The Cross and Justice

I recently read a book titled Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. The book is deeply personal as Volf makes clear in his preface. He does a brilliant job of articulating a unique tension that exists for the Christian community: the passionate pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the embrace of the oppressor in the cross. This was a tension he dealt with on a very personal level. Here is the first two paragraphs of the book.

After I finished my lecture Professor Jiirgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: “But can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik-the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot-but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Moltmann’ s objection.

It was a difficult book to write. My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators? I felt caught between two betrayals-the betrayal of the suffering, exploited, and excluded, and the betrayal of the very core of my faith. In a sense even more disturbingly, I felt that my very faith was at odds with itself, divided between the God who delivers the needy and the God who abandons the Crucified, between the demand to bring about justice for the victims and the call to embrace the perpetrator. I knew, of course, of easy ways to resolve this powerful tension. But I also knew that they were easy precisely because they were false.

The book wrestles with this tension throughout. I appreciate his honesty with the challenge of this paradox. Any thoughts on what he is touching on here?

Widow’s Mite or Widow’s Plight?

I always thought the story of the Widow’s Mite was a story of exemplary generosity, until recently. I think a closer look at the context and the passage itself will yield a different perspective.

This famous story is sandwiched in between two interesting units of Scripture. In the context preceding the story, Jesus is warning all who are listening to him to beware of the Scribes. He states that they love to walk around in their nice robes, receive compliments in the market place, take the seats of honor at banquets, and make long impressive prayers (Lk 20:45-46). In this litany of indictments, Jesus also says that these Scribes “devour widow’s houses” (Lk 20:47). Due to their religiously cloaked pride they will receive “greater condemnation” (Lk 20:47).

The story that follows on the heels of the Widow’s Mite is equally intriguing. It is the narrative where Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. In the story, some are admiring the beauty and handiwork of the temple. Jesus interrupts them and states that a time will come when “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Lk 21:5-6). Jesus then proceeds to tell the hearers of the signs that will come before this event.

So what is the significance of the context in which we find the Widow’s Mite story? What do we do with these two sandwiching narratives? How do they help us understand what is going on in our text?

I think the context helps us understand the widow’s mite as further indictment on the religious leaders of the day and their religious system. This is an example of a widow’s house being devoured. Instead of providing for and helping the widow as they ought they are draining her of all her resources.

Addison Wright states, “In both Gospels, Jesus condemns those scribes who devour the houses of widows, and then follows immediately the story of a widow whose house has beyond doubt just been devoured. What other words would be more appropriate to describe it?”[1]

Andre Resner wrote a helpful article titled, The Widows’s Mite or Widow’s Plight. He makes this assertion.  “Jesus was there to take down the Temple and its corruption, a corruption that stooped so low that it would take advantage of widows in their poverty. With the widow’s mite story falling right between the judgment of the scribes for ‘devouring widows’ houses’ and the indictment of a corrupt Temple cult, one would have to posit that the story of a widow giving everything she had to live on to such people and to such a corrupt institution might be a lament rather than a praise.”[2]

The narrative seems to hint that the widow’s gift was praiseworthy. If so, she is demonstrating sacrificial giving in spite of abusive religious leaders and amidst a broken religious system. As one man said, the widow’s gift was a “beautiful act in the desert of official devotion.” Whether this is the case or not, I am not sure. I am sure that the emphasis of the story is not on the example of the widow, but on the exploitation of the widow.

This widow was being abused in the name of religion. The scribes should have been encouraging her to keep her money so she could buy some dinner. Instead, they were glad to rob her of her last two dollars! Certainly God can and did provide for this widow, but the way he normally provides for us is through others. These religious leaders were exploiting the very individuals they were called to serve.

I fear that this text is as much a victim as its main character. I wonder how many times this text has been used to illicit the very thing it is condemning. The text is a model of what not to do to the weak! The Bible is consistent in its message. We are to care for the orphan, the widow, and the poor. It is offensive to God to exploit these individuals.

If you ever teach or preach this text and desire to be faithful in its application, then tell the poor widows of your congregation to keep their checkbooks in their purse. Tell the rest of the congregation to give sacrificially and make it clear that you will be giving all this money to the widows. Don’t miss the main point. Care for your widows, don’t use them.

[1] Addison G. Wright. The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44 No. 2 (April, 1982), 256-265.

[2] Andre Resner. Widow’s Mite or Widow’s Plight: On Exegetical Abuse, Textual Harrassment and Learning Prophetic Exegesis. Review and Expositor, 107 (Fall, 2010), 545-553.