Ruth 4:13-17 | Mark 12:38-44
There’s a bit of a problem with the story of the widow’s mite, I reckon. I mean, it’s a great little story about the importance of generosity, and an encouragement to those who feel that they have so little to give (whether in time or talents or finances). It establishes that, in that hackneyed old saying, it really is the thought that counts.
But there’s still a problem. And I don’t mean the obvious problem: that for those who were reliant upon the charity of the Temple collection (for the Temple was the social security net of it’s day, and helped many who fell upon hard times) the actual amount of money put into the box might determine whether they would eat that day or not.
No, my problem with the story is this: it doesn’t seem to offer me anywhere to go. By which I mean – what do I do with this story, myself? I’m not a poor widow. I’m not in the position of “two small coins” being all I have to live in; and nor, I guess, are any of us here. Many of the early Church, of course, were.
So what am I to do with this story?
Of course, the context gives us a bit more to work with, as is so often the case. In the first half of our gospel reading, Jesus has been speaking out against the scribes: this is the latest episode in Holy Week, or, as I now think of it “Jesus’ week of making enemies”. And his words for them are ferocious – they like to walk in long robes (clothing ill-suited to manual labour, worn, as a way of indicating their difference from the common crowd), to be greeted with respect, and to have the best seats in the synagogue and the place of honour at banquets. They want, in other words, everyone to know how important they are – and to top it all, for the sake of appearance, they say long prayers – presumably so everyone knows how religious, and how theologically educated, they are as well.
But there’s one more piece to Jesus’ condemnation: “They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” (literally, they “devour widow’s houses”). The accusation levelled is that, perhaps in order to pay for those long robes, those privileged seats, those banquets, the scribes were taking advantage of their power, their authority, their status as the interpreters and appliers of the law, to fleece those least able to protect themselves, those who may even have come to them for help and advice. Charged with the frequently repeated command in the law to protect – in particular – the widow and the orphan, Jesus accuses the scribes of doing exactly the opposite; of living, as it were, a reverse Robin Hood – taking from the poorest, to give to the rich (in this case, themselves).
Now there’s a strong temptation, for a social justice minded preacher like me, at this point to talk about the way that we, often unwittingly, do the same; the way that our economic system, especially international economics, is dominated by rich nations and, even more, by huge multinational corporations; the way that those nations and companies bend, manipulate, or simply write, the rules to the benefit of themselves and their shareholders, and at the expense of the poorest of the world, forced into a destructive race to the bottom to get even crumbs under the table.
And I do think that would be a fair enough direction to go. But today, inspired by our Old Testament reading, I’d like instead to look at another wealthy, powerful, respected man: Boaz.
Because Boaz was a man who was gifted with an opportunity to “devour the widow’s house”. He was a relative of Naomi – not close, but close enough that he had the a claim (second claim, if you read the story) on her land; and with it the responsibility to marry Ruth.
And it would have been very easy for Boaz to take advantage of this situation to his own benefit. But the story of Ruth paints a very different picture of this powerful landowner.
When his workers harvest the grain in his fields, they obey the law; they don’t go back and pick up the stalks of corn that fall from their bundles. The Levitical law said “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor”. The law was structured to allow the poor an opportunity to work for their own keep; it prevented the total exploitation of natural resources, even by their legal owner, in order that all might share at least something from the harvest that God had granted.
But of course a young woman collecting gleanings out in a field amongst the workers was very vulnerable; and it is here that Boaz begins to show his true colours. He instructs his young men to leave her alone, gifting her with the protection that his authority affords. He tells his workforce to share their meals and water with her. And then he even gives instructions that as they gather his corn, they are to be sloppy – inefficient, even – to miss stalks, to drop more than they need, to leave a wider edge unharvested.
The law required Boaz to act with a very basic, minimal sort of justice; to allow that what God had given was, at least in small token, to be shared.
But Boaz’s understanding of what is right goes further. The law would forbid him to abuse a young woman alone in the fields, but he makes sure no one else does either. The law allowed Ruth to glean, but he offered her food and water as well. The law required that the corn that fell be left for the poor; Boaz instructed his workers to pull handfuls of corn from their bundles and allow them to fall.
Boaz was a respected man: he was a landowner, employer of many, known enough that he could ask an audience of the elders of the city and have it immediately granted: like the scribes of Jesus’ day, he would have the place of honour at banquets, the respect of those in the market-place. But what he does with his position could not be more different.
It’s hard – probably even foolish – to draw specific lessons from Boaz, or the story of Ruth. But those of us who have more in common with Boaz than with the widow commended by Jesus for her gift might none the less learn something from him – something about the use of power, of privilege, of influence, of wealth; something about going beyond the basic requirements of the law.
Something about how justice, generosity and faith come together.