I softened this up as I was preaching it, wanting to give my congregation more kudos for its generosity in service. But this version is close enough:
Today’s gospel story is one that many of us have read and heard many times, and so we may bring some preconceptions to it. To start with, we may read it in a Bible in which the passage is captioned with the title, The Widow’s Mite. And so our first preconception may be that the story is entirely about a widow and her small and almost worthless coins. Secondly, when we hear the word “widow,” that often brings a particular image to mind: most likely an elderly woman, someone who draws little attention to herself, someone who plays only a small role in the life of a community. And finally, we tend to think of Biblical narratives as moralistic stories, stories which point out a quick lesson, easily understood – although perhaps not so easily followed.
A widow, an old woman, and the admonishment to give your money away to the temple – or, in our case, the church. It sounds pretty simple.
Let’s see what we can do to debunk this simple approach.
In the first place, the story itself, on the face of it, is not merely about the widow and her mite. That’s really Part II. Part I is about the scribes, the temple leaders whose task it was to copy and preserve the scriptural texts and to prepare other documents needed for transactions in the life of the temple and the religious life of the people. Scribes were leaders of considerable prestige, as they were literate – they could read and write -- unusual in that time and place – and they were in charge of the documentation of religious life. They had a great deal of power, which they were frequently guilty of exploiting. Look at how Jesus describes them: They “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 devour widows’ houses! Before we even get to the widow, Part I of the story tells us that the officials in charge of religious life exploit those who are most vulnerable in their society. They may take houses from those who cannot pay their taxes and are powerless to resist, they may insist upon huge mortgages against the homes of the impoverished and disenfranchised; they take advantage of those without husbands and sons to defend them. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this story is so often referred to as The Story of the Widow’s Mite? Perhaps we need to re-edit our Bibles and call it The Story of the Arrogant and Ravenous Scribes.
Now, what about the widow? When I began to think about widows and look for images of widows, I realized immediately that widows are women in all age brackets. Of course, many women are widowed in their senior years, although few of them are self-retiring, or play small roles in the community! But four of my friends have become widows in the last few years, in their fifties. Military and war widows are often very young, in their twenties and thirties. Some of you have been widowed young, and then perhaps widowed a second time when you were older. (And I’m not intentionally leaving out the men who have been widowed – not at all! But widowhood in Biblical times brought with it particular hardships having to do with gross gender inequities. Women in Jesus’ times were entirely dependent upon male relatives – fathers, husbands, and sons – for income, status, and housing, so to be widowed was to be pushed into a dire situation. Thus Jesus, and the prophets in the centuries before him, often emphasized the plight of widows.)
When I began to look for illustrations of this text, I found the same variety in the various depictions of widows. In some paintings and pictures, the widow appears as an elderly woman; in others, as a young woman. In one particularly striking piece, the widow is a beautiful young woman, looking confidently and directly forward, while surrounded by the scribes, elderly, white-bearded men who look as if they and their rules will crush her. And in some poignant paintings, the widow appears as a young woman with a child, or even children, clinging to her. There are many ways and stages of life at which widowhood can pose a threat to well-being.
So: We have the scribes, criticized by Jesus for their pride and their exploitation of the poor. And we have the widow, who gives everything she has to the temple treasury. And perhaps we conclude there: We say that yes, the story has a point. It conveys a moral lesson, and that lesson is: Give away all that you have. This poor widow becomes an example of sacrificial giving, and that pretty much wraps the story up.
Or does it? Is this story not about something beyond the individuals involved? Is it not about systemic poverty and injustice, and about how we in Christian community are called to respond?
We as Christians have, in the last several decades, come to understand our faith in a way that is problematic ~ problematic for us, for Christian culture, and for the whole world. We have developed an understanding of faith that is extremely personal, that is all about each one of us as individuals. We talk about what “I” get out of church. We talk about what “I” want from my life of faith. In some traditions, Christians talk an awful lot about “personal salvation.” Sometimes we think it’s all about “Jesus and me.” And we often interpret stories like today’s in that very personal sort of way. I’m not like the scribes: I don’t walk around showing off how religious I am; I don’t make gifts just so my name can appear on plaques, and I certainly don’t cheat poor widows out of money rightfully theirs, or evict them from their homes. In fact, if I’m like anyone at all in this story, I’m like the widow. OK, I don’t give away everything that I have, but I do give generously and sometimes even sacrificially. And if I don’t have much money to give, I give of my time and my energy and my gifts and skills. When I look at myself in terms of this story, I come off pretty well.
But this story, this story which we will now call The Story of the Arrogant Scribes and the Widow, is not just about the individuals involved. It’s not just about me, or about you. It’s about an entire system ~ about systemic injustice. It’s about how individual choices, such as those made by the scribes, are supported by, and in term support, an entire system in which wealth is funneled to the wealthy, in which prestige of position places the unworthy on pedestals, and in which what trickles down to the poor is more poverty, poorer health, more prison time, less education.
Sound familiar? That struggle continues, does it not? In our neighborhoods and in our country and in our world? It should be no trouble at all for us to envision a society in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer ~ and land in prison instead of in college.
The challenges of poverty and injustice are community problem. They call for community solutions. And yet, as that widow knew, community solutions depend on individual actions. Community solutions depend upon individuals with the courage to step forward and to act. Community solutions depend upon individuals willing to engage in what Professor Karoline Lewis calls “whole life living.”* Community solutions depend upon individuals willing to give it all away.
What does that mean for us? In many ways, we have been doing just that, engaging in “whole life living,” during the past several months. We have recognized that our calling, our vocation, is not to sustain the trappings of the church in a way that the scribes of our story were doing with their temple. We have come to understand that faithful living as Christians does not mean spending large sums of money to maintain a building far too big for us, or to support worship and programming for a small group of people. Small sums of money for a small group ~ sure. But we were spending large sums ~ money that could go toward justice in our communities rather than for self-preservation. And not just money – but time, and energy, and all of our gifts ~ we are called to put them all toward something far beyond ourselves.
We are giving up the institutional trappings of our lives of faith, the trappings symbolized by the scribes. And we have turned to God in trust that our future as people of faith is secure. That, my friends, is “whole life living.” As individuals we have taken courageous – and yes, painful—actions, to ensure that community will be transformed. We are giving up things that have great meaning to us as individuals. The widow gave up all that she had in the form of small coins; we are giving up what we have in the form of a building and its contents, in the form of worship and other events to which we are accustomed, in the form of relationships which will move to other locations and be changed. But, like the widow, what we do will transform the faith community.
We don’t know, any more than the widow did, how our decisions might transform community. Her small act, noted and emphasized by Jesus, has spoken to Christians for 2,000 years. Perhaps our acts, too, will speak in ways that we cannot predict today.
The widow, Karoline Lewis tells us, “embodies Jesus’ own ministry. She acts out Jesus’ own call. She believes that what she does will manifest itself in something beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship . . .” and that is “the essence of God. God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life.”
We, too, are called beyond our individual selves and our individual desires. We are called into the whole community of Christ. We are called to live as fully as possible as his disciples. We are called to change the world through whole life living, to give away what we have, and to trust that God calls us to something beyond what we can imagine this morning. Thanks be to God.
*Working Preacher for this Sunday.