A Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament
Last week in worship, we thought about All Saints Day and Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. These celebrations are about, in part, remembering people who have died, people who have been a part of our lives, and part of who we are, both individually, and as a congregation. But these celebrations are broader, too, than remembering our own personal saints, the ones who we knew in person. These celebrations call us to think of the saints of the whole Church - not just in this congregation, but all those who have shaped us. A favorite quote of mine comes from Native American poet Linda Hogan, “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.” We think about the love of thousands that shapes us in this place, in this season.
I’m new to Christ Church - I started worshipping here because Mark invited me when I started back at Drew for the PhD program last fall. I worshiped online with you, and was thrilled to be able to start attending in person this fall. But I don’t know many of you well yet, and I don’t yet know the stories and people of this congregation - the saints that have shaped this community of faith. That’s what’s so sacred to me, though, about celebrations of All Saints or Dia de los Muertos. I don’t have to have known your people, your saints for them to become mine, as I become part of this community. As I share in this community, I share in your stories. I’m a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, and over the years that I’ve served in different communities, I’ve often felt that - I arrive to a new place of ministry, bringing my own memories of loved ones with me, and I arrive to meet, through my congregations, a new set of saints. I learn their stories, and they become mine too, a part of me too, even though I never met them.
That sense of belonging - that when I become a part of this community, these stories, your stories, your people, belong to me too - that’s not just a mindset I think the community of faith holds when we’re thinking about remembered saints who have died. I think, actually, it’s what it means to be part of the living communion of saints, what we might call the body of Christ. It means being part of a community that strives to love like and love who God loves. It means that if someone belongs to God, they belong to us too. If we strive to love like God, we love who God loves and try to make them the recipient of our care and attention just as God has done. We become responsible for everyone for whom God is responsible. That probably sounds like an enormous task - and it is! It’s our whole life’s work! We’re responsible for one another because we belong to one another - not as in ownership of each other, but in relationship with one another, bound together by God’s love for us. We love God by loving one another well.
In the witness of the scriptures, we see that God’s way of loving gives special attention to those who are the most vulnerable. In the Hebrew Bible, these people are sometimes called the quartet of the vulnerable - the poor, the orphaned, the stranger or foreigner, and the widow. God’s love and God’s commandments call for special care for those most at risk in the community. The most vulnerable belong to God in a special way, and so it follows that if we seek to love like God loves, the most vulnerable are meant to be special to us, too. We’re responsible for and to the most vulnerable. Perhaps today we would not think of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger in these same “categories,” but those most at risk in our society today are not so different, are they?
When we read the gospels, we see Jesus live out a ministry that focuses on being in relationship with the most vulnerable people too. In our gospel lesson today, we encounter Jesus seeing and speaking about the actions of a widow, and so we should perk up, knowing already that widows are a particular focus of compassionate attention by God in the scriptures, and a marginalized group who God directs God’s people to consider with particular attention and responsibility.
The second part of our lesson for today might be familiar to you. I learned this Bible story as a child, and it was always taught with the woman, the widow, being lifted up as an example of generosity and giving our all to God. Jesus sits down across from the temple treasury - imagine, someone planting themselves right next to the offering plates and just watching what everyone was putting in - and he notes, Mark tells us, that many rich people are putting in large sums of money. But then a poor widow comes and puts in a very small sum - two copper coins - a penny, a mite, a tiny amount. And Jesus says, “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.” We’ve read in Jesus’s comments praise and admiration for the woman. She, a poor woman, gave everything, unlike the wealthy whose contributions were comparatively practically stingy. She gave everything to God, and so should we, because God wants our everything, our whole selves. That’s a good message, isn’t it? And indeed, I believe that there is a strong challenge in being called to give our whole selves to God.
It’s just that I don’t think that’s what is happening here in this text. I think we’ve read praise into Jesus’s commentary. But I think his words are a lament. (1) At the beginning of our reading today, the less familiar part of our passage, Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” The scribes were lawyers and interpreters of the law of Moses. They were part of the religious aristocracy. Some scribes would have been members of the Sanhedrin - the religious tribunal before which Jesus was tried before his crucifixion. Jesus is frequently at odds with the scribes and Pharisees and other religious leaders, and his words here are no exception. He’s accusing the scribes, those who are meant to be knowledgeable about and faithful to the law of Moses, of corruption. Scribes, for example, would sometimes be responsible for managing the estate and finances of widows, legal trustees for these women who weren’t permitted to manage their own resources. And they sometimes charged exorbitantly for their services. (2) The fee was usually a part of the estate, but apparently some took the “widows’ houses,” leaving these women even more vulnerable and destitute than before, all in the name of fulfilling the religious law, all while maintaining their own status and position.
When we take that first part of the passage with the second, the widow and her coins, I think Jesus is offering a lament. He’s saying: Look at how broken this system is - this system that is supposed to draw people closer to God, this system that is supposed to center those whom God has told us are ours to care for and love and especially attend to - instead, this system, set up in the name of God, has been manipulated so that those in power are taking from those without, so that those who are wealthy are taking from those who are poor, so that these men of high standing are able to exploit this women with no standing, so that she feels compelled to give her everything to a system that is all too willing to take everything from her. This widow should have been especially treasured. And instead, she’s got nothing left to give. And that we use her story to encourage people to give to church is like a strange gospel-gaslighting that does that exact opposite of what I think Jesus intended. We’ve focused on the widow’s offering, but I think Jesus wanted us to focus on the widow. To remember that she is ours, that we belong to one another in community, and in responsibility, that she should be a recipient of love and compassion and care, not exploitation.
Who else is Jesus calling to our attention? To yours, to mine? As I think about this widow, this woman who was at risk and vulnerable and exploited, I think about the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women - that’s November 25th this year. Unfortunately, it coincides with Thanksgiving Day, where I’m afraid, ironically, our thanksgiving to God might mean inattention to the very matters this day seeks to highlight. The focus of the Day this year is the Shadow Pandemic - “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” (3) “Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it.” (3) How can we pay attention to those who are hurting? God has asked us to love one another, and God has asked us to bring to the center those who are marginalized as an act of love. How are we caring for the women and girls who endure such pain and violence? Do we recognize corrupt systems that bring harm and violence to the vulnerable? Jesus is trying to help us take note, that we might love like God loves - and God notices the pain of God’s people.
Jesus’s lament over the widow ends Chapter 12 in Mark’s gospel, but the division of chapters is something that is added later into the scriptures by interpreters, not by the writers. If I was the interpreter, I would have made the chapter break a couple of verses later. Because what Jesus says and does right after his lament about the widow feeling compelled to give her all to the temple system?: Jesus exits the temple, and one of his disciples comments on how big the stones are that were used to construct the building. And Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon the other; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus was right - the temple was soon destroyed. Jesus’ words about the temple were used against him when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin - he was accused of blasphemy and of wanting to overthrow the religious leaders so that he could rule. Or he is counted by gospel interpreters as foretelling the destruction of the temple as a kind of predicting the future. But for me? I think Jesus’s words tie in so clearly to what he’s just been trying to say. He looks at the temple, at this house meant to be God’s house that instead is a site of exploitation of the vulnerable, and he says: “Someday, this system of oppression will be no more. It will all be thrown down.” That, to me, is the good news of this text. The systems of oppression will be dismantled.
Sometimes this dismantling of systems can happen with a system-wide failure that brings everything suddenly to a halt. But more often dismantling systems of oppression require taking it apart stone by stone, just as that great building that the disciple so admired was put in place stone by stone. When we think about the oppression of women, violence against women and girls, violence against the vulnerable in our context, today, in our communities, in our lives - what is one stone we can work on removing from a structure of patriarchy, dominance, exploitation, and oppression? Stone by stone, with God’s help, we can dismantle oppression.
To be a community, to be the body of Christ, we have to care for one another, our response to God’s love for us, our way of demonstrating our love for God. As we follow in the rhythms of Christ, we learn to notice those who have been overlooked, and to make it our priority, our passion, and our privilege to throw down any walls, any obstacles, and structures and systems that prevent God’s beloved from being drawn to the center of our attention, of our hearts. Amen.
The sermon title and this question come from David Lose’s reflection here: David Lose, https://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/, “Pentecost 24B: Surprisingly Good News,” In the Meantime.
Haslam, Chris, “Comments,” http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/bpr32m.shtml