The Temples of Doom
A sermon on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17,Ps 127, Hebrew 9:24-28, Mark 12;28-34 by Jill Friebel 12 Nov 2006

Jesus publicly named and condemned culturally acceptable practices that were not of God and opened up a new way. He became the last high priest showing us the only way to God and life.


Last week Nathan asked me to look at the readings coming up over the next month and let him know when I would like to preach again. There was a time when I would have put it off as long as I could, but this time I couldn't get past the readings for this week. Women feature in two of them and I was drawn in to read more. The more I read the more I was drawn in. I get far more out of my preparation than you will ever get from the sermon - it becomes a journey of prayer and dialogue with God. These stories have so many facets to them, like diamonds, and it depends on which angle I approach them as to what amazing colours will dance and surprise me and radiate beauty and goodness.

The women in the Old and New Testament stories tonight were all widows. Widows were particularly vulnerable and poor; they could not own property in their own right. They were vulnerable in patriarchal cultures where males held the power and control and owned everything including their women. On Wednesday as I was pondering on this I felt my own frustration and anger rising at the unfairness of this - patriarchy at it's worst, has resulted in half of humanity potentially becoming second-class citizens. Why did God set us up for such misery? Now I know I hardly qualify for this category. I am among the privileged few who have won equal rights in most areas, but much of this ground has been won in my lifetime, and only in certain countries. Millions of women still suffer under dominating and controlling patriarchal societies. And the control can exist in more subtle ways and can still be just as dangerous for some women who do have choices but just don't know it, even in our own "liberated culture" .

I was raised in a conservative evangelical theological stance of the day and accepted the scriptures the way they were taught to me without question. This meant my role was one of submission to male authority (not always without a fight) both in the home and church. This was first and foremost my fundamental response to God's will for me and determined my understanding of God. Had someone suggested to me in my 20s or 30s or even early 40's that I would one day become ordained I would have been defensively indignant of such an absurd notion. I had the Bible to prove my position and patriarchy was on page after page after page. And Paul supported it so I thought.

So have David and I lost it completely as some friends and family would agree but sadly not face to face, or are we on a journey that is inspired and fanned by the likes of the legacy of love and commitment, strength, grace and courage that these three beautiful widows have left us.

In Mark's reading Jesus took a position facing the twelve large public treasury boxes with their horn shaped receptacles - a shape that emphasised the sound of the coins as they rolled their way down into the coffers chests and where the donor had to declare the amount. It was a very public affair and loaded with class distinctions and innuendos and assumptions. Mark is clearly suggesting that Jesus is sitting in judgement and scrutinizing the affairs of the temple treasury. Jesus calls his disciples over and tells them, "Many rich persons put in from their abundance: one poor widow put in two little coins. They all gave from their affluence…she in her destitution gave everything she had- her whole life." Jesus is both angry that the temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood and touched deeply by her woundedness and generous vulnerability. He condemns the value system that motivates her action and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.

This comes at the end of a series of confrontations and debates between Jesus and the three powerful patriarchal groups that controlled the temple culture and therefore the people - namely the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Furthermore the debates all took place within the hallowed grounds and majestic precincts of the temple itself. Just before the widows offering, Jesus had publicly warned all those listening including the Scribes to "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the market places etc... They devour widow's houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive greater condemnation." The background to this was that culturally women could not be entrusted to manage their deceased husbands'affairs so the scribes became the trustees of the estates of widows. They earned this legal right to administrate the estates because of their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; but the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse.

One is left reeling with the tension that must have driven the Scribes into a rage for revenge. Jesus and the widow had much in common. They were both prepared to give their all. Jesus held nothing back in his attempt to expose patriarchy and religious power as nothing more than a pitiful quest of empty, self-righteous fearful men. Their greatest fears were to be vulnerable and to love like God. They were so disconnected from their own inner selves and had invested everything in their quest for privilege and power. Jesus distanced himself together with his Father as far from them as he could, to proclaim that God is not like this. The temple had to go. At this point Jesus exits the temple for the final time, as in disgust.

Now our Psalm tonight was written about 1000 years before Jesus and began with the words "Unless you've commissioned the building project, LORD,
........attempting construction would be futile."
This Psalm is titled "A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon" "Ascents" may indicate that this psalm was sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. Solomon is very much part of the wisdom tradition and was the builder of the Temple. It can read like this "Unless the Lord builds the temple, those who build it labour in vain." Referring to the temple built by Solomon nearly a thousand years before and had since been destroyed. Now the one Jesus exited from was the rebuilt grand opulent version by Herod from oppressive taxes from the people. The first temple had failed dismally and so had the second. Jesus declares as he walks out, that this one too would soon be in ruins. In AD 70 forty years later after his death it was razed to the ground and all that remains of it to this day is the Wailing Wall. The Temple "builders" had lost their way and had laboured in vain. Their lives would match the temple ruins strewn and plundered.

The other widows from the Old Testament story are Ruth and Naomi. This is an exquisite short story that instructs and delights. These two women were left destitute and isolated by the deaths of their husbands. The turning point in their fortunes occurs when Ruth the Moabite takes advantage of an Israelite legal tradition that allowed foreigners, widows, and the poor to gather grain during the harvest. Ruth fitted into all three categories. This story honours and expresses God's real values given to the Israelites of loyalty, love of family, and generosity toward strangers. It stands in stark contrast to a lot of other writings either side of it that are dark and depressing. The ones that lurk in the unconsciousness minds of many raised not on Ruth, but the violent and confronting stories found in abundance which are mostly misunderstood by the masses.

In their great loss and destitute state Ruth and Naomi loved and supported one another and their love opened their hearts to each other and God. They were able to move boldly and act with courage to defend themselves and seek the support of God. They claimed what was rightfully theirs, regardless of the potential risks of stepping on the toes of the more powerful intimidating voices from both within and without. Boaz is like God. When Boaz wakes and finds Ruth in his bed he resists the temptation to take advantage of her. Instead he throws his cloak over her in response to her request, as a sign of protection and commitment and love. He tells her he will do all she asks of him and ends up doing much more than both of them could ever have imagined.

"Christ didn't mess around with replicas and enactments. He was for real. He went into the real Holy Place - not our home made model, but heaven itself - and there he is now, in the presence of God, appearing on our behalf. It is not that Jesus has to offer himself to God over and over again. The old high priest had to go into the Holy Place in the temple again every year to offer a sacrifice of blood - not his own, but that of an animal. If Jesus had been required to follow the same system, he would have needed to come back and suffer on earth over and over again, from the day of creation to the end of time. It is not like that though. Jesus waited until time was almost up and then appeared once and for all. He came to remove sin, permanently, and he made the ultimate sacrifice to see the job through. Everyone has to die once - that's just part of being human - and after that we face the music. Christ died once too - he absorbed into himself all the guilt and grief of the whole dysfunctional human race and sacrificed his own life to save them from it. Having done that once, he will appear again, but not to do the same thing all over again. This time he will appear for the grand finale - the great liberation of all those who have been eagerly anticipating his promised arrival." (Hebrews 9: 24-28 ©2000 Nathan Nettleton

Earlier this week I failed miserably and felt deep despair and regret. I had to live with the pain of it not being able to defend myself and wondering how I could be so stupid. The sermon became my own journey again, Jesus didn't condemn me but neither did he pass it off as inconsequential. He held me while I learnt more and grieved deeply. And it's still with me and will be for a long time - I don't want to forget what I learned. There is forgiveness for everything including patriarchy, stupidity, fear of not trusting the true voice of God that calls us into radical vulnerable love like the three widows. God set us up for potential life and goodness but we got lost. Soon we will feast and celebrate together with the glorious One who shows us what God is really like - His name is Jesus. Feed on him tonight and receive all he has to offer us right now.