“Every act, however small and unimportant, can be an act of love.” ~Basil Hume
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘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.’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
It seems too much of a coincidence that today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is the ideal lesson for Stewardship Commitment Sunday, which is a week away. The famous story of the widow’s mite arriving at this time of year is awkward in that Jesus seems to be giving us an almost too-convenient message to, “Be like this poor widow and give everything you have to the church. Even if you don’t have much, even if it hurts, pledge”! Or at least more tastefully, “If this poor widow came up with something to give, surely you can too…”! The reading is so perfect and so well-crafted, that all the preacher needs to do is to just get out of the way and let the story preach itself. At face value, it is a match up which pits the strong against the weak, the rich against the poor, the powerful against the oppressed. And the way Mark crafts the story, you can tell who is condemned and who is favored. We all want to identify with the poor widow!
“Beware of the preachers, who like to stroll around town in their clerics and collars, and to be greeted with respect around town, and to have merchants give them discounts and the best and immediate seatings in popular restaurants without a reservation. They devour widows’ houses. And for the sake of appearance say eloquent prayers and preach long sermons. AND THEY WILL RECEIVE THE GREATER CONDEMNATION.!” And on Stewardship Commitment Sunday, November 18, 2018, Jesus watched what people put in the offering plate and studied the pledge cards that were collected. Many rich people wrote out fat checks and made big pledges. A poor widow put in a few coins. Jesus called a session meeting and said to all the elders, “TRULY I TELL YOU, THIS POOR WIDOW HAS PUT IN MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE. 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.” That’s the sermon. Remember that message when you fill out your pledge card next Sunday. So goes the common misunderstanding of this passage, which makes sense ONLY if you take it at face value.
In Mark’s gospel, the scribes are mentioned 21 times (which is a lot, especially since this is the shortest Gospel). They frequently question Jesus’ teachings and even go so far as to later mock him while he hangs dying on the cross. More pertinent, just before this passage, Jesus cleanses the temple by throwing out the money changers, and the scribes plot to destroy him. In large part because he’s gotten rid of a significant source of their income. And in today’s passage we heard the seething condemnation, “They devour widows’ houses…”. And just after the passage is Jesus’s prediction that the stones of the temple will be overturned. What if this story is not about generosity, but about exploitation? What if this story is more about Jesus condemning the temple economy that demands that even those who have nothing give everything; and not about Jesus praising the widow for giving all she had to the temple? Think about how we treat the widows in our day. When we think about cash bail, payday loans, court fines that keep escalating, refugees and migrants paying smugglers as they flee for their lives, making this a stewardship text about sacrificial giving gets too many of us off the hook for holding institutions, church and otherwise, accountable for systemic oppression of the already marginalized. The widow should not be giving all she has to the temple treasury. The scribes of the temple should be giving from the treasury to care for the widow!
So I don’t believe Jesus is romanticizing and idealizing the poor. A life of poverty is what all of us want to avoid, not aspire to. No one dreams of growing up poor, of living from government check to government check, of digging through garbage cans or living on the streets. The woman at the temple was not a poor widow; she was poor because she was a widow. In first-century Palestine, I don’t believe there was such a thing as a rich widow in that culture. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. To be widowed meant not only losing someone you may have loved, but more tragically, it also meant that you were losing the one on whom you were totally dependent.
Mark tells this story to honor and pay tribute to the poor widow. But why praise and honor a poor widow who contributes to the very people and institution that is taking unfair advantage of her? We would never do anything like what the poor widow did. We reduce our pledge or not pledge at all when our church does anything that we disagree with. If the priest of your Roman Catholic parish was exposed as a pedophile what would you do? Over the years we’ve had our share of controversy in the PCUSA—from the ordination of LGBTQ candidates for ministry to the granting of permission for Presbyterian clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Or hanging controversial banners! The widow didn’t just keep up her pledge, she increased it to the point of sacrifice! How do you make sense of this? Why didn’t Jesus stop her for her reckless generosity and explain to her how she’s been betrayed and misled and urge her to keep her money?
Jesus praised the poor widow because she chose to exercise what little power she had. And Jesus didn’t want to take away this woman’s power. Next to the powerful scribes, she was a nobody; but she gave of herself. The poor widow gave all she had not because what she gave would make much of a difference in the 3-million-dollar annual Temple budget. She gave for herself. It is like casting your single, solitary vote on Tuesday, even when it seemed so little, in the face of the millions of dollars spent on political advertising. You voted for your own sake. A young woman slipped and fell, breaking her neck, on a climbing expedition. It left her without the use of her arms and legs. But she never gave up hope that she would someday walk again. She sought out specialists. She tried all kinds of treatments. She prayed. And she hoped for a miracle cure. Finally one day, she came to a realization. She said, “I finally began to heal when I GAVE UP HOPE”. It was a case of her recognizing that her neck was broken, that she was paralyzed, and that she would never again regain the use of her arms and legs. Healing meant her acknowledging that there was no hope of changing this situation. In the end, instead of hoping for a miracle cure, she learned to live a productive life as a quadriplegic.
The 2 little coins in the woman’s hand were probably all she had. The truth is—and the extremely poor know this well—those coins weren’t going to change her life. When you’ve got so little, a penny or two isn’t going to move you from welfare to work. She could be at peace and joyful in knowing she was able to give to the temple treasury, because with the coins or without them, she was still a dependent person. Rich people, like most of us readers of the story, can’t say the same. My money gives me independence and freedom from living like a poor widow. I like it that way and my family likes it that way, so I will not be putting my entire paycheck in the offering plate today. But I’ve witness bent over elderly Chinese women in Chinatown, living in SRO’s, give generously to the homeless on Stockton Street. When you are that low on the economic scale, giving isn’t the problem, getting is. The widow was not dependent on her money or her status in life; she had none of these. She was dependent on God and her neighbor for everything. She didn’t have two feet to stand on, she didn’t have bootstraps to pull up. She was totally dependent. This is what we are to be like before God—dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy. The issue is not how much we have in our investment portfolio, but what money is for us. Is it our heart, our security, our source of power, or is it a tool for our stewardship? Are we dependent on our money to give us all we want and need from life, or are we dependent on God to make us rich? If you follow me, Jesus teaches us to walk in the way of the widow. Live lives that show in everything you do and say that you are dependent on God for all you have and all you are.
The widow teaches us that in poverty, you are not powerless. Even in her poverty, the poor widow still believed she had something to give. So Jesus makes this a lesson not for her, but for his disciples, for the church, for us. Beware of becoming like the scribes and taking advantage of people, people who trust you and look to you for leadership. Honor the power that is possible in the small acts of even the poorest. Look around you, and you will see the elderly on fixed incomes, the homeless man sharing his blanket and the panhandler splitting the contents of her cup, people giving up their last coins, their midnight hours, and their exhausted bit of energy in extraordinary acts of courage and generosity.
So maybe today’s story says something about Stewardship after all. Not about writing checks or making a pledge, but about the true mission of the church. From today’s story of the poor widow, may our mission be about improving lives, especially the poor. The poor widow was inspired to give not to the scribes’ latest fancy robes; she believed in the mission of God and she was willing to support that mission. And when we give that level of support, there is no end to the history we can accomplish. Like those who, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, withheld their bus fares and walked to work rather than support the evil system of segregation for one more minute. They brought a city to its knees and lit the spark that led to the end of legal racism in our country. Like the 1000’s in India led by Gandhi who marched to the sea to harvest salt in opposition to unjust British taxation of the poor, ultimately resulting in independence for the whole nation. When people put their resources together, even with things that seem financially insignificant—a bus fare, a handful of salt—they can change history. Seemingly insignificant people like you and I have the power to change the world if we beware of giving our resources to false leaders and empty causes, and instead give them to those causes which empower the people of God to be free!
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than anyone else. 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”. She gave out of her dependence on and trust in God. We are called to give not out of our abundance—our entertainment and vacation budget. We are called to give out of our fixed-incomes, our unemployment checks, our low wage jobs, our student status, our 30-year mortgages, our car payments, our credit card debt, our student loans, our children’s college fund. In the end, we give not because the church needs our money. We give for our sakes and for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ. We pledge because it is in God we trust.