GOODNESS IN ACTION
SCRIPTURE: RUTH 3:1-5; 4:13-17: MARK 12:38-44
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
Not too long ago there was a program on PBS about a hospital in Africa. The patients, all women, were singing a beautiful African song. At the end of the song the TV announcer said this song had been sung by the women patients in the specialized hospital in the Congo. It’s the song the women sing when a visitor comes to their open ward. They sing repeating over and over, “If we can’t receive this visitor, whom can we receive.” Then the announcer stated the hospital specialized in treatment for abused and mutilated women.
Think about that for a moment. Here are persons who have been abused and mutilated, singing to strangers a humble, welcoming song. That truly is goodness in action, those in the hospital being hospitable to those who come to visit.
Have you ever noticed that when there is a forest fire, the TV interviews of those who have lost loved ones or property? It seems that one quality comes to the surface time after time, their humility. Of course they share their sorrow about what they have lost: their loved ones, pets, property, and memories. But invariably they will say, “But there are others who have lost more than we.” There is a true sense of humility in these people.
The story from the Book of Ruth says much about our human condition. Naomi is an elderly woman and a widow. She gives freedom to her two daughters-in-law, who are from a foreign country. But one of them, Ruth, chooses not to be free, but commits herself to her mother-in-law.
In today’s passage Naomi, who is still quite vulnerable, turns to her daughter-in-law and says, “I need to seek security for you.” The most vulnerable is looking out for one she loves. Naomi is goodness in action.
The path to security that is chosen is humility. Ruth humbly presents herself to Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi, and an extremely powerful, important person. Ruth humbly places herself at the will of Boaz. He can do anything he pleases. He could have her stoned to death. He could use her and lose her. But he chooses to respond to her humility with hospitality. He receives her, and relationship develops between them; he marries her, and a baby comes from their union. The baby’s name is Obed.
The story concludes with a great statement, not to Boaz or Ruth, but back to Naomi: “You have a future. You have a promise, a redeemer.” Naomi could not inherit her husband’s property. Ruth could not inherit it. Even Boaz could not inherit Elimelech’s property. Only when a male child was born into the lineage could the property move on to a new generation in the family.
The good news is this family will keep the land that has been theirs through the generations. Through the birth of this child we see goodness in action. But it’s not just concerning property. There is also promise here. The writer of Ruth makes it clear: This family will be a part of the household of David, and the lineage of Jesus. There is a future in more ways than one. That truly is goodness in action.
In today’s passage from chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel there is an interesting interchange between Jesus and the crowd. Jesus is less than complimentary about the scribes. He is critical of them, and justifiably so. The scribe were religious lawyers.
In the Jewish culture there were no other kind, because the only law was religious law. (I suppose there may have been some lawyers from Rome, but their concern was Roman law.) The scribes are there to make sure the community follows the Jewish religious law. This responsibility included protecting the poor and powerless, especially being guardians of widows and orphans.
Yet here Jesus characterizes these scribes as financially exploiting vulnerable widows, taking advantage of them and living off of them. It was part of the whole temple culture. Whenever gifts were made to the temple, the scribes would benefit. Although they weren’t in need, they habitually accepted the hospitality of widows under the pretense of piety. Thus they added to their taste for wealth and power. The very ones charged with protecting widows were preying upon them. That’s why Jesus was upset.
Back in chapter seven, Jesus charges the scribes with encouraging people to set aside money to support the temple (among those benefiting would be the scribes themselves), and in so doing they could exempt themselves from caring for their parents. Jesus is furious, saying they had instituted a human rule that ran directly contrary to the law of God: “Honor your father and mother.” Jesus has great concern about the way the scribes are functioning.
Immediately following Jesus’ condemnation of the prideful scribes in our passage, is the description of a widow. This most vulnerable one is a sign of goodness in action. She goes to the temple and offers everything she has. The contrast to the scribes is remarkable. William O’Brien, in his book Wrestling with the Word, says this sequence of stories may be an attack against the temple culture, the way the Jewish faith was being offered to the people.
There is the corruption of the scribes, the innocence and pure generosity of the widow, and the destruction of the temple is foretold. Those three stories follow one upon the other. Such may be part of a cause and effect message: corruption, innocence, destruction. It would be an appropriate understanding of history according to Jesus’ ethic. Perhaps William O’Brien is right, and it is a strong political statement from Jesus, or perhaps from Mark.
Yet something else is taking place here too. The story of this vulnerable, generous widow is laced right before the apocalypse and the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. It is given a high position in the gospel. It is the next-to-the-most important thing. It is a sign of what is to come. The widow gives all…Jesus will give all. The widow’s extreme generosity, her extreme goodness in action, points to another goodness in action that will be even greater than hers.
Isn’t that our prayer, that our actions do good, that our actions help others, and beyond that our actions will generate other actions that will do good and help others. Isn’t it our wish every time we help someone else, that others will be inspired to help as well. Such was John Wesley’s understanding of the abundance of God’s grace and the
human journey he called “going on to perfection.” When we act and share goodness in action, it will create a desire and capacity in others to act in goodness and share through their actions. That is what’s taking place here.
Jesus reminds us of this woman to help us see his action more fully. She is a precursor, a foreshadower, of what he will do for all humankind.
We are called to do good. We are called to share goodness in action. But sometimes it’s difficult. We may think we should be working from one direction, but suddenly it seems we’ve been shifted in another direction by something larger than ourselves.
Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible, The Message, paraphrases I Corinthians 13. It read in part:
We don’t see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, or peering
Through a mist (or we might add peering through smoke). But it
Won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!
We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him
directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness,
we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust,
steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best
of these is love.
To love extravagantly is to show goodness in action. Remember Naomi’s other daughter-in-law? Her name was Orpah. She took up Naomi’s offer of freedom and went off on her own, seeking her own way. It was not a bad decision. But she disappears out of our sight. We don’t know what happened to her.
We do know about Naomi and Ruth. They loved extravagantly. And they became a part of the linage of Christ. So also, in her own way, did the nameless widow in the temple. She loved extravagantly, and she has the second highest position in Mark’s gospel.
The call to us is to love extravagantly, to share goodness in action. Thanks be to God.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH