Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Meager Offering

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which Luke blends together (confuses?) the Jewish traditions associated with the purification of a woman after childbirth and the redemption of a first-born in order to convey a story about the faithfulness of Jesus' parents and the further identification of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises. Today, I want to shift the focus to one little detail that Luke recalls--the offering.

Luke tells us that Jesus' parents "offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.'" The NRSV even puts in quotation marks the description of the offering as if Luke is directly quoting from Leviticus. In Leviticus 12, the entire chapter deals with this very thing--uncleanness and purification after childbirth--and it describes the offering that a woman is supposed to bring when she comes to the temple:
When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Leviticus 12:6-12).
She (Mary) is supposed to bring a lamb under one year old and a pigeon or turtledove. The lamb is for the burnt offering--the holocaust--and the bird is for the sin offering so that the woman "shall be clean from her flow of blood." (Read yesterday's post.) But, of course, Jesus' parents didn't bring a lamb. Luke tells us that they brought what they were supposed to bring and identifies it as "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." Luke doesn't tell us any more than that, but what he's signifying to us is that Joseph and Mary couldn't afford a sheep. Instead, one bird took the place of the lamb. It was a poor woman's offering.

The nature of that burnt offering, which I've also identified as a holocaust, was a sacrifice that was completely consumed by fire. In other words, none of the meat was given to the priests. Nothing was left. It was a total offering. It was a sacrifice (think "something we give up" and not simply "an animal that was slaughtered in a ritual act") that represented a total gift. Nothing is held back. The sin offering, however, was efficacious in the killing of the animal and the blood that was offered. Typically, the priest would be invited to eat the flesh of whatever had been killed as a sin offering. Other offerings, too, were only partially given to God, but what is translated to us as "burnt offering" was how human beings gave all they had--their very best--to God.

The best that Mary and Joseph could muster was a second pigeon. I wonder how that felt to the priest who received their offering. I wonder whether he looked with pity upon the young carpenter and his even younger wife. Or perhaps he thought to himself, "Is that all you really can afford?" I wonder if any of the onlookers, seeking a young woman coming into the temple with a forty-day-old child and knowing what she had come to do, saw her holding a wicker cage with two birds in it and thought, "Just another poor young mother who barely has enough to make ends meet."

How often does the church separate its members into those who can afford to bring a lamb and those who can only afford a pigeon? I don't know any clergy who treat parishioners differently because their pledge is smaller than that of others. I don't know any parishes that give rich parishioners preferential treatment--a spot on the vestry, an extra hospital visit, an extra prayer. But I know lots of churches, including the one where I work and worship, that haven't found a good way of being a church that welcomes poor people. We are good at feeding hungry people on Mondays and Wednesdays, but we aren't very good at making space in our community for the poor on Sunday mornings. Why is that?

I don't think it's because we have strategies in place that are designed to keep poor people out, but I do think it's because we don't have strategies in place that are designed to bring poor people in. I'm grateful for our ushers, who give out bulletins, greet newcomers, and help people find a seat, but I wonder whether someone who lives on the street and hasn't showered in weeks would think of them as someone designed to keep them out or let them in. Twice a week, the food-insecure population is invited into our building to eat lunch. What would happen if those 200+ people were invited to have breakfast with us on Sunday mornings? Our ASA could skyrocket, but how many regular parishioners would still show up for breakfast and church?

For the most part, I don't think the church is a place that sees Mary and Joseph coming into the door with their meager offering and asks them to leave. I think we're happy to have poor people who are bold enough to walk in and participate in our worship. But I'd be surprised if there were many churches that were filled with Simeons and Annas who have the Spirit-given sight to see that the ones who come in with the poor-people's offerings are the ones who have brought the savior to us.

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