So, I got myself all knotted up as I was preparing for this sermon. Ask Chris and Ann. I sent them this rather long, wind-y email on Tuesday telling them what a hot mess my sermon prep had been so far. Here’s why: This story has traditionally been used to encourage people to give as sacrificially and generously as the poor widow. It was a story that might be brought out during the pledging time of year to subtly shame middle-class congregations into digging deeper. If the poor widow can give her all, can’t you up your pledge this year? (Yes, I’m aware we are in pledge season ourselves. I promise I didn’t choose this passage for that reason — it popped up in the lectionary for this Sunday!)
The story then got reinterpreted by mostly progressive Bible scholars who saw the story as an indictment of what is called the “temple domination system.” In this telling, the story is not about giving or stewardship, it’s about justice. The Temple was, as one progressive preacher put it, part of an “exploitative economic system which fostered and exacerbated the extreme economic inequality of first-century Palestine. The money collected into its treasury did not go to things like pastoral care or outreach. It funded a bureaucracy… which benefitted the few while sucking up the meager portions of the many.” In this telling, Jesus is lamenting the widow’s giving, not celebrating it. He’s lamenting a system that conditions the poorest of the poor to give to a system that is exploiting them. In fact, I think I’ve even preached a sermon on this passage where I interpreted it in this way.
But then, I found out that some Jewish scholars have called into question this whole idea of a “temple domination system.” They critique progressive Biblical scholars — many of whom I have relied on over the years for my sermon prep — as putting forth a theory about a corrupt temple that is “poorly supported by the New Testament evidence and likely to promote an anti-Jewish agenda.” (From Amy Jill-Levine’s book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus)
Oy vey. Are you getting a sense of the knottiness? The widow is a model of pure-hearted generosity. No, the widow is an exploited victim! No, you calling her an exploited victim is anti-Semitic! What is a person who just wants to be good supposed to do, think, believe?
So, as I was reflecting on this knottiness I was feeling during sermon prep, I realized that I’ve felt this knottiness many times before — in me and in you. We want to be good but it it’s so hard to be good. Specifically, many of us get knotted up because we are so aware of our privilege and also aware that we are not aware of our privilege and that we may be acting out of it without even knowing we are, and this gets us spinning — we want to be good but it seems like we don’t know how to be. We don’t want to do something to offend or cause harm, but we’re not sure how not to. We don’t want to be a toxic male, we don’t want to be transphobic, or able-ist or be a Christian hegemonist or a bad ally, but we’re afraid that we can’t help but be that. This is the space where virtue signaling comes from, I think — we have to signal to ourselves and others that we are good, virtuous people because we fear we are not. Interestingly, Jesus calls the scribes in our story from today on virtue signaling — saying long, pious prayers to show how good they are.
This awareness of our privilege makes us skeptical of ourselves and our motivations and can foster toxic shame and paralyzing guilt. Should I speak up or would that be taking up too much space? Should I step back or does that make me complicit in silence? I am exhausted and overwhelmed by how the suffering and injustice but isn’t that exhaustion and overwhelm just a sign of my white fragility? I feel like I need to take a break from thinking about it, I’m so overwhelmed with just living my life and dealing with what I’m dealing with, but isn’t that the ultimate in middle-class privilege, to take a break? What about all those people who can’t take any break from the oppression they’re facing? And isn’t Jesus telling us in the story of the widow to give everything, to have nothing left for ourselves? Is there anywhere in the Gospels that Jesus preaches self-care? I think not!
Two anti-oppression trainers that Joanna and I know speak to this knottiness. Nicola Torbett and Lynice Pinkard write: “The two of us have kicked off countless antiracism and anti-oppression trainings by asserting, not half in jest, that ‘diversity trainings ruin well-meaning white people.’ But it’s not the trainings, really. It’s the whole moralistic ethos that focuses on getting everything right and avoiding what is wrong: Never use this word. Always use that word. Say ‘BIPOC’ instead of ‘people of color.’ Never cry in a mixed group. Intervene in instances of oppression, but remember that you are not a savior. Speak up and stand up, but also step back and yield the mic. These injunctures,” they write, “yield stiff, stilted white people who may successfully ‘perform’ antiracism for limited periods of time but have little capacity for joy or genuine relationship across lines of difference.”
They blame a distorted Christianity, formed by Empire, colonization and individualism. In the U.S., they say, Christianity has “become a moral system that divides the world into right and wrong, good and evil. And the goal, always, is to be one of the good ones, which means avoiding everything bad, such as failure, mistakes, body, sweat, sex, the earth, illness, pain, depression… darkness…, grief, rhythm, cathartic joy… Being good — not love or justice or aliveness… — is the high ideal. Violence and aggression is the method, even if aggression is turned toward the self.”
They go on to say that this dualistic, right and wrong, controlling theology is not just found among the Christian right. Left-leaning activists, Christian or not, “have been forged within an ethic of purity that we sometimes call ‘salvation by right opinion.’ Unwilling to be tainted by the imperfect political analysis or divergent viewpoints of others, we confine ourselves to smaller and smaller echo chambers and throw away those who do not pass the righteousness test. More and more knowledge of causes… does not provide an escape from powerlessness… Despairing in the face of our… clearer understanding of structural sin, we… resort to a kind of asceticism, renouncing consumption, comfort, success… We welcome the pruning back of our joy through morality and rigidity.”
Does any of that sound familiar to any of you? Do you feel the knots? None of this sounds like, to quote Jesus in the gospel of John, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We may know the truth, but where is the freedom or joy or… love?
Right before our passage for today, the one in which Jesus really lights into the scribes, he is having a very different kind of interaction with another scribe. We used it as our call to worship. The scribe asks Jesus, “which commandment is the first — or greatest — of all?” This was a common question among Jews of that day and perhaps even today. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, and it’s understandable that you might want a distillation of them. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Jesus was not the only Jewish teacher to answer in this way.) The scribe affirms that answer — he says, yes love is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices — than all the things folks back then did to get close with God and each other. It all comes down to love — love of God, love of neighbor, love of oneself. Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not are from the realm of God.”
When we are trying so hard to be good, to not make mistakes, we are far from the realm of God. When we relentlessly scrutinize ourselves and our motivations with a harsh, judging gaze, we are far from the realm of God. When we despair because individualism teaches us that it’s all on us, and that our little isolated self is thus powerless in the face of all that is wrong, we are far from the realm of God.
When we know ourselves to be the beloved one, the one in whom God is well-pleased, the one who is made in God’s image, the one who can never be separated from God’s love, then we are not far from the realm of God. When we say, tenderly to ourselves, “You are trying so hard, dear one, to be good. I see how much you care. But, please, just relax. Relax back into your animal body, and surrender to love. Relax back into that love, as if an embrace, as if the arms of love are around you.” I invite you to do that right now. To imagine yourselves relaxing back into the arms of love, whether that is the arms of love, or of your Mom or your grandparents or a partner or friend or tree. Take a moment to feel that.
And from that place, then you can look at injustice and privilege and suffering — your own, as well as others, as well as the earth’s — and not because you need to be right and good but because you love as you have been loved. You love yourself, you have allowed yourself to be loved, and you love others and you love you this beautiful but broken world. And you know that you have a part to play in its repair and healing. And you know that you will mess up, and you will not get it right, you know that you are not perfect and you can not be. You are just cute, lovable, limited, effed up you. Beautiful and broken, like everyone else. Deserving of love and care and beauty and joy, like everyone else. Powerful enough, when you join with others, to begin making that world of love and care and beauty and joy more real, more here, more now. When you can know this, then you are not far from the realm of God.
So, I was thinking about how to end this sermon, and in one of those lovely instances of serendipity, Tobi emailed me right as I was contemplating this. She had just gotten a newsletter from Mercy Center in her inbox, and she said, “I thought you mind find this interesting and even be able to use it… at some point.” It was Neil Doulas- Klotz’ translation of one part of the Lord’s prayer, the part usually translated as “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Going back to the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Douglas-Klotz translates this sentence as: “Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to others.”
Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our relationship to our self, so that we can stop inflicting violence on ourselves. Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our simple ties to others, so that we are capable of relationship across difference. Untangle the knots within so that we may be rooted and grounded in love and so that our actions and our attitudes flow from there. May the Spirit untangle us and set us free. Amen.