Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
North Fork Ministries
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "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."
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."
As one who often walks around in long robes, is usually treated with some measure of respect in the marketplace, and certainly occupies the best seat in the synagogue, I considered whether this might be a good day to ignore the Gospel and preach on the Old Testament reading. But then I would have to deal with the steamy story of Naomi advising her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, to pretty herself up, head over to Boaz’ tent, uncover his feet, lie down beside him, and do whatever he says to do. My guess is that preachers throughout the land, in these days of the "Me Too" movement, are a little uncomfortable telling this story. And we may be a little uncomfortable with it as well.
So I’ll just deal with the personally discomforting nature of the gospel reading this morning and plunge in. Besides, that business with the robes and the best seat in the house isn’t really the part of this Jesus story that bothers me. The part that really gives me pause is the decision of the poor widow to put her last two pennies into the Temple treasury. The narrative leaves me wondering how this widow is going to live after giving away all that she had. What was she going to eat? What was she going to wear?
A simplistic telling of the story of the widow’s mite, the way I remember it being told by preachers and teachers of my childhood, can too readily lead to a situation where we ask the most vulnerable in society to give the most.
The church has a tendency to place the poor widow on a pedestal, holding her up as a model of sacrifice. But note that Jesus doesn’t praise this woman’s sacrifice. He merely points out that the two coins given by the widow are worth more than the greater offerings of the rich.
It is, in fact, the poor that are usually asked to sacrifice. Already, the poor sacrifice their health, their energy, their wellbeing - often in return for paltry wages. Jesus isn’t presenting this as a model for society to emulate.
I grew up singing a hymn “I Surrender All”, but in fact, most of us are reluctant to surrender even some. The poor widow didn’t just give her last two cents, she gave all that she had, everything that she was.
We are in the midst of our stewardship campaign, the way in which we fund the work of the church for the next year. Upon first glance, you might think that the lectionary reading for the day would be a gift to a preacher called to preach a stewardship sermon. I’m not so sure. You see, upon more careful reading, we find a story of an institution, the synagogue treasury, that is sucking the very life out of widows. If that is the case with this religious institution, The Church of the Holy Trinity/The Church of the Redeemer, we deserve neither the widow’s mite, nor the large sums of the rich people. Our mission, like that of the Christ, is to bring new life. It is only if we bring life, bring richness, to one another and to the community outside these walls, that this church merits an offering, a share of the abundance we have received.
Observing the widow place two small copper coins in the treasury, Jesus holds her actions up in contrast with the manner of giving practiced by the Temple elite. The widow’s action, in fact, is emblematic of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the established order.
The plight of widows is also center stage in the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite who had married a Hebrew who died, and as a widow, had no rights and under Hebraic law, no inheritance. She was an undocumented immigrant. And like all widows at the time, she lived on the edge of survival and was among society’s most vulnerable. Her condition compelled her to make choices that no human being should be asked to make.
Ruth’s choice, as a widow, was to glean leftover grain from a field that had already been harvested. And then to escape the harshness of her condition was advised by Naomi to sleep beside the field’s owner. The poor widow in the temple has the choice of keeping or giving up her last two pennies. Today, in America, the poor are often pressed to choose between food and medicine. All over this country there are families living in their automobiles, whose choice on a given day is whether to spend their last dollars on food or on the gasoline needed to look for work.
I know one immigrant mother, who on the eve of being deported to Latin America, was compelled to choose between her children, one a U.S. citizen and the other not. She had to choose whether to take one with her and leave the other behind or to condemn both to a life of poverty. These are the kind of choices that confront society’s most vulnerable.
But as we find, in the story of Ruth and Naomi, God works in surprising ways. In the midst of circumstances that we find troubling, relationships that we may find disconcerting, and unfamiliar – God is still at work and we are asked to be God’s laboring hands and feet.
I think that we reveal the limits of our imagination when we think of the widow’s giving of the two mites as a lesson of how we are to give to the church. We are, indeed, called to give all that we have. Not just on Sunday mornings, but during the week as well. The kind of discipleship we are called on to practice isn’t a Sunday morning “drop an offering into the plate” kind of discipleship. We are called on to ask ourselves, “Do I use my influence in society to advocate on the behalf of those who are most vulnerable? Do I support policies and political candidates that work to help those who exist at the margins? Do I buy products from a company that considers the wellbeing of its employees and suppliers, or is the bottom line the only consideration? As servant leaders we are compelled to ask how we can influence the organizations that we are a part of to contribute to society, not simply offer a pittance “from their abundance”,
In the end stewardship isn’t really about giving. We can’t give what is not ours to begin with. We really don’t own anything. We are asked to be good stewards, to manage, to take care of what is God’s already. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the raw materials that are the basis for the creation of the wealth we share, all emanate from the Divine. We may have accumulated it, but it’s still not ours. And if we are to properly handle the resources with which we have been charged, we have to act in the interests of the owner. And the owner, as depicted in all the great religious traditions, calls on us to live in freedom from possessions, to live generously, and to act in defense of those who are most vulnerable, those who suffer because of our greed, so that all may share in the life abundant.
In the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”