The widow: cause for praise or lament? (11/15/15)

widow's mite
Read Mark 12:38-44
In our gospel reading this morning, we have two stories. The first is about the scribes. The scribes were employed by the Temple. They were teachers, experts in religious law.
In our gospel reading last week, Jesus summed up all of God’s commandments into a short, easy to remember sentence: Love God and love neighbor. Now, he points out that those who should know better frequently fail in doing just that. They’re more interested in status, perks, being praised by everyone, and having seats of honor.
They’re also interested in exploiting their position for their own gain. Because widows, in that 1st century world, were not trusted to manage their deceased husbands’ estates, scribes were given the legal right to administer those estates for a percentage of the assets.
But this system was ripe with abuse and embezzlement: the scribes were often corrupt. That’s why Jesus condemns the scribes, in our reading today, for “devouring widows’ houses.”
Then, we hear a second story, about a widow’s offering.
Jesus sits down across from the temple treasury, where people put their offerings for the upkeep of the temple and the salaries of the temple employees, including the scribes. Jesus sits there, and he watches.
And from where he’s sitting, he can see who makes offerings. And, apparently, he can even see even how much they put in.
He sees lots of wealthy people putting in large sums. He doesn’t condemn their large offerings. Any church is very thankful when people donate large sums of money.
And then he sees a widow put in two copper coins, which, in today’s money, would equal about 3 dollars, enough to buy a couple of boxes of mac and cheese at the grocery store. But Jesus tells us, “She…put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44) She could have put in one coin, but she puts in both coins, all she had. There will be no food for this poor widow today.
So now what is Jesus thinking as he watches this?
Scholars are of two minds on this. On the one hand, there is the Door A interpretation, which says the widow is an example to us. Even though the others put in far more than the widow, they were just putting in their extra wealth, stuff they had left over: it didn’t really cost them anything to give. The widow, though, didn’t give out of her excess: she gave sacrificially. So, Door A concludes, true generosity, is not measured by the amount of the gift, but by the cost of the gift to the giver. $10 a week, given to the church, for example, is very generous if a person’s income is $100 a week. But if the person’s income is $1,000 a week, a $10 gift, while very appreciated, may not cost the giver that much.
“Well,” answer the Door B people, “that’s just not a good interpretation.” The widow is giving her money to an institution that is impoverishing her. She’s paying the salary of the guy who is embezzling money from her late husband’s estate, with the result that he walks around in long expensive robes and she’s about to die from hunger. And so, the door “B” interpretation of this story says, Jesus is lamenting that this widow has been duped into giving money to an unjust system that is literally taking her life.
So, is it Door A? Or Door B? Is Jesus praising the widow’s action as a model to be followed, or, is he lamenting the unjust system that is impoverishing her? Well, probably both.
I mean, think about this. This is Jesus’s last public teaching in Mark’s Gospel. He will shortly be arrested, unjustly tried, and executed by self-serving religious leaders in collaboration with a violent Roman empire.
Jesus will shortly give his whole life to that corrupt system for love of those corrupt people. In short, he is watching this widow give her whole life to a corrupt system that is devouring her and he completely identifies with her. He gives his life because he loves this world that God made, this world that has fallen into such a sad state, a world where people are embezzled, swindled, abused, and taken advantage of.
The good news – the gospel this morning – is that Jesus does not walk away from those who are about to devour him. He loves them. He will go through what he’s about to go through, in hope that when he forgives them that they will change. That they will see on the cross just what this world so often comes to: that the innocent, the poor, and the vulnerable often suffer unjustly. That they will see on the cross the extent of God’s love for this world: a love that gives everything, a love that holds nothing back.
Jesus’ complete giving of himself is a challenge to this church that bears his name. God sent his son, Jesus to tell and to show his love for the world. Are we doing that as his church?
I think we are. I think there is good ministry going on in this church and through this church, by your pastor and staff people and volunteers who give of their time and talents and treasures, ministry to, and with, our children and youth, women and men doing effective ministry in and beyond our church, the good news of God’s love being proclaimed here week in and week out, the hungry being fed and the needy being helped.
But this story will never allow us to be complacent. Jesus calls our church to be a place of healing and help and hope for all people, and Jesus calls us, as individuals, to support that mission.
I think this story is reminding us that every one of us can give, according the measure of what we have. Our life is given to us by God, to be used for his glory. While it’s true that the Bible gives a benchmark of giving 10% of one’s income for the benefit of the church’s ministry, it’s also true that not just 10% belongs to God, 100% does.
Our whole life is gift, given to us by God. And God continues to give to us, through his Son, Jesus.
This morning, we have 5th graders receiving their 1st Communion. In this communion meal, Jesus will give himself to us as a pure gift. In and with the bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to you, so that all that he has is yours: life, hope, faithfulness, courage, forgiveness, grace. He gives it to you, all of it, 100% , so that it might live in you and that through your giving of your time and talents and treasures, his ministry would continue in this world.
Turns out Door A and Door B are two sides of the same door: Your generosity with your time and energies, your talents and money is making a positive impact on your neighbors. This church touches lives, here in this community and around the world. We are a church with purpose.
Jesus challenges us to give of ourselves and generously of our income for the sake of a world that is not yet as God intends, for the sake of his mission in and through St. John Church, and for the sake of our neighbors, near and far.
We have work to do. But the good news is this: because our Lord Jesus has given himself for us, he has promised to be with us, to give us his strength and his help and his guidance, so that we might be his church and his people, for the sake of the world.

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About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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