The Widow’s Mite

Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

One can only begin to imagine how many stewardship sermons have been preached from the second half of today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus deems the small gift of a widow as being worth “more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” “Many rich people put in large sums,” Mark tells us, yet they are said to “have contributed out of their abundance; she out of her poverty.” Most modern versions translate her offering as being “two small copper coins,” but in the King James version it is “two mites”—“And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing”—and so the story became widely known as “the widow’s mite.” In fact, the image of the “widow’s mite” became a common way of saying that even the smallest of offerings and gifts are to be respected.

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It is common to hear the text as praising the widow for her sacrificial giving. She’s the model, right? David Lose, Biblical Preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, suggests that it is tempting to sum it up as follows: “Now that’s faith, Jesus seems to say, inviting us—especially during fall stewardship campaigns—to do the same.” For the preacher wanting to encourage the congregation to look at matters of financial gifts and giving, it would seem that the story creates a kind of level playing field. You’re a student or someone on a fixed income for whom $25 a month is not an insignificant bit of money? Well, that gift will be treated with as much respect as one coming from the biggest financial giver in the congregation.

Yet is there more going on here than that. I think this is where it is helpful to remember that as Mark wrote his gospel he was assuming that it would be read as a single continuous narrative. We have these bound books called Bibles, which are divided into books, chapters, and verses, and we’ve grown accustomed to reading these texts in short passages. But did you know that the Bible was only divided into chapters in the early 13th century, and that the verse system only appeared in the mid-16th century, occasioned by the invention of the printing press? As was true of all of the New Testament authors, Mark’s assumption was that long sections of his book would be read aloud to a gathered community. In fact because Mark’s gospel is relatively short and fast-paced, he probably assumed that those early church communities would have heard it read aloud in one sitting.

So let me back up and position today’s text in its larger context, which is how Mark intended it be heard. The Jesus movement begins in Galilee, and it is only at the beginning of chapter 11 that he and his followers finally arrive at Jerusalem. There is the story of his entry into the city riding on a donkey (11:1-14), followed by the story of the cleansing of the temple (11:15-19), and then for a chapter and a half Jesus is shown teaching in the temple precincts. Our reading today caps off a series of scenes set at the temple, which included a set of debates with the priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. All the way through this section, Jesus is shown as a force to be reckoned with. He is tough, challenging, outspoken, unafraid of telling the truth about what he sees there in the temple. “You’ve turned the house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves,” he’d told them after chasing the merchants out of the temple. And now in the first section of today’s reading, he’d told his audience to “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!” These theologians, religious legal experts, scripture scholars… their striving for honour and the perks of office is hollow, corrupt. And there’s more: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Larry Hurtado notes that, “The reference to the scribe robbing a widow of her home probably had to do with a scribe sponging off devout people who felt an obligation to support a scribe as a representative of God’s Law.” And then Hurtado adds, “Both then and now there are examples of Jewish and Christian religious leaders who unscrupulously solicit support from simple, vulnerable people who are led to believe that they are supporting the very work of God but can ill afford to give as heavily as they are solicited to do.”

It is in this context that Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” According to the Mishnah, set against the wall in the temple’s Court of Women were thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for receiving monetary offerings. Our offerings come in the form of cheques or cash placed in discreet envelopes and dropped in baskets—or maybe in the form of automated withdrawal—such that no one has a clue as to the amount of the donation. Those very public trumpet-shaped receptacle were a rather different matter. Time it right, and a good number of people could see just how generous you were. And for the widow and her coins? Clink… clink. Everyone would know the meagerness of her gift.

As David Lose notes, this scene “is part of a much larger critique Jesus levels at the Temple and its practices more generally.” “Given that we are in the middle of Jesus’ complaints about the Temple,” Lose continues, “I wonder if his emotional affect with regard to the widow is less a matter of praise than it is lament. I wonder, that is, if he says what he says not so much to praise the widow but to indict those who would accept all that she has. Is she one of those widows that the Scribes are devouring?”

Hardly the customary reading of this text, but it is interesting to read what then follows in the gospel:

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)

“Will you look at this place,” says the small town disciple from up north, as if he’s missed everything Jesus has just said and done to critique a system that had pretty much run its course. “It will all be thrown down,” Jesus says. That way of being the people of God has become hollow, its principal proponents corrupt and self-serving, its sacrificial system little more than a set of business deals that get in the way of prayer. And (lamentably?), in support of it all, that widow has just given away her last two coins, “all she had to live on.” Not that Jesus questions the authenticity of her gift, but it may be that his words are at once a recognition of this woman’s sacrificial giving, a lament over her poverty, and an indictment of the system that has landed her there.

In our cultural context, we tend not to like to talk too personally about money, seeing it as being a bit uncouth and in poor taste to do so. Jesus, though, was not ashamed to talk about money, and neither was Paul in his various letters to his young church communities. Paul was forever challenging his communities to contribute to the needs of the struggling church based in Jerusalem, and in 1 Timothy there is issued a challenge that “those who in the present age are rich” be commanded “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6.17-21)

Perhaps this is a stewardship sermon after all. Not in the sense of saying something so basic as “every gift, no matter how small, is to be honoured,” however true that may be. Rather this is about stewardship in the sense of inviting all of us to take a look at what we have to give but also to dare to look critically—and self-critically—at the things in our own time that “devour the widow’s houses,” and to say by word and action that we beg to differ. And we are invited to do this, not as a matter of narrow religious obligation, but rather—to echo those words from 1 Timothy—“so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”

After all, whether rich or poor or somewhere in between, “the life that really is life” is the one gift we all most need to receive. And it is the only one for which it is worth our giving all.

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