Gospel of Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Teaching in the temple, Jesus 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.”
It’s almost as if this morning’s Gospel had been written especially for this Sunday, smack dab in the middle of stewardship season. Doesn’t it? I mean, come on! You could not script a stewardship lesson better than this morning’s Gospel…the story that my grandfather used to relate to me as the Widow’s Mite. “She mite, and she may, and in fact, she did,” Papa would say. And how could the punch line be any plainer: we are never too poor to contribute. That was what Papa wanted me to get out of this scripture. And so this seems the premiere biblical passage regarding institutional stewardship, the premiers example of the desired depth of generosity and self-sacrifice needed to balance the community’s budget…..and the giver’s salvation.
Here we are in the heart of every church stewardship drive in the free world and our Gospel reading for this week could not be better. Jesus is sitting in the Temple treasury watching the crowds fill the coffers in that house of worship. The Mishnah says that there were thirteen trumpet shaped chests in the sanctuary, each for a different purpose, a different ministry, as we might say today. And folks were, therefore, literally walking by and stuffing currency into their chosen line items in the Temple budget. And, prompts the scripture, many rich folks were putting in large sums of money. This line is not bolded in the Gospel, but I am quite sure it will be bolded in more than a few pastors’ stewardship letters. Because this passage is a stewardship dream come true! Right? The Holy Gospel modeling a successful stewardship campaign. None of this , if you want to gain your life you must lose it. Just a straight forward statement: many rich folks were putting large sums of money in the treasury…..and so note to self, so should I.
But wait, a biblical infomercial might say, it gets even better. Because while the rich folks are offering large sums of money, in walks one whom Jesus describes as a “poor” widow. Perfect. Our campaign is inclusive now; both rich and poor are contributing, and we just know that this poverty stricken woman is going to set a new standard of giving.
This woman is clearly without means, and without support, which was the status of widows in the ancient world. For a woman whose husband had died, had no inheritance. Widows literally had no means of support, they were forced to rely on the kindness of their children and/or the kindness of
strangers if children were not an option. This cultural depravation of widows is part of what makes the story of Ruth that we heard this morning, so powerful. In the Hebrew, the word widow literally means “leftover pieces.” Both Naomi and Ruth were widowed….and it is their selfless care of each other that leads them toward the Kingdom of God.
And so in today’s Gospel passage, this impecunious widow enters the Temple. It is not clear how Jesus knows how poor she is. But “her kind” has been foreshadowed in the previous verse, where Jesus chides the scribes and Temple elite for “devouring the houses of widows.” And so what a coincidence, that a mere two verse later, in walks such a widow.
And not only does she show up, but she sets a whole new standard. She has two copper coins, and together they are worth but a penny. The Greek word for these coins is lepta, which is the smallest monetary denomination in circulation. And she offers both of them to the Temple stewardship drive. Unlike the passage in Luke that we will read in Advent which calls for us to share our wealth, if you have two coats share one…..this woman in Mark’s Gospel divests all of her wealth, everything in her possession. She keeps nothing for herself. She gives everything she has…lock, stock and lepta to the Temple. And there seems a clear and stark differentiation between the rich folks who “contribute” large sums, and the widow who gives everything she has….her whole living.
Today’s Gospel says that it is good to give lots, but it is better to give all…even if your all is not even close to a lot. Just give it! It is the depth and not the size of the gift that matters. The worth of a gift is to be determined, not by any absolute or intrinsic value, but by what it costs the giver. And the measure of that cost is what is left, not what is given. So, according to the implication of this morning’s Gospel, if we have anything left, we have not given enough. In the vernacular of this football season, we are to leave it all out there on the field!…or in here in the plate as the case may be.
And probably we should end it right there. Thank you in advance for your generosity. Jesus has spoken. Put as much as you have in the plate and God will be pleased….not to mention the vestry. They will be more than pleased. Because, as the bumper sticker goes, God wants us to give what we have, not what we can afford.
But, and slightly regrettably, not so fast……upon closer reflection of this passage, it might be a great tool for stewardship, but paradoxically, it is also a cautionary tale about those “big givers.” Because in this passage from Mark’s Gospel the rich folks who are contributing the large sums of money, who are setting the first example of generous stewardship, they are not such good fellas, for they are inescapably connected to the scribes of whom we are told to beware….they are absolutely connected to the hypocrites who sin as they pray, who walk around in long robes and have the best seats at the synagogue and the best eats at the banquet. And by the hand of these Temple elites, the houses of widows are devoured, says Jesus.
Like the old joke describes:
Brothers Angus and Seamus O’Malley were the two richest men in town, and they were also the meanest. They swindled the Church out of its property, foreclosed on the orphanage and cheated widows out of their last
mite. And that was just for starters. And then one day Seamus died, and Angus paid a visit to the priest. “Father,” he said, “Our good name will be upheld in this town. You’ll be givin’ the eulogy for me brother, and in that eulogy you are going to say “Seamus O’Malley was truly a saint.”!”I won’t do such a thing,” said the priest, “that would be a lie!”
“O Yes you will,” said Angus. “I hold the mortgage on the parish school, and if you don’t say those words, I’ll foreclose.” The priest knew he was outmatched. He said “Alright, and if I pledge to say those words, then you’ll sign the note over free and clear?” “Done,” said Angus, and signed over the note to the parish school. The next morning at the funeral, the priest began the eulogy: “Seamus O’Malley was a mean-spirited, spiteful, penurious, lying, cheating, arrogant and hateful excuse for a human being. But compared to his brother, Angus, Seamus O’Malley was truly a saint.”
These are likely some of the scribes and the Temple elites in this morning’s Gospel. This is the context in which Jesus praises the widow who offers her all to an institution that could obviously care less about her plight. Desmund Tutu, who was teaching at EDS during my last semester there, was fond of this anecdote. He said: “When the missionaries came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said, ‘Let us pray …,’ and asked us to close our eyes. By the time the prayer was over, they now had the land and we had the Bible.” And he added, “I think we got the better deal.” The world is full of Temple elite using religion to line their own pockets.
“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.
The scribes did not literally devour the widow’s houses, but in their teaching they exploited them by persuading them to give up even the last bit of sustenance that they had. And so when the widow walks in this morning, and puts her last two coins in the plate, it gets our attention. This woman is giving her entire subsistence to the Temple? And God would want her to do this? To give to the Temple rather than….provide for her own needs? Rather than save for her own future? Sustain the Temple rather than sustain herself? Who would ask such a thing? Who would offer such a thing?
The World’s Fair was in San Francisco in 1939. One of the most popular and profitable attractions was a pile of money said to total $1,000,000. And for 25 cents, visitors were allowed to touch the pile of an unthinkable amount of money, in those days. Poor people spent their last quarter to have a momentary brush with this wealth. But did that make them any richer? No, it made them 25 cents poorer! False ideas nourishing false hopes can rob the poor even of the little they have.
Is that what the Temple is doing? Taking the last lepta from a destitute woman….for the Greek implies that she is more than just poor….the connotation is that she is a impoverished; a beggar; in today’s vernacular, she is utterly homeless. And so we have to wonder if her generosity here is meant to guide us in our stewardship, or is it meant to prove Jesus’ point about the hypocrisy of the Temple? And so
this could very quickly go from being the best ever passage to be read on stewardship Sunday…. to the worst denouncement of the Temple…..or our modern day Christian equivalent thereof!
And to further complicate this seemingly tidy stewardship passage, we might do well to notice that the widow in this pericope is, in a way, herself exploited in this story. Whether she is the epitome of selfless giving, or the pitiful victim of a corrupt religious order…either way, I always leave this passage feeling a bit uncomfortable about the way she is called out. It’s the way we so often call out many of our differently abled brothers and sisters. For some reason, generosity is not enough of an example. We need to know that the generosity came from one whom we consider to be less fortunate than are we in order to be motivated to our own generosity. For some reason we need to first say: Phew! There but by the grace of God…..so if she can give more, I can give more. For some reason, we need to highlight this widow’s poverty before we can connect with her generosity. For some reason, we cannot just follow Jesus, we need to establish the pecking order of permission to disregard the hard stuff. We need to shame ourselves into action, at the expense of the dignity of others. And that always leaves me a bit uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, in the ancient world of the New Testament, the widow in today’s reading would represent all who have no voice, no resources, and no power. And in our hearing of this reading I think we are called to name those in our own realm who are also without voice or power. And more importantly, I think this passage calls us not to give more to the Temple (God help me for saying that in the middle of stewardship season), but rather to make this passage moot. That is to say, to work toward eradicating the gross injustice that allows for there to even exist such an impoverished woman in the midst of such a wealthy and privileged elite.
Like a slight of hand, I think our attention is pulled away from the injustice illuminated in this passage. It is so much easier to focus on the generosity of this poor woman, than the injustice that allows her to have but a pair of lepta to contribute in the first place.
Sadly, my good friends, here we sit in the Temple…..we with our resources, and our long robes with long sleeves, and our voices that have a vote, that can be made to be heard if we lift them to that purpose. And if we agree that justice is the thing, the question is, how are we going to practice what we preach? What are we willing to sacrifice? And I am not talking about money. What are we willing to give up in order to stop exploiting the victims of our own easy living? How are we going to use our power to liberate and transform our world? How can we transform the widow’s mite into the people’s will?
Well, the good news for our stewardship drive is that such transformation can only be accomplished through community. So let us join our voices and our votes and our resources to continue to provide a home for our work of justice and peace. And to that end, large sums will be gratefully appreciated! Alleluia! Amen.
© November, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw