My options are limited. That was what the lady at the wig shop said to me after she measured my head before I lost my hair to chemo. My head is too big. My options are limited. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My options are never limited. I may not always understand my options, or take advantage of my options, but I will always have options even if I don’t know what they are yet.
I am a Myers-Briggs P. That’s usually the result for ADD people. P’s in a J world. J’s–judging, ordered, organized, prioritized. We’re the possibilities thinkers. J’s get impatient with us because we can always think of one more option, one more way to look at things. We can overwhelm the brainstorming session, and fall apart in the details. That’s what J’s do best. It’s not easy being P. I need J’s on my team. The J’s don’t always get why they need me on theirs. I’m always happy to help them with the options. Without J’s in my world…let’s just say my options eventually become limited.
I know how annoying I can be. I’m the Queen of But. I can always take exception, offer other ideas, create new ideas by putting the old ones together. At my darkest times, I can bring skeptic doubt into any conversation with a “But.” When I am doubtful and uncertain, insecure in myself, I abound with Buts. It’s how my worry and anxiety finds expression.
Scarcity doesn’t scare me. I’m the Queen of Buts, and I am outrageously delighted when I find a way to turn the disadvantages in a situation into new possibilities. Sometimes it’s good to be Queen.
Even the Queen of But can have a broken heart. The readings of this past week’s lectionary break my heart. A widow is gathering sticks to make a small fire upon which she can cook a small cake with the last of her flour and oil before she watches her (probably already severely malnourished) young son die and wait for her own death to come. They are not hungry because they won’t work. They are not hungry because they failed to plan. There are no other options. There is a drought. No one has food. There are simply no options left. That’s where the story would have ended, BUT Elijah, God’s Man, comes into the picture. He asks her to give up her very last option–cooking that little meagre cake for her son, and give it to him. It is unspeakably cruel. Sure, the reader knows that the possibilities for God’s Man Elijah are greater than this poor woman can know. She is, after all, not of the clans of Israel. She is a stranger and outsider to the story. And on no other cognizance Elijah asks for her very last option. Cruel. Unspeakably. But she cooks it for Elijah. Go figure.
This story is paired up with the story of the poor widow at the temple, who puts her last two tiny meager coins in the temple tax collector’s hands. Jesus holds her up as an example to those who had been hounding and stalking him, looking for just cause to have him arrested. Jesus gives them just cause.
Temple administration had become corrupted under Roman occupation. It may have been corrupted from its beginning along with its’ remodeler–Herod the Great. He wanted a more magnificent edifice to endear himself to the Jews. Happy Jews would appease his friends in the Roman empire. (He also had a crush on Queen Cleopatra, truth to be told, and impressing her would just sweeten the deal.) Some did very well for themselves under Roman occupation–temple administration in particular. Jesus points to them with their long robes and long prayers in the verses immediately prior to this week’s lectionary.
Generations have been taught to look up to the widow as the perfect example of real stewardship and generosity. I wonder that stewardship committees revel in this lectionary choice right in the middle of church stewardship campaigning season. When we step back from the reading far enough that we see it’s context, it is a terrifying judgment. Not on those whose pledge falls short of the idyllic 10% tithe. On those who would take the widow’s last dime. Her last option. If it was about the widow in the way we usually read the text and fold it into our stewardship purposes, it would go on to tell what happened to her next. We would see her give her last dime and go home to find out that her landlord had erased her debt, there was a check for half a million dollars from an annonymous donor who happened to see her deposit those tiny miserable coins in the offering plate, her children were miraculously clothed and fed, her health problems mysteriously vanish, and someone would offer her a well-paying job. All because she ventured out in unjustified risk that some believe make her the poster child of faithfulness.
But. But no. The point of the story is that those who had seemingly unlimited options in life would take the last tiny copper coin from a woman who had no more options. There is no “but” that could rescue this story in favor of the widow’s survival. That’s very painful stuff to a person like me who always sees possibilities and choices, who loves to use the word “but….” when feeling trapped by linear, sequential and binary thinking.
There are no “buts.” But (!) there is an AND. And she went home to her misery, possibly to watch her children die of hunger before she joined them. And Jesus went on to condemn the temple to its certain destruction, and all the powers with it (read Mark 13.) And those who defended the temple until their last choice, their last option, would sentence Jesus to death for suggesting that the temple and its corruption would fall. And Jesus would die for it. Die for proclaiming the most unlikely possibility: that even if the temple and all of Jerusalem would be destroyed, if the unthinkable happened and the stars fell out of the sky, if no stone was left on stone, the last “But” would belong to God. Not to Rome. Not to people who like to go about in long robes and say long prayers and preach long sermons. But God. But God would rescue Adam and Eve from the consequences of their disobedience. But God would rescue Joseph from the pit into which his brothers tossed him, and raise him up to rescue those same brothers, all of Egypt, and ultimately all of Israel in bondage. But God would fill the widow’s flour bin and oil jar. But God would bring the exiles home. But God would raise Jesus from the dead.
All the “buts” for those who are looking at the final option belong to God. The faithful can only ask “And?” while waiting. “And what does this mean?” “And then what happened next?” “And what do we do in the meantime?” “And just how are we supposed to live in this evil and corrupt time?”
I am liberated –not despairing at all, in this. NPR featured a powerful interview this week about a cookbook. Imagine that. Power in a cookbook. And it wasn’t even a cookbook about powerful foods. It was a cookbook about prison. A place where a lot of people have very few, if any options. It was a cookbook about Ramen noodles, the cheapest of foods that fill the bellies of a lot of people who have few, if any options. Hear the interview at:
While you’re at it, peek at this one too;
In prison, ramen noodles are currency. It gives the well-behaved prisoner some options. It gives the innovator, as the writer of the cookbook most certainly is, tools to work with. Talk about limited options. The writer was an inmate. He was in the Latino cell block. Next door there was the Black cell block. The two groups’ gangs were enemies on the outside and the violence between them continued right into prison. A terrible prison riot broke out and the black cell block emerged with all sorts of improvised weapons, headed to the Latino cell block. As they pressed in toward the door and the Latinos began to arm themselves, an old prisoner who had been there a long time stepped up. He talked to the prisoners on the other side. He had nothing to lose. He came back to the Latinos with his discovery: the black prisoners were hungry. He directed his fellow prisoners to bring out their secretly stashed food. Their ramen noodles. They gave up the last of their treasure, the most humble of foods. They fed their hungry neighbors. The atmosphere cleared of the ugly epithets and cloud of hatred. The inspiration for this cookbook came out of that communion. The writer of this cookbook gives an amazing variety of things you can do with a package of ramen noodles when all other options are limited. What a vision of Psalm 23: “He prepares a table in the presence of my enemies.”
Back to the widow. Jesus does lift her up. The least of these is publicly cherished. This is a good news/bad news story. Her generosity condemns those considered the best, who enjoyed nothing but the best, and the temple system that gave them great reward and recognition.
It’s too easy to simply find a moral in her generosity that suggests that we should be giving more and feel guilty if we don’t or can’t give more. Stewardship campaigns love this story, but not framed by the judgments fore and aft. See, I think Jesus is revealing God in this story, and God is the widow. God is the one who gives everything, even the beloved son. The Son is the one who reveals the grace and generosity of God all the way to the cross, even giving up his own life, his everything, all he had to live on.
There are no neat ways to partition our lives. “This is for God.” “This is for me.” “This is for taxes.” It’s all what we have to live on, rich and poor alike. It’s all for God. Our lives are holy and wholly. All life is holy and wholly God’s because God wholly invests in life and well being on this planet. That’s what it means to say “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth.” And then what? And what happens after that? And so what does this mean? And what am I going to do about that? And where am I going to find the resources to do that? And what about my hungry neighbor? And what about my violent enemies? And?
The Queen of But is stepping down. Throw a party and invite all the commoners in the Kingdom of And. No one is excepted in the kingdom of And because well, it’s AND, not But. Ramen Noodles. Bread and Wine. The Feast of And.