As you may know, I am currently interviewing for a positions in New York City. The most intense interview process so far involved three talks with members of the call committee of a certain congregation.
Now what struck me that, during each of these conversations, I was asked, ‘Do you believe politics belong in the pulpit?’
That’s a loaded question, of course. I had never been asked this question before in previous interviews with church call committees. But it seems that, over the course of the last few years, many an issue has become politicized. Just take the whole issue about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and mask wearing.
The political divide among people has gotten wider and wider. And of course this is also reflected in church congregations. So it doesn’t surprise me that I was asked this question, ‘Do politics belong in the pulpit?’ And not only one, but three times . It really tells me something about the state of the people in this country and the state of our church.
Well, my answer to this question was and is: I am trying to keep outright politics out of my sermons. However, interpreting Scripture in the light of current events, interpreting current events in the light of Scripture – and especially the words and deeds of the prophets and Jesus Christ – inevitably will be interpreted as being ‘political’. Simply because God’s vision more often than is so radically different from what we experience – and value – in this world. And because Jesus’ words and deeds sometimes seem to align more with one party platform than with the other.
Jesus wasn’t neutral in his teachings and dealings with people. He wasn’t just affirming people in their ways. He didn’t run for office, he didn’t get enmeshed in worldly power plays – he wasn’t political in that sense – but he embodied the kingdom of heaven come near in word and deed, demonstrating what a world in which people love each other, forgive each other, and serve each other would look like – while at the same time pointing out where people miss the mark as they turn from God and their neighbor. Jesus was taking sides – and for the most part, he took the side of the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the weak.
Today’s gospel story is a prime example for that. Now many preachers, myself included, like to focus on the story of the widow’s mite – how admirable it is that this poor woman offers all she has to God, and how her radical sacrifice is an example we all should follow.
But we can’t read the story of the widow’s mite out of context. And the context is very clear: Jesus has just condemned some scribes who like to put their privileged status and power on display – and ‘devour widows’ houses’, as Jesus says without mincing words. It’s very likely that the widow we hear about in today’s gospel is poor for a reason – because someone ‘devoured’ her house.
But let give you a little background here: most women in Jewish society lost their status and protection when her husband died, especially if they didn’t have other family that could take them in. And, for those of you who attended the class on women of the Reformation, this probably sounds very familiar to you – Katie Luther herself, even though she managed the family’s affairs all her life and Martin Luther declared her his sole heir, was left with almost nothing after Martin died, and an executor was assigned to take care of the estate that Katie had expanded over many years.
For that matter, for much of history most women were not permitted to inherit their late husband’s estate or possessions. And that was also the case in Jesus’ days. If a widow had an adult son, she was lucky – he would be the heir and be obligated to take care of his mother.
But if a woman had young children, no children, or no sons, her late husband’s inheritance would be transferred to an executor – and often, those were scribes, who often also functioned as accountants. Theoretically, an executor was obligated to make sure that a widow and her young children were taken care of and manage the inheritance in her best interest. But that didn’t always happen. There have always been crooks arounds. And even if such an executor charged a reasonable fee for his services, the house of a poor widow would be devoured quickly; she and her children, if she had any, would be facing eviction and a life of abject poverty.
Jesus is taking a stand, he condemns the injustice that is happening as some scribes take advantage of a widow’s situation and rather seek their own gain than following God’s command of mercy and charity toward the widow and the orphan, as we find it in the laws Moses passed on to the people of Israel. And one could say this is a political issue. Because it affects how society functions. Because if affects how we live together as children of God, whose vision for all creation is very equalitarian – the last will be first and the first will be last, whatever is high will be low, and whatever is low shall be lifted up, etc.
Living into this vision of God means to not look away when injustice happens. Living into this vision means to take sides with the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the weak; it means to take a stand. It’s not a matter of left or right, being conservative or being liberal – it is a matter of mercy and compassion.
But back to the widow in today’s gospel story and her mite, her two cents. We hear that she entrusts the little she has, which is everything to her, to God. This mite probably is not enough to get her and her children, if she has any, through the day. Maybe she is just desperate as she puts the money into the temple’s offering. Maybe she is ‘sticking it’ to the temple authorities – along the lines of Jesus’ words, ‘if one urges you to walk a mile with them, walk two, and if they take your coat, give them your undergarment as well’ – and shame the merciless taker by doing so.
Maybe she has the foresight to see that, even though this money is not enough for her, together with all the other offerings, it will be enough for someone else. And we don’t know what happens to this widow. Things looks pretty dismal for her. All she has is now gone. Will God help her?
Well, maybe not immediately. But Jesus is using this situation as a teaching moment for the disciples who are with him. He is showing them: this is not right. This is not just. This is not how God wants us to live together.
Now this incident in the temple happens 2 or 3 days before the Passover – and Jesus’ arrest by the temple authorities, which, as we know, will lead to Jesus’ death on the cross. Talk about someone giving his all to God and for the good of all!
About 55 days later – after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and after the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit – Jesus’ followers will remember. They will remember what Jesus taught them in word and deed. And in the Acts of the Apostles, which talks about those early years of the young Christian community, we hear how people in this community take care of each other – and that widows and orphans in their midst are taken care of. The young Christian community does its best to live into the great vision of God, a vision of a world in which hunger and need will be no more and injustice will be abolished.
When Martin Luther started the Reformation 504 years ago, he hoped to bring the powerful institutionalized and, yes, corrupted church back to those days of early Christendom. He advocated for community chests, for free education for all, for the care of the sick, the poor, and the marginalized – he wanted to fight against poverty and a system that keeps the poor poor, because he saw poverty as an evil that we as Christians cannot and should not tolerate. The good social net people in most of Europe enjoy, and especially those areas where the Reformation was adopted, is a result of those efforts to return to the life of the first followers of Christ.
Do politics belong in the pulpit? I leave it up to you to answer this question. But from what we hear in many parts of our Holy Scriptures, from the prophets of the Old Testament to Jesus Christ and the writings of his followers, we can easily discern what does belong in the pulpit: justice. Peace. Reconciliation. Compassion. Mercy. Care for the neighbor. All these are part of the good news for all as we see it displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as followers of Christ today, we are called to proclaim this good news in word and deed to all – and maybe risk to be called ‘political’. That’s just who we are as children of God and followers of Christ. Amen
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