Year B, Proper 27
November 11, 2012
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.”
Giving everything that we have. Now there is a theme of a stewardship sermon! No?
This story begins with a broad condemnation of temple leadership. There are Jesus and his friends, sitting in some busy city square, looking at the comings and goings of Jerusalem. Jesus, in the verses just before this, had been confronted by one of the scribes. It worked out in the Messiah’s favor, but things must have been tense.
This little band of men and women from Galilee were simple country folk sitting in one of the busiest quarters of the busiest city in all of the Levant. The variety of people they must have seen, of all colors in all sorts of dress from across over the Empire. The smells of foreign foods and spices, the presence of all that wealth. All the fancy people. I imagine that they felt a bit like I feel when I am in New York, not quite a bumpkin, but certainly not at home. Sit on a bench in Union Square and watch the world go by. It is dazzling. I can imagine them sitting there with their rabbi, dazzled by the grandeur of Jerusalem.
Jesus starts by talking about the scribes. The scribes were just that, writers, public officials associated with the Temple who could write. They carried the responsibility for recording political, financial, legal and religious proceedings. They were highly educated in theology and the law and held an esteemed place in society, thought to be smart, wise and just. Jesus pointed out their long robes, the sign, like Joseph’s Technicolor dream coat, that they did not do physical labor. Unlike what Rabbi Jesus had taught, being the servant of all, the scribes expected respectful greetings in the market and expected the best pew in the synagogue and a seat of honor at the parties.
Then he says, “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” This takes some explaining… throughout the Law, the care of widows and orphans was given high religious merit. Over time, the temple, or temple officials (such as scribes) became involved in the care for widows. If a widow lacked a replacement husband of suitable kinship, her wealth might have been entrusted to a scribe who would administer her affairs on her behalf (heavens, women could not be trusted to handle their own affairs)! Invariably, this became a center of sin and corruption, as widows, being at the very bottom of the social ladder, had no recourse against their scribal protectors with rank, prestige and those long sleeves. So as Jesus commended to the tax collectors to collect no more than they were supposed to, he condemns the corruption unleashed on the least of these by trusted officers of the Temple. Fair enough.
Then they got up and moved, sitting down across from the Temple. The place was huge, certainly the biggest building complex they had ever seen by an order of magnitude. Ever been to Rome? Their new seats gave them a view of the Temple treasury, a little bit bigger an operation than Gay’s office after Mass. It was found in a part of the Temple called the Court of Women. Around the walls of this court were thirteen massive, trumpet shaped chests invested out of bronze, probably. As the money went in, they probably rang out so all could hear how much (or little) you were putting into the coffers. All taxes not bound for Rome would have been collected there, in addition to the regular giving and payment for sacrificial animals. It was big business. And there are Jesus and his friends, heckling to themselves about the vast wealth being dumped into the treasury of a corrupt institution led by corrupt people, and with an expiration date. In the very next paragraph Jesus tells his friends that the Temple will be destroyed, “not one stone will be left here upon another.”
Then there is the poor widow. What does she do? She gives two small coins. “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.” That is something else, everything she had to live on. So is she a model for us, or a warning?
Think about it. Jesus has just given a damming critique of the scribes in their arrogance, their privilege and their status in society. They “devour widows’ houses.” The machinery of the Temple society is corrupt, not praying for the least of these but preying upon them.
Maybe the woman giving all that she has to live on is a tragic figure in a cautionary tale. What warning might her example offer?_______
Don’t be duped by bad religion. And there is a lot of that. It used to be pretty common on television, the preacher claiming that for every $100 you send him, God will return with $1000. God doesn’t. Or the prosperity Gospel; God wants people to be rich, or that riches are a sign of God’s favor. Again, God doesn’t and they are not.
Maybe the warning is that the days are numbered for religious institutions that exist for their own good, and not for God and the world. Remember, the next paragraph talks about not one stone left atop another. And also remember, St. Mark’s gospel was recorded just as the temple actually was destroyed in the desolating sacrilege that only an empire can dish out. So maybe Jesus is showing the disciples the tragedy of poor widows being had by the powers that be.
So then, how might she be modeling positive giving for us?
That is harder, no? With all the facts in hand, it is harder to see the positive in the poor widow’s selflessness. We have to be careful, for far too often we put on a pedestal those who make great sacrifice and we don’t consider all the facts. Deep giving, real sacrifice is too often a non-voluntary action. Too often those with little are forced to give more than they should, more than they can. Since knights started falling to longbows, it is the poor, the immigrants, the disenfranchised who fight wars. How much of the brunt of domestic spending cuts are borne on the backs of the homeless, on the unemployed, on women, infants and children? Prisoners? How many of Eugene’s budget woes are solved at 4J’s expense? At the expense of the 2500 people living on the streets? And don’t forget, Warren Buffet’s secretary pays a higher marginal tax rate than he does. That issue came up a little bit with this most recent election cycle. This woman is giving all she has, all that she has to live on. This is a poetic way of saying that she was giving her whole life to something, but to what? What is Jesus teaching about the temple? Right, it is broken. It is perverted from its true vocation. She is giving her life to something that is corrupt and condemned and will be destroyed, St. Mark knows this as he writes. It has happened, and she is still giving. Giving to the Temple, it is a return ticket on the Titanic. She is giving a foolish gift to an undeserving recipient.
So here is the religious twist, the surprise, the unexpected truth that the Gospel so often plops on our laps. This kind of foolish gift to an undeserving recipient is exactly the kind of gift that Jesus Christ Himself was about to make. This scene here, these teaching around the Temple, this is the end of his conventional ministry. From here, “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice to the whole world.” Look around: ours is a corrupt and condemned world, every created thing will witness its eventual destruction, from the tree that falls and rots into the mould of the forest floor, to the mighty mountain that will eventually end up as sand grains on some beach, to each of us, for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. And the church? We’re doing OK. We give a lot, but we are sitting on a bunch of wealth, just this land, I mean, how many people could live safely here, if just overnight? What more do we have to give that we don’t? How tightly do we grasp to OUR treasure, how little do we pass through to do God’s larger work in the world? What do we, here, deserve? And yet… and yet… Jesus Christ gave all that he had, His body and His Blood, the perfect sacrifice of suffering and death, and of praise and thanksgiving to a dying, a failing, a wholly undeserving world. He gave His life that our feeble, dying, broken bodies and souls might have a taste, or even a chance for a taste of the Living God. Is that a wise use of what one has to give? Is that a way to live, to give up a life for something that is worthy only of being condemned? AMEN