Sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
As I noted last Sunday night during the announcements and then again in both the song sheet notices and the weekly email news, these final two months of the year are the crucial ones in terms of church offerings and a balanced budget. This is just a reality for both churches and charitable organizations; as the year comes to an end, many people have an eye on their income taxes and charitable givings, meaning that a disproportionately high percentage of offerings and gifts are received in the closing six or eight weeks of the year. Thing is, until that actually happens, there is always a certain level of anxiety for those entrusted with the administration of things like budgets, so it is not uncommon in most churches to hear what is somewhat euphemistically called the “stewardship sermon” sometime in the final few months of the year.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Well then, could you ask for a more obvious Gospel text than the story of the widow’s gift? Jesus and his disciples are sitting opposite the place at the temple where people deposited their offerings, and after watching several wealthy people drop in substantial amounts of money, a poor widow came and dropped in two small copper coins. Jesus said to the 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, all she had to live on.” At this point the preacher can make what would appear to be two rather obvious points.
Firstly, no gift is too small… in fact, the little gift of someone who has very little to begin with is worth far more than the large donation from someone who has a great big bank account. It is—at least at first glance—an instance of that recurring theme of the great reversal of things, in which the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. And so, the preacher might say, the five or ten or twenty dollar bill given by the person on a fixed income or by the university student who is swimming upstream against student debt and living off of Kraft dinner is the greater gift. And you know, there really is something in that.
Secondly, if the preacher is getting particularly nervous about meeting the annual budget—if the church treasurer has just told him or her that things are looking very tight—then the emphasis might be more on calling the congregation to rise to the challenging example of that widow; to give “not out of their abundance” as the gospel phrases it, but to press into something closer to what that widow did. Not that you’re likely to hear a preacher suggest that people should go to the extremes that this widow went, “putting in everything she had, all she had to live on”… but if she could do that, shouldn’t we be more generous? In that light, consider your givings for the year. Amen.
Well, there are some serious problems with hearing and engaging the text in this way, not the least of which is the issue of bending a text to suit our particular purposes. We really need to hear the story in context; in the whole of the story that Mark is telling as he offers us his gospel account. On that front, I’m delighted that the lectionary has us start our reading a few verses prior to the story of the widow’s offering. Listen to those verses again:
As Jesus taught, he 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.”
“Beware of the scribes,” Jesus said to them. “Beware of the scribes.” As the biblical scholar Emerson Powery notes, from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus has been shown as being in some real tension with the scribes. In chapter one of the gospel, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught, and “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk. 1:21) Not that they are all painted with the same broad brush—there is one notable instance in which Jesus honours a scribe for his understanding of the torah’s heart, telling him he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34)—but on the whole they stand in a kind of fundamental tension with him.
And so her Powery comments that “[Jesus’] tirade against the scribal class offered a harsh critique of their pride: desiring the best seats at synagogue or greetings of honor in the agora”; in the public square.” But it really ramps up in the next line, when Jesus says that they “devour widows’ houses”, which in all likelihood means that they have been leaning on widowed women as a source of support and income. In most cases, widowed women were economically vulnerable and socially marginalized. They had no real status, no real place, which is why in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament there is this call to care for “the widows and the orphans.” But evidently this is a call that has been set aside by many of the scribes…
For those in positions of honour and advantage to prey on those who have the least status, the least security; for Jesus this is an appalling thing. It is a theme that is critically explored by both Langston Hughes in his novel Tambourines to Glory and by James Baldwin in Go Tell it on the Mountain. Both novels are by African-American writers, both are set in Harlem in the first half of the 20th century, and both have the same deep problem in view; in the name of Jesus Christ, there are preachers who are effectively devouring the “widows’ houses”; targeting the poor and pressing them for money. It is a theme that has surfaced again in the stories of some of the televangelists drawing much of their support from people on limited or fixed incomes, and using it to build their own little empires. And in at least some of those circles, it all gets tied to a spiritually bankrupt theology of blessing and prosperity. Of course I should drive a luxury car, wear expensive clothing, live in a beautiful house… it just shows that the Lord has blessed me. And the Lord will bless you too, as you give to this ministry.
The best seats, places of honour, long robes, respectful greetings, and long, fancy prayers… all the while devouring the most vulnerable. Could Jesus be more clear?
And then they watch as a widow comes and places the very last of her coins in the temple treasury—“everything she had, all she had to live on”—you really have to ask, are we watching as one of those widows is devoured? Not that Jesus leaps up to stop her. Nor does he go and twist the arms of the wealthy to give more. Yet as Emerson Powery notes, “Jesus’ observation about the ‘poor widow’ who sacrificed the only economic resources she had left was a natural progression from his critique of scribal abuse of the widows’ homes.” And just in case we had any doubt on that front, the verses that immediately follow this scene reveal that the temple treasury itself is in fact a blind alley. “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’” Would you look at this place, the small town boy is saying. There’s nothing like this back in Galilee! “Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” (Mk 13:1-2)
Again, note that Jesus doesn’t stand in the widow’s way when she makes her gift. In fact he honours her in that powerful way, saying that she has given more than all of the others combined. As Mark tells this story, it is this nameless nobody he most wants us to have in view; to identify and empathize with. And Mark also want to hear how profoundly critical of the various representatives of the religious establishment Jesus is, and how sure he is that in time the institution would come crashing down; both literally and metaphorically. As Larry Hurtado puts it, “It is only this widow in all her simplicity and poverty that Jesus cites as worthy of the attention of his followers.” And perhaps part of attending to her means that the movement that he births be recalled to the care of widows like her, who have been stripped of all they have both by cultural circumstance and by the dubious religious subculture of an entitled leadership.
You know, this actually is a stewardship sermon. Not one about meeting a budget by pushing for increased offerings—that would actually just be a fund-raising speech—but instead one about being good stewards of integrity. Stewards who don’t tell lies to ourselves about our own entitlements, our charitable largess, or pride of place, but rather who seek to live, pray, share, and—yes—give from a place of truthfulness and faithful integrity.