Pentecost 24 B 2015
Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Mark 12: 38-44
“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.” Mark 12:43-44
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today’s gospel story is among the most well known in scripture. It is also among the most misunderstood. If I had any doubt of that before today it was dispelled by the dueling commentators I read and studied all week. One commentator said the story meant one thing, and another commentator said it meant another, and a third said it meant something else.
It was so bad that one commentator threw up his hands (or perhaps the better metaphor would be that he threw done his pen) and wrote, “I am going to level with you. I don’t know what to do with this story. I wish I had better news for you, but there it is. I’m stuck.” Kudos to him for being so honest.
This response was from a well-known seminary professor and author. Someone I have come to trust in his interpretation and scholarship. Quite frankly, I don’t know that I can do any better than he, but I’m going to try.
This is the story known as the “widow’s mite.” This story is also where we get the saying, “putting my two cents in” which refers to offering an opinion or thought that may be of little consequence.
Jesus has been teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Right before our reading for today, Jesus is approached by the chief priests and scribes who questioned his authority. So he began to tell some parables. He told them about the owner of a vineyard who planted some vines, put up a watchtower and rented it out to some tenants.
When the time came for the tenants to pay up, the owner sent two servants who were beaten and killed. The owner finally sends his son who is also killed by tenants in the mistaken notion that if they do so, they will inherit his share of the vineyard.
The Pharisees and scribes knew this story was about them, but they were biding their time until they could get the crowds on their side in order to arrest Jesus. They send the Herodians to try and trap him about what belongs to whom. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God what it God’s” Jesus tells them.
They try to trap him with questions regarding the resurrection and marriage. And finally, a pious scribe came to him to ask him about the greatest commandment, not to trap Jesus, but to truly understand what Jesus was about.
When Jesus responds that the greatest commandment is love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one another as one loves one self, the scribes replies, “You are right teacher, this is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices!” Jesus sees the sincerity of this particular scribe and tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God.
This is the context that brings us to today’s reading and all of it is important to at least trying to understand what this difficult story might be telling us.
Jesus is teaching the disciples in the Temple about the insincerity of the Scribes, those religious scholars who were knowledgeable in the law and who would draw up legal agreements. They were well respected for their education as well as their piety. But this respect went to their heads. They drew attention to themselves with the long prayers they uttered in public as well as with the long flowing robes they wore, symbols of their office and status.
They were the ones who were seated first at banquets and who had the best seats in the synagogue. These were people to be reckoned with; they were important people and everyone knew it.
Jesus watches the show of false piety and says to the disciples, “They devour widow’s houses…they will receive the greater condemnation.” Taking care of widows was one of the hallmarks of Judaism. It was an imperative, not an option. To say that they “devour widow’s houses” was a very strong statement.
To be a widow at that time was to be marginalized. If a widow didn’t have a son to care for her, or a brother in-law who would marry her, she was destitute. Becoming a widow could well mean total dependence on the kindness of strangers in order to live. It was not unusual for a widow who had no family to just walk into the desert to die.
The charge Jesus is making refers to the Scribes, who were legal scholars, penning legal agreements about the care of widows. They would take more than their fair share of what minimal estate there might be as payment, leaving the widow even worse off than she was before. It was this practice that Jesus was condemning.
Jesus and the disciples are sitting across from the treasury, the place in the temple where offerings were put into large metal containers. Any large amount of coins put in would be heard very loudly. They watched as the rich came and put in their offerings with all the attendant clatter and notoriety that followed.
And then, out of the shadows, comes a widow. She is unnoticed by everyone except Jesus. She takes all that she has, all that she has to live on, two copper coins worth about a penny, and puts them in the box.
There is no loud clatter as they fall into the treasury. There is no sense from others that they know of her offering. There is just Jesus, watching, and telling his disciples, “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.”
This story is often preached as a stewardship sermon. The widow is seen as offering everything, her whole livelihood to God. She is an example of depending totally on God for her day-to-day existence. It is said to show that even the worst off have something to share with God. The widow is held up as a foil to the false piety and flashiness of the Scribes and the rich of the day, who have a need to be noticed and respected.
This story is often preached as a social justice sermon. The widow’s giving is seen as overly excessive and is an indictment of the religious and cultural systems that would require this of her. It is a reminder that no matter what you give, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself, your monetary offering doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Here Jesus is condemning those who love God, but who are clueless about the plight of others in their midst, those who live in the shadows or are invisible to society at large.
Being invisible doesn’t mean something isn’t there, it just means that something isn’t seen. This came home to me in a powerful way while watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Those that died were those that weren’t on anybody’s radar screen, those who were invisible to society at large.
No provisions were made to evacuate the poor and elderly in the 9th Ward because it was assumed that everyone had transportation in this day and age, or that everyone had family that could care for them. Like the widow in today’s story, that is just not true.
We see some of the same assumptions unfolding in New York after Super Storm Sandy. The elderly in the high-rises in boroughs other than Manhattan, that place of financial wealth, the place where the scions of power play with the economy, have been largely ignored.
In this morning’s gospel, it wasn’t that the widow wasn’t there. It wasn’t that the people in the 9th Ward weren’t there, it isn’t that those in Rockaway and Brooklyn and Queens aren’t there; it is that they aren’t seen.
Jesus is telling us that we can want all the attention and respect that society can offer but if we have it and don’t see the needs of others that are right in front of us; we haven’t just missed the boat, we have missed everything. We’ve missed the whole point!
There is another interpretation of this story that I want to leave you with. This story occurs after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and immediately before the crucifixion. Mark, of all the Evangelists, pays very close attention to what stories are placed together, which is why context is so important.
Could it be that this widow who steps out of the shadows is a Christ figure, a foreshadowing of what is about to come?
Christ, who was born in a stable, who lived among the friendless, the sick, the needy, who lived in shadows until his notoriety grew and became problematic for the elite and powerful, put in everything he had, his very life, for each and every one of us. Nothing was left unspent.
The widow’s selfless giving, giving her all for a corrupt and condemned institution mirrors Christ’s giving his whole life to humanity which was corrupted and condemned by its own sinfulness.
What is so sad is that so many don’t notice his offering, his gift of grace and salvation. Even those who should know better fall prey to the seduction of power and prestige. They make their offering and go on their way without looking around them and seeing the magnitude of his loving offering and sacrifice.
The good news in this difficult story is that the God that notices this poor widow and her struggles notices you and me and all those who wonder how we are going to manage on a day to day basis.
The good news in this difficult story is that the God who notices us is the God who gave everything for us, who takes everything we have to give, no matter how small and inconsequential, and uses it.
I do believe this is a stewardship text, but not in the way we normally think. We certainly are to be good stewards of our resources and gifts. But first and foremost, we are called to be stewards of one another, to notice the other, to be committed to the welfare and wellbeing of people known and unknown to us.
We are asked to look out in the community and believe that those that live on the margin and in the shadows are loved by God, are cherished by Christ, and that they are worthy of our attention and our efforts.
To notice, to pay attention, and then to act, is to shine the light of Christ into the dark shadows and places of this world, and in doing so to realize that the place that has been illumined by Christ’s love and light is none other than our very own hearts.