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” And heaven forbid after all this has sunk in as a moral and just way of behaving there is the promise of a new world ahead, “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

Of course, that is not the experience of all children but we have to e honest and suspect that a world based on fear begins somewhere. The above is fictional but if we are honest some of the words ring bells for some of us. Boundaries have to be set and children protected from unhelpful influences but the question is what are the consequences for morality and justice?

What we hear and what we believe about life, and learn from significant others, can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! I suspect that for us to unlearn the world based on a fearsome and judgmental God will take some undoing and change in assumptions about morality and Justice.

The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, could be one such example. So join me as we play with this story for a bit.

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

Powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows at one end. 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: 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. As well as the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day

for exploiting the vulnerable. Not to mention the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders and Jesus’s suggestions that his own tradition was in danger of being swallowed up by the dominant Roman morality of peace through victory and might.

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. Oops we might be back with the parents teaching the children about religion and about the fearsome interventionist God who is always watching for opportunities to punish the wayward.

This is a very crucial difference in the way we read this story and it is very challenging. because heard with those ears of protest this story as Ian Cairn’s suggests, becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201). Morality and Justice look different and have different outcomes.

I remember just the other day talking online with a friend when they said they read in the bible where God knows and will sort out the bad from the good and my response was that I don’t know that sort of God and that to read that might mean that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. To a literalist bible reader this was a huge challenge, not unlike that of a parent trying to protect their child and instill resilience in the face of a world based on fear.

But as an unrepentant skeptical progressive liberal who thinks that a revisionist integrationist model of religion is the way to go what I was suggesting, and continue to suggest, is 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 do at least two things; (i) take the stories or quotes out of context and impose a culture upon them, or (ii) over-deify or domesticate them within a cultural time and place. Concretize them and make them unavailable to relevance.

The challenge of, the revisionist model is to hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories and unlearn much of what we have been taught. This 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 scepticism.

In this telling comment one scholar, not from the ‘progressive’ movement, but from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, William O’Brien said: “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 issue of today’s story is that any 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>).

While 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).

Indeed, Old Testament and Process Theology scholar, Robert Gnuse says: “…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 being a story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about

the need for of morality of compassion and ‘fair distributive justice. And to finish with, there is the challenge of this week’s story in our context.

We hear quite often today 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.  I am sure you have heard the statistics, and shaken your head in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by the wealthy.  But what if maybe you and I are in the top 1 percent.  To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, according to some pundits you simply need a household income of about not much more than $23,000 a year.  In this view true or not because to argue about stats is not the intension the top 10% for the globe earn around $8,000 and up…   Regardless of the figures the trend toward inequality and the state of inequity of today’s world is a major concern and one of morality and justice. And in interpretation Jesus speaks about most of us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <www.bethquick.com>).

Unlearning much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible can be an exciting and challenging experience but sharing in that experience with people of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. As challenging as it can be, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. The call is to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • Be surprised. And yes, separate the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus!

And remember that’s the journey the Spongs, and the Scotts and the Funks and the Besslers, and the Caputo’s and the growing number of thinkers 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. I can attest to this because I was fortunate enough to be in a congregation at St David’s in Auckland who braved that pathway of morality and Justice. Amen.


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


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