Monday, February 03, 2014

Theology, and the Poverty of the Virgin

This is one of those years when Candlemas, AKA the Feast of the Presentation or of the Purification, falls on a Sunday, and therefore even the run-of-the-mill Episcopal parish observes it (at least if they haven't forgotten what it says on page 16 of the BCP). It's an interesting juxtaposition considering that we are in Year A and therefore (in the RCL) the story of Jesus at the temple also appears in the lectionary, so that we hit most of the first few chapters of Luke (Holy Name/Circumcision being the exception, it being impossible to get any but the most dogged A-Cs to show up to church instead of watching the Tournament of Roses parade on New Years Day).

And it presents an interesting problem for the preacher, who finds Jesus' teaching, as a rule, a much more congenial topic. These early stories demand treatment as theology and not moral advocacy, which seems to be a problem in this church. In that light I would like to commend Tobias Haller's sermon for its investigation of connections which I had forgotten or did not put together before. The presentation, after all, is about the satisfaction of two mosaic commands: first, for the purification of Mary after giving birth, and the second, for the presentation of Jesus, the first-born. And it is about the fulfillment of promises, to Simeon and Anna. One should take a moment to consider that, some few months earlier, the aged Elizabeth had stood among the younger women at this same place (John being Kohanim and therefore not being presented).

The specifics of these rites leads me to another issue. Leviticus specifies, for the purification offerings, a lamb and a dove, but allows a second dove to be substituted for the lamb if the latter cannot be afforded. Mary, it is recorded, offers two doves. This is taken as an implication of poverty, which in my opinion is overstated. Consider the larger context, and never mind that, as far as I know, we don't have a good handle on the price of lambs at the temple. First, Joseph: he's a skilled tradesman, not a laborer or a subsistence farmer or fisherman. By the standards of most eras, this makes him a working man, to be sure, but not poor. Second, Elizabeth: she is a high status wife, having married into the top priestly class. One gathers that both marriages, before March 25th, were unremarkable and didn't strain at class boundaries.

It's significant at this juncture to note that Jesus' teachings about money presuppose a set of class divisions that beings to look modern. We fail to notice that all his talk about salvation as an investment is too familiar, and that merchants and bankers are, in the world of his parables, people of considerable status, and that working stiffs of all sorts also play prominent roles. Joseph and Mary, as the marriage plays out, are not the poor to whom mercy is to be directed; they are at the lower reaches of those of whom mercy is expected. Millais's notorious (at the time) image of Jesus as a child in his father's shop creates a new modern scandal by setting Joseph among the sort of people who in this era might vote Republican— but then again, maybe they would join a union.

The point is that not everything in scripture is about social justice politics. Mary is, in the end, not an unwed mother, and Jesus was not reared in abject poverty. Paul's "bourgeois" directives simply bring home the point that in the early church the good news was not just for the destitute. And that gospel is theological first. The early chapters of Luke, the beginning of John, the early words of Matthew: all of these emphasize how Jesus came into the world as a spiritual act, and they demand a religious response.


Tobias Haller said...

Thank you for this. I am often irritated by the claim that Jesus and the apostles were from impoverished backgrounds, which rather misses the point that they were giving something significant up by leaving all behind. The "humble fishermen" were entrepreneurs, with capital investments, running family businesses. Not the wealthy, but clearly working class, not indigent peasants as IIRC some like to portray them.

This not only helps the text to speak to those who have and their call to share (what's the point in preaching that to those who have nothing?) but to make something of the kenotic movement from that cozy carpenter's shop out to the wilderness, along with Cousin John; then to begin the formation of his own band of those who have left something behind (including capital!) to live as human sparrows.

This is exactly what makes the story of Francis so compelling: that he left the bourgeois world of mercantile security; not that he was born poor and remained so.

Thanks again for the insights.

C. Wingate said...

That's a very good point about our fishermen apostles.

Anonymous said...

Care to make pessimistic comments on the 2013 stats?
The ASA figures are awful, and clearly indicate that we should give KJS another term

Paul Murphy