A woman says, “I was coming back from a quick trip to Miami and I stopped at a rest stop to use the bathroom. I just sat down on the toilet when I heard a voice coming from the stall next to mine, “Hey! How’s it going?” Although I was quite surprised, and I wasn’t in the habit of conversing to the people next to me in the stall, I nevertheless answered, “I’m fine” I said “thanks for asking.”
“What are you doing?” Asked the same voice. To be honest I was a bit taken aback by her brazenness, but I would never ignore anyone so I calmly answered, “I’m relieving myself.” Then I heard the same voice say, “I’m going to have to call you back. I can’t hear you. Some smart-aleck is answering all of my questions.”
I also have to check if someone is a little nuts or if when they’re talking to themselves they actually have a hands free device in their ears. The times they are a’changin’. Or are they?
I want to show you a video. It’s made by the Christian band Jars of Clay, who are singing, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Obviously they’re questioning whether or not this is true, since, well, I think you’ll understand their point. According to the Credit Suisse global wealth report, at the start of 2015, the richest 10% of people hold 87% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 48% of global assets.” In sharp contrast, the bottom 50% of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth.
But if you’re not into seeing economic issues in such moral terms, then perhaps the report’s warning that growing inequality could be a trigger for recession may strike a chord.
Now if you need help in figuring whether we are talking about you, listen to this: a person needs just $3,650 – including the value of equity in their home – to be among the wealthiest half of world citizens. To be a top 10% of global wealth holders more than $77,000 is required. To belong to the top 1%, you need $798,000.
I’m not done yet. I’ve got to also say while we’re talking about this: Women and children represent a disproportionately large fraction of the bottom billion, which is the world’s population living on less than $1.25 per day
Now I know we like to think, true but we are trying to help by giving aid. The truth is for every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent in debt repayment. So in 2006 for the latest example I could find, $106 billion was the assistance level given but $2.7 billion dollars was owed in repayment.
If you’re an environmentally conscious person, I will give you this statistic: Calculations show that the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes—yet the average person on Earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. These “ecological footprints” range from the 9.7 hectares claimed by the average American to the 0.47 hectares used by the average Mozambican.
I’m sure you’re overloaded with ideas and statistics. I will save the last one for the end.
Let’s get into our scripture passage. Today’s Gospel from Mark reading is a bit more complicated than most people might think and different from the way it has been bent by the vast, vast majority of scholars, preachers, churches, and Christians.
The traditional interpretation of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this was not what Jesus is really getting at in this passage. In fact, to shape the story this way is to bend it far away from Jesus’ point.
This Gospel passage is in reality not about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous. He is not being complimentary in fact when he ends with: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Jesus is being a prophet here, defending someone who is on the bottom of the social, political and economic order, a now basically penniless widow who feels compelled to give two of her very few pennies to the Temple. He is not defending the established religious order in his day at all. He is protesting against it.
Why do I say this? Just reread the last lines from the preceding story. Mark puts it there for a reason. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of
widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
And here’s a widow whose home and life are being devoured right before our eyes.
When you free yourself from seeing this incorrectly as a great religious act of a poor person’s faith, you then can free yourself to see it as Jesus saw it. Because he knew exactly what it was: a payment expected and exacted from her by the economic, religious, political and social heart and system of her society.
It’s the way things were economically, politically, religiously, and socially, when those four elements were intertwined together and could not be separated. The religious leaders were the financial leaders, the political leaders were the social leaders and all stuck together to create a system that kept feeding the power and status of the Temple and its leaders. This was the way it was.
In each and all ages, the poor are seen as collateral damage to the way things are. In each and all ages, those who are poor are seen as unfortunate by-products of the economic, political, and social order. It’s unfortunate but unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about it, say those who reap the great majority of benefit from how things are.
Isn’t this how we think? Isn’t this how we always think? The times are a’changing, but not that much.
Well then if we are going to be so very rational and pragmatic about poverty and about the outcome of lives lived in soul-searing poverty then perhaps to be fair we could be rational and pragmatic about it through and through, at least for right now.
I mean if we were to be so ruthlessly pragmatic and not really very moral or Christian, in the sense that we are called to see each and all persons as equally valued in God’s eyes, but if we were to remain on this tack of pragmatism in the face of the world’s poor, then at some point we ought to be able to say rationally and pragmatically that we’re reached a limit; that things have gone too far; that this isn’t the best things can be. I mean at least mathematically we should be able to say, “Whoa, things have gotten out of whack.”
How much poverty is acceptable to you? How many impoverished humans across our planet is to be “expected?” For how long should people,
families, communities, and countries be breath-takingly poor—especially compared to others—and still we consider this the “best things can be?”
We have certainly gotten to that point by now, haven’t we?
There is one statistic, one mind-numbing impossibility that has actually become sickeningly reality in our day that may tell us how far we have gone. At the start of 2015 the 85 richest people in the world were as wealthy as the poorest half of the world. In other words, these 85 people have a combined wealth equal to the poorest 3.5 billion people.
How can that be? How can 85 people own and possess as much as 3,500,000,000 people?
It is impossible to say 3.5 billion human beings are simply, merely, collateral damage to the way things are. It is impossible to say this is the best things can be. I’m not sure anything else really needs to or ought to be said after that other than …
Can the church say Amen?