I’ve heard some pretty poor sermons on this text in Mark – you won’t think the same thing after this one! But the problem is that most of the sermons focus on the aspect of giving. And in doing so, at best this poor widow is seen as exemplifying the right motives for giving. The thinking in this sermon is that it doesn’t matter how much is given if it is done with good intention. And at worst, I’ve heard this passage used to guilt members of the congregation, those who may already be financially strapped, to give just a little bit more in order to reach a budgetary goal or finish a capital campaign.
Sadly, this entirely misses what is going on here, a situation Jesus clearly describes in blunt language and then illustrates with a real situation. He says “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.” Now this is not predominantly an issue of appearance or hypocrisy, which becomes clear as the scribes most potent act of evil is illustrated. Jesus sits down and waits, probably not too long, for a poor widow to come and offer her contribution to the treasury. He then 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.”
I don’t know if Jesus’ divinity is necessarily on display here. I don’t think he needed to read her thoughts and know her backstory to recognize the widow was sacrificing more than the wealthy. All he needed to understand was the current political/economic situation of Jerusalem. The systems of power that existed then just as they exist now. And what is interesting is that this widow living in poverty is not lauded here by Jesus as an exemplary character, and he doesn’t present her actions as an example to follow. Jesus simply points her out and says look, see. The widow really has no agency in the story. She is nothing more than a victim. A victim of the systems of injustice that exist, where those who are supposed to aide the poor are instead literally devouring the houses of the most vulnerable.
This uncomfortable conclusion to this story forces us to reflect on how our present systems, both secular and religious, continue to devour the homes of the most vulnerable. During the election, I got a lot of e-mails from Sojourners and other groups trying to get the presidential candidates to discuss poverty in their debates. But no such luck – I suppose mentioning that 22 percent of children in America are living in poverty probably doesn’t ‘poll’ well. We also didn’t hear much about the exploitation of the immigrant farm workers who are exposed to harmful chemicals in order to bring us our food. Or those who make our electronics, or construct our clothing. Or those who fight wars in the name of our country and then return with PTSD.
This passage also makes us reflect on whether we are intentionally averting our eyes to these unjust practices. Without a public treasury, we are able to spatially, and thus emotionally, separate ourselves from those who are paying 60 percent of their income to substandard housing, the victims of bad mortgage lending, those struggling w unjust employment. In Durham, we are proud of our artisans and entrepreneurs and praise the grittniness with slogans like “keep it dirty Durham.” But what do we do when confronted with the fact that the waiting list to move into a Durham Housing Authority unit is 1,200 deep and the Section 8 voucher program has stopped taking names because of a wait list of 2,300? This passage forces the question – what can each of us do to alleviate these systems of hidden suffering? In what ways can our community offer hope to victims of violence, to those in prison, to those quietly suffering in nursing homes, and patiently waiting in food lines?
Finally, this passage forces us to confront the very real possibility that we might the ones Jesus is telling his disciples to be wary of. Most of us probably voted in the election last week. Which is a good thing. But the danger is if we think that in so doing we have voiced our opinion, and the government will now take care of the vulnerable. Healthcare, food stamps, Medicare (and big bird!) are safe so we can focus on making sure we get respect and progressing our careers. We need to ask ourselves if we are trying to live an upwardly mobile life while proclaiming a downwardly mobile gospel. And perhaps we need to rededicate ourselves to the practices of love, of self-giving, of justice – the hallmarks of God’s reign.
We have an example to follow from the Scriptures, as we see these practices manifest themselves in the other lectionary passages for this week. We heard it in the psalm that was read earlier, where praise is given to the One who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. It is seen in the story of Elijah and the widow who shares what little food she has with the prophet and is then blessed by God with an endless supply of meal and oil. We see it in Ruth, who finds security in the person of Boaz and then extends this security to her mother-in-law Naomi. And finally we see it in Hebrews, where Christ becomes the replacement for the Temple and is the linchpin of salvation between God and humanity.
So as we prepare to come to the table, let us not forget this widow who confronts us as absolute victim of unjust systems. But as we remember this, we can gather around Christ and taste the reign of a new kingdom, a kingdom of hope, and love, and justice, which we can then go forth proclaiming to the world.