November 11, 2018
As he 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.”
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 he 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.”
Maryland Presbyterian Church, it is a joy to be with you this morning. I have known a few of you from the very first day I moved to Baltimore a year and a half ago. My first official day on the job ended with a McCabe camp partners meeting. Whether it’s in a park off York Road, at presbytery gathering, or in worship here, I am always grateful to be with MPC folks – and today is no exception. Thank you for sharing your pulpit with me for a moment.
I didn’t used to preach in November. October was fine, December was fun, but November was not for me, because November is stewardship territory. Between the ordinariness of October and the apocalyptic hope of Advent rests this strange set of Sundays when the lectionary cycle gives the clergy a little push to ask for money, time, and talent from their congregations, to ask them to be a little more generous. The lectionary is full – of praise psalms, strange declarations from Jesus (though no stranger than usual) about building destruction, weeping women without children miraculously finding they are pregnant, and widows who offer aid to others.
It’s the widows who really seal the deal.
The widow in Mark’s gospel has been talked about in a particular way for centuries. I don’t know when we first started calling this story “Jesus’ praise of the widow” but the designation is so strong that even Google knows that you’re talking about when you type in the phrase.
It’s a memorable story. Jesus watches from across the room as a widow wanders in with the crowds. She is alone. Somehow, perhaps because of her tired expression or maybe by a particularly worn set of clothing, Jesus knows she has nothing but what she holds in her fist. Mark tells us they are two small copper coins – commentaries say they were the smallest measure of money a coin could be, worth about 6 minutes of the average wage paid each day. She crosses the room and breathes out as she releases these final two tethers to stability and safety, to food and shelter, her last two bargaining chips in a world that didn’t have much room for her poor, female, widowed body even when she had the two coins. But there they went, falling in with the other gifts that had been so meticulously calculated by patrons who had servants to carry the coins for them, and so never felt the weight of their gift leave their bodies like the widow did.
The coins clink as they hit the top of the pile and slide to their new home.
Jesus sees this quiet act unfolding and focuses the attention of his disciples. He points to her and says, “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.”
From pulpits she is lauded, blessed, exalted even. She is poor and she gave everything. What a mitzvah! What a generous woman! What a glowing example to be lifted before all people. She had almost nothing, and still she heeded the stewardship season call to give so the budget could be drafted responsibly, so the work of her faith community could continue as it always had. The good news offered was that rich or poor, we could all give to sustain our institution, a system, a tradition, and Jesus lauded that giving.
I have only ever filled out a pledge card twice.
The first time, I was in 7th grade. I had just finished confirmation, and had officially joined the church. The next month, an envelope with a small stack of light blue cards arrived in my mailbox with a letter reminding me that giving was a part of church life.
I have no memory of hearing a sermon about the poor widow in Mark, though I’m sure it was preached, because when I went to fill out my pledge card to give money to my church, I did so because I thought – if a poor widow had given what she had, then I could give too.
I pledged $60 for the year – $5 per month for 12 months.
The second time, I was in my first year of divinity school. I was far from my home congregation, living in a new city, and struggling. I listened via a live stream feed as the pastor of my home church delivered a message on stewardship Sunday, sharing with the congregation that he and his wife had made sure to tithe during seminary. He spoke about the blessing it had been to stay connected to the church while he was learning theology. He asked his very wealthy congregation to not be so afraid, not to live with a sense of scarcity, and instead to give generously.
I don’t know if it was this story about Mark’s widow that was read that week, but the message was the same – the preacher told his story of self-sacrifice to sustain a church in a time when he had less. If he could give when he had little, just like the poor widow, then how could we, a church where millionaires worshipped, not also give?
Feeling obligated but also genuinely wanting to participate in the life of a congregation that had taken me in as an ordination inquirer, I filled out a pledge for $500. I didn’t end up paying any of it. I made $7900 that year, and all of it was spent trying to eat and stay housed while I studied to be a pastor. Each quarterly letter I received showing the amount paid of $0.00 felt like it was printed on paper made of concrete. The guilt was enormous. I had failed to honor a promise, and worse, had failed to live up to the call to give what I had.
My guilt spiraled into anger. I wanted to curse this poor widow and her story, and I hated Mark for writing it down.
Calvin in his commentaries on the gospels wrote, “This widow must have been a person of no ordinary piety, who, rather than come empty into the presence of God, chose to part with her own living. And our Lord applauds this sincerity, because, forgetting herself, she wished to testify that she and all that she possessed belonged to God.” She was faithful, Calvin says, because she was willing to all but disappear, to die giving her last means to survive. And Jesus praises her.
This gospel word proclaimed sat in the pit of my stomach like a bowling ball. The more I thought about the widow, the more I saw her gift as something that caused wealthy people to measure their gifts by how guilty they felt, and that left the poor to sacrifice more than they could. These sermons were awful and heavy and guilt-inducing. They made me wonder whether I had a place in the church. But eventually, I found myself in the delightful position of declaring that John Calvin was wrong. Like other sermons lauding practices that lead to the downfall of the poor or that invite us to think more highly of an institution instead of a woman caught up in it, I found that this praise of the widow carried a serious flaw.
Removing the lens given to me by doctrinal justification of death by generosity, or by churches that needed to find ways to push wildly wealthy people to give more money and knew only how to speak to the poor as outsiders receiving aid and never as members, I could not find praise anywhere, and I could not find a word of hope that rested in a failed system sustained.
I returned to the scene the way Jesus entered it – with eyes on the widow, and with some suspicion for those collecting money.
Jesus didn’t stumble into the Temple that day on accident, find one widow giving, and praise her. Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, inside the Temple walls.
The Temple, then in its second iteration, was under construction. It had been under construction the entire time Jesus was alive. If the renovation had been a person, it would have outlived Jesus and most of the disciples. The state officials wanted it to become a local tourist destination, and a whole court was added for Greek visitors.
Before he sees her, amid the sound of hammers and chisels and chickens and other prophets, Jesus starts to teach and finds his way eventually to some soft condemnation of religious authority. “These scribes!” he cries. “They’re walking around the markets, demanding respect, wearing long robes, and making a scene with their prayers. But worst of all, they’ve betrayed the widows. They’ve failed to care for women without protection.” The scribes had not always forgotten the widow, the poor, and the orphan. But some in this time had begun to leverage policies unjustly and in ways that pulled the resources of the poorest into the scribes care.
Only after he condemns this does he sit down and watch for a widow in the crowd.
Then he sees her. He sees her dropping her two coins in the treasury collection. We never find out why she gave these coins or what happened to them after she gave them. Maybe she trusted that every little bit helps. Surely, though, her receipt cost more to produce than the amount of the donation itself. After his teaching, watching her give is like watching her be swallowed up whole by the scribes. “She, out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” He knows that without those two coins, and without anyone taking notice of her, she is as good as dead.
It’s not praise of the widow. This is a lament for a woman unseen and uncared for by policies that were formed in a moment of fear to bolster the survival chances of an institution.
The lectionary for today closes there with Jesus’ lament. But the story doesn’t end there, and I cannot end there because if we stop with Jesus’ lament, we have not found hope yet.
He stands up abruptly and walks through the courts to the front of the Temple. His disciples rush behind him, hopeful perhaps that this field trip is coming to a close. But they stop outside the walls and look up.
The widow has been the Church’s poster child for sacrificial giving, but for Jesus, she has become the last straw. As he watches her lose all she has, Jesus knows again with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole way back to the outer courts of the Temple.
One of his disciples, admiring the new construction, forgetting everything he’s just seen and heard inside, says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus absolutely loses it: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
He finds no hope in the status quo, no hope in funding a structure that has demanded everything from its followers without hope that they might flourish, no hope in a system that generates reports and upholds tradition, but has forgotten how to care for its most vulnerable members.
So, there is no praise, only lament. And while there is no hope placed in the maintenance of an institution that’s forgotten one of its founding calls, there is indeed still hope.
Our ability to find it depends on our own relationship with the widow.
Despite my pastors’ efforts to claim it for themselves and their wealthy flocks, this passage was written for the poor. It was written for the widows who day after day where exploited by those with more power than they had. It was written for those who found themselves the recipients of clumsy outreach and mission projects that failed to see them as people. From the lament to the promise that the walls would come tumbling down, it was written for them. What could be more hopeful to someone forgotten or exploited by a system than the crumbling of its walls?
As Jesus points to her and then proclaims the coming apocalyptic change in architecture, this woman is revealed not to be just another pitiable victim of her circumstances, or another person in need of a better outreach program, but as our leader. She is the only person in this story besides Jesus who knows the full terror of the world as it is, who knows acutely what it means to be taken advantage of, pushed out the door, and forgotten by those who have been charged with her care. And she is the only person in this story besides Jesus who will see Temple stones crashing to the ground, who will see an apocalyptic change in her landscape and call it what it is: not a mess of rubble but good news.
I do not think that Jesus would tell us to stop giving money, to cease our generosity. Beyond money though, as we discern how we are called to be the Church in a world full of widows, I do think that Jesus is directing us to steward the one thing that really matters – our relationship with the one who can show us hope for a new world…our relationship with the widows among us. She alone will show us how to celebrate the crumbling of those things that for so long, we mistook for vital work of the church. She alone will show us how to see the ways God is at work tearing down what has been killing her. She alone will help us surrender our fear that the church is dying and embrace on faith a world that she and Jesus know in their bones, a world that is coming.
Indeed, we cannot do the work of the Church without listening to her, loving her, calling her our sister, without her leading us.
All praise then, for this widow, this sister, this leader. May we find her and follow her as Jesus did.