Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Widow's Mite or the Widow's Might?

Twenty-Third Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 27) – Year B (RCL)
1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Sunday, November 8, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

From a structural standpoint, how do you view the portion of Mark’s gospel that we just read? Is it two stories, or is it one story with two parts? How you answer that question can greatly impact how you interpret the sum total of the words we just heard. So what’s the right answer? Is it two stories or one? Well, the correct answer is “yes.” Let’s take a look at today’s gospel both ways and you’ll see what I mean.

In many ways, today’s gospel looks to be two stories. In fact, if you look in a Bible, today’s lesson is spit into two pericopes. The first is Jesus teaching in the temple. He observes some scribes and uses this as an opportunity to reinforce his previous teachings about personal glorification. You will recall that Jesus has previously taught the disciples to give up aspirations of power, reputation, prestige, place of honor. The first part of the lesson attacks these attitudes in the scribes, who exemplify all that Jesus has been criticizing and condemning: scribes wearing long robes as a sign of wealth; scribes strutting their stuff and looking to be recognized in the marketplace, a public arena where the common folk would witness the honor bestowed upon them; scribes seeking the best seats in church and at banquets, indicating that they are people of status. In addition, Jesus goes on the attack because of the scribes’ hypocrisy. He strongly suggests that the scribes have likely exploited their position for personal financial gain. In short, their piety is a façade.

The second story shifts location to the temple treasury, where people are coming forward and presenting their monetary offerings. Jesus calls attention to the fact that a number of rich people are giving large sums of money. That’s certainly admirable. But then, a poor widow comes in to present her offering. She gives a measly two copper coins. That’s nothing compared to what the others have given. But Jesus points out that this woman gave an offering of all that she had to live on.

The words “all she had to live on” can also be translated as “her whole life” – she gave everything, held nothing back in her devotion to God. Proportionally speaking, she gave a greater share than the others. Forget the tithe. Her faith was so great that she gave her entire self to God. In so doing, the widow puts God first, thereby putting her own needs and wants into God’s hands. The wealthy, on the other hand, give from their surplus, putting their own wants and desires first, thereby putting God farther down the list of priorities.

The widow’s offering speaks volumes of how she views God compared to how the wealthy in the same story view God. For the wealthy, giving to God is out of a sense of duty. What is given is from the surplus, the leftovers after all other wants and desires are taken care of. But for the widow, her offering was more than just two coins. It was more than the sum total of her entire financial resources. It was even more than the offering of her entire life to God. Her offering of all she had represents her total, unwavering trust in God. In giving all that she had, she was placing her well-being, the possibility for continued existence, in God’s hands. She trusted that God would take care of her. In her faithfulness to God, she knew that God would be faithful to her.

The bottom line of this second story is that this woman is unencumbered by the cares of the world that prevent most people from entering fully into God’s kingdom. As Emilie Townes writes, “The coins represent faith-filled offering found in presenting all of who we are and all we hope to become to God for service to the world . . . It is not so much the act of giving or receiving, as it is the act of being” (Townes, 286). It is the act of being faithful to God. It is the act of trusting in God. It is the act of living into the promise of the Kingdom of God. Not just saying that we believe it, but rather living as if we truly believe that what we say is true.

So here we have two stories. One having the purpose of reinforcing Jesus’ teachings that personal glory is not what the Kingdom of God is about. And the second, providing a complementary message about what it means to be truly devoted to the Kingdom. There two stories, when looked at side-by-side, provide a study in contrast, focusing on values – particularly illustrating the values of the Kingdom of God – seeking personal glory versus selfless offering of self. We have a message directed to each of us on a personal level, about how we view our faith and how we chose to live it out.

That’s a look at the gospel lesson treated as two separate, although complementary, stories. Now what happens if we take them as one unified story? What message is revealed? What connects the two halves of this broader story is the widow herself – or at least the concept of widowhood. It is important to remember that in the society of the first century, women had no real social standing. There are the occasional stories of women owning property or having some sort of financial means, but this is really the exception rather than the rule. In general, a woman in first century Palestine was dependent on her male family members for her support. A girl was dependent on her father. Then when she got married, she became dependent on her husband. If her husband died before she did, she was left without means of support. There were no social service agencies as we know them. A widow’s only means of support was other male relatives, typically her sons. If a widow had no male relatives, she was left without a means of financial support.

The only hope in all of this was that if a widow did not have sons or other male relatives, she herself would inherit any property her husband may have owned. At least she would have a place to live. And if she happened to own some farm land, she might have some source of income. But being a woman, she would not have any experience in managing such affairs. So she would need help from someone else. Enter the scribes. The scribes were part of the religious system, interpreters of the law. They had charge of legal documents and financial matters. Hence, one of the things that they did was to help manage the financial affairs of those who did not have the knowhow. It would not be uncommon for a widow to engage the services of a scribe to help her manage her property. For a price. Well, as Jesus implies in the first part of the story, when he says that the scribes “devour widows’ houses,” some of these scribes were less than scrupulous and used their position to take advantage of naïve widows for personal financial gain. The result? The scribes, those who were supposed to be helping the widows, contributed to and worsened their condition of poverty – the implied example being the widow in the temple.

In short, this broader story provides a critique of the religious system that allowed, even facilitated, the widow being destitute in the first place. Things are a little different in our own day. It is not the religious system that results in the poor among us. It is a broader societal issue. But that does not mean that the church does not have a part to play. We may not have caused the problem, but the teachings of Jesus Christ and the overall Gospel message regarding justice and mercy dictate that we certainly have a responsibility to be a part of the solution. Here we have a message directed to us collectively, to the church, about how the church needs to be concerned not with pledges and attendance figures, but with issues of justice and mercy, with the marginalized.

So, looking at the stories one way, side-by-side, we have a study in contrast, focusing on personal values – particularly illustrating the values of the Kingdom of God – that the Kingdom is not about personal glory but rather is about the complete offering of self to God and to the work of the Kingdom. And looking at today’s lesson as a unified whole, we have a condemnation of the systems that contribute to poverty and the marginalization of others, and an implied injunction that even though we don’t cause the problem, part of our job as a community of faith, as the followers of God and of Christ, is that we have an obligation to do something about such injustices, such poverty.

So bringing all of this full-circle, the combined message of complete giving of self to God for the work of the Kingdom of God, and the injunction to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized in our midst, gives us a very clear picture of what it means to be Christians. The stories bring together the personal and the communal. How do we be Christians individually? And then, how does that translate into being a Christian community?

Of course, it is easy when we hear such stories as today’s gospel lesson to beat ourselves up. We certainly are not like the widow, giving absolutely everything we have to God and thereby relying on God’s grace and mercy to take care of us. Neither are we like the scribes, strutting our stuff in search of praise and personal glorification. But I would venture that in our own minds we all seem to be able to relate a little more to the scribes than to the widow. And so, we tend to beat ourselves up, focusing on what we see as our shortcomings and inadequacies. Or, we may become despondent, feeling that the world’s problems are just to massive, and we are just one person, just one parish. There is no way we could be possibly make any real difference.

Now lest we all start feeling that the situation is hopeless, and rather than focus on our perceived shortcomings and inadequacies, what we can do is focus on opportunities. That’s what this time of the year is about – this time of our annual stewardship campaign. This is a time when we have the opportunity to examine who we are, what we are doing to live into who God is calling us to be, both individually and as a parish, and to make adjustments as necessary. This is a time when we have the opportunity to evaluate how we contribute to the work of the Kingdom in terms of the time we devote to parish programs and activities, the monetary support we provide for that work, and the God-given talents we bring to this place to enable Trinity to do the work God has called us to do as the part of the Kingdom of God here in Redlands.

Maybe in this process, we as individuals, and we as a parish community, can try to relate a little less to the scribes and try to relate a little more to the widow. Maybe we can live a little less as the scribes do, and try living a little more as the widow does. Maybe we could trust God just a little bit more – trust that when we give of ourselves to him, when we are faithful to him, he will, in return give of himself to us and be faithful to us – that we will not be left wanting, but rather, will be greatly blessed, nourished, and enriched for having stepped out in faith, putting forward our time, treasures, and talents for use as God sees fit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Townes, Emilie M. “Mark 12:38-44, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers17-Reign of Christ). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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