The City of Widows

Proper 27B/Ordinary 32B/Pentecost 24
November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 146

Mark 12:38-44

A widow in the city of Vrindavan, India

“… widows are shunned because they’re seen as bringing bad luck.  Superstitious relatives even blame them for their husband’s death.  The widow can become a liability with no social standing, an unwanted mouth to feed.  Often they’re cast out of the family home.”  At first glance, the above quote would seem to be a description of the plight of widows in Biblical times.  The quote actually comes from foreign correspondent Trevor Bormann (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in a June 2007 interview on the plight of widows in Vrindavan, India, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, known as the “City of Widows”.

This small city is host to over 20,000 widows who flock to its 4,000 temples and ashrams to eke out a daily living begging, after they have been cast out by their families and in-laws.  India has over 40 million widows, estimated at 10% of the total female population.  According to the nonprofit Guild for Service, mortality rates are 85% higher for Indian widows than for married women, due to the hardships imposed on them by society.  The Guild of Service also estimates that 40% of the widows of Vrindavan were originally married below the age of 12.

“The Widow’s Mite,” Gustave Dore

The Gospel reading for this week prominently features the plight of widows in the time of Jesus.  One day after the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is back at the Temple, fulminating against the scribes (religious lawyers): “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).  According to commentator John Petty, scribes often served as legal caretakers for widows’ lands, charging them a hefty fee for their services, sending them even deeper into debt, “These matters were too weighty to be left to women, after all.”  The Temple priests, who often moonlighted as money-lenders, would then foreclose on the widows’ houses when they were unable to pay their loans.  The scribes’ piety was made all the more nauseating by their collusion with a system that drove these women to destitution.

Jesus then calls attention to a widow who had put two small copper coins as an offering into the Temple treasury: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (vv.43-44).  While many preachers love to use this verse as a pious example of generosity (particularly around stewardship campaign time), Greg Carey points out that they are missing the point: ” … only a perverted imagination can turn her story into a general example.  Mark’s Gospel goes out of its way to make clear that she is just as much a victim as a hero.”  The whole reason that the widow is shown in the context of the pious, corrupt scribes is to highlight the tragedy of her loyalty to an institution that “devours widows’ houses”.

Dr. Mohini Giri, Nobel Prize nominee

In India, the combination of oppressive religious strictures and a voracious multinational economy are the twin forces that are devouring widows’ houses and taking their lives.  It should be noted here that the Hindu caste system is not the only religious force behind the oppression of widows.  Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Mohini Giri (herself a widow) points out that – in general – any highly religious area will be where widows’ oppression is the worst: “Religious places, yes, they’re the worst. There a woman is most subdued, not only due to tradition, but because of religion. Because religion puts in certain kinds of taboos, and she’s bound by those taboos” (Interview, Asia Society, October 11, 2007).  However, Dr. Giri makes a distinction between religion and the patriarchal forces that make religion oppressive: “Patriarchy is a mindset where a man has been told that he’s superior to everybody else, and he’s the lord and master for everything. That’s full stop … All religions are good religions. No religious scripture has ever said to ill treat women” (ibid.).

In her position as founder of the north India branch of the Guild of Service, Dr. Giri has established a network of programs designed to educate women – particularly widows – to give them confidence, marketable job skills and to find their voices.  At the time she established the north India Guild of Service in 1971, she says”dowry deaths, bride burning, rape, and sati, all these were rampant, absolutely.”  The task of changing the status of marginalized women is very slow: ” … there’s no magic wand.  Things will change slowly, people have to be educated, women will have to be educated, traditions will have to be re-set, morals will have to be inculcated into children.  All these things together, it’s a five, six pronged effort that has to be put in to increase the status of women”.  To truly empower the widow and change her life, we must do as Dr. Giri is doing, and educate her to contribute her “mites” to institutions that will support her and encourage her to thrive.  Only then will the scribes be put in their place as the servants of the poor and not their exploiters.

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