The city where I serve is no different than any other city in this country. A litany of the same issues show up on the city council agenda every two weeks: violence, unemployment, immigration, disparity in the education system, community safety, homelessness, policing, economic development and housing issues, just to name a few.
As one example, there’s a particular apartment complex near me that’s been on the city council’s radar due to many complaints about substandard living conditions: tubs that wouldn’t drain, holes in floors, broken heaters in the winter, mold on ceilings, bed bugs, and some units without working appliances.
A few weeks ago this complex was sold. The new owners planned to get rid of all the tenants, and gave the first group of residents about 20 days to vacate. 20 days! In spite of the bad conditions, these apartments were the only roof many of the tenants could afford.
At a city council meeting, several residents made public comment. One young mother shared that she didn’t even have a car in which she and her children could live when they become homeless. It was an evening of heartbreak.
In all, nearly 30 people spoke. After the time of public comment ended, a motion came from one of the council members—that the city would set aside $18,000 to help the first 6 families with relocation costs (average relocation costs are about $3000/family for things like first and last rent, etc).
What happened next blew me away.
For 30 minutes, the city council debated whether or not they could or should financially assist these residents. They went back and forth with amendment after amendment…and finally the vote. No. They voted No.
Their verdict rang out in front of every resident present, in front of other community members, and in front of God. The answer was no.
Of course, their reasoning was logical. They needed to do some more “checking.” I get it. But during verification, six vulnerable families will be left to fend for themselves, with another 20 preparing to be evicted within the next 30 – 60 days.
I imagine Jesus sitting at the city council meeting that night, and in other places of power where cries for mercy are made.
I think this is, in part, what Jesus is referring to in our Gospel for today; it covers the first 8 verses of Chapter 13. But it’s important to read them in light of the previous chapter—the story of the poor widow. She gave all that she had to the temple treasury, to those who were supposed to be caring for her. And yet, she remained poor—with all the social stigma that comes with it.
When Jesus noticed her, he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury…out of her poverty [she] has put in everything she had.” Jesus was doing more than pointing out her generosity…he was making public comment on the hypocrisy of the system. It existed in part to serve and take care of widows, and here it was, taking advantage of them.
What if we re-connected the end of Chapter 12 to the beginning of Chapter 13? We would see that Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the injustice, the unfair treatment and the neglect of the poor, the stones on which the sinful systems were built, had not gone unnoticed by God.
He tells them, “watch” and don’t be deceived. He wants them to truly see the daily reality that is happening around them. He wants them to see the spiritual poverty of the powerful that is leading to the financial poverty of the vulnerable.
And the message was as much for us as it was for them. He wants us to see the “widows” in our community; their cries for mercy go largely unheard.
It feels odd that I had to go to a city council meeting to hear their cries for mercy. For some reason, the church isn’t the first place people go when they are looking for justice or mercy. Instead, they go to city hall. We should ask ourselves why they don’t head to their local congregation?
I hope the birthing pains Jesus speaks of are the re-birthing of what it means to be a community of people whose call it is to love, to walk alongside, to advocate for, to risk, to stand with and to find and give resources to those who are in need. Maybe I’m wrong, but the way I read the passage suggests that if we aren’t “watching,” we are at risk of being one of those beautiful structures, lying crumbled, stone upon stone. We looked pretty good, but there was no substance—not when it really mattered.