Personal sacrifice is not something we often typically elect to reflect upon. Most likely, the subject of sacrifice is generally something we avoid. Perhaps this is because we don’t normally like to let go of what we have. Yet sacrifice—the kind that God asks of us—is, in fact, a letting go or surrendering of something we possess that has a certain value to us. It is sometimes even a relinquishing of what we cherish greatly.
As far a topic for teaching us the ways of God goes, it’s important enough that all three of our readings today reflect on the topic of sacrificial giving. We have the story of two widows who were actually separated from one another by several hundred years, but having something essential in common with one another: namely, their almost complete lack of any material goods. Both widows lived in a state of poverty so destitute that it would be as unimaginable to us as our wealth would be to them. It might shed light for us to think of the ramifications of widowhood in the ancient world. We might typically think of the women in the widow narratives as elderly women, but clearly, at least in the Kings reading, this wasn’t the case. The woman’s husband had evidently died and left her alone with a child. The bitterness of her situation in life is clear in her telling the prophet that she will go and die with her child.
Sandwiched in between the two widow narratives we find a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews, our second reading, of the offering or self-sacrifice of Christ to bring about salvation for many. It is theologically rich as a source for Christian soteriology—our view on salvation. The pericope is intended to remind us of the sacrifice above all other sacrifices, but also, when it’s analyzed, we can see that the sacrificial giving described by the Hebrews author has something in common with the sacrifice of the two widows. It is a total self-sacrifice, and as such it is not an experience that any of us can easily step into, or for that matter neither is it one which we would even remotely desire to experience because of the degree of self-emptying or self-giving. Yet sacrifice is exactly what God desires from us because it is the sign—the proof, if you will—of our being in relation with the God whom we are to love above all things. Sacrifice is the sign of our having been transformed by making contact with God. Scripture reminds us that the sacrifice God desires more than anything from us is a deep inner change, a contrite heart and broken spirit, but again I don’t think this is something easily imagined. It comes with a huge price.
I recently read in James Tabor’s Restoring Abrahamic Faith that the three great themes of the Hebrew bible are steadfast love (akin to mercy or grace), justice, and righteousness, and that all else is mere commentary on these. In my analysis the attainment of these is only possible through the sacrificial giving of oneself. The two widows we heard about in today’s liturgy offer themselves in that manner, and thus they reveal love, justice, and righteousness, but moreover they reveal the response that evidences the authenticity of those themes. However, what they gave was only that which they had given to them in the first place. They had no great wealth, no fortunes, no material treasure, yet relatively they gave everything they had, and they did it because they were in relation with God. They understood that a god with whom one cannot or does not relate in a real way is no god at all but a mere idol. Love is the total gift of everything that one has. To be in relation we must love.
It may be baffling to most of us that these poor ones, widows, one of which had been left alone in a severe famine to starve with her baby, gave so much. They gave all they had though all it amounted to was a piece of bread in one case, and just a few pennies in the other. The rich onlookers may have scoffed at the sacrifice of the widow in Mark’s gospel, but relatively it amounted to much more than many gifts of abundance from the wealthy.
In the widow narratives we can see justice at work, and it serves to remind us that our sacrifice must include justice to be acceptable to God. It is clear that justice is something we do and not just a concept to which we assent. Justice, in the case of the widows, shows us that fairness and equality are not the same thing. Relatively they gave very little—we might say almost nothing—but yet they gave more than anyone else. To be in relation we must practice justice in our world today, and if anything the widow narratives make it clear that economic justice is of utmost importance. The authentic church, rather than being about wealth and power, is all about humility and service. Justice, in authentic Christianity, is about a preference for the poor and marginal of the world. It is about our letting go of the things and ideals to which we cling in order to be on the side of those who actually need love and mercy, those whose lives demand justice. It isn’t enough to be merely aware of hunger and poverty. To be in relation we must do justice; we must live it.
Returning to the New Testament letter to the Hebrews we are reminded that the sacrifice of Christ was to take away sin. Sin is that which prevents the actualization of righteousness. It comes from our inability to give of ourselves. We may want to look righteous—to have the appearance of godliness—but actually to be righteous will take much more than having the right looks. Righteousness, as the gospel reminds us, has nothing to do with fancy vestments and long robes. Nor does it have to do with dressing a certain way on Sunday or having the right posture during prayer. It has nothing to do with seats and titles of honor. Rather, it has everything to do with the giving of ourselves.
God places us into being and holds us there. Whatever we have, consider it to be great or small, it is the gift of God. God self-reveals to us continually. From the unfathomable depths of God’s being we receive. God gives to us from an inexhaustible source, and we are asked only to return the gift of what we have received. Righteousness is imitating the action of God. It is giving back the holy gifts that have been given to us. Righteousness entails love and justice, which means following the holy teachings that came directly from the mouth of God: teachings that command us to do, to give, to sacrifice. To be in relation we must be righteous.
In giving ourselves sacrificially as a way of life we begin to know God. It’s a step all who desire to walk with God authentically must take. With that said it may be stating the obvious to say that sacrifice is not a common spirituality these days. Rather it takes us back to a much earlier time, and it invites us into a relation of intimacy with the God of antiquity. As we encounter God we enter into a relation of reciprocity, and we come to know God as friends are known by one another. Though frankly the process of getting there may seem much like a wrestling match on a cosmic scale. Still, in the encounter, having put aside fears, we let go and come to be in relation with God as the one who was, and is, and will be—from the beginning to the end—the one who gives to us and to whom we must give back in return.