The Widow’s Mighty Mites
Rev. Thomas G. James
Washington Street UMC
November 8, 2015
I’ve told you that I love reading scripture. I don’t know if I can name the most significant reason I am drawn to scripture, but I can tell you that one reason I love this spiritual discipline is that reading scripture never gets old. Each time I read I find myself learning new things, understanding God more, and often understanding myself more.
One of the reasons I enjoy reading scripture is that any one passage, any one story, can take on whole new meaning based on the mindset, life circumstances, and personal ideologies of the person reading. This may be seen as a negative aspect to our biblical reading and discernment. How can we be faithfully following the text if we all think it means something different, or if we think it means something different each time we read it?
I’ve heard it said that no understanding of scripture is to be considered a faithful perspective unless it takes in to account the perspectives of others. That is, the Word was written for the full community to grow in faith. If the full community is not being invited to share their understanding of God’s word, we’ve failed to understand the Word fully. Some scholars argue that to see the word of God most faithfully, you must see it through the lens of those living in poverty. It was those living in poverty that Jesus speaks up for most often, and those who many times we are told are the ones to inherit the Kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor, Jesus says, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
For those who aren’t living in poverty – whether material poverty, spiritual poverty, or perhaps a poverty of love – to understand God’s Word most faithfully, one must intentionally seek out the understanding of those who are living in poverty.
Today’s text provides such a good example of how multiple viewpoints can be read in any text depending on the lens through which you read.
In worship about a month ago, we read the account of the widow’s giving in Luke’s Gospel. Using Luke’s account in the midst of a focus on being committed to Christ, we identified the sacrificial nature of the widow’s giving. We talked about how Jesus identified the woman’s giving as the most faithful gift because it represented the most sacrificial gift given in the temple that day. While many of those who gave to the church treasury gave from their abundance, the widow gave out of her poverty.
Mark’s account of the widow’s giving happens to fall into the Revised Common Lectionary for this second Sunday in November. In preparation for this week’s worship, I thought about passing on the Gospel lesson, one we have discussed so recently, to focus instead on one of the other selected lectionary texts. However, I felt that this scripture offered a lot more than just an emphasis on our financial giving. I find this scripture offers us an example of faithful living, and who among us doesn’t need a reminder of what faithful living should look like? Also, in the depths of the text is an acknowledgement that we in the church often refuse to name. Below the surface of the story of the widow’s giving lies a named truth that the church has many times failed to be faithful to God’s mission.
Let’s start with verses 38-40 in today’s reading. Jesus is teaching, once again, about the failure of the scribes to be examples of good leaders in the church. “Beware the scribes,” Jesus says, “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.”
Simply put, Jesus is saying, beware of the hypocrisy that is so rampant among the church elders. To be clear and fair to the scribes, Jesus isn’t saying that all scribes are bad people. He’s not even telling his disciples and other followers to ignore or challenge the teaching of all church leaders. If we back up just a few verses – literally just to verse 32 of this 12th chapter of Mark, we see that one scribe agrees with Jesus’ teaching and receives praise from Jesus. The scribe, having listened to Jesus name the most important commandment as to love God and love neighbor, says, “You are right, Teacher … these commandments you have named are much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus, seeing this scribe to be wise, said back to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
But this scribe, by and far in our Biblical narrative, is an exception. Jesus is once again warning the disciples, and the church, to be wary of those who profess to be faithful, but live out an elitist nature. The scribes Jesus is warning against seek to be the center of attention – trying to trump God as the most important voice and figure in the room. They compete for power, wanting to be the figure that is sought for guidance, again trying to trump God as the go-to for direction. Jesus also criticizes them because they are materialistic, seeking fame and fortune, even at the expense of others. Jesus is attacking the “egotism and avarice that is masked in the vestments of religious learning and practices.”[i]
Jesus goes on in our text today to name how these hypocritical leaders are failing to be faithful in their leadership. He says, “They devour widows’ houses.”
Widows were among the most vulnerable in society. In a time and place dominated by men, widows had nothing left. They had no opportunity for work, so no income. They had no savings account or retirement plan, much less life insurance, to offer ongoing assistance. They were at the mercy of the community.
Caring for widows was not only important because they were part of the community, caring for widows is an expressly named requirement of Old Testament law. Deuteronomy, part of the Torah, the Old Testament law, says in multiple places that it is required to care for the widows, the needy, and the poor. It is a fundamental responsibility of the faith community to ensure that widows, the poor, and the needy have opportunities for gleaning so they may have food, and a responsibility to share wealth with them so that they may live even without the financial means of their own.
Yet, Jesus is accusing the scribes – those who are supposed to be the leaders who know the text well – of devouring the homes of the widows. Not only are they not providing for the widows in the community, but also they are abusing them.
Rodger Nishioka, a well-known Christian Educator out of Columbia Theological Seminary, offers this warning regarding the way the church was abusing the widows in the community, “We should be outraged,” he says, “by any system that appropriates the property of the poor and the near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.”[ii]
In leading up to the story of the widow in the temple giving her two coins to the treasury, Jesus is naming the failure of the church. Not only is the church not caring for the needy, the poor, and the widows, but the church is abusing the poor for the benefit of itself. Jesus is claiming that the church is failing to be faithful to God. Jesus is naming that the leaders of the church are failing to be faithful to God.
And then Jesus sees the widow giving her two coins. The worth of the coins is small; it’s an insignificant value. The coins were known as mites – the least valuable of any available currency at the time. Worth less than two pennies would be worth today.
Jesus lifts the widow’s gift up as honorary and an example of sacrificial giving. He doesn’t exactly commend her for the gift; in fact, he never speaks to the widow. But he does tell the disciples that her gift is worth more than the any gifts made by the wealthy that day.
Why is the gift of the widow such an important model that Jesus calls over the disciples – thus calling the church to listen? Her financial giving to the church isn’t Jesus’ primary focus. It’s the level of sacrifice she offers. Let’s look deeper at the sacrifice.
The widow is poor. She has no means for income. She is an example in the community of one who is reliant upon the charitable giving of others. She is only cared for in the community if others who have financial or material means are faithful to God’s call to care for those who are living in financial poverty.
We’ve just heard Jesus say that the scribes are not being faithful to this call. Jesus has just said that there are scribes, leaders in the church, who are not leading the church in the faithful direction God has ordained for the church. Jesus has just made it known the religious system was broken.
And yet, the one who is being taken advantage of … the one whose house is being devoured by the scribes … the one who has the least amount of financial means in the temple that day … the one who is supposed to be cared for and provided for … this one, the widow, is the one who gives the most sacrificial gift. And she gives it to the very people who lead the religious system that is taking advantage of her.
Her gift is not just sacrificial because she gave all that she had left – her gift is sacrificial because she gave all she had left to the very people and the institution that had failed to be faithful to God.
Giving all one has for the benefit of those who have failed to be faithful to God is being named by Jesus as a faithful and sacrificial gift.
Giving one’s all … giving one’s life for those who have failed to be obedient to God is praised as being in line with God’s will.
The widow’s gift is praised by Jesus as the most honorary and sacrificial gift because it is the gift that most reflects the gift of God as witnessed in Jesus Christ. A gift offered, giving one’s life, the life of the Son, for us who have failed to be obedient, for us who have failed to care for the least and the lost, for us who have sought personal gain at the expense of others, for us who have raised our voice before listening for the voice of God … yes a gift offered for us who have failed to be faithful.
Robert Bryant in his commentary on this text says, “Hers is a costly discipleship, and Jesus praises her exemplary faith, a faith that surpasses that of many religious leaders whose faith is a sham. Her trust in God is aligned with Jesus’ trust.”[iii]
So what is Jesus’ trust? Why is the gift of the widow to a failing institution so commendable?
The trust lies in the belief that there is still hope for each of us. The trust is in claiming that because of God’s love, we can still be faithful to God’s call in our lives as individuals and in our corporate life together as the church. The trust of the widow and the trust of Christ are acknowledged in the sacrificial gift of life knowing that we can still be faithful to our call as disciples. It’s a sign of hopeful expectation that we will live out our mission, to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And that we may live into the ordained nature of the church, “to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to [all] people in Jesus Christ.”[iv] That we may be faithful in taking up the work of the church, “healing and reconciling and binding up wounds … ministering to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless, … engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice … giving of [ourselves in service for those who suffer].”
Yes, the sacrificial gift was offered by God that we may be faithful in sacrificially giving all we are and all we have to see that Jesus Christ and the love of God are known by all in this world.
May the widow’s mighty mites serve as a reminder of God’s mighty gift in Jesus Christ, that you and I may live and love as Christ taught, exemplified, and instructed. A life and a love made possible through the sacrificial gift of the Son. Glory be to the One who gave his all that you and I may have life, life abundant, life enteral. Amen.
[i] Lamar Williamson Jr. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Mark. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
[ii] Rodger Y Nishioka. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year B, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 284-289
[iii] Robert Bryant. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year B, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 284-289
[iv] PC(USA), Book of Order, as cited by Pete Peery. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year B, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 284-289