Remember the things our parents taught us about religion? Or the things we taught our own kids about religion?
Like about prayer: You’d better pray that that stain comes out of that couch!
Like about obedience: Because I said so!
Like about compassion: If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!
Like about perseverance: You’ll sit right there until you finish up those lima beans!
Like about the blessing of receiving: Boy, you’re going to get it when we get home!
Like about tradition: You’re just like your big sister/brother!
What we hear and what we believe about life and what we have learned from significant people in our lives can make a huge difference to us.
I still eat all my lima beans.
But sometimes we have to unlearn things too.
The traditional interpretation given to Mark’s story of the widow and the coins, the Widow’s Mite, is one example of what we might need to unlearn. There might be some wise unlearning the widow could do too.
This story has been used for years as an example of generous giving. A lot of reputable sources support the “generous widow” interpretation. There are other sources, equally reputable, that acknowledge a sharp twinge of discomfort that the “generous widow” interpretation gives them.
So let’s see whether or not the heart-warming story of the widow’s mite is about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice.
Or. Is it a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable – like the widow?
Let’s look at the setting of the story itself. Jerusalem. The Temple. (Capital T Temple) A glorious structure not yet completed, but complete enough that it is still beautiful, impressive, and above all, functional.
The inner sanctum is finished, of course; the Holy of Holies is in place. And like the waves you make when you drop a rock into a lake, or a puddle, the architecture consists of courtyards, each one farther from the high altar, out to, finally, the women’s courtyard. Each one becomes more accessible to the public, even, finally, to [eye roll] women.
Hmm. Where can we collect offerings so that we’ll get the most money? Certainly not near the high altar, not many people are allowed up there. The men’s court might be good.
But what about the women? They have money too, and they’re not allowed in the men’s court. So, we’ll put the offering collection stations in the women’s court.
After all, the men have to pass through there to get to their own area, so we should do well. There were over a dozen trumpet-shaped receptacles lined up along the walls of the Court of Women. These receptacles were made of metal, so that when coins were dropped in, (no paper money then), they clanged against the metal as they were swallowed up.
Well, “swallowed up” sounds as if they were never to be seen again. Actually the temple priests collected the coins from the narrow ends of the trumpets and used them for their own needs, their wants, the continued building of the temple, and, they claimed, as aid for the poor.
As people tossed in their offerings, they were expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of their gifts so that the priest overseeing the collections, could hear.
Can you imagine that happening here today? Saying aloud as your offering goes into the collection plate, “Here’s my ten dollars. I want it to go toward paying the light bill.”
In today’s story, Jesus and his disciples are sitting across from the collection trumpets, watching the people, many of whom are scribes whom Jesus roundly condemns. In fact, publicly, within earshot of his targets, Jesus hurls scathing insults at the scribes by urging the crowd to be wary of them.
Why? Because in the synagogue the scribes arrogantly claim the best seats, which are those on a raised platform facing the people. There the scribes can be clearly seen. The scribes seated on these chairs rest their backs against the same wall that holds the ark which contains the Torah.
Takes me back to Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye longingly wishes to be a rich man, so that maybe he, too, would have a seat by the eastern wall.
At banquets scribes took the best seats, which were reserved for people of importance. For people, like scribes, who don’t need to do hard physical labor, who can walk around in nice clean, flowing robes with clean hems.
Imagine the disciples, coming for the first time from rural Galilee to the big city, dusty, probably with dirty hems on their robes, so impressed.
“Master, look at those Scribes, people who’ve spent their whole lives studying the scriptures. Look at their long robes! Look at how the public fawns on them.”
Jesus is unimpressed. “Beware of these Scribes who walk around in long robes and receive honor from the public,” he says.
Have you ever been to Hollywood? To Rodeo Drive? I spent quite a few of my growing up years in Southern California, and occasionally we’d go to Hollywood. To Rodeo Drive. It was fun to watch the “beautiful people” going in and out of shops there. We figured they were movie stars, celebrities of all kinds. Anyone who could afford to shop in those stores had to be somebody important.
Likewise anybody who could afford to pour out a bagful of coins into the temple treasury must be somebody of importance, somebody worthy of notice.
“Many rich people put in large sums,” says Mark.
And boy, are all those coins noisy, rattling down the greedy throats of the metal trumpets. These big givers aren’t just flaunting their wealth; they are, to their credit, doing the Lord’s work. Aren’t they? Aren’t they?
Helping support the Temple. That’s important. They’re doing as the scribes tell them they should do, furthering temple construction, supporting the priests, and aiding the poor.
Let’s zoom in now for a close-up on the featured character in today’s story, one of the poor -- the widow. Her status as widow would be apparent by her obvious poverty. Widows figure way down on the social and economic totem pole. To be a widow was actually considered a calamity and a disgrace.
Religious tradition said that if a man died before his time, it was the result of sin. And that sin would extend to his wife – his widow. Hence her status, or lack thereof.
Now here’s the point Jesus is getting at. The religious leaders, and that includes the scribes, teach sacrificial giving. And they promise to redistribute some of the Temple collections to the needy.
Hmm. So for example, a poor widow, Miriam, sacrificially puts three drachmas into a collection trumpet.
The priests “generously” help her out. They give her – two drachmas. Jesus points out that the scribes devour the estates of widows who give sacrificially. The scribes devour not only their coins, but their estates in conspicuous consumption, both personal and architectural.
So our widow puts her last two coins into the trumpet.Were they her last two ever? Will she now starve to death?
Some people think they hear Jesus say, “this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the other people; what a wonderful example of self-sacrifice and devotion to God.”
But instead. I think he’s saying, “I told you those scribes devour widows’ estates. And there it is. She has been devoured. I rest my case.”
Jesus will not praise systems that leave poor people with nothing, will not praise systems of privileged people who are claiming to be God’s people.
Back to the widow who has two coins, very small coins, worth almost nothing. She throws in her coins, which would make a tiny chinkle, and she probably states the amount and intent in a whisper.
And Jesus notices this almost invisible, almost inaudible figure.
What does the widow’s story say to us today?
It tells us to focus on the widow and to care. Our capacity to care is a measure of our self-worth. Let me say that again. Our capacity to care is a measure of our self-worth. It gives our life meaning. Caring is part of the most important commandments.
The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. That’s caring.
The second, as important, is to love our neighbor as ourself. That includes caring about and for the widow.
It has been wisely said that our applications for a place in God’s Kingdom should include letters of recommendation from the poor, from immigrants, from widows, from all who would welcome the Lord’s hand in their midst.
Sadly, many of these people are invisible. So often people don’t see the needy of our world. (Probably I’m preaching to the choir here.)
Thankfully Jesus comes to heal blindness so that all can see the widows, to heal deafness so that all can hear the meagerness of their sacrifices, to heal hearts so that all can feel the pain of those who suffer.
One of the most important ways in which we hear the cry of the poor is through listening to the response of our own hearts to their pain and need.
Equally important is truly to listen to their stories. To hear their stories. In order to have eyes to see and ears to hear, we all must have hearts to feel, because hardness or numbness of heart makes us oblivious to the suffering of the poor.
That’s a terrible spiritual danger, especially for a privileged people. Is that a radical idea? A radical teaching? Does it apply to us?
The thing that makes Christ’s teachings radical, not to mention difficult, is that they obligate us to do something about them.
What do we do? Like the widow, we give everything.
Wait a minute. I thought her giving 100% of her wealth was not what this gospel is about.
You’re right. It’s not. It’s not 100% of our wealth. What we should give is ourselves. 100%.
So that we can love the Lord and our neighbor completely.
So, we give our Lord Jesus our hand to do His bidding.
We give our feet to go His way.
We give our eyes and ears to see and hear as He does.
We give our tongue to speak his words.
We give our minds that He may think through us.
We give our spirit that he may pray through us.
We give our whole self that he may work through us.
Let’s use pay close attention to Jesus’ warning.
When he looks at the Temple and sees that it is rotten to the core, he’s making not only a religious statement, but a political one as well.
Jesus finds himself not only trying to revolutionize the society of his time. The lasting legacy of that casual incident in the Court of Women is that what we hear Jesus say to his disciples, then and now, is, “Such a system is corrupt. People like this widow shouldn’t have to live like that.
It is clearly unjust. The God I bear witness to does not ask that of us. Our God does not expect us to give all our money so that we have nothing left.”
What does our God expect of us? As we answer that question, we need to remember that our God is a God of justice and mercy.
For which we give thanks.